Life in the Bowling Lane
Posted January 27, 2018 2:37 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — “Those bowling alleys in Manhattan aren’t really lanes — they’re nightclubs,” said Jim Farago, 69, whose Van Nest Lanes in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, could never be mistaken for a fancy Manhattan bowling place.
The décor of Van Nest, which has barely changed a lick since it opened in 1960, is more along the lines of the bowling-themed film “The Big Lebowski.”
Original rows of aqua-colored, attached seating face sleek orange-and-yellow ball racks. At the end of the 16 lanes of well-worn wood are majestic pinsetter machines, vintage Brunswick beauties in cool spearmint green. There are no automated scoring machines at Van Nest, on Bronxdale Avenue just east of the Bronx Zoo. Bowlers keep score manually on paper sheets.
“You’re not going to find wood lanes or scoring on paper, as far as I know, anywhere else in New York,” said Farago, who co-owns the lanes and handles just about every task. He often runs the place with just one other worker — often his son Jim, 46.
Observe the elder Farago for a while and you’ll see him stocking the five-seat snack bar, then spraying deodorizer in the shoes, then ringing up a customer, then wiping down the scoring tables and laying out fresh scoring sheets, then scooting to the back to check on the pinsetter machines.
“I’m a worker, I’m a mechanic, I’m the janitor, I’m the electrician, I maintain the AC, the heating,” said Farago, who on a recent weekday was also a babysitter, dashing frequently into his back office to check on his granddaughter.
The lanes serve a working-class clientele that Farago knows by first name. Some years back, a local couple, both postal workers, held their wedding here. After the ceremony — “On Lanes 6 and 7,” Farago recalled— the couple changed into their bowling league uniforms and spent their reception bowling.
Bowlers who have scored a perfect 300 have their names immortalized on a banner — The Kid, Roach, Benny — and get a Van Nest jacket courtesy of Farago.
The prices are far less than at Manhattan lanes — $25 an hour and no charge for bowling shoes. Budweiser bottles are $3.50. Of course, the place is cash only.
Farago said he grew up four blocks away from the lanes and began working here in his teens in 1964 as a pin chaser, “doing the same thing I’m doing now.” He bought into the business in 1979 and still lives nearby. He was once an estimable bowler, he said, but was so incessantly interrupted by the unending tasks around the lanes that he quit one day in 1972 and has not bowled a frame since.
Up to three times a day, he lovingly oils Van Nest’s wood lanes, a rarity now since most alleys have synthetic floors. “Other lanes are like this Formica,” he said, smacking the snack bar counter. “With wood, you get more friction, so the ball breaks sooner. Visiting bowlers are not used to it because they don’t see it anywhere else.”
This creates an advantage for clubs that call Van Nest home. Joe Perez, 53, a regular whose Team Apocalypse bowls out of Van Nest, showed off new team T-shirts bearing the slogan, “You got to be good to bowl on wood.” The subtle imperfections pounded into the wooden lanes over the years “make it hard for visiting teams to beat us here,” he said.
Farago, who is married with three grown children, said he attended Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx. Stints at City College and at Con Edison were short-lived, he said, because the Van Nest Lanes needed him. “Unfortunately, I made this my life,” he said. “But hey, I’ve enjoyed it. I never felt like it was a job.”
Farago stopped in midsentence, having somehow spied a glitch on Lane 6. Its machine had jammed while lifting the pins off the deck. Impatient bowlers “press the reset button like a doorbell on Halloween — they push and push,” said Farago, walking down the lanes and behind the pin-setting machines. From the rear, the machines were simple, sooty, steel mechanisms with a network of rubber belts.
“It’s all belts, springs and pulleys,” said Farago, who checks on the machines every 20 minutes during league play.
He fixed the glitch in Lane 6 and settled back into an easy chair in a narrow area behind the machines and watched them work. “I can just tell when something’s not right,” he said. “They’ll never make anything like this again because it lasts too long. They want to sell you new equipment every five years.”
Farago rents the property and has often operated on the brink of closing. He said the old equipment and décor have kept his business alive by keeping his overhead low and by attracting shoots for movies that have included “Across the Universe,” “American Gangster” and “Men in Black 3.” Recently, he said, Martin Scorsese spent two weeks shooting his latest film, “The Irishman,” here, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.
He scoffed when asked about possibly upgrading Van Nest’s vintage equipment. “It’s not going to happen. Not in my lifetime.”
Name: Jim Farago
Who he is: An owner and the operator of Van Nest Lanes, a working-class bowling alley in the Bronx, a borough of New York City
Where he’s from: The Bronx
Telling detail: “Anything you see here, it doesn’t exist now — they don’t make it anymore,” Farago said.