Pinboy

Image found on Uni Watch

Mine was a career option knocked out from under me by mid-twentieth-century technology, not the silent artificial intelligence that threatens many occupations today, but a clanking contraption of gears, pulleys, and mechanical grippers that made human hands unnecessary.

In my early teens I had worked several nights a week as a pinboy in a six-lane bowling alley one flight up from our small-town movie theater, a narrow place that smelled of shellac, spilled beer, and stale tobacco. I sat on a ledge in a pit at the end of a gleaming wood surface, huddling for safety when the bowling balls came hurtling toward me, my arms and elbows poised to fend off flying pins, then returning the ball with a shove down a grooved shaft. After a strike or the second ball ended the frame with a spare or something like an 8–10 split, I jumped into the pit to press a lever with my shoe, scoop up scattered pins, and arrange them on protruding spikes.

That was the pattern of the evening: set them up, duck for cover, and set them up again. In many ways, it was a Sisyphusean endeavor, but lacking the top of a hill as an unreachable goal. Pinboying had no such illusion of an end in sight. Just the ephemeral satisfaction of seeing the pins neatly aligned before, seconds later, they were scattered again. A lesson for life. The best laid plans smashed to smithereens.

To be honest, I wasn’t cut out for a pinboy future even if technology had not intervened. One lane was all I could handle. As a teenager, I lacked the strength, agility, and stamina of my athletic co-workers, who were able to cover the pin-setting of two adjacent lanes, hopping from one to the other, without the luxury of ducking, constantly pressing and placing and jumping. Amazingly, they were never injured by a flying pin, though we were all in apprehension of those we called Saturday Night Ball Busters—thick, muscled men who heaved balls that sailed above the wood lane until the instant before exploding the pins into lethal projectiles.

I suspect the men who ran the bowling alley, especially Al—the deep-tanned manager always perched on a stool with a cigar and a beer can—were amused by my flailings, their kind words a veiled mockery of my limitations. Every cent I earned as a pinboy, change that never left the cash register, went back to Al to cover the fees of my own bowling and pool table time.

Despite all the hours I devoted to those sports, I never advanced beyond mediocre, in fact, even worse at pool than bowling. At a peach-fuzzed fifteen, as little as I knew about most of life, I was well aware of my mediocrity. Yet I persevered, pushing an immovable rock, desperate to be competent at something, anything.

I have no clear memory of how I became a pinboy, who or what led me up the stairs off to one side of the movie theater where, as a preteen, I had fantasized emulating Roy Rogers’ horseback heroism. No memory of when I gripped my first bowling bowl. Or how Al allowed me into the pit. Did I ask? Did he, shorthanded, make an offer?

Pin-setting followed my failures in the food realm, where at our town’s vaunted seafood restaurant just down the street from the movie theater, on my initial night as a busboy, I spilled water into a customer’s lap the first time I served a table. That led to a rapid transfer into the kitchen and a stool in front of a large bowl of uncooked shrimp. My task was to peel off the shell and scrape out the dark line of innards along the curve of the creature’s shape. With intense concentration, I didn’t want to allow a speck to remain. It turned out that my perfectionism made me a very slow shrimp cleaner. The message was delivered calmly and politely, but I was fired that evening, told not to bother coming back the next day.

Even if I had been a champion shrimp deveiner, that skill would have become as useless as pin-setting. Today, shrimp are cleaned by a machine called the Jonsson System. According to the website, “Jonsson machines automatically adjust to each shrimp, gently peeling and deveining it in the style selected. Shrimp are placed in a plastic tray. Briefly, here is how the peeling process works: a clamp grabs a shrimp, the shell is cut and vein removed, pins pull the shrimp from the shell, peeled shrimp are deposited in one location, and the clean shell is then discharged elsewhere.” Manual dexterity, fine motor control, would be a wasted excess, assuming I had ever possessed it.

And what about the gross motor control of pin-setting? No humans needed. Now a computerized machine uses a combination of infrared signaling, scanner camera, sweeping bar, automatic scoring system, conveyer belt, ball returner, pin elevator wheel, another conveyer belt, and pin distributor. What does such a machine cost? Ebay offers a used “2 Lane Brunswick Frameworx Bowling Equipment With Glow Anvil Synthetic Lanes” for $18,000.

Assuming such machines had never been invented and human labor remained a necessity, what would I as a hypothetical career pinboy have cost an owner like Al? Assuming ten dollars an hour for a forty-hour week, one year of me (assuming I could have managed two lanes), even forgetting benefits, would have been more than a used machine. Over several years of the machine’s life, human labor would have been a serious economic mistake.

My incompetence turned out to be a harbinger. Pin-setting, shrimp-cleaning: They’re just two of my failures, authenticated during my early teens, years before the inadequacies of my adulthood. Fortunately, I did manage to stumble upon alternative ways of being. But what if I had had no alternative to life in a pit, ducking and setting through an eternity of frames, my muscles weakening, my bones creaking, my old man’s lungs gasping?

 

Photo at the top of the essay comes from uni-watch.com.

 

Needles’ Eyes, Wealth, Learning and Virtue

How do those who claim to be Christians today reconcile the modern world’s quest for material gain with Jesus’s severe injunctions against riches? Most notably in verses 10:25-26 of The Gospel According to Mark: “But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (King James version). 

I suspect a representative answer came from a pink-cheeked young business major when I asked that question in a core literature class years ago. Without a second’s hesitation, he told me, “Things were different then.”

And so they were. According to theologian Sakari Häkkinen, “In the Ancient world poverty was a visible and common phenomenon. According to estimations 9 out of 10 persons lived close to the subsistence level or below it. There was no middle class. The state did not show much concern for the poor.” In fact, exploiting the poor was the primary source of income for the fraction at the financial top who made their fortunes as provincial governors, tax collectors and moneylenders. By condemning the rich abusers, Jesus was, in effect, preaching to the destitute choir.

Leap ahead fifteen centuries when flourishing proto-capitalistic commerce in Europe spread the proceeds of trade, and the good life was enjoyed by an expanding middle class. As seen in the meticulous details in paintings by Jan van Eyck, Pieter de Hooch, Rogier van der Weyden, and others, material objects were prized, driving the accumulation of the profits needed to acquire them.

This new emphasis on the things of this world is explained by Harold J. Cook in Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. Ships sailing about the known world made the acquisition and sharing of physical goods a possible goal. Scientists transformed their field by turning their attention to the study of concrete articles. Nonscientists—a larger number—attributed great value to concrete possessions. An expansion in disposable income led to a consumer revolution. A large proportion of this new wealth was spent on literal consumption. Merchants and others with the means were “acquiring well-crafted furniture, linens, antiquities, painting and sculpture, books and manuscripts, strange and lovely items of nature, and other rare and beautiful objects.” Cook concludes that “Valued objects had become ‘goods’ alongside personal virtues. As the historian of art and society Richard Goldthwaite has put it, ‘possessions become an objectification of self,’ perhaps ‘for the first time.’”

But what about Biblical condemnations of riches? In a period when Europeans took the Bible much more seriously than they do today, the affluent sought a loophole to avoid the threat of Mark 10:25-26. Would accumulations of fine jewels, linens, and spices of the East condemn the owners to forsaking eternal salvation?

The Renaissance theologian, poet, and historian Caspar Barlaeus (1584–1648) proposed an answer by defending commerce as beneficial to virtue and wisdom. His argument is explained by Cook. Before Barlaeus, Dirk Volkertsz Coornhert, in 1580, wrote that wealth and virtue were compatible if the profits were given to charitable causes or even supporting military defense. The critics of this position asked why anyone would seek profits they couldn’t keep.

Barlaeus took a different tact, defending self-interest as natural and essential to social interaction, mutually supporting others and ultimately fulfilling God’s purpose for each of us. He claimed that great wealth led to great learning and that virtue and magnificence came from the union of learning and worldly activity. Cook summarizes the core of Barlaeus’ beliefs: “It was not from doctrine but from the interactions found in buying and selling, and in the search for knowledge that was another aspect of exchange, that modesty, honesty, and natural truths emerged.”

While a camel might be stymied by the needle’s eye, a Dutch burgher would sail right through. That is, because for Barlaeus, as much as he defends the basis of capitalism, wealth was not an end in itself but rather a means to the betterment of society and human kind. In his more carefully formulated argument, he echoes my pink-cheeked student in justifying the differences of his period’s economic circumstances from the time of Jesus.

Today, we appear to be in a throwback to Galilean imbalance, with wealth burgeoning exponentially for the few. Inequality is escalating, the top 0.1 percent having as much of the bottom 90 percent. While the 90 percent don’t live in Galilean poverty, the middle class is withering, the working class falling behind, millions resentful at the loss of what they once had and seeing no promise of regaining it. Rather than following Jesus by threatening the rich with the loss of heaven, they—unaware—are closer to Barlaeus in calling for a reallocation of wealth to achieve a better society. Yet, we are a long way from the modesty, honesty, and truth that might result from a search for knowledge.

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Sources:

Harold J. Cook. Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. Yale University Press, 2007. 

Sakari Häkkinen. “Poverty in the first-century Galilee.HTS Theological Studies,  2016

Photo at the top of the page: © Trustees of the British Museum.

Bitter Fruit

When I learned that my old friend, Greg (I’ll call him), had died from brain cancer, I felt relief at his release. His final weeks had been horrible, his mind gone, his body shrunken and twisted, incontinent, the shell of him writhing in dark pain. We had been friends since our first week in college many years ago, his infectious enthusiasm enduring through his success as a management consultant and his hobby of lead roles in amateur musical productions. Even at the end, when he had lost the power of coherent speech, he revived to sing snatches of show tunes, lyrics still embedded in his diseased brain when all else was lost.

That singing made me recall a night we had shared decades before, the summer of 1958, when we were in our early twenties, newly married, joined by another young couple, at an outdoor Billie Holiday concert in Central Park.

It had been my idea to go, a decision supported by my then-wife, Judy, also a jazz fan. Greg and his wife (call her) Jeanne, deep into musicals, knew little of jazz. Nor did the other couple I’ll call Dan and Linda. Dan had been Richie’s childhood friend. He and I had met several times, got on well. Linda was new to me, a seemingly pleasant, quiet young woman. Regardless of musical tastes, the four were up to an evening in the park. The weather was ideal, the performance free. And we were three young, happy couples looking forward to our futures with expectant energy.

When Billie Holiday started to sing, I knew immediately that something was seriously wrong. Her voice was broken, straining for notes and intonations, the flaws amplified by the sound system speakers suspended around the Central Park bandstand. I couldn’t help wincing in my awareness of her waning talent. Our friends just shook their heads, not realizing who they were hearing, unaware of her reputation, certainly not of the legend she embodied. “She’s awful,” one said, and the others nodded.

I couldn’t help agreeing. For me the “awful” was not just being subjected to an out-of-tune singer, but the great sadness of hearing what had become of the greatest jazz singer of all times. We were witnessing the disintegration of an idol.

I had been introduced to Billie Holiday’s music on a local jazz station when barely into my teens. The disk jockey favored “Crazy He Calls Me,” playing the tune almost every day. It took several weeks for my immature ears—expecting the lilting range of an Ella Fitzgerald—to understand Holiday’s real gift. Her voice, in comparison, was limited. But I quickly got it. It was a voice that penetrated the depths of a song, laid bare its emotional core.

When asked why she didn’t perform “Strange Fruit” more often, Holiday had responded, “I only do it for people who might understand and appreciate it. This is not a June-Moon-Croon-Tune. This song tells a story about pain and heartache.” For her, “Strange Fruit” had grown beyond a protest lament about lynching. It came to embody the increasing sadness of her own life, the essence of all her singing. The voice didn’t merely entertain. It haunted.

But not on the night of this Central Park concert. It grated. When the others wanted to leave early in the performance, I didn’t protest. Judy said nothing. It wasn’t fair to subject friends to Holiday deep in decline. And so, we wandered off to somewhere else in Manhattan for yet another ephemeral night of our young lives.

The year after that concert, between May 31 and July 17, 1959, Billie Holiday lay in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, dying from cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease. Patrolmen stood outside the hospital door after a raid discovered drugs hidden in the room. Frail as she was, police had placed her under arrest for possession, hardly the first time. She expired from pulmonary edema on July 17 at age forty-four. Despite her years of popular performing, she died broke, having been swindled out of her earnings by more than one abusive man. All that remained was seventy cents in the bank and $750 strapped to her leg.

But Billie Holiday’s legacy resonates throughout contemporary jazz and popular music. When she died, Frank Sinatra said of her, “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.”

And not just singers. When I listen to her, I can’t help thinking of her recordings with Lester Young, their magical recordings of the nineteen thirties, Young’s obbligato tenor in perfect union with Holiday’s voice. For a time, theirs was an ideal musical and platonic friendship.

They met in 1934, recorded together, toured with the Count Basie Orchestra, and drank and did drugs together. He coined her nickname “Lady Day,” she his, “Prez” because “he was the greatest.” They became estranged, didn’t speak for three years, after he tried to get her to give up heroin and, when asked about him then, she responded with the past tense, “Lester was my favorite tenor player.” Yet they reconciled in their final years, and as one writer put it, “saw in one another their deterioration staring back at them.”

Young died two months before Holiday in 1959, equally wasted mentally and physically. At his funeral, the family of Young’s estranged wife’s wouldn’t allow her to perform. Close to hysteria, she protested: “Those motherfuckers won’t let me sing for Prez.”

They had performed together for the last time on Sunday, December 8, 1957, for a CBS TV special called The Sound of Jazz, sharing the stage for Holiday’s song “Fine and Mellow” that begins, “My man don’t love me / Treats me oh so mean.”

According to the late jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who participated in planning the show, Young and Holiday sat on opposite sides of the room during rehearsals. Young was so weak Hentoff allowed him to stay out of the big band segment and sit until his solo during the Holiday song. Yet Hentoff offered this description of Young’s performance:

Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.

They drank together often after they made up. But not on the evening of the broadcast, Young too sick to be with her and she too sick to be with him. But what’s really important for musical history is the excellence of that final musical union despite the devastation of addiction and deteriorating bodies. Did it matter for them, though?

Greg lived a much longer life than Holiday and Young before his body deteriorated without addiction. What about the rest of us from that concert night? I assume that, except for perhaps Judy, the others quickly forgot about their exposure to Billie Holiday’s pained singing. They wanted to be entertained, seeking pleasures of people in their twenties, consumed by the joys of friendship and the promise of lasting love. Despite my upset at Lady Day’s decline, I suppose I was too. Yet that night could have been considered a harbinger for us all.

It’s not that my friends shared her financial distress, their income wasted by self-destruction. Hardly. The men’s careers were built on PhDs and law degrees that led to professional successes and a financial comfort that permitted comfortable homes, expensive cars, travel, fine dining, charitable involvements. My decision to teach resulted in a much smaller income and a much less affluent life style. Still, though most of my life I could buy houses and cars and travel, accumulate a retirement fund.

What we shared with Billie Holiday was pain and heartbreak.

Ten years after that night, Judy had her first mental breakdown, ravings of paranoia that deepened into complete psychosis and immersion in a world of battling voices. A chain smoker, she died of lung cancer in 1992 while living in a halfway house. I had divorced her and remarried by then.

Dan’s wife Linda also had serious mental issues. Greg told me about them, how Dan’s inability to continue living with her led to his own divorce. They did have a mentally handicapped son, now a middle-aged adult barely able to live on his own.

The last time I saw Dan, he was with his second wife at Greg’s funeral. We spoke for a while, exchanged words of grief. Greg’s wife, Jeanne, couldn’t attend the service, wallowing in Alzheimer’s, lucidity lost, unable to control angry ranting. Despite personal success and affluence, Greg and Jeanne in mid-marriage had endured the deep grief of a son’s suicide and a daughter’s functioning compromised by neurological issues.

When we walked away from an annoyance that night so many years ago, seeking immediate pleasures, we had no idea what awaited our futures. The bitter haunting was not just limited to one woman on one night. Every time I listen to the recorded voice of Billie Holiday, I understand more and more how deeply she expresses the pain so many of us cannot escape.

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Top photo of Billie Holiday was taken by William P. Gottlieb and is now in the public domain.