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