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Inside the Bowling Alley’s Mechanical Heart With the Guy Who Keeps It Beating

Gif: Whitney Kimball (Gizmodo)

The narrow hallway behind the bowling lanes looks like a miniature factory, rows of well-oiled pipes and pulleys facing boxes and boxes of jewelry-sized parts. On a freezing January evening, the machinery’s caretaker moves down the line with a clipboard, taking his monthly inventory of backup parts.

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“They’re my babies,” says Joe Martinez, facility manager at The Gutter Bar in Long Island City. “I take care of them.” It’s a good line—he told Motherboard the same thing in 2018—but, he adds, “it’s true.”

“Pinsetters” is a whimsical name for machines that can crush a man’s skull. It’s another bit of vintage charm from the bowling ball conveyors Martinez keeps running like they were built yesterday. In reality, they were manufactured a half-century ago. As balls and pins crash into the ramparts, the pinsetters groan but don’t creak, performing their lumbering task with the elegance of an antique bicycle. These are the famed A-2s, which first hit the market in the 1950s yet remain popular today. The U.S. Bowling Corporation, which re-manufactures pinsetters, compares the durability of the A-2 to that of a Sherman tank. “There are over 100,000 of them out there,” the company writes on its website, “and they are prolific for a reason.”

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Inside the tank, the pinsetter’s brains (a lawnmower-sized gearbox) choreograph a ballet of metal, wood, and plastic, aided by gravity and a one-horsepower engine. The ball rolls down the lane, hurtling onto a thin metal wheel before its snagged by a carpeted strip, which ferries it up onto a track that sends it back to the bowler. Meanwhile, a motion-sensing arm sweeps the fallen pins off the hardwood. The pear-shaped dancers rattle around on a shakerboard (literally, a shaking board), skip over the bowling ball conveyor, and settle into pin-shaped cups, which convey the pins one by one to the top, depositing them into a lightweight rotating metal basket.

Gif: Whitney Kimball (Gizmodo)

Below, a giant set of dull scissors slice the air and pluck the remaining pins by the neck up into the moving deck—a triangular tub that looks like a giant pool ball setter—which lowers them back into place. And here comes the magic part: Only after the 10th pin arrives does the turret basket bottom out, dropping its load into the tub, a full set of pins appearing back on the deck. Chaos is emotionlessly reordered.

That’s all there is to the mystery of the bowling lane’s dark mouth, the whole process clocking in at a dependable (if not exactly warp-speed) eight seconds.

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I had hoped that meeting Martinez would induct me into an ancient order of bowling technicians, knights of the wrench who pass on their trade in clandestine rites featuring flame-printed robes. I am sadly mistaken. He’s been repairing machines for 25 years, but if there’s a club, he doesn’t know about. He can’t say how many other guys do this in New York City. Given that there are about 20 bowling alleys in the metropolitan area and he serves two of them, Martinez is likely one of a few dozen at most.

Like many machines, the automatic pinsetter was designed to replace human laborers—and eventually succeeded, a story as old as the Industrial Revolution that continues today. Bowling alleys were once staffed up with “pin boys,” fondly described in one newspaper article as wise-cracking child laborers who reset the pins and sent the ball back after each throw. “The pin boy has no conscience,” wrote the Baltimore Sun in 1913:

He will set up pins with all the haste of a snail and then, straddling his railing, swing his foot in front of just where you want to bring in your best left-handed curve, heedless of personal jeopardy. He will spoil shot after shot and pick up the pins, whistling merrily, unless for a moment he happens to be busy arguing with the boy in the next alley.

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By the late ‘50s, newspapers across the country were documenting the disappearance of the pin boy from the American bowling alley. “In most places, the pin boy is a thing of the past,” a sports column in the Del Rio News Herald notes, a little mournfully, in 1959. The author reflects that while an automatic pinsetter “won’t give you an argument,” the pin boy “is as much a part of the game as the balls and pins he toils with” and “the only person who likes strikes more than you, for strikes mean less work for him.”

Martinez also likes strikes. Not out of sloth, but because of the payoff they provide, a satisfaction similar to placing the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle. When I pull out my phone to film the pinsetters, Martinez coaches me toward the action, pulling a metal face off the machinery to expose its gargantuan wheels. He gestures at a narrow metal plank joining two machines where an observer can perch over the pinsetters, shouting, “Are you comfortable?” above the din. I nod, but soon find that standing up there awakens the same perverse impulse that suggests leaping when you peer over the edge of a shaky subway platform. In a flash, I see my hair catching in the gearbox, the ball wheel smashing my skull, and—most tragically—my iPhone crushed, the footage lost.

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Gif: Whitney Kimball (Gizmodo)

Martinez watches me patiently for a while and then scooches past me, taking my phone. He leans back, legs splayed sturdily apart on two machines, and pinches the phone between his thumbs and index fingers, a fragile glass slab delicately suspended above an unbreakable man-eater from the last century.

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Later, I realize that he was getting me the money shot: the moment when the final pin arrives on top of the conveyer and the turret drops all of them into the bucket at last. Once you know what you’re looking at, waiting for the pins to fall is kind of like watching a recording of a roulette wheel. You know what’s going to happen, but the outcome is still thrilling.

After Martinez helps me down, I mention how close I felt to being consumed by the abyss. “I would never let that happen,” he says, shoulders tensed. “Pinsetters can kill.” The 2015 death of a 29-year-old Texas mechanic, strangled to death when his shirt snagged on a faulty machine, weighs heavy on his mind.

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Throughout my visit to The Gutter Bar, Martinez emphasizes safety, safety, safety, often and unprompted. He holds up his hand to show me a stunted middle finger and pulls up a photo of his palm outstretched on a blue hospital pad, the amputated fingertip unspooled on a long, bloodied tendon. He isn’t too sentimental about the loss, blaming himself for not being more careful. It wasn’t his first injury, either: Early in his career, a 220-volt shock blew Martinez clear across the room.

Gif: Whitney Kimball (Gizmodo)
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We pause so I can futz with my own instrument of work, the iPhone, which is running a recording app that threatens to kill the battery. I would not affectionately call the phone “my baby,” the way Martinez refers to his A-2s. I can anticipate its needs, but no amount of upkeep will result in a lasting relationship. This iPhone will die, and I look forward to getting a better one.

The A-2, meanwhile, has remained basically unchanged for six decades and isn’t an ailing piece of shit because: A) Martinez cares for it; and B) the pinsetter’s makers knew that he would. When I smash my phone’s screen on a rainy day—and I will do this—a repair shop will put a bootleg one on there to tide me over while the rest of the device slips into obsolescence. Stick a new part in the A-2 and it only improves. Martinez says that any changes to the pinsetters are “just updates,” pointing to my phone in a way that implies superficial software improvements, mostly flashy stuff on the customer-facing side, like the scoring screen interface.

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“The machine is the machine,” he says.

It’s going on 7 p.m. and Martinez’s shift is ending. (The Gutter Bar stays open until 2 a.m., but no, says Martinez, he doesn’t stay on-call for late-night machine emergencies.) It’s too loud to talk more anyway. A thunder of crashing balls and popping pins announces that the after-work crowd has arrived.

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Pin decks light up as one machine after another comes to life. Trays of chips and guac seem to materialize on every surface. At the end of one lane, a man launches a bowling ball five feet into the air and it thuds onto the hardwood into a slow roll. Here, a person can fling a 16-pound weight in a public place for no reason other than to knock stuff over. And if they succeed, they know there will be no consequences. A machine is always ready to clean up the mess.

As a huddle of girls peel off puffy coats around the shoe counter and Martinez dashes to help a man in a wheelchair up the stairs, I wonder how the neighborly feel will carry over to The Gutter Bar’s forthcoming third location. The Gutter reportedly plans to open 12 lanes in the Lower East Side condo acropolis Essex Crossing. According to a liquor license application, they’ll be serving roasted beet salads and crème brûlée cheesecake–quite an upgrade from hot dogs and melting ice cream sandwiches. But again: upgrades. Anticipating the question, Martinez assures me that the machines, sourced from a defunct bowling alley, will be the same. Even older, he’s pleased to add.

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Staff reporter, Gizmodo. wkimball @ gizmodo

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