What's Nostalgia Got To Do With It? —
Mementoes From The Trash Bin Of History
Vol. I, Issue I - April 2010

Certainly the greatest female duckpin bowler of all time, Elizabeth "Toots" Barger was the number one ranked female duckpin bowler thirteen times between 1947 and 1968. She was born, raised, and buried in Baltimore.

Most of the souls in Baltimore can barely write. Barely being able to write affords a soul with a kind of security and resonance.

The souls in Baltimore used to be in duckpin leagues—whole families, whole work forces. The results from the leagues were printed in the newspaper. There were local T.V. programs featuring duckpin bowling, such as Bowling For Dollars. On Bowling For Dollars, the host would ask the bowler about him or herself, and then the camera would pan over to the small audience seated in the makeshift stands behind the lanes (these lanes were actually inside the television station), where his friends or family were seated. "That's my wife, Bernadette; my son, Phil; and my son's friend, Nick."

Toots was not an alcoholic. She did not attend wild orgies or gamble away her family's life savings. Toots did not finally hang herself in her basement with Skeeter Davis' album, Skeeter Davis Sings The End Of The World, on repeat on her turntable. She did not put her finger in her husband Ernie's ass during lovemaking, nor was she a vegetarian.

Toots did not feel the need, let alone the capacity, to write. In her spare time—when she was not bowling competitively or teaching kids how to bowl—she made bridal bouquets, crafting silk flowers by hand.

Duckpins nowadays are made of plastic. Back in Toots' time, duckpins were made of wood. Duckpins are short and squat versions of ten-pins, standing just 12 inches high. Duckpin balls are much smaller than ten-pin balls—weighing in at just 3 pounds and ten ounces—and they don't have holes in them. You roll them as you might roll a slightly larger-than-normal, laceless, stone softball. Smaller balls and smaller pins on the same size lane makes duckpin bowling more difficult than ten-pin bowling. Toots, the greatest female duckpin bowler in the world, had just a 128 average. Strikes were much harder to come by. The duckpin bowler got three balls for each frame.

What does it mean that the Baltimore of Toots Barger's time preferred this more difficult kind of bowling? Duckpin bowling exists elsewhere, and existed elsewhere back in the day, but Baltimore was the only place it came to be so dominant. And then, like Baltimore itself, it began to be less and less there.

Toots Barger's bowling ball and bowling shoes are in the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Institution is in Washington D.C., which is about 45 miles south of Baltimore in terms of physical distance; in terms of psychological distance, it is further away than anyone could properly describe.

What is it that diminished Baltimore—and that continues to diminish Baltimore every day a little bit more? I think it must be the decline of Toots Barger. This decline was at first manifest in physical terms, and then, since her death, there is our declining memory of her. When I say our, I only mean those of us who have come from Baltimore.

Baltimore did not exist before Toots Barger. Toots Barger caused Baltimore to exist, and Baltimore shall only exist so long as there is memory of who she was. I am making an assertion. People from Baltimore, in Toots' heyday, did not make this assertion, and if it had been put to them, they probably would not have agreed. Even now, in hindsight, they might not agree. The assertion is easy to disagree with.

Before too long, Baltimore will be completely gone. I understand that. Duckpin bowling will be gone sooner than that. This is no one's fault. No one's fault at all.

It is hard to understand where one has come from. It is hard to locate what has caused and conserved that place—what has allowed it to be taken for granted. I have now done so. I have written it down, and you are reading it. My parents and grandparents were in leagues when I was a kid. They had their own ball-bags—their own balls. I ran from one end of the crowded alley to the other, weaving between adults in bowling shoes. I know what those carpets were like, those candy dispensers. I know what it sounds like when all the lanes are in use. The sound of all that wood. All those people. There was no fear that I would be abducted.

I remember seeing Bowling For Dollars on T.V. when I was a kid. Or not seeing it so much as hearing it and glimpsing it in the periphery. It was not the sort of show I was interested in at the time. I remember that Chuck Thompson, the Orioles play-by-play voice, was also the voice of Bowling For Dollars. I don't remember knowing the name, Toots Barger. I suspect I just missed the Baltimore where I would have known her name. Born a little bit too late. It was as if I was born right at the end of a long war; I may not have seen the war, but its impact gave shape to every aspect of where I was. Peace is always just that: the ruin of a foreign force—the spaces its absence allows for. I was born into those spaces, even if I did not know the name of the war.

Whatever it was that allowed Toots Barger to be so dominant for so many years... was not physically apparent. She bowled in an ordinary way. There was no secret. She just knocked down more pins than everyone else. She had poise: presence of mind.

To write is to create distance between your soul and where your soul has come from. It is to figure that arc. It is to confess that that arc exists. I don't recommend such confession. It should only be done in desperation. In desperation, it offers momentary solace. It offers no place to live.

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