IN L.A.'S HOLMBY PARK, ON TUESDAY, THURSDAY and Saturday mornings, the Holmby Hills Lawn Bowling Club revives an ancient and noble sport. Lawn bowling, a cousin to Italian bocce and a considerably more distant relative to American alleys and candlepins, has been played on these neatly manicured greens for 75 years. Which explains why many of the club's members are retired and a little past the curve for more strenuous activities like tennis or golf.
On this morning, after coffee and Danish, the fellows play cribbage and cards, bantering and needling each other a bit as they wait for their teams to be picked (in this lawn-bowling league, the squads have ever-changing rosters, for fairness' sake).
An unusual assortment makes up this crew, most of whom have played the game since their childhoods in England, Scotland, Australia, Jamaica, South Africa or Spain. There's Hugh Simon, a retired accountant from South Africa whose wife, Bea, is the coach here ("She gets five grand a month for this," he says, then pauses. "Just kidding"). Bea is a stickler for detail -- no American bowling colloquialisms like "gutter-ball" ever pass her lips as she explains the game and shows the absolutely proper fashion to deliver a ball: off the fingertips, straight-armed, not palmed like a bowling ball.
There is Colin, from Bolton, England, who still speaks in that glorious Northern accent; a retired doctor, Al Silver, who, according to Colin, "will still prescribe Viagra for you" (I politely declined); and the odd show-biz refugees, including Gary Waynesmith and John Finger. Gary was a regular on The Donna Reed Show (as "Willie") and is one of the babies of the crew at 68. Semi-retired he may be, but he still goes out on commercial calls, and, like thousands of younger local actors, he still complains about the post-9/11 lack of auditions. John, who just turned 92, was the cameraman on Taxi and today is raring for a chance to play a little ball.
Then there's my 83-year-old cousin George Alpern, whose stock-in-trade is a trick that he plays with a scrub jay that nests in the area, a garbage filcher named JJ. George places a peanut in his mouth, and JJ neatly plucks it away, much to the delight of the crew, even if they've seen the stunt a zillion times. Later, I find out that my cousin's greatest audience for this act was Ronald Reagan, who used to be brought to the lawns by his nurses and bodyguards to watch the bowlers, shake a few hands and work the assembled crowd one more time.
The players are decked out in neat white outfits and unheeled shoes -- unlike tennis, which has become flashy and polycolored, lawn bowling has remained traditional. There are two box-shaped greens, one upper and one lower ("like colonics," one member jokes; old-age humor is a big source of yukkery here). The most amazing thing about the greens is that they are ringed by sidewalks teeming with young mothers and nannies with their infants -- sort of like a huge playpen in reverse. The men set up the flags and the lanes; the women serve refreshments. It really does seem like a trip into a bygone time.
A horn sounds and the group gathers around for their squad assignments. My cousin informs me (sotto voce, of course) that there are some undesirable players, some whose bowling skills are pretty, well, green. "It's no big deal," he says. "Better luck next time and all." Still, some of the members sidle up to me and admit that there is a little wagering and side action that does go on, for maybe a quarter or a buck a game.
"But no booze," says Colin.
After the squads are chosen -- each having a "skip" (skipper, captain), a "lead" and a "vice skip" -- they saunter down to the lanes; there are eight lanes inside the box. Each player has his or her own set of balls (the ratio is about 4-to-1 male), and they settle them neatly on the green beneath them. The object of the game is to roll the ball as close as possible to the "jack" -- which is a little white ball that is set in its place by the skip -- even touching it if possible. What makes the game challenging (and probably infuriating to a newcomer) is that the balls aren't round; they're elliptical -- lopsided and biased. As a result, the idea isn't to look at the jack and aim, but rather to pick an eye target to the side, either narrow or wide, and aim at that, carefully heeding skip's coaching. As the players bend into their stances and play, the skips employ a variety of hand signals, looking not unlike third-base coaches at times.
The big problem for most of the bowlers isn't a lack of strength, but a little too much -- Bea is perpetually shouting "Too heavy, too heavy" at her team for their overthrows.
After all the players throw the balls, it's determined who is the closest and who scores points. Then everyone troops to the other side of the box and begins again -- this can go on for as long as three hours. My cousin isn't having such a great game, but, as he says, it's much more a social thing than anything else. Despite the insistence on gentility and grace, however, it's still bowling. On more than one occasion, after an errant toss into the "ditch" or a wide miss, there was more than one angry slap of the forehead and curse, admittedly quieter than one might hear at Hollywood Lanes. Old world, new world, some things remain the same.
"HAVE YOU CONTRIBUTED TO THE FIREMEN'S Fund?" The silver-haired rep for the Los Angeles Fire Department stood before several red trucks on display at the first annual Franklin Street Fair, a Sunday festival all about music, food and neighborly bonding.
"Well, no, I haven't," I told him. "But I really like you fire people."
Before I could take out my wallet, we both heard a blast of water and turned to see a 100-foot geyser gushing out of the ground right in front of the Mayfair Market.
"Pretty cool," I said. "You firemen really go all out." Then the geyser went boom! and colors flashed through its majesty. The rep from the Fire Department first looked a little irritated and then shook his head in disbelief. Maybe this wasn't planned after all. Boom! went the geyser again, and people got spooked and started to realize that this was no fireworks display. Boom! Something was wrong, and I started to wonder where my wife and kid were. Again boom! The fire trucks roared into action and darted toward the explosions. I frantically searched for my kid and tried to stay out of the way of the fire trucks. For some reason -- what was this, the Titanic? -- the band kept playing until someone shouted at them to stop.
It turned out that a guy in a Ford Explorer was going too fast, lost control, then took out a fire hydrant and an electrical pole like a couple of bowling pins. A year ago this spectacle would have been just that -- a spectacle -- and people would have simply laughed it off. But Sunday there was a definite feeling of panic, and most people wanted to leave before all the emergency vehicles and mayhem closed them in.
Maybe that's because this little festival resembled the types of places we're seeing with increasing regularity on television, crowded places that are targeted by suicide bombers, and we're just waiting for it to happen here. No matter how people try to maintain a normal existence, there is an underlying hysteria waiting to rear its pulsating head. I don't know, maybe I'm just being an alarmist, but there were certainly enough cops, firemen, city workers and helicopters quickly mustered, and they all seemed ready for something to happen. We LAliens are tough eggs, and we tend to become complacent rather quickly -- we're just not used to disasters that aren't natural. I'm a pretty calm person. I've been through enough fires, floods and earthquakes to qualify as a seasoned L.A. disaster veteran, but I don't mind saying it: Sometimes I feel like I'm freakin' out.