At night, the exterior of Kearny Mesa Bowl is not inviting. Set toward the back of a big parking lot on the south side of Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, about a block west of Convoy, the bowling alley occupies a white box of a building, adorned only by blocky neon letters: KM in powder blue, and BOWL in a shade of sapphire so dark it's almost menacing. The parking-lot lights do little to illuminate the façade, and the interior, visible through the small set of glass doors, looks dim.
Opened in 1976, this is one of two bowling alleys left in the city of San Diego. (The other is Mira Mesa Lanes, owned by the same partnership.) To longtime local bowlers, the statistic is heartbreaking. As recently as the early '80s, they could choose among 30 to 40 facilities countywide and find plenty of companionship at each. The San Diego Women's Bowling Association in 1986 counted 26,000 members, and about 40,000 men belonged to a separate group. Thousands of junior bowlers composed yet a third organization. But today a total of only 8500 individuals belong to the one entity — the United States Bowling Congress — into which the previous three have merged.
You might expect the interior of the Kearny Mesa facility on an average Thursday night to be bleak. At the entrance the glass is tinted, cloaking the activity inside. But open one of the doors and a bright, noisy scene is revealed, clusters of players congregating at the head of every one of the 40 gleaming lanes, a couple of hundred bowlers in all. Johnny Humble, the general manager of the Kearny Mesa and Mira Mesa facilities, says that his lanes are full every Thursday night from six to nine -- as well as every other night of the workweek. "I'm sold out till May. I have no [open] lanes. People call every night, looking for lanes, and we have to tell 'em to try at nine o'clock." Even then, league players fill some of the lanes. Big chunks of the weekends are sold out, too.
I met Humble at the center in November to talk about bowling in San Diego. Humble, 41, was born in Pomona, the youngest of five. When he was 3, he told me, his mother let him watch her play with her ladies' bowling league. "The next week she got a babysitter for me. All my brothers and sisters were in school." When the sitter wasn't watching, Humble slipped out and found his way back to the bowling center, a journey of a mile or so. "I walked over a major street. When I found where she was bowling, I just sat down behind her lane. It took her about ten minutes to notice me."
Soon the tyke was heading for the bowling center even when his mother wasn't there. "The guys at the desk would call the police, who would come get me. They'd take me home." But Johnny would return, and the bowling center personnel began to let him throw a lightweight ball. "They'd give me a soda. Call my mom, and she'd come get me." When he was five, Humble's family moved to Escondido, and his mother, an accountant, began working at Palomar Lanes, cattycorner from Escondido Bowl across Centre City Parkway. Today Humble shakes his head at the thought of this abundance. The town had 36,000 people, yet supported two thriving bowling alleys, cheek by jowl. Humble was competing in leagues by the time he was five or six, and throughout grade school and high school he excelled at the sport. He still does. He reached into a drawer, pulling out a box that contained a silver ring, set with a large red stone and a solitary diamond, his latest prize for bowling a perfect 300-point game. "You can get one [ring] per calendar year." Humble's won so many he's lost count.
There was a time when he was young, Humble said, when he thought of becoming a professional bowler. But pros travel all the time, and they don't make that much money, and "it takes balls to be out there." Furthermore, Humble always found a way to make money from bowling within San Diego County. When he was 12, he began keeping score for the adults at Palomar Bowl. (This was before there were machines to automate that task.) He cleaned the bathrooms and delivered ice and filled vending machines and put balls back on racks. He emptied trash. At 13H , he got a work permit that allowed him to do this legally. "They said I could work 16 hours a week. We stretched that out as much as possible." Sometimes he ditched high school to hang out with the five full-time mechanics who serviced Palomar's pin-setting machines. He and his mother finally quit the center in a dispute with the management, and after high school, Humble worked in construction. But the jobs dried up in the early '90s, and he decided on a whim to stop in at North County Lanes, the bowling center on Nordahl Drive and Highway 78 that had opened around 1986. "I walked in, and everybody said, 'Johnny! How you been?' When you're in bowling, you know everybody." He went to work on the desk that afternoon and soon became the night manager, a post he held until North County Lanes closed in May 1996.
At that point, one of the big bowling companies wanted to send Humble to China to install centers there. He got his passport and immunizations, but before he could depart, someone at Kearny Mesa Bowl called to offer him a job as assistant manager. Humble took it, and in 1999 he became the general manager. The industry was struggling; close to 25 centers had closed over the preceding 25 years.
Humble says that lots of lanes at Kearny Mesa Bowl were empty when he first worked there, but he threw himself into cultivating business from bowling leagues. "I'm very old-fashioned with my structure," he confessed. He grew up in a universe where the majority of bowlers were playing in leagues, and he prefers running an institution where that's still the case. "It's structured. It's formulated. You know what you're getting every night." Moreover, you get to know the players. Humble can tick off a list of wildly diverse professions among his league regulars: a demolition expert, a jury commissioner, car dealers, scientists. "The networking capability is incredible."