March 28, 1996. At the bowling alley and coffee shop during spring break.

All the cool kids in 1996 hung out in coffee shops  The characters in the popular TV show Friends hung out at a coffee shop, bringing coffee shop culture into the mainstream.  A coffee shop served as a communal meeting place, where people could interact or just hang out while enjoying a nice drink.  Artists and performers showcased their work at coffee shops.

Unfortunately, I felt left out of this coffee shop culture, because I did not drink coffee.  I had tried to drink coffee before, and I just could not stand the taste.  And I had never seen Friends; from what I had heard, the people on the show probably would not be friends with me.

When I moved to Jeromeville, it was full of unique locally owned coffee shops, each different from the others.  But soon after that, large corporate coffee shop chains began moving in, and many of the independent coffee shops closed.  By 2020, the city and university campus had a combined total of around 80,000 residents and eight Starbucks locations, with only a couple of the independent coffee shops from 1996 remaining.

Plumdale, where I grew up, was never cool enough to have a coffee shop, although Plumdale did get a Starbucks in the early 2000s.  But Gabilan, the nearby medium-sized city, had a coffee shop in its historic Old Town called the Red Bean that would go on to survive the onslaught of the corporate coffee shops.  On the Thursday afternoon of my 1996 spring break, I found myself at the Red Bean, waiting for someone, after what felt like one of the most legendary accomplishments of my life.

This all started a little over a week ago, when I had gotten an email from Melissa Holmes, a good friend from high school.


From: “Melissa Holmes” <m.l.holmes@sanangelo.edu>
To: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Tue, 19 Mar 1996 19:23 -0800
Subject: Re: hi

Hi!  How are you?  Do you have finals this week too?  I had two today, and I have two more later this week.  I’ve been so busy studying, but I needed a little break today, so I’m actually checking my email for once.  How did your classes go this quarter?

Are you going to be home at all next week for spring break?  I’m doing something with my family down here on Sunday, but then I should be home Tuesday through Friday.  We should hang out and catch up.  Give me a call.  Maybe we could go bowling again.  I’ve been bowling a lot lately.  Some of us from the pre-med club went bowling a few weeks ago, and I bowled 178 – it was the best game of my life!  Hopefully I’ll see you soon!


The number 178 caught my eye.  I took a bowling class fall quarter, and the best game I bowled during that class was a score of 178.  By some bizarre coincidence, Melissa’s new personal best in bowling was exactly the same as mine.  I told this to Melissa in my reply email and said that I definitely wanted to go bowling when I was home for spring break.

Melissa told me to meet her at the bowling alley in Gabilan at one in the afternoon.  One game, to see who was really better.  One o’clock seemed like a strange time to me, but she was free then, and we were students on spring break with no schedules to work around.  I walked into the bowling alley; it was mostly empty at this time of day.  I saw someone with long brown hair sitting at a table looking away from me; I was pretty sure it was Melissa, and she turned her face toward me before I had to choose between awkwardly staring to make sure it was her or possibly embarrassing myself by taking to a stranger.

“Hey, Greg!” Melissa said, getting up to give me a side-hug.

“Hi,” I replied.  “How are you?”

“Good.  Enjoying your spring break?”

“I haven’t been doing much, but it’s been good.  What about you?”

“Same thing.  Just hanging out.  You ready?”

“Sure.”

We got our shoes and balls and went to our lane.  “So what kind of things did you learn in that bowling class?” Melissa asked.

“A lot of stuff.  Throwing technique, strategy for how to aim, a little bit about the history of the game.”

“That must have been fun!  I don’t know if we have a bowling class at San Angelo.”

“Are you ready?” I asked.

“Yes!  Are you?”

“Sure.”  Trying to be dramatic, I continued, “One game, just like we said.  You versus me.  One-seventy-eight versus one-seventy-eight.”

“Good luck!” Melissa said.

“You too!”

Although this game was strictly for fun, and nothing was actually riding on the game, I felt like this was the most important game I had ever bowled.  Melissa set the tone from the beginning, getting a strike in the first frame.  I hit eight pins with my first roll and converted the spare.  I tried to continue making conversation, but I realized quickly that this was the wrong environment for that.  When bowling with a big group, it is easy for the people waiting their turn to talk to each other, but with only two of us, talking would be too distracting to whomever was bowling at the time.  This game was too important to lose focus, and distracting Melissa on purpose was playing dirty.  I wanted to win this fairly.  Our words during the game were limited to comments like “nice shot” and “oooh, almost.”

Both of us were bowling our best that afternoon.  After five frames, Melissa had bowled three strikes and two spares.  I had a strike and two spares in my first four frames, but she was clearly bowling better at that point.  When my turn came in the fifth frame, though, I bowled a strike.  “This isn’t over yet,” I said, chuckling.  Melissa bowled her first open frame in the sixth, with seven pins on the first roll and two on the second.  With no strike or spare, the scoreboard showed her full score of 113 for the first six frames.  That was more like what I usually got for my final score.  I stepped forward for my sixth frame and rolled another strike.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “You’re heating up!”

“Thanks,” I said.

Melissa bowled a strike in her seventh frame, and I answered with another strike of my own, my third in a row.  “Turkey!” I shouted.

“Huh?”

“Three strikes in a row.  They call that a turkey.”

“Oh yeah.”

In the eighth frame, both of us bowled spares.  Because the score after a strike or a spare depended on the next roll it was impossible to know the exact score after the eighth frame, but by doing some quick adding in my head, I could tell that this was going to be a very close game, and I said so.

“I know,” Melissa said.  “You’re doing really well.”

“So are you!  This is already a better total than I usually get, and we still have two frames left.”

“That bowling class really helped you.”

“I hope so.  All the practicing has helped you too.”

Melissa bowled another strike in the ninth frame, giving her a total of 153 for the eighth frame and a minimum of 163 now.  My hand slipped as I made the first roll of my ninth frame, and the ball only hit four pins.  I did not come anywhere close to converting the spare, only hitting three pins on the second roll and giving me a score of 160.  I still had a chance to win, but Melissa was clearly ahead now.  Even if I finished the game with two gutter balls, though, this would still be my third best game ever, and that was nothing to be ashamed of.

Melissa began her tenth frame with a 7-10 split, leaving the two pins in the back corners.  Her second roll hit nothing, passing between the two upright pins and just missing the one on the right.  “Field goal!  It’s good!” I said, raising both of my arms straight up as if signaling a score in a football game.

“Yeah,” Melissa said, chuckling.  “I don’t think bowling works that way.”

“Look,” I said, pointing at the scoreboard.  “It’s your best game ever.”  Melissa’s final score was 179, one better than either of us had ever bowled before.  “Congratulations!”

“Thanks,” Melissa replied.  “Now let’s see what you can do.”

I looked at the scoreboard.  Since the score for a strike or spare requires knowing the next roll, and there is no next roll after the tenth frame, rolling a strike or spare in the tenth frame results in bonus rolls to resolve the score.  I was down by 19, so I could still win this game and get a new personal best too.  But I would have to get a strike and a spare at the minimum.  I stepped up to the lane, rolled the ball, and knocked down nine pins, all but the number 10 pin in the back right corner.  I still had a hard time hitting that pin, after all the practice in bowling class.  I had no room for error remaining.  I picked up my ball, carefully rolled it toward the one remaining pin, and knocked it over.

“I’m still alive,” I said to Melissa.

“Pressure’s on,” she replied.

I began to feel nervous as I moved my hand over the fan.  I picked up my ball, hoping that my hand was sufficiently dry.  I brought the ball to my face, carefully aligning my body and the ball with the pins.  I thought of the time I was in bowling class, when the red pins appeared at the front of the lane, and I won everyone in the class a free game by bowling a strike.  If I could do that, I could do this.  I brought the ball high, began walking toward the lane as I swung the ball forward, and released the ball just before my feet reached the foul line.  The ball rolled down the lane to the right, curved slightly toward center, and hit the front pin hard just to its right.  I watched all ten pins fall, pumping my fist in the air.

“180!” I said as I watched my final score of 180 appear on the scoreboard just below Melissa’s final score of 179.  Melissa had beaten her previous personal best by one, and I had beaten my identical previous personal best by two.  I stared at the scoreboard for a while, grinning from ear to ear; I still could not believe that this perfect ending was happening.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “Good game.”

“You too,” I replied.  “That was amazing.”

“It was.  I guess you really are the better bowler.”

“Don’t say that.  It was just one game.  We both did really well.”

“I kind of feel like I want a rematch, but we agreed, just one game.”

“Yeah, we did,” I said.  “You want to do something else?”

“Sure.  Red Bean?”

“Sounds good.  I’ll see you there.”

The Red Bean and the bowling alley were on the same street, about a mile apart.  I found a parking place across the street and walked into the building.  The 100-year-old buildings in this block of Old Town Gabilan touched each other, with no space in between, and parking either on the street or in the back.  The front wall of the Red Bean was mostly large windows, with tables and chairs visible inside; an older man sat inside next to one window reading the newspaper, while the table by the other window was empty.  The front door was recessed a few feet from the front windows.  I walked in and looked around.  Paintings hung on most of the walls, some with small signs stating the title and name of the artist.  Two women sat talking at a table toward the back of the room.  The counter was on the left; I was debating whether or not to order a hot chocolate when I saw Melissa walk in.

“Hey,” she said.  “What are you getting?”

“Hot chocolate.”

“You don’t drink coffee.  That’s right.”

“I’ve tried drinking coffee.  I just don’t like the taste.  I can’t.  I wish I could.  I feel like not drinking coffee stunts my social life.”

“How so?”

“Because if I’m hanging out in a fun place like this, I feel out of place not drinking coffee.  And it’s weird to think of asking a girl out for coffee if I’m not going to drink coffee.”

We got our drinks and sat at the empty table by the window.  Melissa looked at me and smiled slyly.  “So, who is this girl that you want to ask out for coffee?”

“What?”

“You mentioned wanting to ask a girl out for coffee.  Who is she?”

“Well,” I said, “I just meant in general.  There is a girl, but… I don’t know.”

“Does she know you?”

“Yeah.  She goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  But I just met her a couple months ago.  It’s probably too soon.  And I don’t know how to ask girls out.”

“You just ask her.  You’ll never know unless you try.”

“I suppose,” I said.  “So how’s school going for you?”

“My grades are still good.  And I’ve started to get involved with the pre-med club.”

“Good!  I remember you saying last year you felt kind of isolated because you lived off-campus with your grandma.  I’m glad you found a group to get involved with.

“Yeah!  It’s fun.  What about this new Christian group you’ve been talking about?  What denomination is it?”

“It’s part of a national organization called Intervarsity, but it’s nondenominational,” I explained.  “The weekly meetings have music, and a talk kind of like a sermon, and then there are small group Bible studies too.”

“Are you still going to Mass?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it weird that you’re hanging out with Protestants now?”

“I don’t think so, really.  It’s the same Jesus, and the things that Catholics and Protestants have in common are so much more important than the differences.”

“I guess.  That’s true.”

“And I’m learning a lot from reading and studying the Bible.”

“Good.”

“Oh, yeah.  A guy from my Bible study named Evan Lundgren said he knows you, and told me to tell you hi.”

“Evan!” Melissa exclaimed.  “I forgot he went to Jeromeville!  How’s he doing?”

“He seems to be doing well.  He’s a really nice guy.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“How do you know him anyway?”

“One summer, we both volunteered at the hospital,” Melissa explained.

“Oh, okay,” I said.  After a pause, I asked, “Do you still hear from a lot of people from high school?”

“I still see Deanna around campus pretty often,” Melissa said.  “I hear from Renee and Catherine occasionally too.  Anthony and Kevin haven’t written me in a long time.  Didn’t you go visit Renee in Valle Luna?”

“Yeah.  Back in the fall.  That was a fun trip.”

“Who else are you still in touch with?”

“Just you and Renee and Rachel Copeland.  I haven’t heard from Catherine in a while.  Tell her I said hi if you hear from her soon.”

“I will.  Where is Rachel now?”

“She’s at St. Elizabeth’s, in Los Nogales.”

“Is she Catholic?”

“I don’t think so.  She just said she liked the school.”

Melissa and I spent about an hour and a half catching up at the Red Bean.  I did not like the taste of coffee, and I was not exactly part of the Red Bean’s trendy clientele, but I appreciated the niche that places like this filled.  It was a perfect place to sit and catch up with an old friend.

In Jeromeville, where I lived during the school year, I followed the local news, and I knew that many residents of Jeromeville opposed corporate chain stores, wanting to keep Jeromeville a unique and quirky university town.  As one who generally supports a free market, I thought at first that those people were un-American.  If a corporation wants to open a new location in a new city, they should be allowed to, and if the people of the new city really do not want the corporation there, then they can vote with their pocketbooks and not patronize that business. I also came to realize over time that Jeromevillians were a bunch of hypocrites on this matter, only opposing corporate chain stores that they perceive as low-class.  They have never allowed Walmart in Jeromeville, but few people fought the arrival of Starbucks, Gap, or Trader Joe’s.

While I still lean toward less government regulation, I have come to appreciate what small businesses do for a community.  If corporate chains were to take over everything, then cities and towns and neighborhoods would be one step closer to all looking the same.  I now live about 30 miles from Jeromeville in a sprawling suburb on the other side of the Drawbridge, and while there is much about the culture and political climate in Jeromeville that has kept me from moving back, I do miss the uniqueness and quirkiness sometimes.  But no matter where I am, I can find local businesses to patronize, and I can do my part not to be exactly like everyone else.