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The old kinship

Team 33, a group of retired black men who bowl together, laments the disintegration of traditional values and ties.
Lawrence Thompson gets a hand for a good frame during league bowling in Upper Marlboro, Md., on Dec. 22.Kevin Clark / Washington Post
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It's midmorning on a Friday at the TriNitely bowling league in Crofton, and the four members of Team 33 are in the later frames of their lives, pulling together as a team, trying not to let one another down.

Leadoff man Glenard Hodges, 65, says he needs to set a winning tone with his ball. Anchorman Edward "Shotgun" Garrison Jr., 65, says give him the ball when the game is on the line and he'll bring it home every time. Lawrence T. Thompson, 64, just wants to close every frame. And Ray V. Mitchell, 60, can do the math in his head, letting the bowlers know when they're 20 sticks down and a couple of good rolls would put Team 33 ahead.

Once, they were young men, living in the South, raised by a black community that provided love and sustained attention. They folded into a fraternity of men who preached self-reliance and offered protection, humor and support during their shared struggles. In white places, where a black boy could be jailed or beaten, the world was fraught and perilous. And they might be the last generation of black men who share the memory of being deliberately taught how to walk in the world.

"When we were in the South, that's all we had was each other. We were still competing in school or athletics or whatever, being the best we could be, but we still had the community," Hodges said. And community held you up. Black people have lost that, the bowler said. "We're separate now. Now, we're fragile."

The retired ex-union guys have watched the rules change. In two generations, they've seen some of their deepest beliefs — in work, family, respect and responsibility — fall out of vogue with some younger black men. And they've seen their vaunted brotherhood, an answer when the old Negro spiritual wondered how their souls got over, dissipate as black men maim and kill one another over the smallest slights. It's something they could not have imagined as young men, laboring to find their places.

Each of the bowlers on Team 33 has a long view of the lanes. Three of them go back more than 35 years, when they came to Washington and met driving buses — part of the 20th century's great migration of black people propelled by Northern labor markets and the promise of civil rights. Their lives have been better than their fathers'. They've seen black men make significant social, educational and economic gains.

But now, they say, that promise has shifted into reverse.

The working man
It can be hard to eye the bowlers on Team 33 and guess how old they are. Perhaps it is out of a belated sense of fairness that time does not so easily cut and line the faces of black men. To fix their ages, it's best to listen to their stories.

The men on Team 33 all made between $60,000 and $80,000 a year before retiring. None has a college education, but they bought middle-class houses in Prince George's County. They're married, and they sent their children to college. They've made mistakes but took care of their responsibilities. (Hodges and Mitchell, for instance, had children outside their marriages — and helped send them to college as well.)

They have pensions and health-care benefits for life. They are sandwiched between a generation that bragged of being locked up in the march toward civil rights and a generation in which being locked up for criminal offenses is sometimes a rite of passage.

They came through at a time when a blue-collar man could win.

Hodges, Garrison and Thompson met in the mid-1960s, when Washington was flush with the kinds of union and "good government" jobs that acted as a beacon to economically dispossessed young blacks in the South. Each drove buses, and later Metro trains, with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. After work, they'd meet up with dozens of other black men on V Street in Northeast Washington, across from the Bladensburg garage. They would unwind after a swing shift of driving the city, making change, taking tokens, passing out transfers. They formed friendships from common history. From their code and their shorthand and the perch they shared, looking out on the world.

How you doin', brother?

Aw, man, you know how it is.

Some would drop by quickly on their way home to families, and some would linger as the hour grew late. "We was always together, because that's all we had was us," Hodges said. It was a bond forged by men who needed one another at a time when Washington was controlled by whites who rarely acknowledged the black men right in front of their faces.

They all retired in the early 2000s and started bowling in earnest, in multiple leagues. In 2003, the three friends joined a Wednesday morning league in Marlow Heights. They met Mitchell, a retired driver for UPS, at the Parkland bowling alley in Forestville. This year, the four of them started bowling together in TriNitely, which feels like an extension of small Southern towns, and the deep exhale after work, in places where black men would get together to be seen.

The pins and patter
On Friday mornings at the Crofton Bowling Centre, nearly 150 bowlers, all men and mostly black, fill the lanes and cast the subtleties of the sport in black folkways and sayings. "That boy done got warm, now!" Garrison booms about an opponent. "Ain't nothin' you can do with him. He done got warm." Deep laughter mixes with the flow of conversation and the crack of balls sending pins into reverb and high whine.

It is a place filled with the black men seldom rendered in popular culture: steady Eddies, average Joes, working stiffs. They are Everymen, eclipsed by the black men who make videos or touchdowns or nightly newscasts but fully recognizable to one another. They high-five and pat each other on the back.

The 36-team Printcrafters TriNitely bowling league, so named by the union printers who started it nearly 30 years ago, was mostly white for almost a decade. As more blacks got union jobs, many in the federal government or with various municipal services, it turned majority-black. By that time, union prestige and numbers, which had included nearly a third of all U.S. workers in the mid-1950s, had long been in decline.

Etiquette requires that bowlers wait until the man next to them steps off the lane, and bowlers on deck tap hands after each turn. "It's a gentleman's game," said Thompson — for all the "gentlemen" whose shift starts at 7 a.m. and ends around 3:30. Thompson always preferred a swing shift. He was a superintendent in charge of 300 people before retiring in 2002.

Thompson and his brother, Myron, a federal court judge in Montgomery, Ala., grew up in Tuskegee. Life centered on the historically black college, the Tuskegee Institute. His parents, who divorced when he was 12, worked on campus. "You could find everything you wanted right there in the community," Thompson said. Tuskegee was 36 miles from Montgomery, and mass meetings were held at churches during the civil rights movement. After meetings, organizers often headed to the drugstore where Thompson, nicknamed Bootsie, was a soda jerk, and Martin Luther King Jr. would say, "Bootsie, it's time for my float before I get back."

Thompson was studying to be a veterinarian at Tuskegee in the early 1960s but dropped out to get married when his college sweetheart got pregnant. "We had a child on the way. It was one of those things where I had to take care of my obligations," he said matter-of-factly.

Thompson headed north. Good jobs were north. Their listings in the back of Ebony magazine beckoned young men. He was aiming for New York but got as far as Washington. He became a bus driver in 1966. A few years later, he and his wife moved to Prince George's, where they raised three daughters and he put in decades on the clock.

"Look here, working hard is the basis for everything," Thompson said. "I mean overtime, Christmas, New Year's, holidays — the whole nine yards." Work was dignity and manhood. It was the sure, quiet rebuttal to the nasty things whites said about you. It is Thompson's most unassailable belief, incubated in segregation and stoked inch by inch — his brother had polio, and it was Thompson who helped around the house when his mother became a single parent. He worked odd jobs as a teenager. Then he became a daddy. He provided for his family. "I felt good," Thompson said. "I still do."

Union and government jobs in Washington held incredible appeal for young African Americans during the mid-1960s. The major pieces of civil rights legislation had been passed. Historical momentum and moral authority were on their side, and that opening helped swell the ranks of black men in Washington from 196,257 in 1960 to 245,198 in 1970, a 25 percent increase.

That's partly why more older blacks feel strongly that if you do what you're supposed to, despite discrimination, you control your fate, said John L. Jackson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. It's a sentiment that echoes the findings of a Washington Post poll last spring showing that a majority of black men believe that their collective problems are the result of individual shortcomings, not structural barriers — this even as a majority acknowledged experiencing racism. But Jackson points out that it was a self-selected group that picked up and came north. Like immigrants in their own country, they already had the fortitude to do well. And landing a union job helped guarantee safety, health care and regular salary increases.

Today, it's harder to find a job that pays a high school graduate $80,000. Black men compete with immigrants for the kinds of low-skilled jobs — landscaping, construction and cleanup — they once had a lock on. Most service-sector jobs don't pay enough to raise a family. And the educational system doesn't prepare black men for the new world of work from grades K through 12. Community was often a balm against internalizing racism, Jackson said, but it was also easier to spot racism "when there was a sign that said 'whites only.' "

In some ways, Thompson recognizes that younger men face tough challenges: fewer good jobs, poor schools. But he can't shake the belief that a black man should strive, and overcome anyway, the way he did. Thompson is deeply contemptuous of the men who he says have lost their souls. "This not wanting to work, not taking care of your responsibilities, that's not something we did," he said.

'We need a leader'
By 12:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, Thompson, Garrison and Hodges had put in more than two hours of bowling with the ABC league in Marlow Heights, one of the six leagues to which the members of Team 33 belong. Afterwards, they met Mitchell for lunch at Ruby Tuesday, and the men vented in a bygone slang.

Things have changed. Gotten expensive. Cats now don't want to work.

"I got cousins who wouldn't take a job as a pie taster in a pastry factory," Garrison bellowed. He grew up as one of eight siblings in Montgomery, Ala. During the 1955 bus boycott, his mother sometimes walked more than a dozen miles round-trip to work. He was walking with a cousin once, and whites driving by threw urine on them.

"Everybody tries to blame racism," Thompson said.

"But prejudice can't stop education," Garrison added.

"I'm just glad I was born when I was born," said Mitchell, who grew up one of five boys in Tyler and Mount Pleasant, Tex. Whites used to talk to his parents like they were children. He was attending Langston University when he was drafted to serve in Vietnam. He lives in Upper Marlboro with his third wife, 18 years his junior.

"I'm talkin' 'bout they got peer pressure to make you buy $199 tennis shoes," Mitchell said. And youth culture is violent and intolerant, the bowlers agreed. There is no room for a simple "I'm sorry" anymore.

Another plague: "The penal system is putting men in jail for no reason," Mitchell said. "They got caught instead of getting rehab."

Hodges picked up on that. He leaned forward. He's frustrated with the back-and-forth with no call to activism. He turned their venting back on their group, their generation, their responsibilities. The conversation quickened. Their words grew more intense.

"But we accept that," Hodges said, balling his fists. "Our generation, we don't stand up for nothing! We know they're locking black people up in droves. Why aren't we outraged and forcing some kind of change?"

"If it don't touch us, we're not outraged," said Mitchell, palms up, fingers spread.

"That's our problem; we don't come together," said Garrison, twisting his lips.

"We need a leader. An MLK or Malcolm X," Thompson interjected.

"We've got so-called leaders, but I'm talking about action," said Hodges, agitated.

"Back then, our goals were more defined," Thompson said. "We were demonstrating for a reason. Now, everything is so cloudy and unclear."

The men went quiet for a moment.

"Integration brought on a whole set of problems that we didn't have before, when we were all connected," said Hodges, his voice rising with emotion. "If you're afraid of pain, you're not going to stand up. But if you don't stand up, you get what you deserve."

That's why Hodges started putting up his signs.

A megaphone
The day after Election Day, Hodges was the most gleeful bowler at Marlow Heights. He slapped hands with other bowlers, and they joked about the big Democratic win. A good thing for black people, they thought. A personal triumph for Hodges.

"Aw, man, you should have seen me out there last night," he said. His eyes were shining.

For Hodges, Election Day had been a culmination. For nearly two months, he'd done solo anti-Michael Steele for Senate campaigning. He'd put up anti-Steele signs. He blasted a recorded anti-Steele, anti-Prince George's County Council members who supported Steele, anti-Republican Party message from loudspeakers on top of his pickup at Prince George's Metro stations — including the Greenbelt Station, where he'd retired as a rail supervisor in 2000.

Hodges, a Democrat, said he wasn't so much for Democratic candidate Benjamin L. Cardin as he was against Steele. "It ain't personal," he explained of his efforts, "except personal about how I feel about a black person who wants to take the whole race down" for personal gain. He believes that Republicans don't represent the interests of African Americans and that as a black Republican, Steele represents the kind of race betrayal he'd seen before.

Growing up in Fremont, N.C., Hodges, his parents, a brother and four sisters were sharecroppers. They raised chickens, pigs and cows. They grew tobacco, corn, cotton and tomatoes on 40 acres "for halves."

"We were 8, 9, 10 years old, and we had to get out in the field and crop tobacco," he said. Each fall, they gave the farm's white owner half of everything they sold. After that, there "wasn't nothin' too much left to spend," Hodges said. His words were tinged with the hardness of poverty. Sometimes he'd take watermelon or corn from the farm owners' patch, and the blacks who drove or ran errands for the owner would tell on Hodges. "I know I did wrong by taking things," Hodges said, "but then my own race would tell on you." His voice went distant with old pain. "It was like you're on a different side," he said softly.

Metro gave Hodges a better life than his daddy's. He credits the civil rights movement for making that possible. "The generation before me stepped up," they marched and died, he said. Hodges wants to make things better for the generations coming after him. He wants to stand up for something . He's not scared. They can't take his benefits. He's a 65-year-old man who has found his voice. Now he just can't be still any longer.

At Marlow Heights, in the third frame of his third game, Hodges bowled a strike. " Yeah, baby. It's a good day for me today," Hodges said to the lanes. "Must be because of what I did yesterday."

"Hot damn, the people have spoke," Thompson said.

The bowlers' laughter mixed with the sounds of pins falling.

Beginning behind
Week 10 of the 32-week TriNitely season should have been easy for Team 33. In sixth place for three weeks, the men were bowling against a team in 32nd place — guys whose combined averages hovered in the 150s. Team 33 averaged near 200 but often scored much higher.

Garrison had almost bowled a 300 a couple of days before. He had gotten to the last ball in the 10th frame, and bowlers across four lanes on either side of him stood still to watch.

Usually, Garrison's deep baritone carries through the alley. "Even a hog'll find an acorn every now and then," he'll say when he makes an unlikely strike. And when he misses one he should have made, he'll throw down his towel and yell, "That 10-pin don't have no business bein' there!" He holds onto a bad frame like a grudge, which always prompts an exasperated Thompson to ask: "What's our motto, huh? That one's gone! You got to let it go."

But that day, Garrison had grown quiet. He rolled his last ball and, when it was done, he'd left three pins standing.

In Week 10, leadoff man Hodges called out to his team beat your man, but it didn't do any good. Bowling scratch, the high-scoring bowlers on Team 33 actually won three games and knocked down more total pins. But in the standings, they lost all four games. TriNitely is a handicap league, and the other team was 127 pins ahead before the first ball was shot. "It's like another whole player," Hodges said.

That's how the handicap beats you. You take your measure. You think you're good enough, smart enough, strong. But in reality you're 100 sticks behind before the game even starts, and for some bowlers, it's just too much to overcome.

It feels like something the men on Team 33 have always known. The most trenchant point in a black man's narrative, they say, a forever truth that extends beyond the lanes.

If the game is handicapped, you have to be twice as much man to win.

The good fight
Team 33 was behind by nine sticks when Garrison stepped to the line.

Mitchell, who had bowled a clutch spare in the eighth to keep them in the game, whispered, "Let's see if he can find that acorn."

Garrison lifted his ball high and let it slide fast from his fingers. Seven, eight, nine pins fell. The 10th pin wobbled, then dropped.

"Yeah, baby!" Hodges yelled, pumping his fist.

It wasn't the first time Garrison stepped to the line when there was a lot at stake. When his Southeast Washington neighborhood started turning bad, the families on his block vowed to stay and fight. They met with ward leaders and Mayor Marion Barry. They lobbied for money to fix up a playground and basketball court near Ferebee-Hope Elementary School and the basketball court and pool near the Barry Farm housing project.

Garrison would take neighborhood boys to McDonald's, or they'd hang out at his house playing with his sons. The community had boys clubs, and kids had to have a B average to join. Then the boys clubs closed, Garrison said. Neighborhood kids started walking away when they saw him coming. "They got idle minds, and it was hard to reach them," he said.

Drugs spread, and violence worsened. Garrison put a sign in his window: "This house is covered by a double-barrel shotgun four days a week. It's up to you to figure out which days."

When his second son was in middle school, kids tried to make him join a gang. Garrison told them that if his boy was harmed, "I'm going to plant you somewhere where everybody can visit you. Tell your mama and your daddy. Tell them where I live."

Finally, Garrison got tired. His wife was always calling the police because of gunfire or loud parties, and he wanted a better school for his 13-year-old daughter, Angelicia. Most of the other families who'd vowed to fight were long gone. He moved to Fort Washington, 10 minutes from Thompson, and now he says his block is cemetery quiet. Still, Angelicia says, "He won't let me walk around the neighborhood, he won't let me talk to no boys, he won't let me walk to school." She poked her daddy in the side.

"Sometimes I wish she would have had the opportunity to grow up like I did," Garrison said. No locks on the door. "The neighborhood was like another mama and daddy."

The neighborhood protected you.

Garrison's oldest son pastors at a church he founded in Forestville. His middle son does maintenance for Metro buses, and, as far as he knows, his youngest son is a security guard at a government building. "He real quiet about what he do," Garrison said. "He not real into family, like the rest of us."

The bowlers on Team 33, who left segregated Southern towns for all the promise of farther north, have lived to see the old ways die.

"We was raised right," Mitchell said. "But it was our generation that lost the kids."

"If we could just get back the closeness," Hodges said.

It is a lamentation for a gathering of older men.

The bowlers say Magic Johnson and Ray Lewis are talking about building a 100-lane alley in Largo. That could help. Maybe.

"Yeah, but we still couldn't reach every black man," Thompson said. "Just the ones that could get to the bowling alley."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.