The ball sailed quickly for the gutter. One lane over, same story: Kyne the Dog waited at the ball return, gathered a ball into his paw, shouldered it and then just, well, dropped it. He watched the ball crawl away and softly kiss a few pins. He sat down cross-legged at the baseline: "I'm not so good out of costume, either."
I looked up at the score. Kyne, and the two furries he was playing against, had not broken 80. Collectively.
At the other end of the bowling alley, a group of middle-aged men from a longtime (non-furry) bowling league watched the furries. They chuckled. Tim Hopkins leaned in and shouted above the music: "They can't bowl! I like them! I see them all the time! They're nice! But they can't bowl! What I want to know is: How can they stand the heat in those costumes?" Good question. By 10 p.m., there was so much fur and sweat in the Tivoli that it smelled like a rumpus room after a basement flood. Nearby, from a table overlooking the lanes, Susan Hopkins, Tim's wife, watched a Dalmatian hug a bear. She said: "I asked a furry about himself. He said they never feel accepted, but here they have found each other — how can you not love that, you know?"
"Yeah," her friend Edee replied, laughing, "it is genuinely heartwarming — in a (expletive) up kind of way."
The Lake Area Furry Friends, the largest furry organization in the Chicago area, began in the mid '90s. Its members are mostly in their 20s, though some are younger and some are older. Most come from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. There is no official roster. Though the group's website counts about 10 species and 180 furries in its member directory — MewMew, Socks, Fang, Furp, Mistletoe, DiscoPanda, and so on — bowling night attracts about 100 members. LAFF bowling night began in 2004 in Wheaton, moved briefly to Glendale Heights and has been at the Tivoli Bowl since 2008. (Tivoli manager John Munro said: "They're good steady business, they never cause any problems and anyone who would knock them has just not met them.")
Asked why they bowl, LAFF members say they're not sure. Even Whitten could not explain why they bowl. But watching one of their bowling nights unfold is such a melding of the mundane and surreal it's not hard to grasp the appeal.
My first bowling night, last summer, however, began more uneasily. I watched LAFF pile into the Tivoli, wheeling their costumes behind them in suitcases and bins, and they watched me, eyeing my notebook warily. At first I didn't know how to speak to them. They hug so often (because they're like stuffed animals, they say) and speak so emphatically (think Teletubbies), it's hard to tell where characterization ends and irony begins. Timothy A. Rat, for instance, explained in a squeaky cartoon rodent voice that his name is Greg Trail, he's from St. Charles and he studies music composition at Northern Illinois University.
"Is that your real voice?" I asked.
"It's how Timothy talks," he said.
I asked if he would take the rat head off. He apologized and walked away. Many spoke softly, even timidly, as though they assumed that because I was media I was there to make fun of them. A 20-year-old who calls herself Veneer said she was "rediscovering" herself as a snow leopard but barely looked up as she spoke. The first furry I met, though, was Gina Marcucci. She's 26, dresses as a wolf and was funny, outgoing. She explained she was LAFF's public-relations contact, even though LAFF has little contact with the public.
Later Marcucci, who grew up in Burr Ridge, told me: "I have always been into anime and dressing up. I think I became a furry at 10. When the Internet got big, I found an online group of people who role-played as werewolves, which led to being a furry. I liked wolves, so I just started wearing furry ears and tails. Like, everywhere. Which is socially acceptable when you're a kid. But I wore them to high school. I was popular among nerds and geeks. I was not a sports person but I had friends. When I hit 21, I wore my ears to bars, too. People made fun, but it's who I am. I liked how it looked. It made me comfortable, and it was warm, too.
"My grandmother? Loves the furry thing. But my mother? She asked me: 'I know you have the full furry costume. But do you, uh, do anything in it?' It's a weird conversation to have with your mother. So I was like, 'Mom, this suit cost me $2,000. Why would I put it into any situation where it would get messed up?'"
Ask a furry how they got into furdom and many speak of the lifestyle as a kind of intense social cosplay — that popular comic-con practice of dressing like a pop-culture figure: Darth Vader, Batman, etc. David Arnett, the wolf puppy, 30, told me: "It's exactly like cosplay to me, except because you created the character, it's much closer to you. See, outside of this fursuit, I am not an outgoing guy. I don't go out much, and to be honest, I'm antisocial. I've always been the odd man out. I had four friends in high school and no friends in grade school. My life would have been so much better had I discovered (furries) years ago."
So why the unsavory reputation?
Samuel Conway, a self-described "pudgy guy in his late 40s," is the founder of Pittsburgh's Anthrocon (which bills itself as the largest furry convention in the world) and about as close as furdom gets to a national spokesman. He said: "I think the problem is rooted in the early days of the fandom, the conventions in the '80s, where, for whatever reason, certain elements turned convention hotels into slums. Because furry fandom was young in the late '80s, that was the first public view of it. And groups like LAFF have been trying to shake that impression ever since."
Conway, a chemist with a private laboratory in North Carolina, first got into furdom himself as a post-doctoral student in Hyde Park, at the University of Chicago. "When you're a fan of cartoon animals and you're an adult, you can't help feeling a pang of guilty pleasure," he said, "but the way furries were creating their own original characters, then turning them into fursuits, I just fell in love. It felt like something I had always dreamed of." He became a samurai cockroach. But less than a decade later, he said — because of an unflattering 2001 piece in Vanity Fair (partly based on Midwest FurFest), then a 2003 episode of "CSI" (titled "Fur and Loathing") centered around the death of a man dressed as a raccoon — "furry fandom began reeling from this stigma."
Not that every furry helps the cause.
That first bowling night I attended, on my way back to the car I stopped at the Tivoli Theater, the single-screen, 85-year-old movie house that shares its block with the Tivoli Bowl. A handful of ushers were cleaning the concessions counter and closing for the night. I asked what they thought of the furries bowling league, and quickly they grinned at each other. One of the employees said: "They like to just kind of stare at you." And he was right. As if on cue, a moment later, a large dog with a backpack pressed its face against the theater doors. That late at night, on that quiet of a street, those eyes, large and unblinking, were unnerving.
"We get that a lot," the young employee sighed. "But whatever. They're weird."
During one of the bowling nights I attended in early September, it was a lighter crowd than usual. Ashley Nebow, 20, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, wore ears and a tail, hit a 6-10 split, spun on her heels and stepped aside to let her friend, a dog, take his turn. "I need more fingers," he said, attempting to lift the ball, struggling and then broadly shrugging, as a cartoon dog might.