Pinsetters at Southport Lanes are always on strike

Gabriel Dominguez is awfully calm for a man whose office at Southport Lanes in Lakeview is a claustrophobic's worst nightmare: 10 feet long and slightly wider than an average person's wingspan.

It also features a rather unusual occupational hazard.

"I am ready for the ball," he said confidently.

Seconds later, it becomes apparent why.

A dull hum quickly becomes the roar of a train engine before crescendoing in a violent collision that sends a bowling ball flying into a back wall and pins scattering in its wake.

"If this ball caught your legs, they're probably broken so I always have protection," he said. "Always."

The 36-year-old Albany Park resident is one of a handful of people in the entire country who holds a job title about as outdated as milkman or cobbler: bowling pinsetter.

Unlike most bowling alleys, which have since switched over to machines that automatically set up pins, Southport Lanes stations two manual pinsetters at the end of its four lanes to do it all by hand.

"Overall we have about six pinsetters (total)," general manager Phil Carneol said. "They do a lot of other odd jobs throughout the bar. They just don't pinset. Sometimes they bar-back, sometimes they work in the kitchen. They do all kinds of jobs."

Pinsetters will take two lanes each, standing in whichever of their two lanes isn't being bowled on to avoid getting hit. Dominguez said the key to success at the end of the lanes is equal parts physical and mental stamina.

"When the customer sends me the ball in Lane 3, I need to wait in Lane 4," he said. "When I go to set up Lane 3, another customer sends me the ball in Lane 4 so it's one by one, one by one."

A typical day at the office for a pinsetter is an exercise in organized chaos.

Before a recent private party, Dominguez invited RedEye back to the lanes to give a tutorial on how to be a perfect pinsetter.

"Our room is small, so I need to pick up the pins, I need to pick up the balls continually," he said. "You need to take four pins at a time. Usually it's fine. When we're very busy, you need to take five pins. When you are very busy, you need to work hard."

And make no mistake, it is hard work.

Once the pins are knocked down, pinsetters must bend over and pick up the pins, moving the ones that have been knocked over to the side and making sure the remaining ones are set. They then hoist the ball onto the wooden ramp and return it to the bowler before retreating to the safety of the unused lane.

To set a new rack, pinsetters must lay all ten pins flat into specific slots in the manual setting machine before pushing and pulling on the handle that controls it so that they all stay steady.

"It's like exercise," he said. "Sometimes I am making a lot of exercise. It's funny because the manager and all the staff are very nice with us because they know the work is hard."

His boss, quite literally, feels his pain.

"(It's) backbreaking," Carneol added. "I did it when one of my guys was sick. I did it for about a three-hour party. I'm in pretty good shape, and I was destroyed afterward."

Despite the obvious risk, there's never been a serious injury suffered by a pinsetter in Carneol's 20-plus years at Southport, and a feat he takes great pride in.

"I don't think I've ever had anybody go to the hospital or anything," he said. "The way we tell people is to make sure before they throw the ball is that whenever they see legs, don't bowl. When you see legs in your lane, you do not bowl."

It's a unique feature of his lanes that Carneol acknowledged isn't for everyone.

"People who want a serious bowling experience, they might be a little disappointed because it is slower, the pins are going to be a little less reactive because of the nature of the pinsetter back there," he said. "It's kind of like a kitschy thing."

And while other lanes have long since moved on to sleek automatic pinsetting machines that are more efficient than doing things manually, Carneol said his alley is one old dog that won't be learning any new tricks any time soon. And that's largely because of the city's heritage.

"It's a part of Chicago history," he said. "It's just something that we never even for one second thought of changing."

That's just fine by Dominguez.

"It's difficult but I'm happy."

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.

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