What It's Like to Go Bowling With Someone Who Has Ebola

I know I don't have Ebola. So why do I feel like this?

Oct 24 2014, 1:50pm

The Gutter (not on Wednesday) Image: Author

I stared down at the green, 13-pound ball in my hands, took a deep breath, and chucked it down the lane, slightly hazy from the beer I'd been sipping on most of the night. For the only time Wednesday night, all the damn pins fell down. I walked back toward the seats and high fived my teammates, my opponents, random strangers, God knows who.

A couple hours ago, I learned that one of those people may have been Craig Spencer, a doctor who had been fighting Ebola in Guinea and is now the first man to ever be diagnosed with the disease in New York City

I'm under no illusion that I may  have gotten the disease that is currently scaring the shit out of everyone from a mere high five. I know that it requires direct contact with bodily fluids from someone who outwardly appears very sick. Nor do I think that I can get Ebola from a bowling ball. Nor do I have any idea if I did, in fact, high five Spencer. 

But, well, why the hell do I feel like this?

The author, bowling on Wednesday. Image: Shaleen Sahay

I know how Ebola is spread. I've spent lots of time writing about it and researching it and on calls with the Centers for Disease Control and watching press conferences and interviewing doctors. I know I don't have Ebola. And still, all I could think about was whether or not I had touched or even seen this guy—only part of it being morbid curiosity.

Maybe that's the power of this thing. I'm a (relatively) rational and highly informed person (on this issue), and still I'd be lying if I said I wasn't at least a little bit worried.

The Gutter, the excellent Brooklyn bowling alley that Spencer decided to attend mere hours before he started experiencing Ebola symptoms, is known and loved for its welcoming atmosphere, its cheap beer, its leaky roof, its wonky lanes, and, well, its close quarters.

Wednesday nights—league nights—are busy, crowded, and rowdy. Moving around is difficult. Drinks are spilled multiple times a night. The number of high fives and hugs and fist bumps and handshakes cannot be reliably counted. I shared a piece of pie with a stranger.

Geez. I ate part of a stranger's pie.

I know that Spencer wasn't symptomatic (so he told officials) until Thursday morning. I know that I do not have Ebola. Right?

Yesterday afternoon, I saw this tweet:

It seemed impossibly specific, and impossibly random. Like Spencer, I, too, took an Uber to-and/or-from the Gutter. Like Spencer, I, too, was at a bowling alley in Williamsburg on Wednesday. Williamsburg has two bowling alleys. Which one was it?

I decided to take a walk with one of my colleagues—who, earlier that day, I had shared a soup with(!)—at exactly 5 PM. Brooklyn Bowl is right around the corner from our offices, the Gutter is a couple more blocks away. Brooklyn Bowl appeared to be getting ready to open, the Gutter was still closed. At that point, no one had identified the alley. But when I saw the Gutter wasn't open, I knew.

Two women were lined up outside the Gutter, waiting for it to open. They hadn't heard anything about the possible Ebola case. We told them, and then I told them that I had been there last night, when Spencer was supposedly there.

One of the women looked at me and said "stay the fuck away from me." She wasn't joking. Both of them walked, quite quickly, away from us.

A hastily snapped and poorly composed photo of The Gutter, closed on Thursday. Image: Author

Minutes after I got home, one of my friends who was at the alley with me called me, near tears.  She said she knew it wasn't rational but was scared. She was repeatedly calling the New York City Department of Health, and repeatedly hearing that it was closed. She isn't even on our bowling team.

"Let's watch [Mayor Bill] de Blasio tell us we have Ebola together," I told her.

Instead, it was Mary Bassett, commissioner of the NYC Department of Health, who, after hours of speculation and guesses about the details from anonymous sources, delivered us the news:

"We know yesterday he went to a bowling alley in Williamsburg. He was feeling well at that time except his feeling of fatigue," she said. "It's called the Gutter. The patient went there with friends and he did bowl while he was there according to our understanding of events."

Bill de Blasio announcing the news. Screengrab: New York City press conference

For some reason, I instantly wondered whether he had bowled a better game than me. I wondered if he had a good time. I wondered how many people he had high fived, and whether he bowled any strikes. And still, somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered whether I had brushed against him.

And now, I wonder about everyone else. I wonder about my friends who aren't going to work tomorrow. I wonder about those two women who told me to stay the fuck away from them. I wonder about the people ringing the Department of Health incessantly and the people joking about this on Twitter and that guy I overheard on the subway the other day saying that Ebola is going to kill us all. I wonder about the people who are going to avoid the subway altogether.

I wonder if America— a nontrivial amount of which buys into conspiracy theories and goes to great lengths to remain ignorant and has already called for banning flights to America that don't even exist—is going to be able to keep calm and not buy into a nightmarish fairy tale about bleeding eyes and spewing blood, and I wonder what will happen if we are unable to keep our collective wits about us

And I wonder if Spencer, a selfless doctor who had spent at least some amount of time fighting what is a truly dire situation in West Africa, is going to be OK.

Also, selfishly, I wonder whether the Gutter will be open in time for our next bowling game.