Brian O'Neill: At the top of his game, he bowls better at 96

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Saul Kaufman is waiting at the door of his penthouse apartment in Oakland, and the first thing I’m thinking when he extends his hand is what a lot of people must think: There’s no way this guy is 96.

He invites me into a stylish apartment with a sweeping view of North Oakland, Bloomfield and points beyond. His extensive indoor garden features head-high cacti on the enclosed balcony, but the smell of garlic, tomato and basil from the  bruschetta he’s making for us as soft music plays overcomes whatever fragrances his plants might offer.

I’m there because his bowling league just named him Most Improved Bowler, but that’s just the latest brushstroke for a man who has made living a long, full life his art form. Before long he’s insisting I break my rule and split a Yuengling before my workday is done, and we have the beer with the bruschetta as we look over his scrapbooks.

I’m glad to see his name and photo in a 1935 Pittsburgh Press story about his Schenley High swim team setting a record in the 200-yard breaststroke relay that would be broken later that afternoon by Fifth Avenue High. I’m also glad to see his name in a U.S. Army document from 1946, because he sure doesn’t look old enough to have served then. He looks about 75, tops.

The next afternoon, we go bowling with an old buddy of his at Forward Lanes in Squirrel Hill. I’m late because I had gone to Arsenal Lanes in Lawrenceville first. For about 45 years, Mr. Kaufman had a store just down Butler Street from there — they called him “Pittsburgh's Mattress King”' until his store closed in 1997 — so I guess I had Lawrenceville in my head.

Yeah, he’s 96, and I'm the one with short-term memory loss. My notes said Forward Lanes.'

Anyway, he and Richard Randall of Stanton Heights had already bowled a game or two when I arrived. Mr. Kaufman got that “Most Improved”' title in the 12-team Gateway Veterans league that bowled on Wednesday nights at Forward Lanes, but there’s also this informal afternoon group in which, Mr. Randall says, “I’m the youngest one. I'm 83.”

They started with a dozen guys, and now it’s down to whoever shows up, just the two of them and me this time. In our game, Mr. Kaufman finished with a 120, a little below the 136 average that had won him Most Improved. We had a good time, all playing to win but not worrying too much when we didn't collect every spare. (Mr. Kaufman nailed an 8-10 split, though, among others.)

“He walks in with a smile,”' Andrea Brewer, owner of Forward Lanes, said. “Always says, 'Hello. How ya doin’?’ When he leaves, he’s wearing that same smile. He's just a cutie.”'

The league chairman has told her that the more Mr. Kaufman complains about his shoulder or some other ailing body part, the better he bowls.

Mr. Kaufman drove himself to the alley. He also drives to the Rivers Casino regularly to play blackjack. The dealers and regulars call him “007.”'

When he drove to Toronto four months ago to see his daughter, she gave him hell for driving alone, but he shrugged off her critique. His car, like his bowling ball, takes its time getting to its destination, but both live in the middle of the lanes and get good results.

I read a story the Post-Gazette ran in December 1997 when Mr. Kaufman was closing his Lawrenceville store. The reporter then was marveling at how a man nearly 80 could routinely haul around 80-pound mattresses, but he told her he didn’t know how much time he had left.

“Who am I kidding?”' he asked. “I’m coming to the end. ... It scares me to tell myself I'm going to be 80. ... I can't imagine I'm reaching that age. I don't feel like it.”

Seventeen years later, he’s going out to bowl when most men his age are going to sleep, if they're still with us at all. But Mr. Kaufman does allow there are some sacrifices he has made to Father Time.

“When I was a lot younger — like 90 — I could stay up 24 hours.”'

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