There were some things I loved right away. I did not have to be taught. Square-rigged sailing ships, Kentucky rifles, steam locomotives -- and pool.
When I was a boy, I sat on Santa's lap and asked him for "a pool table, two cues, and a bucket of balls," what I had seen and played with at a friend's house. Older, I agitated my father for a real pool table. Cheap as he was, Dad found a way to buy a kit table someone had assembled from plywood components. I think it cost $100.
The rails sloped up at an angle, making shots off the edge of the table almost impossible. The balls made a funky sound rolling on a bed of plywood instead of slate. It warped. Nonetheless, I played, and, among my high school friends, I was regarded as pretty good. Then I went off to college and found out what "good" really meant.
FROM THE MOMENT I FOUND THE COLUMBIA pool room, I was lost. I spent every spare hour there, and many hours I could not spare. I learned how to play something other than eight-ball, that barroom coin-op and teenage basement game. I learned straight pool, where you shoot any ball, call your shots, and play continuously rack to rack to a certain number of points. I learned nine-ball, six-ball, and "Chicago," rotation games, where the balls are shot in numerical order.
Of course I started gambling as soon as I thought I had gotten any good. At first, it was just a matter of 50 cents per "weigh" ball in a game of Chicago, with either one opponent or two two-man teams. Then it was dollar nine ball, and then twenty-dollar games of straight pool, and then marathon sessions that adjourned to downtown poolrooms after the Columbia poolroom closed.
The summer after my freshman year, I hung around Times Square pool halls till all hours, mainly 7-11 and McGirr's. 7-11, at 711 Seventh Avenue, was up a flight of stairs. McGirr's, over on Eighth Avenue, reposed in a semi-gloomy basement. Ames, the upstairs hall on 44th Street made famous as the scene of the movie, The Hustler, was not in fashion, even among the low-rent denizens of Manhattan poolrooms. "Ames," sniffed one old-timer, "is a zoo."
TRUTH TO TELL, THEY WERE ALL ZOOS. The average New York pool shark, no matter what his skill -- and it was often phenomenal -- was a loser, a bust-out gambler, preying on college kids or tourists, piling up a stake over months, then blowing it at the track or staking all on a match with pool legend Luther Lassiter, a match the hustler stood no chance of winning. Pool offers no "on any Sunday" possibilities. One player who outpoints another by 30 balls in a 100-ball straight pool game will always do so. Nine-ball offers some luck, but that luck evens out rapidly over a series of games.
Pool back then offered virtually no career path, to use a phrase that sounds ridiculous even now. There was no televised pool, there were very few tournaments. For the one or two legends, like Willie Mosconi, there were thousands of oral tradition legendary unknowns. Mickey from Portchester, it was said, could play rack after rack of straight pool with such precision that the cue ball never touched a rail.
Lord, I was lucky -- lucky not to be beaten, robbed, or worse. Smart people do not hang out till all hours in Times Square pool rooms. Eventually, I left the game behind, left college behind, left a whole lot of things behind.
I BRING UP POOL NOW because my old college roomie and I have started meeting up to play once in a while again. For years, I would play only seldom, because, when I did, I would get the shakes, remembering those scary days and nights at 7-11 or McGirr's. I don't get the shakes any more. But it's laughable how bad I am.
I have entirely forgotten how to see shots. I find myself trying to do things that should be second nature and flubbing them entirely. Plus, Jon and I meet up in a big, glossy yuppie pool hall/restaurant called Jillian's in Manchester, New Hampshire, about halfway between our two homes, and the cloth on the tables is so nappy and so slow that the balls cluster together and don't let you do anything.
It's just as well. I played last night with a neighbor of mine on his fine Ohlhausen table, a table with some speed to it, and I actually began to think I might be able to do something again.
Just as well not to get into it that much. As some people are drawn to the thwock of a tennis ball, and others to stare longingly at airplanes taking off and landing, so I have always been drawn to a pool table. I feel something like that about golf nowadays, but golf, with its expense, its time-consuming nature, and its seasonal orientation, tends to set its own limits. Pool can draw you in and make you forget day and night. It once did that to me.
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