Went to an amusement arcade in town yesterday evening, a friend had invited me to join a “pool” league that was forming. I have shot pool about four times in the last 30 years years, but was sort of interested because of that very reason. So, I went.
However, turns out it was not going to work for me because of my plans and activity for the not-too-far-in-the-future move; it did however bring back a lot of past memories about a portion of a mis-spent youth.
The first real pool-hall I ever entered was Pannessa’s Pool room in Newburgh, N.Y.
It was like the pool room in “The Hustler”, with two rows of chairs around the wall and raised up from the floor about a step so that people could watch, and kibbitz, and bet.
There were two really nice billiard tables, a half dozen regulation pocket tables for straight pool, and about four or five for mostly 9-ball and 8-ball games, the last category existed because the balls were often hit very aggressively and the tables were a little beat up, but still in very good shape. You could not play those games on the good tables.
I skipped school and went there during the day. Old man Pannessa, as we called him, always asked what we were doing there and how come we weren’t in school. He always accepted whatever story we concocted and we were the ones who had to keep an eye out for the Truant Officer, who was an employee of the schools, and looked for kids like us throughout the day. Yep, it was a different time.
I learned how to shoot “straight-pool”, where two players agreed upon a winning score (50 or 100 etc.), and then took turns whenever the other player missed a shot. The skill of this game was consistency and being able to position your cue-ball so that you had another shot lined up after each ball you made. All the shots had to be called. An object ball had to be hit and either it, or the cue ball, had to at least touch a rail if the shot wasn’t made. Yep, it gets more complex than that, but I’ll stop there.
The 8-ball and 9-ball games were purely quick gambling games with loads of variations in the rules depending on what the players agreed upon.
The main dynamic in the place was to learn how to play. How to gamble and to bet. How to hustle another player. How to not be hustled. And, above all, to not “show your true speed” i.e. ability. Ever.
One, also learned a lot about side-bets as a spectator, and about proposition bets, and all manner of hustles that involved gambling. Every year, at the very end of Spring, groups of men traveling in pairs or threes, would show up in cars from other states and other areas of New York. They were part of the annual hustlers migration that followed the birds and the opening of race track season as the northern states warmed up.
These guys, for most part, could play pool, billiards, golf, bowl, and any card or dice game known. They made their living betting on their skills or the cleverness of their betting propositions. A fe years later as I continued my learning curve in the Virginia suburbs of Wash. D.C. and the pool halls in Arlington and Alexandria, they usually showed up about a month earlier.
I have seen and on occasion played with some of the legends of that world. Luther Lassiter, Weenie-Beenie, T-shirt Steve, The Baron, and others whose names don’t come back readily. I was just a smart-ass kid, but a real aspect of that world was that you learned through the kindness, skill and and cut-throat competitiveness of these pros. It always cost you something to learn from those that were better, but many times they were just whiling away some time, waiting for a “real game”, while playing with a youngster. A tune-up.
My best friend in High School, Wayne Hawk (great name, huh?) and I, were planning on quitting school after our Junior year to hit the road as pool-hustlers to see if we could do it.
During the last days of that school year I was working as a bus-boy at a restaurant in Fairfax, VA, when I got the call from a classmate that Wayne had drowned at the Great Falls of the Potomac; during an art class outing when he fell into the Falls. I couldn’t go that day because it was a Friday and I had to work.
Wayne and I were good artists and I ended up finishing the mural we had begun work on in the school’s hallways. He had a huge funeral at Arlington Cemetery and I was a pall-bearer for him. Wayne was always being suspended from school because he wore his hair longer than his collar (1965). I was always being suspended for non-attendance (go figure:).
Anyway, I lost interest in the pool-halls after another year or so because I became enamored of a more intricate lifestyle and pursued that for a while.
Our lives seem to be made up of interlocking, yet quite separate aspects of ourselves.
Hey Mister! I see that you smoke
Pall Malls. I’ll tell you what,
I’ll bet you my Two dollars to
Your One dollar, that I can
Take one of those cigarettes, and
Tie it into a knot, throw it on
The floor and let you stomp
On it with you foot. Three times!
And then I’ll untie it, and you can smoke it
While you hand me one dollar.