I don't remember the name of the pool hall. Frankly, I don't recall ever seeing a sign, or anything else in the place with a name on it. I do remember the players. They all had nifty nicknames. Mousie and Polkadot I remember best. Like the other regulars, they were old, played pool for money, and always seemed to have a lot of it. Most of the old men kept a pint of whiskey in their back pocket, and the weight of it made their pants sag at the seat. Occasionally, one of them might push part of his shirt tail back into his pants. Never all of it. I don't know why.
I remember rolls of hundred dollar bills, in a time when a hundred bucks would pay rent for a couple of months. I rarely saw the old men playing pool with strangers. They gambled mostly with each other, so the money must have just circulated. The nicotine walls in the pool hall were spattered with warning signs, such as "NO GAMBLING!" Back then it was as logical to me as "NO PRAYING" signs in church.
I was a couple years short of eighteen, and that was 40 years ago. My recollections have had plenty of time to morph into something more exciting than facts. Maybe I didn't see hundred dollar bills. Maybe they were ten dollar bills. Maybe.
I do know that there was more than pool going on in that place. It had a back room I never entered. I was there every day after school, but those old men never let me see what was in the back room. They always seemed nervous about it. There was a drink machine in the pool room that opened like a trunk. The bottles were strung by their necks on tracks, and had to be pulled through a clanky trap door at one end. I don't recall if there was any food or candy there. I don't think so. But the place was downtown in the middle of everything and if something was needed it wasn't far away. They didn't seem to want anything. I never saw one of those old men come or leave. They were just there, like the chairs and tables. I liked those old men a lot. They liked me too, and taught me to play pool.
In those days, just after the Korean war, everybody smoked. In order to find someone in the pool hall, it was necessary to bend over and search beneath a layer of smoke that hung from the ceiling. I was too young to indulge, but I smoked what everybody else exhaled until I was old enough to steal, or occasionally buy a pack of my own. A new pack would last me a year or two, and I kept them, along with my Photoplay magazines, hidden from my parents, who would have stripped me of my flesh had they known. They were wise, if blind.
The pool hall was dark, and just wide enough for one row of six or seven tables. There were three large windows at one end. I don't remember how they covered them to block the light, but I know they did, because pool players were allergic to sunlight. Many found oxygen hard to deal with. They read the newspaper by tilting it toward the lights over a table. The newspaper was important back then. It carried important news that they discussed in the back room. They read the paper first thing in the morning, always seated on the same chair with their coffee. I don't know who assigned them their chairs, but they seemed to know where they belonged. They didn't talk in the morning. Their hair was slicked back, and their furrowed faces freshly washed and shaven, so I know they left the place at night. I found out later most lived alone in a hotel room. I'm glad I didn't know that back then. Even now I'm sorry I found out. It hurts somehow.
The old men didn't start shooting pool until late in the afternoon. Some days not at all. The rack man was old too, and although I never saw him take a drink, I never saw him sober. I am convinced he absorbed ambient alcohol fumes through his skin. He wore the rack on his head, and shuffled slowly from table to table, as if his hemorrhoids were about to fall out on the floor. He collected ten cents before racking the balls for a new game. He never asked for the money. He would just stand there waiting for you to realize you owed him something. I don't know if he could shoot pool, although I had the feeling finding out could prove expensive. The regulars tipped him well, and seemed to care.
One night, after I was old enough to play, I went to the pool hall with a couple of my friends. I had been to a novelty store earlier and bought some plastic vomit. It looked wet and realistic. Little chunks of stuff were embedded in a puddle of rubbery, translucent stomach juices. After a particular pool game, I placed the fake vomit on the table near a pocket and called the rack man over. When he arrived at the table I pointed to the vomit. He stared at it for a moment, turned and went for a table brush. I removed the vomit. When he returned, he stood over the place where the vomit had been and started brushing the spot. He never seemed perplexed. He didn't ask questions. When he finished brushing, he waited for his dime, and racked the balls. Appropriately deflated, we continued our game.
I was not of legal age to play pool when I started hanging out at the pool hall, so I just watched. I knew to keep my mouth shut. The old men played one-pocket most of the time. I learned very quickly that there was a time to shoot balls in the pocket, and a time to simply maneuver them into a favorable position. This is true for all games of pool. Making a single ball seemed of little interest to them, and they invested many turns at the table removing balls from near the opponents pocket. They had to bank or kick most of their shots, which meant they were extremely skilled at using rails to their advantage. At some point during the game, one of the players would see an opportunity to take the offensive. It was usually all over then. Running eight balls into the same pocket was no great feat once the balls were in position, and their opponent had left an opening.
When I was old enough to play myself, I asked Mousie to teach me pool. He agreed, but required that I play him for money. "If you want to learn this game, you got to have a reason to win. You gotta learn to sink the money ball under pressure". He was right.
I played him for a dollar a game, and always lost. But he never took more than a few dollars from me. He made me stop, simply saying I had lost enough, and that I had to learn when to quit. That is hard advice for a young man to take, but there is none better. During my 40 years of pool playing, I have never been hustled out of a significant amount of money. I knew when I was shooting a better player, and I wasn't too proud to back off. My fear of losing money kept me from becoming a good pool player. But then again, I had a family and other interests in life. Mousie probably knew I would.
I don't remember any of the old men ever teaching me how to hold a stick or stroke a shot. They never told me how to aim or what to expect of the cue ball after shooting. When I made a mistake that they thought was serious, I was simply told it was stupid. It was left to me to reason why. I usually did. The old men were good teachers, because they didn't impose their game on me. Pool requires creative thinking and constant reappraisal. What makes the game so great is that it changes with each player's personality. A lot of players shoot equally as well. It is the great thinker, the creative mind that will most consistently prevail.
I don't know what happened to the pool hall, or to Mousie and Polkadot. Today we have "upscale" billiard rooms with clean air and bright lights. They serve meals, and the back rooms are used to store inventories and supplies. People seem to want it that way. It's okay I guess, but something is missing. Now I am one of the old men. I shoot in a new upscale billiard parlor where I can have dinner with Pat in the bright lights and clean air, while watching a big screen TV. I never did learn to shoot pool as well as Mousie. He'd be proud of me. I know why.
Happy Shooting! Jim & Pat