A minister friend of mine told me that everyone has at least a couple of good sermons in them. I've actually delivered one or two at my church over the years that were pretty well received so, perhaps, she's right.
A professional writer friend of mine told me that everyone has a book in them. I'm not sure if he is right but, as many others have done, I started to write one a few years back. It's a collection of short stories that take place in a pool room. (Remember, Hemingway said to "write what you know.") So far, I've written about four or five chapters but never taken the time to get any further along.
Anyway, I came across it again and thought I'd post the first chapter to see what folks think. Your feedback is encouraged.
Unlike most poolrooms, the distinct, stale smell of the last 20 years’ cigarettes and cigars was non-existent. Instead of the normal poolroom smell, there was a vague hint of homemade soup, especially back near the snack bar area. The vegetable soup aroma was, distinctively, more pronounced based on how hungry you were when you first caught it.
The only thing that let you know, upon entering, that this was a pool room was the muted click of the balls running into each other and the occasional crash of a break beginning another game of eight ball or nine ball. The break sounds would invariably change depending on the player. Regulars to the room could tell who was breaking without looking, basing their opinion entirely on the sound. They could tell whenever a stranger played, and often how good their game was, judging just by that sound.
The unusual smell in the rest of the room, the clean office building odor, was the direct result of the poolroom’s owner watching his father die of lung cancer many years before. His dad, who had taught him the game, was a heavy smoker for better than thirty years. He had made his three sons swear they would never touch the “coffin nails” or work anywhere they might be exposed to it. The youngest son, he was the only one to heed the admonishment. His two siblings both smoked light a wet fire, particularly when they played pool. But never in his pool room. No one did. The sign on the front door spelled the policy out very clearly. “No smoking in this pool room under penalty of death….at some point.” For anyone who bothered to ask, he could relate the story of his father’s slow, torturous and painful death in such a graphic manner as to cause some to give up the habit, on the spot. The butt can that sat on the sidewalk outside the front door received all types of detritus as a result, from first puffs to last drags.
There were other, more subtle ways the pool room differed from the norm. Instead of a jukebox, the owner had given up that revenue stream and installed a quality sound system upon which he played his own choices of music. Classical and jazz (Miles Davis and his contemporaries not that Kenny G crap) were two of his favorite genres but he was just as likely to cue up an old Rolling Stones or Beatles or Lynyrd Skynyrd album as long as no one was playing one pocket or straight pool; too much concentration required for those games in his opinion. And the snack bar fare was better suited to a bed and breakfast. All the cooking was done on the premises by a former four-star chef who had also been a professional dietician. He liked to say that no player could ever blame losing a game on the meal he had eaten there.
There were no games other than pool in the poolroom. The owner believed in truth in advertising and the neon sign outside, Pool Room, didn’t lie. Still, the lighting in the place lent itself to playing other games, almost too bright for pool. If anyone came in with chess set in hand or a backgammon board or a deck of cards or a domino set, they were welcome. So long as they didn’t interfere with the game and there was room at one of the tables in the snack bar. And as long as some sort of food or drink purchases were being made.
Because of the differences in the atmosphere, players new to the room often had trouble adjusting and regulars enjoyed, however briefly, a home field advantage. Depending on a player’s normal nicotine consumption or desire for a particularly greasy food, this home field advantage could be worth a couple on the wire in a short rack game like 9 ball. In straights, it showed itself in fewer long runs for visiting players and an increased difficulty in playing adequate safeties. Regular players of this room going out to other poolrooms in the city had no problem adjusting; if anything it was easier to do so. Because of this, the room’s regulars were respected for their abilities anywhere in town. While this could result in less weight when arranging a match, the sense of pride in being known as one of the regulars took away some of the sting. After all, believing you had something over the other player was always worth a little something.
The owner usually got there around seven thirty most mornings during the week. He would immediately start the first pot of coffee and while it was brewing, scan the newspaper headlines in the main news section. He would carry his cup to the front counter, pull the previous night’s receipts from the safe and create the deposit. He would then make sure there was enough change to get through the day, or the weekend if it was a Friday, and head to the bank across the street.
Returning to the poolroom, he would refill his coffee cup and begin preparing the room for the day. First, he would remove the table covers from each of the room’s sixteen tables. Thirteen of these were regulation nine-foot
tables of differing styles. (This allowed the owner to act as an area Brunswick dealer, showing
potential customers the look and feel of particular tables. He averaged about two table sales per month
the profits of which more than paid the rent on the building.) There were also two twelve-foot snooker
tables and a ten-foot, three-cushion billiards table. These were rare in the city, or any city for
that matter. It gave the poolroom one
more differentiation over its competitors.
After carefully folding all the covers and storing them in the cabinet
behind the front counter, he would take a small, portable vacuum cleaner and
run it gently over the table playing surfaces.
This would remove chalk dust and talcum powder from the prior day’s
players and help create a perfect playing surface for each game. If you got a bad roll on these tables, the
owner wanted it to be your fault, not the fault of the equipment. Each table’s rails received a wiping with a
damp cloth. Finally, he would take a
table brush and brush out the cloth so that the nap ran from the head of the
table down to the foot. Performing this
little ritual every day allowed him to see the wear and tear on the tables and
know when a re-covering was in order or if a particular style had an odd wear
mark that he could point out to the factory rep or to a potential
With the tables ready, he checked the rest of the equipment. House cues were checked for tips and bumpers. Any bumpers that were missing were replaced and tips were tuned if out of shape. Ferrules were cleaned of the blue ring of chalk usually deposited by a beginner not knowing the proper method for chalking the tip. The shafts were cleaned with a touch of lighter fluid to keep them slick and free of dirt and hand oils. Small dents in shafts were carefully steamed or sanded out. Any cues with really bad dings caused by beginners and “bangers” were culled out. These were eventually donated to a local retirement home with a pool table. Each set of balls were inspected and cleaned regularly. The chalk box was set out and overly used cubes were thrown out. (Unlike most rooms, the chalk was handed out separately from the set of balls to reduce the amount of cleaning needed on the equipment. One piece per table, unless requested by the players, was provided.) After finishing his pre-opening ritual, the owner looked across the room and smiled broadly. The room had been open for thirteen years and looked brand new. He believed in preventive maintenance and the value of it showed.
The chef came in about eight thirty most mornings, usually with a couple of bags of groceries in his arms. He stopped at the open-air market on his way in each morning to pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables and, occasionally, something that would really spark his creativity. The direct result of this stop was, invariably, a daily special that was a delight to the palate and healthy for the body. He and the owner both had to watch their diets carefully, they shared an affinity for high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and the chef took it as one of his most important responsibilities.
At nine o’clock sharp, the owner would unlock the front door and retreat to the front counter to finish his coffee and read the paper. He read everything, including the classifieds, for a couple of reasons. The first was that he loved to read and the newspaper had been a daily ritual since he was ten years old. More importantly, he felt it was his duty to be knowledgeable on current events. He was frequently called upon to settle debates and wagers among the regulars on the most inane subjects imaginable. If he had to be Solomon, he intended to have as many facts as he could muster at all times. It was another aspect of being a small businessman. If you were looked on as an authority, you had better be one as often as possible or risk losing a customer to someone that was perceived to be. The owner being right or wrong didn’t matter as much as the perception of his being right or wrong.
While the owner was reading his paper, a group of the regulars came in, one at a time, within five minutes of each other. The five men, all in their fifties and sixties, most retired, all loud and opinionated, were known collectively as the “Mayor’s Club.” They were all locals, had lived in town their entire lives, knew nearly everyone in the area and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. And the company of anyone who would bother to listen to their opinions which was what had earned them their collective nickname; they seemed to be small-town, local politicos. Individually they were known as Schmoe, Axe, Dago, Duke and Manilow. After their morning breakfast and bull session, there would be a round robin game of backgammon, one pocket, nine ball or straight pool all for stakes that never amounted to more than a couple of dollars passed between friends. The game would usually end up just in time for the mayors to head home for lunch with their respective wives. Later, one or another might make an appearance for a game with real money on the line. But never with each other. The morning game and coffee klatch was their ritual of long term friendship.
Other regulars came in between late morning and early afternoon during the week. These were players that also had real jobs. They were businessmen and women, self-employed and employees of large and small corporations. They were in their mid-twenties and early seventies and everywhere in between. The commonality they shared was the game. All of them loved and played pool or billiards or snooker and couldn’t do it for a living. They made time in their schedules and their daily lives to slip in to the poolroom at least once or twice a week to play, sometimes during their lunch hour, sometimes by playing hooky from work or some other responsibility. Some would eat while they were playing, savoring the taste of a wonderful meal while playing a match or working on their game. Others would only concentrate on the task at hand; the shot they faced or the one their opponent faced. They were far too into their game to eat.
Many of these people had their own pool table at home. Some had more expensive tables than the room did. But they still made the trip to the poolroom to play and practice on these tables, with these other players. They did it because they loved the aspects of the game that can only be found in a poolroom; the people watching, the competition, a chance to play for money and test one’s game against strangers, friends and acquaintances. In some cases, it was to develop their “home field” advantage or get a feel for the subtle nuances of tables they would be playing on in an upcoming league event or tournament. Finding anything that helped the game was always worth a trip.
Regulars also came in around the same time that weren’t players. Back in the snack bar area, there was a regular lunch crowd that came in to see what the Chef had created for the daily special. The lunch regulars came from local businesses and were of the same stock as the players. Every age and social class, every manner of worker and manager was represented during the course of a week. All were called by name and called each other by name, first names or nicknames, only. In this environment, they were all equal in social stature and in business, indeed in all measurements of life. They chatted about the food, the weather, current events, sports, whatever they felt like. Just walking through the snack bar during the lunchtime rush, you could hear conversations about any aspect of the world. The crowd was always enough to fill every chair at every table. Everyone sat with everyone else and this helped the conversations to take place.
Then there were the railbirds. They tended to come in beginning around lunchtime and remain anywhere from twenty minutes, just long enough to eat, to past closing time at two in the morning. These were the watchers of pool, the sweaters. Some of them knew the game very well, could tell who the real players were after watching just one stroke of the cue. They knew who would fold and who could handle the pressure of a money game. They knew who was playing their normal speed and who was holding back so as to get the wager or spot they wanted. They knew these things because they had seen enough over the years to just tell, or at least make a highly educated wager, on the outcome of various occurrences. Some of the railbirds were players of some repute at one time or another, some still played a fair game and some had never played. But they all shared the same love for sweating a match with a wager on the outcome.
A few of the railbirds knew almost nothing about the game but a case could be made that this group didn’t know much about anything. Pool, like most things, can be learned through observation if you know how and what to look for. If you don’t know what to look for or how to observe you won’t learn anything and there was always one railbird who fit that description. Most of the time, those in the know would tolerate the unknowing because it helped to validate their own knowledge of the game. Sometimes they would bait the unknowing clown just so they would have something to laugh about, after the fact. A good scam on a dimwit railbird would be retold numerous times over the ensuing days; in the snack bar, at a table during a no-money game or at the rail of another match. It helped to pass the time between games or between wagers.
Late in the afternoon or early in the evening, the money players began coming in the poolroom. There were usually money matches going on at any time of the day or night. But the real money players usually came in the evening. Some had put in a full day of work and were looking for an escape from the usual evening at home or a way to earn a little extra money. Some had put in a day at college and were looking for the same. Some had slept until early in the afternoon because they had been up all night the night before playing pool for money. Those that had won were back to keep their streak alive. Those that had lost were there to recoup their losses from the night, or nights, before. The money players all had one thing in common; they all wanted the big score. They all wanted the chance to play for big money when their stroke was smooth and sure, when difficult shots looked easy, when no safety was inescapable. They wanted to win and win big. But if they couldn’t win big, they simply wanted to win. And if they couldn’t win, they wanted a chance to play. As one of the mayors was often heard to say, “The only thing worse than playing for money and losing, is not playing for anything!”
The Night Man came in to relieve the owner every evening between five and six o’clock. He would have dinner in the snack bar and then make his way to the front counter. The owner didn’t always leave when the Night Man came in; he ran leagues on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. The leagues provided healthy competition for the players who wanted it without the wagering aspect. There were some players in the league who were every bit as good as the better money players in the room. They liked their pool to be unblemished with the money that some players used as a way of keeping score. The leagues also provided healthy competition for those who liked to wager on their skills against the skills of others. The league allowed them to see other players’ games; some of them might be up for a friendly, or not-so-friendly, money match afterward. Finally, the leagues provided an opportunity for members of the pool community to socialize with other members. If you loved the game, the league was an intense three or four hour period to play, watch, learn, talk about, argue and fight about pool. Never is a poolroom noisier, with predominantly friendly sounds, than it is during league night. For the owner, leagues were one more revenue stream, one more way of building and keeping his business, his players.
As the night wore on, the Night Man would be kept very busy. So many people would be there that there would be a wait, sometimes for over an hour, for an available table. The list of groups waiting was constantly updated, names were called, tabs were settled at the front counter and the tables rented to the next waiting group. Occasionally, the Night Man would be asked to run a customer’s credit or debit card for far more than the accumulated table time in order to settle a wager on the table. The poolroom was always glad to do that as they could charge an extra dollar for doing so. That made it cheaper than the ATM machine across the street and still brought in some additional revenue. It also made for more road players willing to stop in and play; no one ever had to worry about getting paid if plastic was available. As a result, this poolroom always had action.
Slowly, the noise level in the poolroom would begin to dissipate, imperceptibly at first, until, around one in the morning, with the snack bar closed for business, the majority of sound came from the balls on the tables. By this time, about half of the tables would have games going on them. The rest would get their covers replaced, as the games would end. Finally, with only two or three tables going, the Open sign would be turned off and the door would be locked. Whatever railbirds still in attendance would be sweating the matches along with the players, wagering on the outcome of each match or individual games, or sometimes, on individual shots. Often, the railbirds would find among them one of the players’ backers, wagering on his man on the side with the spectators, too. (It was men in these two roles. The occasion of a woman playing a high-stakes money match was extremely uncommon in every poolroom around the country. And the backer was almost never a woman either. Perhaps poolrooms of the future will have coed road player / backer teams.) This provided the backer with the opportunity to make more money. Any side bets he placed were not subject to the player’s cut; it was all profit or loss for him.
Finally, the last ball would drop on the last game of the night. Cues would be broken down, wiped off and placed carefully back in their cases. Wagers would be paid off, discretely in most cases. The loser would count out the bills, early in the evening fives and tens at this hour twenties, fifties and hundreds, and either hand the wad to the winner or drop it on the table. This last gesture was usually meant as one of resignation, a way to surrender. Handing the bills over instead of tossing them on the table meant you were leaving with your self-respect intact and wanted a rematch on another night. And the winner would always accommodate you, maybe with a different spot or a different game with different stakes but he would always give the loser a chance to win his money back.
The last players would settle up their table time and bar tabs. The winners would tip the Night Man for staying past closing time to allow the match to continue, make one final trip to the rest room and head out into the night.
Like most poolrooms, stories of matches that continued for more than one day were legendary. This room was no different. The regulars loved to tell the story of the match between Alan Hopkins, a road player with a national reputation, and Stumpy Wheeler the local one-pocket legend that would play anyone for anything. He and Hopkins started a match on a Monday evening that continued until early Wednesday morning. The combatants broke for some sleep and reconvened Wednesday afternoon and played until Thursday night around midnight when Stumpy won two racks in a row at five hundred dollars each. When the dust had cleared,
had only won a hundred dollars. The only reason they continued for that long
was that Hopkins
couldn’t believe he couldn’t put Stumpy, a man with only one leg playing on
crutches, away and he called quits when he realized he needed to be at a
tournament two states away on Friday evening.
Until the day he passed away, Stumpy referred to Hopkins as the only man who had ever beaten
him and not given him a chance to win back his money. Hopkins
The Night Man would put the covers on the last of the tables, count and close out the cash register, transmit the credit card receipts, run and print the computer reports for the day and put the money in the safe. After a quick walk through the building, making sure all entrances were locked and no one had passed out somewhere in the room or was sleeping in the john, he would turn out the lights, set the alarm and lock up.
The parking lot was finally empty. The poolroom was dark and quiet, resting after hosting a day of the best and worst shots ever seen. It would do the same thing again in a few hours just as it had every day for the last thirteen years. And it still smelled like homemade soup.