Thursday, January 11, 2018

Sometimes you just play pool

    I have problems that nobody else has.
    Well, maybe not nobody. I haven't met everybody. 
    Let's say problems that I assume are unique to writers doing the kind of writing I do.
    For instance, I can have a hard time figuring out whether I'm working or not. Whether something should be written about or just enjoyed. Private or public? My wife, at odd moments, will say, "I don't want to see that in the paper." Invariably at something I would never dream of putting in the paper.
   And sometimes I have that thought myself.
    Last week, when I went to meet a reader at Chris's Billiards, it was because he had read a reference of mine to "second tier treasures," to spots like the old Division Street Russian Baths, that feel as if they could slip away at any moment. Chris's was another one, he said. Would you like to see it? Sure, I said. I'll let you in on a secret: I tend to go where I'm invited, because I don't get that many invitations to go places. Not to places I want to go, anyway.
     Plus I'd be meeting a person. I like meeting people, in the main, unless I don't.
     To be honest, the idea that it might be a column, or a blog post, or something, did not occur to me until he started to explain how to play 9-ball. I had never played 9-ball before, always 8-ball. However he explained the rules of 9-ball—I can't tell you what that was, because I didn't write it down or tape it—made me wish I had a record of it. A week later, I remember only the wish, and the narrow triangle of nine balls set within the rack.
     We had just met. I'm not so far gone I'd walk into a billiard hall with a tape recorder in my hand. I could have whipped out my notebook and written down some of what he said, after the fact. But I was trying to absorb the rules. My notebook stayed in my pocket.
    We shot pool, we talked about our kids and our jobs, about the city and growing up and life in general. I can't reconstitute that conversation either.
     I wrote one sentence down: "This is really the last one left." Big pool halls in Chicago, I assume. I did take a few photographs.
    When I got home, I realized that Chris's is featured in Amy Bizzarri's "111 Places in Chicago That you Must Not Miss." A book I just wrote about last month, when I went to get a cup of coffee in Englewood. I was kinda glad I didn't know, that I hadn't gone to check another place off the list. 
     Leaving, after 90 minutes of pool, I had been conflicted. On one hand, I had lost an opportunity: This interesting pool hall, featured in "The Color of Money," with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise.  A vast, cavernous space, with pool tables and snooker tables and dark recesses.  
    And on the other, I had deliberately given work the cold shoulder. I was ... I realized with an inner smile ... doing something normal.  I'm allowed to do that. You can't work all the time and shouldn't try. Sometimes you just have to relax, and shoot some pool. Even noble Homer dozed.


  1. "Can I ask you to get up and get me a beer without you writing about it?": NY Times Essayist Anna Quindlen's Husband.

  2. Nice to know that at least one classic poolroom still exists in the old homestead (my adopted hometown of Cleveland has none that I know of). An old friend of mine worked as an extra when "Color of Money" was filmed...and I enjoyed hearing about how the tracks (like miniature trolley tracks) were laid between the tables for the mobile movie cameras...are they still called dollies?

    During high school (mid-Sixties), I spent far too many hours at the notorious and seedy pool hall above the old Villa Girgente (sp?) at Howard and Paulina, around the corner from the 'L' terminal. Its days of national tournaments and big names were long past by my day. The age limit was "18 and over" but was winked at, until the day the plainclothes detectives came up the stairs and all the teen boys (and a few girls) hot-footed it down the fire escape and into the alley below, which has always made for yet another great story about growing up in Chicago.

  3. The beauty of 9-ball is it's simplicity. Just hit the lowest numbered ball on the table. If you make a ball, keep shooting. Whoever makes the 9 ball wins.
    I didn't go into this when we played, but 9-ball is a good game for gambling because a better player can give up "weight" to a lesser player. For example, one player might only have to make the 7-ball to win the game, while the other must get all the way to the 9.
    While pool as a diversion is still going strong in Chicago, Chris' is the last of the old-school pool halls. Marie's Golden Cue, North Center Bowl, Stix..., that place on Fullerton near Southport.
    Chris' is also the last bastion for three-cushion billiards, a game that isn't drawing too many young players. That was the game I showed you right as we were leaving.

    1. Id love to play some time Leo . i work way too much.

  4. In my little hometown there was the drag strip, the drive in movie, and the pool hall. All long gone. I recall my mom, weary of me hanging around the house and moaning about nothing to do, sending me to the pool hall. Signs on the wall said no cursing, no spitting, no gambling. I hung around and watched geezers cuss, spit, and gamble. It was heaven. My grandpa, the most wonderful human being I've ever known aside from my mom, hung out there after he retired. He subsisting on black coffee, unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and fresh butchered pork and was never sick a day in his life. One day at the pool hall he and some old pals were laughing about something stupid someone had done and he keeled over, gone in an instant. At a pool hall surrounded by lifelong friends. Could you imagine a better way to go?

    1. Strange, the minute I saw the photo of the inside of the pool hall, I was reminded of a joke set in such a pool hall in a very old movie. One character says to the other that his doctor was putting him on a strict regimen. The other responds that his poor uncle had lived a good clean life, ate plenty of fruit and vegetables, exercised regularly, always got a good night's sleep, etc. and then one day, "Poof, he was gone." The first character trudges despondently out of the pool hall. As he goes out the door, the second character says, "Maybe I should have told him that my uncle got run over by a truck."


    2. Dennis,
      Sounds like you grew up in Oswego.

    3. Oswego is a metropolis compared to where I grew up, but any place with a pool hall, drag strip, drive-in theater and a river is OK in my book. We also had one vagrant. Had a metal plate in his head. Odd, but personable. You want to make America great again? Limit every town to one vagrant and make sure they're personable. I may run for office with that as my platform.

    4. Sounds good, Dennis, except I think there are too many vagrants for it to work.

    5. I spent many fine afternoons at the Oswego drag strip back in the 70s when there wasn't much other than corn out there. We used to sit on the hoods of our cars with coolers full of Bud. Best place to watch the races back then. "Time well wasted."

  5. Must respectfully dissent from concluding sentence. The famous knock on Homer by Horace was that the old gent's occasional errors were due to drowsiness, not that he occasionally played hokey from his obligation to recite sagas around the campfire. Your pool hall visit was most productive, giving us an interesting commentary, a success by blog standards in that it has inspired a host of interesting observations by readers.

    For my own initiation into the game, I grew up amid Welsh families and an early memory was when my dad would park me in a little chair while he played in the local Cymric Club, a few rooms over a drug store usually filled with second-hand smoke, the murmur of old guys chattering in Welsh and the clack of billiard balls. When I got a little older I was allowed to wield a stick myself, but fortunately moved on to such normal teen-age obsessions such as girls and basketball before becoming an adept.


  6. Alas, I never made it to the recently departed Marie's Golden Cue on Montrose, where the Marquee announced "We have smooth shafts and clean balls."


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