|The game of pool is regarded
a sport. I’m not convinced it is a sport since it requires less
exertion than a long walk. It can be exhausting, much as chess and
movie marathons are exhausting. Even video games generate more sweat.
It is a game. It does require hand-eye coordination and strategy. What
I enjoy most about it is that you can have a conversation while
playing, at least with a casual game.
My father, Lou, taught me how to play the game. He showed me how to hold the cue, keeping my upper arm motionless and only moving my forearm, swinging it from the elbow. He had me lean low, aiming along the cue. “Don’t hit it hard,” he advised, “let the stick do the work.” There was only to be enough force for the target ball to roll up to its intended pocket and drop in, yet when my father hit the balls, they crashed into the pockets. Lou showed me how to make a firm bridge of my other hand on which to rest the cue, but he had me roll my index figure over the cue to keep it steady, which I didn’t like, preferring an opened bridge, like he did.
I accompanied Lou to Bristol (Pennsylvania) where he was shopping for another gun to add to his collection. There was a pool hall down the block and I suggested we play pool. I could have been twelve, I could have been fourteen, it is no longer a clear memory. What did my father say to me? Something like, “oh my, I haven’t played pool in twenty years” or maybe he said thirty. He then proceeded to run the table and remarked, “I guess it’s like riding a bicycle, you never forget.”
Then my father told me the story of how he hustled pool growing up in Harlem. I was stunned, my father a hustler, like Jackie Gleason in the movie role of Minnesota Fats! (My father was also a fat man.) He claimed to me that he was able to make a small living from it, that running forty-five balls was not unusual. “What happened?” I asked. He said he simply wasn’t good enough, that his confidence exceeded his ability and he was eventually out hustled too often.
We played regularly after that, straight pool, where Lou had to pocket 100 balls before I could sink fifty, and he often made three-cushion shots. I was sixteen, or maybe eighteen, before I won that game by reaching fifty. At first I was thrilled, but then it unsettled me. We had crossed a threshold, a milestone that indicated we both had aged and neither could return to our former lives.
For a brief time in the Seventies, a poolroom operated not far from where my parents lived, a twenty minute walk. It was a time when I was living at home and attending the local community college. The poolroom was open late into the night and, if the management wished it, because there was some ongoing game of interest, it could stay open all night.
I spent a number of nights there with friends, particularly my friend Ken, a good-looking, lanky fellow. Ken and I played games of straight pool all night long. At the time he was matriculating at Temple University, pursuing his first degree in English Literature, his passion. Later, he would go back to school to get an Engineering Degree to earn an income, his pragmatism. And we talked about everything. Women, of course, but we discussed philosophy, literature, infinity, religion, the Great Vowel Shift, everything.
The conversation didn’t stop when the pool parlor finally sent us home. We’d head over to the Blue Fountain Diner for coffee and cheesecake. By this time the sun would have returned to North America.
Despite the education I received from my father, I was never very good at the game. Ken usually won. I can’t think of a friend who didn’t regularly beat me. There was a short spell during which I excelled, playing eight ball in the Liffey Bar. A tiny place, it was attached to a transit hub for the el, the subway, buses, and cabs, the 74th Street - Broadway - Jackson Heights - Roosevelt Avenue Station in Queens, New York. The last time I drove past, the Liffey Bar was defunct. Still, memories persist. I did pretty well on their small and damaged table. We regulars knew where the bumps and sumps were and the quantities of Dublin Guinness had a way of equalizing skill and luck. I held my own.
Ken was a dear friend. It was Ken and our friend David who introduced me to Guinness and Bass. It was Ken and David who introduced me to the Coach House when I was living in Brookline, Massachusetts and the Liffey when I was living in Queens. Wherever I lived, they seemed to know the local Irish pubs. And Ken sang, his voice came out a pleasant Irish tenor, which took me by surprise.
Back in 1975, Ken and I hiked through the thick forest along Core Creek, a thin tributary of the much wider Neshaminy Creek. Core Creek was to be dammed. We wanted to see it before it disappeared beneath Lake Luxembourg, which is now the center of Core Creek Park. Whenever I visit the lake, I remember the flower, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit, to which he introduced me. I also remember the stone spring house Ken and I had discovered with its floor submerged beneath a few clear inches of cool water. It must still be there, unreachable.
Ken was a year or three younger than me, is now living in California with a wife and two boys probably in college. We have jobs and families and thousands of miles separating us. We can no longer spend frequent nights in playing straight pool and dialogue. I do miss it and I write this essay, thirty-five years later to fulfill a promise. It was one of those conversations during a game when I asked Ken what should I write about? He swept his hand in a wide arc and said “this”. I said, “one day I will.”
This essay is the most
a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr
Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"