Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.
Best of Fels
(from May 1982)
YOU'D THINK I'D be over it by now. The place where I learned to play pool shuttered half my life ago, but I still see it almost daily, sometimes at night. How many other players have a dream about their first room, I wonder? In mine, the place has re-opened to a vastly younger crowd, ready to adore anybody who can run balls in double digits, but I manage to see that somehow it's not the same and I leave; I never stay. As for my waking life, there is a part of me that I left back there, and you can just empty out betting I'm not the only one. The player who doesn't think fondly of his first poolroom is a misanthropic meld of Norman Bates. Darth Vader, and the Alien, and is to be shunned at all costs.
The room's formal, Yellow Pages name was the Morse Avenue Recreation Center, but it was just "the p.h" to anybody who went there. Not only was the expression a chance for you to demonstrate how hip you were (even if we said "hep" back then), but it served as a cunning disguise in front of middle-class parents who were still of the Music Man mentality and who might have fibrillated if they heard "pool hall" from their own son's cherubic lips.
I was probably hooked on the place, and the games to be found therein, after my first half-hour, maybe less. You had to negotiate a flight of stairs, for one thing, and there's something about pool that feels terribly right being combined with stairs, up or down. At the top, there were eight manually-set bowling lanes (fewer if the resident pinsetters weren't sober) to the right; on the left, behind a pair of honest-to-God swinging doors, 10 tables (6 pool, 3 billiards, and the chameleon-like Table 10, which was billiards, 5' x 10' snooker, or 5' x 10' pool, whichever seemed to be in demand. Table 5 was for real sports, boasting new cloth, a $1 minimum instead of $l an hour, and a then-unheard of set of plastic balls. Except for its archaic butterlips pockets, Table 5 truly represented life in the fast lane.
The fact is, the only people I know who were completely able to resist the lure of the p.h. were the people who never went to begin with. This was a room void in hustlers, tush hogs, drifters or dopers; the basic gambling forum was "time and a buck", which we kids chanted merrily to the tune of The William Tell Overture. A $2 or $3 game was heavy action. I started out playing for quarters, back when I still thought you should move as many balls as possible on each shot to keep from looking bad if you miss. But I could run eight or nine in a few weeks, and that in itself was practically enough to make me king of the hill.
And beyond the games themselves, the p.h. had the magic of kinship. You needed neither equipment nor buddies to go to the p.h. It was loaded from October to June with the crack of the balls and the smartass talk a gawky teen-ager loves to hear, guys forming poker games, guys before or after their dates, comparing notes on who got what. The '50s were not all that sexually enlightened; any guy who could legitimately claim to have copped a feel was a conversation piece for weeks (and the girl for months). Off in the corner, a little AM radio warbled syrupy ballads by the Crew Cuts and the Four Lads that filled you with a sweet melancholy just this side of horniness.
Perhaps best of all, it was A Place To Go Alone. The phrase deserves upper-case letters, at least in my heart, because the mysteries and agonies of the war called adolescence frequently left you feeling alone even when you weren't. The p.h. was a soothing, cool, dark green balm for all that, crowded or empty. There was always - always - the game, in which to lose yourself for a few minutes or a few hours, whatever it took. If you catch the game at a time when your sap is rising, all her subtleties and symbols whisper wordless juicy thoughts, about sticks and balls and holes and triangles, that you might not be able to articulate for years, if then. And you take on a mistress who will ultimately tempt you away from classes, sergeants, bosses, wives, who will faithfully return whatever love you can bring each time you bring it, and who will stay with you for forty or fifty years and might even improve with age. Any woman about whom the same can be said should be treated as far more than a casual date.
I had just been cut out from the school basketball team, for being too small and shooting too much, when I discovered the p.h. And I think the first symbology that must have appealed to me about pool came from buckets; here was another way of maneuvering yourself into position for an open shot at a hole. But any size could play, and as long as the shots went in, you didn't have to depend on the kindness of strangers under the backboard to give you another shot. You got one automatically. And another one, and then as many as you could make. How much sweeter can life get when you're too young for romance, college or Army, but too old for Howdy Doody? The p.h. was more than a meeting place, more than an arena for competition. It was a connection with life. I don't know of anybody who ever broke that connection without replacing it with something of value.
There was no better time to be in the p.h. than early on Friday nights. Friday dinners were generally a two-to-three minute exercise with me; there was Someplace To Go. My feet hit that flight of 15 stairs maybe three times on the way up. A week of school was behind; pool and poker and the weekend were ahead, and the teenage blues were a lot farther away than just those stairs. No wonder there were no dopers. With highs like that around, who needed drugs? Even today, with all the songs and movies singing the joy of Saturday Night, you can give me Fridays from 5 to 7 P.M. as the niftiest time on the earth. The place closed five and a half years after my first appearance, and since I was away at school for four of those years, my total hours logged there are puny compared to the attendance of some. But if I was in town, I was in touch. The lithography firm that bought out the p.h. is still in business there, and I doubt they'd mind if I climbed those stairs one more time just to stand there, mumble an apology, and leave. They needn't know how much I used to want to score some plastique and blow them clear to oblivion. But that was when I was a kid, and as Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Each of us has thoughts that would shame hell."
And there's always that dream, to remind me that that was another day, that there are no tickets back. I don't know whether to be grateful for the dream or not. I suppose I should, but I don't know. I sure loved that place.