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
February: A Billiards Buddy
WE MET as high-school seniors; he transferred from Chicago's Hyde Park, the tony south-side area that surrounds the University of Chicago. We had a few classes together, were the same kind of non-athletes in gym, and dug one another's sense of humor right from the start. He was a brilliant sketcher, and coaxed fantastic music out of a recorder (yes, a recorder). But what really sparked our friendship was three-cushion billiards.
This was quite a few years before the advent of street gangs, thus his part of town had dozens of perfectly respectable poolrooms, all of which winked at Chicago's minimum-age-18 admission law. Dick was one of those relatively rare kids to whom billiards appealed far more than pool right away, and as I had been playing not quite a year when we met, he was better at it than I was, not that that was much of a claim. Obviously we didn't keep track of innings, nor did we even know that such a statistic existed; maybe he played at .25 to my .2 when we began competing. But I caught up.
In the four years I was away at school, we'd play during every single vacation I was home. About a year after I graduated, he helped get me a job, if you could call it that, where he was working, at the research center of the prestigious Illinois Institute of Technology. My title was Editor of Reports, except that the engineers with whom I allegedly worked only produced a few reports a year each. The editing of those reports - for grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc., but not content - took barely an hour or two. Thus I had a job in which I literally did next to nothing, at a respectable salary, and here's how I filled a typical day.
I would arrive before 9:30, close to 75 minutes late for my official starting time but still early enough for a full-course yet inexpensive breakfast in the IIT cafeteria. Then I'd sit in my office till 11:45, indulging a talent for fiction writing that would never quite exceed "promising," but which I still believed in. At a quarter to 12, I'd hop into my car and head for Chicago's South Shore neighborhood, barely 15 minutes away. There I'd find the fine bowling center owned by former White Sox pitching great Ted Lyons, and its 10 or 12 pool and billiards tables on a balcony overlooking the bowling lanes. Even in the early afternoons, there was congenial action in that place, and more often than not I'd head back to work, at 3 or so, with my income augmented. Then I'd sit in my office for another hour, till about 4:15 - 45 minutes short of quitting time - when Dick and I would head to IIT's Student Union for some billiards.
Illinois Institute of Technology, as its name implies, isn't much of a party school. Its only sports are those of the intramural variety, and its Union's lone, ancient pool table didn't get much play; the caroms table, right next to it, got even less, so access was no problem. Maybe it was simply the right time of the day, maybe it was the right time of our lives, but the two of us played well over our heads on that table, five times a week, largely without fail. One day I hit him with three consecutive runs of five; I know that's not much relative to real billiards, but it was a first for me which I've never matched since.
But the thing was, that hour a day of billiards with Dick was one of the beacons of my life. After it was done, I'd head home for dinner, then go out for still more pool and billiards; that's pretty much how unfocused my life was then. I was already dating the girl whom I would marry, but at that point I was three years out of college with no career in sight, thus not much of a prospect for anything more serious than that. I was spending close to 12 hours a day, most days, fitting aimless activities around the cue games. But I didn't care. Somewhere in there, I had a real friend. Nothing else seemed to matter much.
That non-job lasted close to two years, after which it was phased-out as it should have been all along. Dick got married the same year, and shortly after that he moved to the West Coast and I lost touch. Twenty years later, when I was in the advertising business, I ran across him, divorced, managing one of Chicago's better recording studios, and we rekindled the friendship briefly but without billiards. Then I lost track of him again.
Maybe 20 years after that, I came across his name on an e-mail being sent around announcing a class reunion. I wrote him right away, and I'm also glad to report that I pointed him toward this magazine's Web page and my smattering of columns, especially the one called "The P. H.," about the room where our friendship began. As things turned out, I've never been more proud to acquire another reader in all my days. He was highly impressed, and said the columns reminded him of an Edward Hopper painting. Which I thought, quite naturally, was high praise indeed.
The last, lengthy e-mail I got from Dick was simply titled "Later." In it, he explained to a mailing list of about twelve that he intended to end his life that day. He had survived lung surgery and a stroke, but now he was sick, alone and broke, and had no interest in courting the days of diapers and enfeeblement. But one of the twelve saw a call for help in there, and sent an ERT to his house. So he's OK, for now.
Thanks for helping me keep my life on even-keel, buddy, you and billiards. And don't be in such a hurry. I'm one year younger than you. We'll play again soon enough.