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.
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WITH THE possible exception of “Godfather II” and maybe “Jaws II” (and, somewhat related, the great John Sayles’ far lesser-known “Piranha II”), have you ever seen a sequel you liked? Didn’t think so. Me neither.
And that’s all Chicago’s once-famous billiard room Bensinger’s was, another fourth-rate sequel, once it left downtown and moved a few miles north. In its downtown location, the room once boasted an entire floor for caroms, 20-plus tables; another full floor for pool, equipped mostly with 5-by-10-foot tables; and a third for exhibition play in either game, in addition to bowling lanes on yet another floor. About 25 of those tables, total, made the move. The new locale had indeed been a bowling center decades before, but now it was just an oversized basement room with exposed overhead pipes.
The room’s billiards business was the first aspect to suffer. Part of the problem, of course, was simple geography. That particular crowd was almost exclusively white-collar, and their offices were only a few blocks away from the Randolph Street address. From roughly a quarter to noon till 2:15, it was next to impossible to get a billiards table at Bensinger’s; that income likely paid the room rent all by itself. But the four miles or so between the old location and the new simply could not be negotiated in much less than half an hour, leaving only an hour for play. Some of the daytime players showed up at night in the new haunts; some did not. The new room’s caroms trade was still reasonably stable, but the tables available were only a fraction of what had been offered before.
The next factor to be face-lifted was the age of the attendant bums. Downtown, the room was just about equidistant from Chicago’s three skid-row sections (all three have been revitalized long since), and that was not hard to tell. Derelicts from all three directions would shuffle in each morning to pee, get a roof over their heads for a day (and sometimes night), and maybe purchase a lone cup of coffee. The room’s only apparent code regarding these semi-patrons was that they were not allowed to sleep. But the only penalty for doing so was being awakened.
Of course, they all disappeared once the poolroom moved north. In their stead, the room now hosted tough young punks who drank and doped openly. Some played pool now and then; some even played a lot; one actually became a notorious Mob enforcer. Intellectually, it was pretty much a standoff between them and the older bums of yore. But at least their energy level was higher.
The new owner was an extremely nice, generous guy, so much so, in fact, that he may have been the worst billiard-room operator since Shakespeare first wrote of the game in “Anthony and Cleopatra” a bit over four centuries ago. The late Bob Siegel let virtually anybody in (we figured out, through hindsight, that the notorious serial killer Richard Speck actually hung out there for about a week before heading for the South Side and the rape and/or butchering of eight student nurses in a single night), and allowed the tables to depreciate to the extent of bare slate showing. Anybody could do just about anything they wanted to.
In terms of personnel, Bensinger’s did supply the same aged table-maid and porter, Mary and Johnny, who would brush the tables, fetch players’ personal cues from a locked room, and check their coats and bring coffee if asked. The night manager came too, Eddie Miller, a transplanted Tennessee bachelor who played excellent caroms himself — I saw him run 13 once — and was never seen in anything less than jacket, clean pressed shirt and tie. Miller ran the city’s three-cushion and straight-pool championship tournaments as well, and was so old-school that he would not even consider pool competition in any form other than 14.1. Miller’s dental hygiene was an embarrassment to all including himself — the room’s smartasses later recalled it as “The Green Mile” — so he did not open his mouth very wide in speaking, and was not easy to understand. But Miller’s mumbled player introductions, for both tournaments, did seem to walk the fine line between dignity and sheer mystery.
The last employee to make the trek was counterman Frank Mertz, who must have been approaching 200 years of age by then. He was supposed to check young men’s IDs at the counter, but to avoid Mertz’ keen inspection, all the punks had to do was stroll past him without making eye contact. Remarkably, he did somehow manage to get lights turned on for the appropriate tables, and the correct amounts of cash collected and change made.
Then there was the matter of the room’s existing residents, dachshund-sized rats, who were not cowed in the least by the arrival of some two dozen tables and many more dozens of punks. Those overhead pipes were their personal Autobahn. One day one of the nimble beasts lost its normally sure footing, and cascaded onto a meaningful ($2 or more) one-pocket game below, scattering the balls. As I recall, the competitors agreed to begin the game again. How they could even touch those balls for re-racking is anybody’s guess.
The new place, re-christened Clark/Diversey Billiard Academy, lasted about a decade. During that unimpressive tenure, they managed to allow my Rambow cue (with four shafts, in its Rudolph case) to be stolen; the Academy didn’t seem to think they were responsible, so I took them to court and won. And I nearly got killed in there once, clubbed with my back turned by one of the higher-energy punks. He was shot dead in his hometown of Peoria about 20 years later. Pity. Never got to thank the perpetrator.
About all I can record on the positive side of the new Bensinger’s is that it introduced me to 50-plus-year friend Freddy the Beard. And he doesn’t have anything good to say about the place either.