By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 1997]
Try explaining a poolroom - a real poolroom - to a hotel concierge, and that lofty person may look at you as though you had dog poopies on your Guccis. You have to develop some sense of whom to trust, and I pride myself on mine; this geezer knows when he has rapport and when he does not. I pick my spots for this oration: "Now, I don't want a fern bar that happens to have pool tables in it. I want a real pool hall." Some can sense the depth of love in that assertion and some cannot, and I know which is which.
"Okay," she (always a good start) said. "I know just what you want, and there's one about three miles from here," and she gave me what sounded like simplistic road directions.
All this on a Dickens-miserable wet night, in a hotel not far from the Pittsburgh airport, with three hours to kill before a business meeting. A good poolroom is to killing time what Arabia is to stallions, and I could barely hold in my glee in the gloom. Barely in town an hour and the geezer can still find the spots.
Side Pocket Palace. Great name. And all I ask is a good game to sweat.
The parking lot was white clay turning to porridge in the rain. On my first step into the soup the sole on my right shoe cracked and the top half doubled under itself, so every alternate step appeared club-footed. I didn't see it as a harbinger of things to come at the time.
The concierge had been empathetic after all, in steering me to Side Pocket Palace. No ferns. No booze. A no-nonsense type behind the counter, respectful patrons, respectable equipment right down to the house cues. And a bustling clientele, the oldest of whom could not have been 13. Hardly anyone could send the cue ball three rails.
Feeling like Faust being screwed out of another wish by Beelzebub, I shook hands with the captain who was so clearly running a taut ship. She said her name was Mary, and she and her husband had owned the room for about six years, but running the place was strictly on her because her husband was an over-the-road trucker.
"What about this crowd, Mary?"
"How 'bout it! Isn't it great?" They're playing a tournament."
"A tournament? They barely make a ball one out of four tries."
"That's where the fun is."
I know when not to try topping immortal lines. I thought the least she deserved in tribute from me was a few bucks worth of business, so I hobbled over to an empty table, wondering how highly I'd be rated by Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. House cue, cracked shot, wet cuffs and all, I was now prepared to demonstrate mastery that comes only with age.
Naturally, the kids could hardly have cared less.
It's just as well. By then I had figured out that I could straighten out the fractured sole beneath me by pawing the ground just so, in the manner of Roy Rogers' Trigger counting to five. No doubt my bearing was one of true championship mettle, gimpy Gulliver wathcing pool in Lilliput, utterly lost in their joy. I was almost embarrassed to run more than six or seven balls, which would have been near-godlike in itself, and I proved it, for the most part, by not doing so. One time I caught myself executing a soaring 13, but I reined it in at once. It made for one of those magical moments the game creates now and then, when how good you or anybody else is doesn't make the slightest bit of difference.
Maybe I was focusing too much on bases for identification. But the fact is, when I was their age, I had virtually no knowledge of the cue games' existence; Chicago statutes mandate a minimum age of 18 to be in a billiard room and, while my local place winked at that one, everybody there was at least 16 and capable of acting much older. Since strangers hardly ever came into the room, our pool opponents were the same guys with whom we competed in classes or schoolyard games or for places on a varsity team or for girlfriends.
The basic language spoken was Smartass, a Chicago North Side dialect; it was as though we had never really been kids. We came to the pool hall to retreat from adolescence and very little else, and for the most part, the playing of the game was merely incidental. It was only I who fell for pool itself; one by one, my peers foolishly pointed toward a social life instead.
But for that hour in Pittsburgh, I was equally distanced from that kids' world and my adult one; I lost equal track of the time of day and the time of life. Literally and figuratively, I had found shelter from the storm. Neither the weather, nor my shoe, nor the 400 miles that separated me from my family could get at me. Like the rest of the ageless around me, I had pool.
Maybe the Side Pocket Palace has a roster of super players after 8:00 p.m., with games well worth sweating; I wouldn't know. What I do know is that the manager had a better handshake than most men. A better room, too.
The rain and my shoe both grew worse with time, and I got lost on the way back. None of that mattered. I was riding the crest of an hour's worth of lemonading in the Pittsburgh 'burbs.
When I got back to the hotel, I told the concierge her choice and directions were flawless.