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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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Best of Fels
September: Street Sounds
September 2021

By George Fels
[Reprinted from February 2000]

In the wonderful Paul Simon song “Late in the Evening,” there’s a reference to hearing sounds of pool being played down the street and how that helped serve as the inspiration for a watershed musical performance. And even though the pool reference is all but gratuitous to the song, which is about music itself, when I heard that phrase I felt as if Paul Simon had peeked into my soul.

I was 14, the youngest of a group of four or five who had trekked to the old Chicago Stadium to see the Harlem Globetrotters. Because we had Uecker-like seats, we were among the last to leave the stadium, and so it was a long time before we could realistically expect to board a bus. Then, as now, West Madison Street and the area surrounding the Stadium weren’t much of a place to be once the event was over, although back then it was considerably more depressing than dangerous, block upon block of crumbling flophouses, saloons, and day-labor storefront offices. But the neighborhood had begun to change, launching the dreary metamorphosis from Skid Row to slum, and there were plenty more comfortable things to do than wait for a bus on West Madison Street late at night. There was a bunch of us; maybe we could have handled ourselves if things had come to that; but there was still the uneasiness of being out of our element.

And then I heard the crack of the balls.

The place was called, appropriately enough, Stadium Billiards, directly across the street from the Chicago Stadium where the United Center stands today. At that point in my life, I had played pool exactly once, on a small table adjacent to the gym where we all played basketball; I had never been to a poolroom; I did not know that pool and billiards were two separate games, or what billiards even was.

The fact was, I thought poolrooms were more than a little bit scary. My only relation to them was in the newfound joy I took reading juvenile delinquency novels. Coming from the straight-and-narrow as I did, maybe I sought out the rebellious antiheroes of such books as daydream role models. But both “The Amboy Dukes,” by Irving Shulman, and Willard Motley’s far more celebrated “Knock on Any Door” mesmerized me. I read both mostly by flashlight under tented blankets; both had sex scenes that would be rated PG-13 today but were very racy back in the early ’50s, thus both books were highly controversial. Both became films. But what both films skirted was the prominence of poolrooms in their respective novels. Motley’s pool scenes, as I was to observe after-the-fact years later, were extremely well done, and his protagonist, Nick Romano, was an accomplished player. The one time I had played, it was immediately after reading such a scene, and without knowing in the slightest way what I was doing, I actually ran a few balls. And in “Amboy,” ill-fated Frank Kane’s mother screams at him, “Tell me, my darling son, my little gangster, have you already become the best player in the poolroom?” I loved that.

Yet even that miniscule knowledge was enough to let me know that there were many players at Stadium Billiards, and they were all having one hell of a time. Like us, they had each other, and nowhere else to go but home on a late Friday night. But unlike us, they had the game too. And I wanted to be like them.

“Who wants to go up there and shoot a little pool before we go home?” I asked adventurously.

“’Who wants to’ is right,” said a slightly more practical friend. “You know, Fels, I always thought you were a little bit nuts, but you just removed all doubt. You have to be 18 to get into a poolroom. And even if we were that old, who’d want to go into that poolroom, in this neighborhood? Shut up and wait for the bus.”

There wasn’t much of a rebuttal I could post to that, but neither was I much conversation for the rest of the wait. Spiritually, I was upstairs at Stadium Billiards. Roughly six months later, I did summon up what courage was needed to enter a poolroom, albeit a much tamer local one, and I haven’t really come out since.

Years later, I learned that Stadium Billiards barely survived another year or two since that Friday night. In its prime, it was easily the best action room in Chicago history, typically seeing more serious gambling on any weekday afternoon than the fabled downtown Bensinger’s could ever hope to host on a Saturday night. But it was a victim of its own segregation. The neighborhood had begun to change, remember, and while skilled black players were welcome there, the room’s regulars did not want their parlor to become a neighborhood hangout for the new neighbors. So, management put a buzzer on the door for a while. But those who were not admitted merely lurked outside to snap off the radio antennas and slash tires of those who were. The regulars therefore migrated downtown or elsewhere, and the room died.

Yet, I can still hear that crack of the balls on West

Madison Street late on a Friday night. I could hear real words in those inanimate sounds: “This is fun!” Those players had a place to go where they were known and respected, plus something to do that they loved, thus a virtual passport to enjoy the rest of their lives. The three or four companions I was with will never know how close I came to leaving the safety of their numbers and trudging up those stairs, just to get one quick, in-person look before scurrying down again. Just simple sounds in the street, and yet look how far they went towards turning my entire life around.

I wonder how Paul Simon knew all that?