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When I saw my first pool table it gave me six-year old palpitations. The family was getting a tour of grandfather’s new community rec hall and I got to furtively scoot two or three balls across that magic emerald cloth before I was shooed away.

By the mid-60s at age 14 I was cutting class and upstairs at the High Street poolroom, learning the hard way, a few ill-wagered bucks at a time. I had learned to channel teen jism into a stroke that could curl the cue ball like a thing possessed; draw and topspin and every extreme English that flaunted nature’s talent but still betrayed a lack of nurtured patience by how often I still missed.

The nature/nurture equation in poolrooms is an odd thing. Railbirds, no-accounts and hustlers populate any average room, but their hooded lids and cynical hearts open wide to authentic grit and adroit know-how. Figuring out how to win when you were out-matched, climbing back from six or seven down, or even just taking a loss like a man might earn a half-nod from those gadflies and it was manna.
You might deduce that I lacked good male role models and you’d be half-right. I learned plenty of young Republican manners at home but into that gaping abyss of unthinkable, unaskable questions about the real nature of people and behavior, I misspent my youth building a shock-proof shit detector one rack at a time.

Not that in any way that project is even close to done.

A few years ago, my detector took a brutal knock at a gentleman’s club where I had become the Billiards Chairman. I cared for the heirloom Brunswick table in the bar and grill, gave some lessons and encouraged play by all. Five or six years along, a new member approached me for lessons and I obliged; he was a remarkably dedicated student. We socialized a bit and I thought I knew him fairly well—he was outgoing, athletic and gregarious.
His game came along fast, and when he decided to get instruction from a real pro at a local pool hall I readily agreed—the pro was a top-ranked player I knew with impeccable skills and reputation.

Among NYC private clubs there were four annual tournaments among six or eight other clubs; all partner-play competition. I had won a couple matches recently with fellow members whom the rules forbade me partnering with again that season. So I asked the acolyte to join me. A nine ball match, I think. I had to explain the rules to him. We got to the quarter-finals, which was encouraging. He was excited beyond telling to have another go.
The next one we won, principally due to me getting hot and running tables. My partner then did something I regarded as garish. He went out and bought a fancy plaque commemorating our victory, with his name engraved first. No, the name thing wasn’t the issue—in a theater arts club, that’s expectable—the issue was that we already had the winning cup displayed on the mantle. So it was undue bragging to me. Which I didn’t say, I just resigned to the thing being displayed on the wall.

In the ensuing months, he stationed himself at the pool table. He made as if it was his property. If he got on a streak, I’d step in to beat him and then retire so the mix of players could change. He didn’t grasp that it wasn’t club-sociable to dominate the game. He didn’t care. He became annoyed, then covertly hostile toward me. When the room was empty, he’d whisper threats. He’d accuse phantom fouls, hover near my shots, illegally move the cue, belligerently declare fallacious rules.

Then one night he did something too astonishing. I hadn’t noticed that the antique donation box in the corner for equipment repairs had a new lock on it. As the club was closing up, he walked over, unlocked it and took out the fistfuls of cash, turning to sneer at me as he stuffed them into his pocket. I looked to the two remaining denizens putting on their coats—“did you see that?” They blinked in drunken bewilderment.

On the sidewalk outside the club I confronted him. “That money is the property of the pool committee. Hand it over.”

“Are you calling me a thief?” He loudly demanded as the two woozies doddered over.
“What do you call it? You took money that’s not yours.” I was keenly aware how close we stood, face to face, the blood pulsing in my ears. I was taller, but I wasn’t the stunt man with martial arts degrees.

He threw down his pool case, threw off his jacket, jabbed his finger at my chest. “You’re calling me a thief? I’ll break your fucking nose!!”
I did not withdraw, but my knees were behaving oddly. The two drunks had moved closer, weaving expectantly. Something registered that this performance was largely for their benefit. Instead of concern, I caught something feral in their eyes. I turned back to the stunt man and said what came into my head. “This is about the violence for you, isn’t it?”

There was not a fistfight in Gramercy Park that night.

There were however letters to every member of the club’s Executive Committee, detailing the events of that night and events leading up to them. I awaited a response and none came. When I spoke to club friends, I got amazement and outrage; from club officers I got prevarications. Through channels it was put abroad that he’d made donations to the chronically beleaguered club coffers. He went on a full-scale charm offensive while I found my grievances about brigand behavior in the club's pool realm just so much local color.

Eventually, reluctantly, I withdrew from the club. Many a sympathetic ear commiserated on the injustice and on the general declining spirit and tenor of the place. Many lamented the management failures that had become frequent scandal fodder in the papers.

Before I left, I arranged for my replacement through some of the most bizarre negotiations I’ve ever participated in. Initially, assertions were made that the office of Billiard Chairman didn’t actually exist, except my attribution in the club roster proved problematic on that point. Then a couple key people presented the stuntman as my obvious heir apparent, to vocal howling from my camp. Finally, it was decided that my friend and new member, the organizer of the inter-club tourneys would take over.

I miss many friends there, and a table I knew like the back of my hand, but not the false gentlemanly politics of a certain club.

I play now, as I had before my days as a club dandy in local poolrooms. In these precincts, the shit detectors hum like Grand Coulee turbines.

Originally posted to oftenon on Sun Aug 10, 2014 at 12:03 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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