The dying art that may never die. Henry D. Fetter has the story over at the Atlantic.
Here’s Pat Jordan’s 1971 Sports Illustrated pool room story, “A Clutch of Odd Birds”:
Joe McNeill’s mother used to say, there’s a Mort Berger in every town, and she may have been right. But those of us who knew him in the summer of 1962 liked to think she was wrong and secretly hoped he was unique. Berger was the proprietor of the only pool hall I can ever remember seeing in our small town in Fairfield County, Conn. He was a Jew from South Philadelphia who spoke out of the side of his mouth. On windy days he stuck bobby pins in his hair, which was deep reddish brown, the color of an Irish setter’s. But, at 33, he didn’t have much to stick bobby pins in. To compensate, Berger let the little patch of hair at the base of his neck grow until it would reach far down his back if he let it—which he didn’t. Instead, he combed it forward over his brow where he teased it into a tuft like a rooster’s comb. Actually, Berger resembled a rooster more than anything. He had watery blue eyes, a pointy nose and the gently curving, bottom-heavy build of a Rhode Island Red. He waddled.
Berger’s greatest fear was that a strong wind might come along and reveal his artifice. To defend against this possibility he ventured outside the pool hall as infrequently as possible. This tended to make his pale and mottled redhead’s skin so opaque that veins were visible beneath it. Whenever he did appear outside he walked about with his hand flattened over the top of his head like a man who had misplaced a migraine. Finally, in desperation, he had resorted to bobby pins. It was hard for anyone, at first, to talk casually to Berger without breaking up at the sight of the bobby pins, but after a few withering looks one learned to ignore them. The only person I ever heard question Berger about them was a college freshman who wandered into the pool hall one day, challenged Jack the Rat to a game of dollar nine ball and then, pointing to Berger’s hair, asked, “How come you got bobby pins in your head?” The place fell mute. It seemed even the skidding billiard balls froze in midflight. Berger’s face took on the color of his tuft. He fixed a beady-eyed stare on the offender and said in a voice the recollection of which still sends shivers down my spine, “You, my friend, are banished for life.” The humiliation! Worse even than Kant’s categorical imperative! It would have been better for the boob if Berger, yarmulke over his tuft, prayer shawl about his shoulders, had intoned the Hebrew prayers for the dead.
And for more on pool, here’s another gem from Patty, written twenty-four years later, “The Magician”:
At midnight on a bitterly cold January 15 the lobby of the Executive West Hotel near the Louisville, Kentucky, airport was crowded with men and a few women, all waiting anxiously for the guest of honor.
A man in a yellow windbreaker came through the front door and walked toward the registration desk. A murmur rose from the crowd. Everyone stared at him, a small brown man with slitlike eyes, a wispy Fu Manchu moustache, and no front teeth. He wore a soiled T-shirt and wrinkled, baggy jeans. He moved hunched over, his eyes lowered.
People clustered around him. Men flipped open their cell phones and called their friends to say “He’s here!” They introduced him to their girlfriends. The man looked embarrassed. Another man thrust his cell phone at him and said, “Please say hello to my son; he’s been waiting up all night.” The small man mumbled a few words in broken English. Then the hotel clerk asked him his name. He said, “Reyes.” Someone called out, “Just put down ‘the Magician.’”
Efren Reyes, fifty, was born in poverty, the fifth of nine children, in a dusty little town in the Philippines without electricity or running water. When he was five, his parents sent him to live with his uncle, who owned a pool hall in Manila. Efren cleaned up the pool hall and watched. He was fascinated by the way the players made the balls move around the table and fall into pockets—and by the way money changed hands after a game. At night he slept on a pool table and dreamed of combinations. He had mastered the game in his head before he finally picked up a pool cue, at the age of eight. He stood on a pile of Coke crates to shoot, two hours in the morning and two hours at night. At nine he played his first money game, and at twelve he won $100; he sent $90 home to his family. Soon he was the best pool shooter in Manila. His friends would wait for him in the pool hall after school, hand him his cue when he walked in the door, and back him in gambling games. He was the best pool shooter in the Philippines when he quit school, at fifteen. By the time he was in his twenties, no one in the Philippines would play him any longer, so he toured Asia. He wrote down in a notebook the names of the best pool shooters in the world, and proceeded to beat them one by one. He became a legend. People who had seen him play recounted the impossible shots he had made. They called him a genius, the greatest pool shooter who had ever lived. Even people who had never seen him play, including many in the United States, soon heard the legend of Efren Reyes, “the Magician.”
[Photo Credit: Adam Bartos]
In case you missed it, check out Taylor Branch’s story about the same of college sports over at The Atlantic:
“I’m not hiding,” Sonny Vaccaro told a closed hearing at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 2001. “We want to put our materials on the bodies of your athletes, and the best way to do that is buy your school. Or buy your coach.”
Vaccaro’s audience, the members of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, bristled. These were eminent reformers—among them the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, two former heads of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and several university presidents and chancellors. The Knight Foundation, a nonprofit that takes an interest in college athletics as part of its concern with civic life, had tasked them with saving college sports from runaway commercialism as embodied by the likes of Vaccaro, who, since signing his pioneering shoe contract with Michael Jordan in 1984, had built sponsorship empires successively at Nike, Adidas, and Reebok. Not all the members could hide their scorn for the “sneaker pimp” of schoolyard hustle, who boasted of writing checks for millions to everybody in higher education.
“Why,” asked Bryce Jordan, the president emeritus of Penn State, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”
Vaccaro did not blink. “They shouldn’t, sir,” he replied. “You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir,” Vaccaro added with irrepressible good cheer, “but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.”
The piece is long but terrific.
We’re familiar with talk about how Vietnam permanently shaped the baby boomers. But if you grew up in or near an American city in the 1970s, you grew up with crime (and divorce), and this disorder was bound to leave a permanent mark. It was bound to shape the people, now in their 40s and early-50s, reaching the pinnacles of power.
It has clearly influenced parenting. The people who grew up afraid to go in parks at night now supervise their own children with fanatical attention, even though crime rates have plummeted. It’s as if they’re responding to the sense of menace they felt while young, not the actual conditions of today.
The crime wave killed off the hippie movement. The hippies celebrated disorder, mayhem and the whole Dionysian personal agenda. By the 1970s, the menacing results of that agenda were all around. The crime wave made it hard to think that social problems would be solved strictly by changing the material circumstances. Shiny new public housing blocks replaced rancid old tenements, but in some cases the disorder actually got worse.
Growing up in and around the Upper West Side in the ’70s and 1980s, I remember being afraid all the time of getting jumped. Getting mugged was something that happened to everyone, just like getting your car broken into if you parked it…well, anywhere, but especially Riverside Drive. I was taught to have my keys out, in my hand, a block away from home, and I was used to getting half-crazed, hard looks from people on the street…on every block, every day.
When I walked from my grandparents apartment on 81st street (between Central Park West and Columbus) and Broadway, I knew which blocks to stay on, and which sides of the blocks too. Amsterdam Avenue was not to be taken lightly.
Brooks references two other pieces in his column. The first, Life in New York, Then and Now, was written by John Podhoretz (son of Norman Podhoretz) in Commentary:
Nostalgia can be a treacherous mistress, because she glamorizes the past and downgrades the present in a way that threatens to make them both intolerable. Since I live only a mile from where I was born and raised, with only slight changes to the visual landscape, I find myself constantly under nostalgia’s threat. An indifferent French restaurant occupies the space that once housed the record store where I bought my first 45 rpm disc of the Cowsills singing the title song from Hair, and standing in front of it I split into two, the 49-year-old in the present and the seven-year-old in the past crossing its portal with a little brown paper bag in hand, excited beyond measure to get its contents home to place the needle on the 45’s ridge and watch it slide into the first groove, the sound of the scratches giving way to the opening blast of the Cowsills’ five-part harmony. In the same way, standing on a Thursday evening in front of the building in which I was born and raised, I am suddenly in the hazy light of an early Sunday morning at the age of six and managing for the first time to right the bicycle from which the training wheels had lately been removed and then wobbling my way down the block and around the corner and around the second corner and then around the third—and slamming the bike into a toddler who was wobbling his way forward in front of his building.
That memory is itself almost certainly a conflation of two moments that occurred months apart, but in retrospect, they blend high exhilaration and low shame, an almost perfect distillation of the bipolarity of childhood feeling. That is the ambiguous power of nostalgia, as the jagged recollection of hitting a tiny child with a bicycle still has the power to catch like a rusted nail four decades later and open a fresh wound.
The second piece, Gentrification and Its Discontents by Benjamin Schwarz in The Atlantic, is also worth checking out. It’ s not about the Upper West Side, but it is about old New York vs. contemporary New York.
[Photo Credit: Bruce Barone]