Hooch, Whores and Hustling

style="text-align: left;">Pool hall drama - Editor

by Larry Crain

The smooth green felt of the six pool tables and two snooker tables drew the crew like nourishing, green oases in the desolate desert that was the old part of town. Joe’s Emporium sat on a gradual hill where the bricks of the original Main street caused a staccato hum in the tires of the few cars that bothered to chug up, slide by and turn down toward the abandoned factories and the train depot that you would swear was empty, except for the sound of metal on rails as trains twice a day made the slow curve that paralleled Main.

To some, Joe’s was a dump, with worn, uneven wooden flooring, faded maroon brick walls with chunks of mortar missing and ever-present small piles of cigarette butts and peanut shells. But where it counted, the Emporium was perfection. Oh, those tables. Yes, every antique, solid wood rail was covered with scorch marks from years of burning cigarettes placed hanging over the edge by shooters that then forgot about the fags until they burned down and charred the finish. And interspersed with the burns were four inch rings from melted ice on Joe’s signature chilled beer mugs. Inside the boundaries of those table rails, though, was sacred territory. The traditional hunter green felt was always as if it had just been stretched and installed new each morning. The slate was an inch thick, perfectly flat and perfectly smooth. With no channels or roll-offs, you could shoot a ball as soft as a kiss and it would roll forever until it touched precisely where it was expected at the far end of the table.

The crew felt like men at Joe’s. You couldn’t buy beer, but if someone bought one and set it on the tiny tables that jutted up from each tall stool-chair like a miniature version of those wraparound grade school desks, you could drink the frigid amber ego enhancer and nobody cared. Across the street and up some uneven stairs were rooms where nothing but women lived. Once in awhile, they would call over and order about twenty of the Emporium’s small, greasy, delicious hamburgers, no cheese. Of the two dozen or so regulars at Joe’s, there was a core group of shooters who spent most of their free time there, the crew. Gerry, who ran the place, would pick one of the crew to deliver the bag of burgers to the upstairs rooms. No one ever turned it down, because you not only got a free hour on a table, but you got to see the Ladies in their frilly, fancy underwear and lingerie. Everybody believed there was a red light on the back of the Ladies’ building, facing the train track, but no one ever bothered to go see. Hooch, whores and hustling - what more could a 17 or 18 year old man want.

“Smoker! Delivery across the way!” Gerry yelled. He didn’t bother to turn around from the flat grill that was right behind the bar because he knew the acoustics would carry his voice to the wall and up and across the curved ceiling and back down to the tables. Smoker sauntered slowly over and put his cue in a specific place in a specific rack. He went real slow because it was not cool to seem anxious to go across the street, though of course he was.

“Smoke! I don’t want ‘em cold!” Barry loved it when people call him Smoker, or his other nickname, Spunk. It was hard to feel like Fast Eddie or Fats if you were called Barry. The moniker “Smoker” came about because he kept a lit cigarette in his mouth while knocking down balls. If he got on a good run, his lips would dry out and the cigarette would stick to the flesh. He considered it a badge of a real shooter and had learned to kind of roll the cig off his lip so the guys couldn’t tell it hurt. And the name Smoker did double duty because it sounded like he could Smoke the competition.

The bells tied to the crossbar on the glass front door jangled and a burst of hot street air rushed into the room. An about 30-year-old guy in a denim jacket faded from use, not style, stepped into the relative dimness of the interior, which was broken into small islands of bright pool table lights. The guy had a break-down pool cue in a shiny black Naugahyde case. Greg leaned toward Jimmy and said, just loud enough for Jimmy’s ear, “fish.”

This kind of moment was replayed several times a week. The crew fancied themselves to be hustlers, and to a low level, they were. They gambled on every game they played, but generally low stakes against each other. It was the out of town fish that allowed them to pay Gerry for all the hours a day they played without using their own money. This was good, since none of them had time for a job anyway.

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