Saturday, December 5, 2009

Playing Pool

Of pool halls, David Mamet writes:
"People are supposed to gamble here, people are supposed to drink here, people are supposed to spend their days here in pursuit of skill, cunning, comradeship, and money. No one is supposed to be pompous here, or intrusive, or boring: no one will be held unaccountable for the bets they make, or the way that they comport themselves. But if they choose, they can choose to be left alone."
I learned about playing pool when I was living in Salt Lake City. My instructors were fellow students from the University of Utah, especially Martin Corless-Smith, a poet from England, with whom I played every Thursday afternoon, just about, for two years. I also played with Brad Wahlquist, my dearest friend at that time, and, later, with David Hawkins, who is still in Utah, raising his family.

The name of our pool hall changed three times while I lived there. First it was called Pete's Pool. Then the name was changed to Spanky's—a great name, I thought, and the name that still comes to mind when I think of the place. Shortly before I left Utah, someone, a new owner, changed the name to Ya Buts.

I have no idea what it's called now, or if it still exists.

Because it was possible to drink liquor there, Spanky's required a yearly membership, which was something like $12. You could smoke, too, if you wanted to, and most people did.

The pool hall itself was the second floor of an old building humbled by adjacent, very ugly skyscrapers. Downstairs, some nights, there was live music, usually metal or punk.

Spanky's had eleven pool tables. Only one of them was full-sized; the rest were smaller six-foot tables, which had the formidable advantage of being much easier to play on. The pool hall's floor was warped wood, beer-stained, otherwise gray. During mid-afternoon, which was when we went, the hall got it's light from the floor-to-ceiling windows that made up its north wall. Looking through the windows to the west you could watch the sun set over the Great Salt Lake. In the summer, thunderstorms accumulated over the desert and we would take comfort from their swift approach.

Playing pool, I learned about friendship—about what it means to love a man who is your friend. I still remember looking across the table at my friends and feeling a surge of joy. There's real intimacy around a pool table, alternating between shooting and drinking, with music from the jukebox, some chalk on our hands, and each other's voices. I didn't know then how rare intimacy would be in my life, as I aged.

I never saw an unkind word exchanged in Spanky's, which is unusual for a bar but not, I've learned, for a pool hall. I guess pool's proximity and difficulty promotes civility. In a good pool hall the tables are too close for players at neighboring tables to shoot at the same time in the same area, so you learn to practice deference and to value patience. And one of the game's keenest pleasures is to compliment your opponent when he makes a difficult shot—to applaud, in other words, your enemy's triumphs. I felt greater happiness watching my friends make successive shots than I ever felt making my own. It was if we were collaborators working together to defeat pool's complex geometry.

I learned, too, about the pleasure of drinking. We bought pitchers of beer—mostly Guinness, which is not, I guess, supposed to be served in a pitcher—and drank into late evening. With each pitcher we played less and talked more. All my friends at that time were superb conversationalists. They were exquisitely funny. They were well-read and had traveled. Basically, they were all loving, happy men, in their early thirties, like me, and in love with their women, most days, and either artists or devoted to the arts, and good-looking, in their various ways, which, at the time, for some reason, mattered.

When I was with them, I was absolutely never bored; and they were at their most interesting when we were playing pool.

Sometimes, not often, there would be girls to watch play. There are few sights more erotic than a girl leaning over a pool table, gazing down her cue. Sometimes her shirt comes up off her jeans, exposing her lower back, or falls away from her neck so that looking down her shirt you can see her bra, her breasts, for a moment. The girls would smile while they shot, their hair falling to frame their faces, knowing how they looked. The games around them would stop.

I learned about the Rolling Stones—which is to say I finally came to understand rock&roll—in that pool hall. Spanky's had a great jukebox and we kept it playing the Stones, as much as we could, or Jimi Hendrix or Johnny Cash.

Eventually we started to bring a cigar or two to smoke while we played. Then Brad started bringing cigarettes, so we tried that, despite the fact that none of us, including Brad, were smokers. Brad would put his cigarette between his teeth and the smoke would burn his eyes while he shot. But he insisted on playing with the cigarette in his mouth. Brad was built like Mick Jagger, and he wore big Vasque hiking boots, which seemed while he was smoking to keep him grounded to the floor. He looked like Willem Dafoe or John Malkovich, with their same intelligence in the structure of his face. He was very hard-working at that time in his life, trying to build his own business, and you could see the scope of what he'd undertaken in his eyes while he played.

So I learned about friendship, civility, drinking, conversation, tobacco, and music in a pool hall. That's a hell of a list. I learned, very slowly, to be less religious. And I learned how the transition from afternoon to evening feels when your happy.

I never really learned to play pool, but I didn't care then and don't care now. I don't play pool anymore; I don't know anyone I would want to play with.

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