Straight Pool

It was nineteen-sixty-two, Saturday, a hot afternoon.

“Whadaya want to do?”

“I don’t know. Whadaya want to do, Kenny?” I answered. “Maybe we could go up to New Rochelle and play pool.” I was addicted to pool at that time.

“Ok” he said, “I’ll stop by the cleaners and see if my father will give me some money.”

Straight Pool by Ricker Winsor / image copyright“It’s ok with me,” I said, knowing that his father would either give him nothing or very little and this was for a couple of reasons. First, his father was ‘Louie the Hat,’ a bookie who wore fancy fedoras, thus the name, and looked the part of a Damon Runyon character with an Adolph Menjou moustache waxed carefully to sharp points running parallel to the ground. Now Lou, as I called him, was not stingy but he had a bad habit of taking the bettors money and having a better idea of what to do with it, something that would pay them back easily and also make him some money. I am trying to recall if this ever worked out in his favor but I am drawing a blank. What I do remember is that he was in serious trouble most of the time. I wondered how he escaped with his life and I always expected some real bad news coming from his corner of the universe which was located at the moment in a little dry cleaners he managed in New Rochelle. Lou was a good guy and interesting. Maybe that’s why his customers let him live. He would say, “Jazz em in the head,” which we thought was cool. He had other trouble too. He was Jewish and his wife Italian which is not a problem in itself since in New York we know that an Italian is just a happy Jew. My buddy Andy Guzzo went to Israel with his mafia father and other people from the canned tomato business to organize tomatoes from the holy land. They took a picture of the whole cadre of Israeli tomato farmers and Italian tomato canners from the Bronx and they were identical, even all the same height, about five foot three. They could have been one big family, the only difference being that all the Jews looked sad and the Italians had big smiles on their faces.

Anyway, Lou’s wife was an Italian alcoholic which is unusual in my experience. Italians usually have a few glasses of wine and leave it at that, but Doris drank everything in sight including household products, after shave, anything with alcohol. I never saw her out of her room and almost never without dark, very dark, sunglasses because the whites of her eyes were jaundiced yellow. She was an embarrassment to Kenny. It is not good to be ashamed of your mother. On the rare times they would go someplace together such as the high school, at which place he was in the process of dropping out, well, it was an ugly scene always. Not only was Doris always drunk but she was one of those Italians who is not able to carry on a conversation in a controlled manner and at a normal decibel level.

“Who do ya people think I am?” she would bellow to no account. “I pay taxes here in this town. Youse better give Kenny another chance or I’ll sue youse all! What kind of school is this anyway?” Like that and worse with Kenny cringing off to the side.

Kenny too was no poster child and his older brother, a cool cat off the same tree as his father Lou, had already been arrested for stealing a boat and, not long after, was almost killed in a bad teenage car accident. But right now it’s Kenny we’re talking about and a more fun, sensitive, and kind person would be hard to find. Smart too, but with dyslexic problems which were undiagnosed in those days making smart people feel stupid because they had trouble doing well at school. It has to be a horrible feeling always coming up short, knowing you are smart but everything in the situation saying “no, you are dumb and here is the proof”. That being said there was an area having nothing to do with school where he could have been a lot smarter, and that would be in the area of reproduction, whereby he might have found a way to keep his sperm from finding the egg of his girlfriend Grace. Of course it was cool, we thought at the time, that he was having sex. Most of us weren’t and were relegated to making sticky on the sheets, solo. So, he was cool that way but it was not cool to be pregnant in high school. This fact changed the trajectory of one’s life and changed it seriously, ready or not.

So there we were on a hot summer afternoon with not much to do and the allure of the pool hall beckoning, with its fans blowing and the dark shades drawn to reveal the felt surfaces of the slate tables illumined by the circular shaded lights hanging from the ceiling and the wires above with the wooden tabs for keeping score which we would pull over after our turn to show how many we had sunk in straight pool, the game normally being fifty points. I didn’t usually like to go up there on the weekends. It could be crowded and since I was on vacation any time I was back home I could play when I wanted. It was a lot more pleasant during the week, quiet, friendly; a guy could concentrate. But we were bored and had no good ideas so I said, “Ok Kenny. Let’s go. I’ll get my stick.” I had seen the “Hustler” and had my own stick in a nice black leather case and I had a lot of other stuff that Kenny didn’t have and money in my pocket since my father was providing many good things, if not affection, in those days. And if ‘Louie the Hat’ was unable to pony up some pool money for his son, which was almost certain to be the case, well, I had enough for both of us and always did.

The family car, a Mercedes, was not available so we had to walk to the bus stop and take the A bus or the H and J up to New Rochelle. Summer was in full swing and summers in New York are tropical. The growing season is short and all of nature has to accomplish its bottom line mission in a few short months. In the suburbs of the city the trees are sucking up every ounce of water and pumping back vapor into the atmosphere. Flowers perfume the air and always there is the incessant sound of cicadas, hidden but ever present. It is both exciting and exhausting and sometimes very hot. In the city, where there is so much more pavement and so fewer green spaces, it absolutely sizzles.

When you are young time hangs heavy especially for those of us with no job and not much inclination to work it any case. I was on vacation from boarding school where the rigid structure kept us moving in spite of ourselves. Kenny never found much to do other than some errands for his father from time to time. Currently, he was eating mashed potatoes and drinking milk because his impending fatherhood, for which he was totally unprepared, had caused an ulcer to develop in his stomach. An ulcer for a teenager! We tried to laugh about it but the giddy nervous joke making trailed off into silence. His baby was going to be put up for adoption. Playing pool was a good distraction not only from his particular situation but from the imponderable angst of the human condition, especially the teenage variety.

“Come on Kenny. The bus leaves every fifteen minutes”

“Take it easy Rick. It’s too hot to run. There will be another one. Relax man”

“Ok. I guess you’re right. What difference does it make?”

“Now you’re talkin,” he said. “We can stop by Kelmann’s and get an egg cream.”

“Ok, “I said, thinking all the while that I would be paying for that too. And so we got over to the ‘4 corners’, the hub of our part of Pelham, and sidled up to a couple of stools at the counter of Kelmann’s.

“Whaduhya boys want,” Mrs. Kelmann asked.

”Two vanilla egg creams.” She was middle aged with bleached blond hair, overweight and with big bosoms. She had a smear bright red lipstick that was just that, like someone just drew a straight line with it across half her face. It was hard to say if she had lips or just lipstick. They say the average male thinks of sex ever three minutes. At eighteen the average male thinks of sex every thirty seconds, maybe more.

“Ok. Two vanilla egg creams. Whaduhya guys up to today,” she asked.

“We’re goin’ to rob a bank and take the money and rent a hotel room, get some girls, and have an orgy,” I said.

“In your dreams, smart ass” she said. “Did youse guys ever hear of work?”

“I heard about it,’ I said “but I didn’t like the sound of it.” There was the noise of the soda water filling the old coca cola glasses, the big ones with the wide brim and the graceful lower body, and then the sound of the spoon making a ding ding as she mixed the milk and syrup all up into frothy sweetness, a poor man’s malted.

“Here ya go boys,” she said with a sigh. “That’s fifty cents.” I pulled out some coins and put them on the counter.

“We’re going up to New Rochelle to play pool,” I said, deciding to be civilized for a minute.

“Not a bad idea on a day like this,” she conceded.

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