Straight Pool

“Here comes the bus. Let’s go,” I said and, we were off the stools and across the street and onto the bus and on our way to New Rochelle only a few miles up the road. We had to pass by our stop for the pool hall so Kenny could try to shake down ‘Louie the Hat’ for a few bucks. Louie had “stepped out” for a few minutes, a very common story. And so, as usual, it was up to me. Straight Pool by Ricker Winsor / image copyright walked up South Main Street to Division. It was a short, curvy street and had a private character different than the other commercial streets in New Rochelle at that time. Half way up the block was the entrance to the pool hall which was on the top floor. From the street if you looked up five stories you could see the shaded windows and the sign painted across the windows in white paint saying simply “POOL”. It seemed like it had been there forever stuck in time. Inside it was old but well-kept with wooden floors and good tables. The manager, Harry, was right at the front as you walked in. He would assign a table or have you choose one if it wasn’t crowded and he would mark your time in. There were quite a few people playing on this hot afternoon and the radio on Harry’s desk broadcast the Yankee game in progress from the Bronx only a twenty minute drive away.

“Hello Rick,” he said. “You guys take table three.”

We got busy getting set up. I took out my fancy stick and Kenny picked one out of the rack and we started playing eight ball which is a game everybody knows. One of the players “breaks” the balls and the first one to go in is his type, either stripes or solids. He has to sink all those and then, last of all, the eight ball. If he does that he wins. Kenny didn’t play much straight pool which was my interest. My goal was always to finish a rack and work my way into the next one. That means that you have to sink all the balls on the table and then leave the white ball, the cue ball, in a position so that when the balls are “racked up” again you have a good chance to sink another ball and keep on going. That is no small feat and I only was able to do it a couple of times. The top guys could run two or more racks at a time. Still, I was pretty good and had focused a lot on pool the last year.

It is worth saying that people can almost smell what class you are from. In the same way the aristocrats of old money would know that my family was “not quite our sort” it would be just as true that the working class Irish and Italians who made up the pool hall crowd would know very fast that I was from Pelham and from a rich family. They could tell by how I dressed, the quality of the clothes, by the way I talked, and by the ready cash I always seemed to have. Probably they had noticed the Mercedes on the street from time to time. But the older guys forgave me all that and were amused that someone of my background enjoyed being in their world, their environment. Usually, the pool hall, especially on afternoons when I would be there, was populated by these older guys who were no longer working or not working full time. But school was out and on this day there were a dozen or so high school kids playing on two or three tables around us. For them, who didn’t know me in particular and Kenny not at all, we were intruders, interlopers from the ritzy world of Pelham Manor. I was an athlete, six foot one inches tall and 185 pounds with no fat and Kenny just a little shorter. As we played it became obvious that we were in the way of the guys playing at the next table, particularly one guy who was about my size and age. I heard them call him “Arnie”.

If you get set to make a stroke in pool you hunker down to look down the stick and if another guy is doing the same thing from the adjacent table his ass will bang into your ass. This kind of thing should happen only once and apologies made, but there were no apologies and it happened a couple more times. It is not easy to enjoy your game with this going on so after finishing our game I said, “Let’s go Kenny. We’ll come back another time.” Kenny didn’t say anything but agreed by putting the stick in the rack and we went to pay. I guess the guy I had banged into a few times, Arnie, had gone to the bathroom since he was not around all of a sudden. We paid and went through the big double doors leading to the landing and the marble stairs with iron railings going down the five flights.

I had my head down coming out the doors and raised it to see Arnie standing in front of me as I headed for the stairs. Kenny was following me. I nodded to Arnie in a non-aggressive way and tried to go around him. He blocked me so I pushed him a little and he hit me a full shot on the cheek below my eye which actually did nothing for some reason other than make me mad. I hit him back and got him down on the floor where I expected to do what I always do, make them know that I could hurt them and let them up when I see that they understand. I have been in a lot of fights but never wanted to hurt anybody and I didn’t want to hurt him either. In those days fighting was part of growing up and no guns or knives were involved most of the time.

Honestly, I don’t know what happened next except that I was able to get up just about the time one of his friends was about to clobber me with a 2 x 4 he had picked out of the trash. Harry, the manager, had made them stop. The whole Arnie gang, a dozen guys, had gotten involved hitting and kicking me and doing whatever they could. I got up with some blood running and some bruises turning blue and looked at my adversary and looked at his “men” all chomping at the bit to do some damage without taking any risk and I asked him, ”How many guys do you need?” “I don’t need nobody” Arnie grunted. I just looked at the whole scene and shook my head and turned and left.
Somehow Kenny had stayed out of it. I knew he was no fighter.

“What happened with you?” I asked him.

“Not much. I tried to help but couldn’t do anything. I jumped on one guy’s back but there were a whole bunch of them.”

“It’s all right. Forget about it,” I offered. But I was mad and humiliated and wondering about what to do and understanding that going back there in the future to play pool, which I really enjoyed, was not going to be comfortable. They had spoiled it for me and for no reason except for some primitive sociological reasons they could not even know. It seemed stupid.

And this could have been the end of the story except that an old friend had recently looked me up. His name was Steven Wallinsky and I had known him in elementary school. He came in at about the third grade when we had already formed our tribe without him. I was with the same group of kids from kindergarten to sixth grade and then we moved to the big high school for seventh through twelfth. People were stable in those days, the fifties and early sixties. Few people left and few came in new. To say “an old friend” had looked me up was a surprise because I gave Steve Wallinsky a real lousy reception when he joined our grade and tried to befriend me and my friends. I don’t think I was a bully but just a leader and territorial and probably not so different from Arnie in the pool hall if I want to be honest about it. I was the one to choose the people I wanted for my friends; not the other way around. So I hammered Steve a few times and remember one time punching him in the stomach and seeing my fist in relief on the other side of his body. This might have been a figment of my imagination inspired by cartoons but witnesses attested to it. He didn’t cry much and after his parents visited school to try and control the red headed maniac who was making life hard for “Stevie”, well, I backed off. And honestly, although he wasn’t “quite our sort” we couldn’t determine what sort he was.

They lived in the apartments, something unheard of, and we didn’t know what kind of name Wallinsky was anyway. In our town even third graders could think like that. What we did know was that he was skinny, not athletic but not small either, that he was not so smart but not so dumb and that he was absolutely indefatigable in trying to be friends. And although we were never friends really, I did visit his apartment a couple of times and hung out with him a little bit but not more than I had to. This might have been orchestrated by well-meaning parents who wanted us all to “get along.” He moved out to Long Island a couple of years later so that was the end of that, so I thought.

“Waz” as his friends called him now, had contacted me “out of the blue” earlier in the summer after those intervening years. I still had the same phone number. And he called my buddy Scotty too because he had a couple of beautiful classmates who needed dates for a special dance at his school, Bethpage High School. Bethpage was a rapidly developing community with plenty of wealth; everything was new out there. Pelham was a couple of hundred years old and Bethpage was about twenty years old. He sounded so friendly on the phone and I was still guilty for the way I treated him back in the day. Of course the “beautiful girls” were a draw and he wanted us to come out to meet them and get reacquainted and to see him and his classmates in a track and field event at their new sports complex. This made me curious since he was never an athlete at an earlier age but things can change. And how they changed!

We got into Scotty’s Austin Healy one afternoon and headed out across the Triboro Bridge and onto the Long Island Expressway to make the trip to Beth Page which was out a ways; like I said, a new community really. After some wrong turns we finally got to the new sports complex and got inside where the new rubber track, the shiny bleachers, and the well-scrubbed high school crowd of clean cut Long Islanders created an unmistakable atmosphere of youth, money and pride. It was a lot different than Pelham with its old elegance. Elegance is different from optimism and pride and luck, the qualities Beth Page had at that time. Scotty and I looked around for “Waz” amid the screams of cheerleaders and fans rooting for their guys in the race. Finally he spotted us. We had not seen each other for so long I never would have recognized him but my red hair made his job easy and Scotty too, whose hair was platinum blond in kindergarten and still is. For a minute I thought of running. “The Waz” was a giant! How did he grow so big? Was there something in the water out here in Beth Page? He was a hulk, about 250 pounds he told me, and way over six feet, maybe 6 foot 2 inches. He was the center on the football team out there and all his buddies were football players and track stars too. At this event he was doing shot put and he was good at it and held some record. More than that Waz was the friendliest guy in the world and wanted only to introduce us as his “best friends” from elementary school and on and on and on. His only drawback was that he was quite ugly if you looked at him objectively. His nose looked like it might have been broken a few times, maybe by guys like me but ones who didn’t mind hurting people. But that nose was no Caesar’s nose to begin with. It went about the same distance side to side as it did going out and looked like a big toe, a real big toe but on a face. His eyes were close together and his whole head seemed wide at the bottom and narrow at the top without much room for the human brain. Well they say that even though a bird’s brain is not big there is quite a lot in it and “the Waz” wasn’t dumb either but just simple. That simplicity and guileless spirit combined with a friendly, gregarious nature made him a success with other people. He had a lot of friends. And maybe the training I gave him in third grade was partly responsible for another important quality he had developed- persistence and an iron clad ego impervious to damage despite any amount of daunting information from the world. I learned this later when, once again, he contacted me, this time when I was living in Manhattan. He introduced me to his latest girlfriend, a beautiful stewardess. He had told me that he was “specializing in stewardesses”. And he wasn’t a womanizer but just like any of us wanting to get laid and have a nice girl to do that with. I think he would have stayed with any of them forever but they didn’t last. Undaunted, he went on and on and on. He had more girls over time than anyone I ever knew. He told me his method.

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