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.”
“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.
“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. We 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.
“It is easy, Rick. You see them and go up to them and make any kind of conversation and then ask them if they would like to have a coffee or something like that depending on where you are. A lot of times they let you know right away they are not interested. So, you go on to the next one.”
I understood this to be a formula for success but the key is you “go on to the next one” after the last one has just rejected you. This takes a remarkable bounce-back ability most men don’t have. If they did they would be as successful as “the Waz.” It made no difference to him how many rejections he got.
“They can only say no, Rick. What’s the big deal? I guarantee you if you approach fifty in a nice way twenty are going to go for it and you get better at it with practice so your percentage will go up.” This kind of confidence I found inspiring, but what was natural for him is not something he could confer. It was his gift.
Anyway he introduced me to his friends, the quarterback on the team, Biff, and Tony the wide receiver, and a bunch of other guys all of whom were super friendly and big and strong. The point of all this is that not long after I got beat up in the pool hall, I happened to get a call from the Waz about something or another and I told him what happened.
“That’s a real shitty thing, Rick” he said. “Let me tell Biff and the other guys and we’ll come out.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” I said.”
“Sure it is Rick. We need to teach’em a lesson.”
“Let me think about it Waz”, I said.” “I gotta figure out how to do this.”
A couple of weeks later Kenny and I were in a booth at the Thruway Diner having breakfast, Kenny just eating some mashed potatoes for his ulcer. I saw an older Italian guy I knew from the pool hall come in and I waved to him. His name was John. He and I were pretty close in skill and we often played together, the stakes being time on the table. That’s how they charge you, on your time. Mostly he won but they were good games and John was a real gentleman, quiet, just interested in pool. He came over and I gestured for him to sit down and he did.
He started, “I heard what happened and I’m sorry. Those punks spoil things.”
“I never saw them before” I said.
“Oh, they come in every Saturday, late afternoon for a couple of hours. They meet up there before goin’ out and raisin hell. That kid who started the fight has been arrested before, vandalizing or stealing a car, something like that. He’s a loser.”
“Not as bad as that fat prick who was about to hit me with a 2 x 4 he picked up out of the trash barrel,” I said. “That guy is a real coward.”
“True enough”, said John. “Those are the dangerous ones.”
We chit chatted about this and that over breakfast and he finished with some encouragement.
“Don’t worry about those guys. They’re only around once a week on Saturdays. Don’t let it spoil your fun.”
“Thanks John. See you around.”
”Kenny said, a little anxiously, “What are you goin to do, Rick?”
“Well, now we know when that gang goes to the pool hall,” I said. “I think I’ll talk it over with the Beth Page gang and see if they’re up for it.”
I knew they would be and I was right. Young guys are always trying to prove themselves. The old Indian chiefs had a big problem with the young bucks riding out into the night to raid some enemy tribe and mess up the peace. These big strong guys were happy for some action, some well-deserved violence in the cause of justice. We arranged to meet up the following Saturday afternoon.
Saturday came and they showed up at my house, a car full of football players. There were five of them including Waz. I had convinced Kenny he also had to go along to make this work. He didn’t want to but understood the situation. We took two cars and made the trip up the post road, US 1, to New Rochelle. I had Biff and Kenny with me. We stopped on the corner of Division and I pointed out the entrance to the pool hall to Biff.
“Biff, you take two guys with you and get started playing. Tell Waz to take the other guys up about 15 minutes later. Kenny and I will go up twenty minutes after that. This way Arnie and his guys won’t know anything is up.”
“Ok Rick, that sounds ok. What happens then?”
“Who the hell knows,” I said. “I don’t want a lot of trouble but he should apologize. He might want to do that when he sees you guys on my side.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Biff, who was beginning to wonder what he had gotten himself in for. And so was I, to be truthful, but it was too late now.
They followed the plan and after waiting nervously for the allotted time, Kenny and I headed up the marble stairs with the wrought iron railings, climbing up the five flights, my stick in its case in two pieces, up the stairs and through the big double doors to the pool hall. Harry looked real nervous when he saw us.
“Sorry about the other night, Rick. I wish I could a’ stopped it sooner. Let’s not have any more trouble.”
“It’s ok Harry. Those things happen sometimes. We just want to play pool.”
“Good. Glad you see it that way. Stay away from Arnie though. He’s a trouble maker.”
Honestly, I think of myself as a man of peace, somebody who does not want trouble or any kind of violence. At the same time I was a hunter and a fisherman from an early age. I didn’t just stay home and bake pies. And life puts stuff on you, stuff that is hard to avoid. And if you are a big strong kid like I was, well, sometimes you have to fight. There wasn’t much choice in those days. In those situations I am not real good just waiting in suspended animation. My internal character and psychology push me into action. Moreover, I get quiet around it, like time slows down as I focus on the job at hand.
I didn’t have a game plan past getting my men in place. Part of me hoped the Arnie gang would not even be there that Saturday afternoon. But they were.
I saw Arnie playing at one of the front tables, playing with the fat kid who tried to clobber me with the 2 x 4. They had seen us come in and had stopped playing, just looking at us, waiting. I started walking to a table in the back and I had to walk right past Arnie. In New York we know that if there is going to be a fight ‘throw the first punch.” That is your best chance and it is, of course, what Arnie had done the last time around. And now he tried to do it again. As I walked right up to him he turned his stick around and swung it hard at my head. My stick was in its case in two pieces, strong pieces. I raised it with both hands just in time to block the shot. I swung around three hundred and sixty degrees with the force of his blow pushing me and smashed my stick right across the side of his jaw. He flew backwards across the pool table and lay there dazed, holding his jaw. Blood oozed out of his mouth. Meanwhile the fat kid had tried to hit me with his stick while I was dealing with Arnie but Waz had grabbed him from behind and stopped that action cold. I went over to him and punched him as hard as I could in the nose and flattened it across his face. He started crying. “Let him go Waz”, I said. “We did what we came for.” There were other guys there too in the Arnie gang but they saw who was with me and kept back which was a smart move for them and prevented things from getting worse. Harry had already called the cops so we had to move. The whole thing only took a few minutes.
“Let’s get out of here”, I said and we flew down the five flights, into the cars, and back to Pelham. “Jesus Rick” the Waz said. The other guys looked pale and Kenny was catatonic. I was ok, calm but not happy because, as I said, I never want to hurt anyone and I was a little concerned about Arnie. He took quite a shot to the jaw. I was glad I didn’t hit him in the temple or the neck. Once we got back to my house the Beth Page gang was eager to get back home and who could blame them. I thanked them for backing me up and we all shook hands but I never remember seeing them again and I guess I can understand why. As I mentioned, I did see the Waz years later but we never talked about the pool hall. We wanted to forget it.
Trinidad and Tobago Sept 30, 2012