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Missing the Cues

When a Funky Old Joint Vanishes, Something More Than Pool Is Lost

By Ted Gup
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page C01

I am in mourning. A scribbled note on the door says it all: "Poolroom Closed." I press my face against the glass. The room is dark, the tables gone -- auctioned off a few weeks ago, I am told. In the mailbox are what look to be two old bills. Nothing else remains of 20 years of Friday nights spent here in one of the few real pool halls anywhere near the nation's capital. The operative word is "real." Sure, there are those family-friendly billiard parlors, polished places with red-felt tables and marble floors where up-and-comers sip martinis, dates coo and bar mitzvah parties are welcomed.

Whatever that is, it's not a pool hall. For that you had to go to Silver Spring, to Champion Billiards on Georgia Avenue. Squeezed between Auto City Used Cars and Meineke Discount Mufflers, it was a true throwback, the sort of place the Music Man himself warned about. Across the street was the required pawn shop with its guitars and gold and guns. Next to it, like some wayward guardian angel protecting our blessed pool hall, was the bronze bust of a homeless man, the late Norman Lane, once dubbed the "mayor" of Silver Spring. It was a tribute to citizens for looking after him. In those days, Silver Spring was like that. So too was the pool hall. It was open to anyone, anytime.

Even in a blizzard, the lights would be on at Champion Billiards in Silver Spring. Now, though, the pool tables are gone and the lights are off for good. (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)

For much of its existence, it was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even in a blizzard, its lights glowed warmly and you had a place to go. I don't remember a soul being turned away, though I do remember a few who muttered to themselves or went out back for a fix or a swig. Rogues and scalawags it had, but mostly just hardworking men who long ago chose the pleasure of each other's company and the click of ivory spheres about to fall off an earth of sheer green felt. It was all about the game.

Only some seven miles from Washington's corridors of power, it was incalculably far away, immune to its correctness and self-importance. It was one of the few places I knew in my 21 years in the capital where neither race nor class nor ambition meant a thing.

There were two kinds of rules to the hall: written and unwritten. Gambling was prohibited, which meant bills had to be neatly folded and left in a corner pocket or slipped palm to palm. Cursing was forbidden, and truth be told, was not much tolerated. We'd heard enough cursing outside not to want to track it in. And finally there was "no spitting," a carryover from the days of spittoons and rack boys. A little down in the mouth it might have been, but it was ours, and each of us had an interest in keeping it up. Sit on a rail, drop a live ash on the felt or talk trash and you would draw enough cross looks to know you were in the wrong place. On the outside door was a warning: "No one under the age of 18 permitted on these premises during normal school hours and after 10 P.M. unless accompanied by someone 25 or older." But our skill bore witness to our own misspent youths, and who were we to deny the next generation such pleasures? Besides, a real pool hall caters to the truant in each of us.

But it was the unwritten rules that made the hall a true sanctuary. Nobody talked about work, whether they had a job or not. It was a "No Whining Zone," a given that life was not always kind but that here at least we would not marinate in each other's misfortunes. There were no peacocks or pimps in broad brims. Vanity went elsewhere. Inside, a man's past and future counted for nothing, only the present and the number of balls sunk. It was all about the game. One soft-spoken guy always wore cardigans and reminded me of Mister Rogers. We knew he'd done time, but never dreamt of asking for details. That was the past, his past, not ours. It was all about the game. Even the bookie showed enough respect not to ply his trade inside. In nearly two decades, I never saw a fight, not so much as a scuffle.

Life stories, hard luck or otherwise, were off-limits. You learned enough about a person from his game to know whether his company was desired. Almost nobody had a last name. It wasn't as if any of us were likely to hook up in the world of sunlight. Fat Mike, a chef turned shooter, was almost balletic when he took to the tables. "Goose" and "Tom-Tom" were minor deities. Before them, the rest of us parted and silently took in the majesty of their skill.

First names all, except for Mr. Knox. He was true royalty. I never knew his first name, but he was as honorable a gentleman as I shall know, a man who handled a cue with grace, and lived and died the same way. When cancer was eating him up, he allowed a few tears to run down his cheeks, talking about those he would miss most. He apologized, but for him, the ban on hard-luck talk had been waived. He wasn't looking for pity, just a way to make the best of what we players called "a bad leave." I think he worked as a custodian or in maintenance.

Immigrants, too, found their way here, from Koreans to Salvadorans. Political correctness skipped us by as did all the righteous rectitude of Washington, but we did right by each other. A buddy tells me he thinks Reggie, a black, helped sponsor Lee, a Korean, for citizenship. I don't remember any ramp for the disabled but I remember some killer shots made from wheelchairs. A guy with a shriveled arm managed to persuade me to spot him a couple of balls to even out the odds. He destroyed me. After that I never underestimated him again. The only handicap in the pool room was your own.

Women were few. I once brought my wife, emphasis on "once." But in recent years more spouses showed up and some brought their own cues and solid games and taught the aging bulls about gender and humility. Grizzled old men and kids barely old enough to shave gave the rest of us lessons in the perils of ageism. An open mind often came at the expense of an empty wallet. Fifty bucks was a big loss.

We had our music and we had our food -- a hot dog off the spit, a handful of salty cashews, a Kit-Kat from the machine. It wasn't gourmet but at 2 in the morning it kept you going. It was all about the game. The jukebox favored Meat Loaf's "I'd Do Anything for Love" and Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry."

My game is straight pool, an old man's game, the one they played in the 1961 flick "The Hustler" with upstart Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, not the sequel where a bespectacled Newman tutors a clownish and cue-twirling Tom Cruise. There the game was nine-ball.

My standing game was with Ira. One night when we were playing straight to 50, I broke and left him at the far rail without a prayer of a shot -- except he found one and proceeded to run one rack after another, all the way up to 50 balls. I never even got out of my chair, except to rack the balls for him. On that one night, there was not a player in the cosmos who could have beaten him. That feat alone should have preserved the pool hall forever. I imagined a brass plaque outside speaking to his 50-ball run the night of whenever it was -- time was something we quickly lost track of, but never the number of balls. It was a universe unto itself, a place of blue chalk and white talc, of two-piece ebony and ivory cues and oak racks. No sweeter sound there was than that of the respectful tap-tap-tapping made by the butt of a cue upon the floor as an opponent paid homage to a shot well made. It was all about the game.

The poet W.S. Merwin, writing about a pool hall, said the players were "safe in its ring of dusty light where the real dark can never come." Well, "the real dark" came a few weeks ago. Some blamed Montgomery County's smoking ban. I don't know. Five minutes away, Galaxy Billiards Cafe had opened its doors. Thirty-five big TVs outnumbered the pool tables. Short of a pencil and paper, there's no way even to keep score -- no string of beads, no counters. At the far end of each pool table is a "service button." Press it and a waitress comes running. I kid you not.

Five years ago I moved to Cleveland, but before I did I made a list of what I would miss about Washington. The pool hall was near the top of that list. Funny how little things figure large when saying goodbye. On each of my returns to Washington, Ira and I met at the hall for a night of straight pool. I would come through the door after an absence of months and get the same familiar nod from the guys as if I had been there just the night before. No questions asked. It was all about the game. I wonder now what has become of them. It was a brotherhood that fell to a smoking ban, to gentrification, maybe to time itself.

It's true, the place reeked of cigarettes. Smoke wreathed upward and formed a stationary cloud overhead, and saturated my mustache so that next morning my wife would still recognize the smell of the pool hall. But for me, it was the air of Washington itself that had begun to grow stale and unbreathable, a city of fluted columns and sometimes towering egos, of brass-knuckle arguments and invisible walls that divided one city into many. It was becoming what those who had never set foot in my pool hall doubtless imagined it to be -- vulgar, combative, full of hustlers. I came to the pool hall to escape all that and always I found there a breath of fresh air. Really, it had nothing to do with the game.

Ted Gup, author of "The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA," is a professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University. He can be reached at tedgup@att.net.

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