When I was a kid in Chicago in the nineteen seventies and early eighties, Sundays were spent at the pool room alone with my father.
If my Dad had come up a winner that day, he was in a fantastic mood on the car ride to Grandma's for spaghetti supper that evening. If he had come up a loser, I would have to listen to an endless tirade of curse words that only men who have been in a bar fight, or shot a gun in the service, can actually get away with uttering. Men who grew a pair of balls reading James Jones' "From Here To Eternity," and seduced girls with Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" and a few cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon - yeah - THAT Pabst Blue Ribbon. Men who knew which Hollywood heartthrobs were in the closet and which guy or gal in the room had a "golden arm." Men who drove taxi cabs and spoke English. Men who thought a wrench was a great weapon. Men Charles Bukowski - not Ernest Hemingway - knew. And Henry Miller - and Raymond Carver, too. And they were my people. On Sundays.
Did I mention that I was a little girl? With a fondness for party shoes? And pig tails?
Not that pool rooms aren't filled with Dickensonian characters which are the making of great fiction - especially as a budding author. Pool rooms had the best nick names! The best slang! To me, every shifty old man looked like "Oliver Twist"'s Fagin and every black man was "Rocky"'s Apollo Creed. But all of that time alone - while horses raced to victory or defeat, cue balls were racked and broken, large piles of money were exchanged, cards thrown - taught me to watch, listen and learn. Sundays made me conscious of every detail on every person and every object in the room. I studied people, and I got to know myself. More often than not, I was the only kid there.
Sundays taught me what a meritocracy looked like. A world without racism. Where people flaunted their ethnicity and differences rather than hide it. It was more integrated than any school I attended, that's for sure - and I've been to quite a few - Judaic, Catholic, Public and Independent Private.
Sundays taught me that no one got "special treatment" in this world(even millionaires had to pay their dues and earn trust in the pool room) and that you made your way in life by your ambition, endurance(sometimes games lasted for days), skill; by deductive and inductive reasoning to understand a competitor, a game, and how to apply that knowledge to achieve your goal, how to "win." Try "thinking outside of the box" twenty four hours a day without collapsing from exhaustion. Could Rafael Nadal last that long? If you thought you were exceptional, the pool room would be the first place to remind you that you weren't. The inhabitants of the pool room were a tough audience. Think Simon Cowell is hard to impress?
Sundays taught me that the greatest competitors always held deep reverence for one another - because only your equal can appreciate the exceptional within you - that outside of the pool room no one has a clue about - not your parents, your kids, your wife, your boss. There's an intimacy there. I attribute this to my Italian-American father providing the eulogy for no less than eight African-American pool players in Baptist churches on the south side of Chicago. Arch enemies at one time or another, he was the only one who could accurately articulate what his fierce rival did best all of those hours away from home - could let the outside world know that at one time in his life - this man was a champion - who inspired awe and fear in his peers. How many white politicians can show up to a black Baptist church on the south side of Chicago and get a hug and a kiss and be told that you are their "brother?" Not many. But in the poolroom there is a brotherhood. And it's not for votes, or for the cameras.
And the pool room also showed me charity - if a player was broke, the guy that was doing good always threw the guy down on his luck a few bucks. And then when your finances improved, you had to return the favor to another, it was almost bad luck not to do so. You had to contribute to this living, breathing microcosm called the pool room to keep everyone alive. Sometimes this altruism is what helped pay the rent, or my tuition, so I'm grateful to a lot of pool hustlers living and dead, who's names I don't even know, who let my Dad "pinch" them.
I remember drinking a lot of free fountain sodas on Sundays and washing my hands an inordinate number of times, as I still do today, as every bathroom visit was another distraction and time for me to actually look at myself in the mirror. Were my teeth too yellow? Did I need to brush my hair? Were my clothes clean? Why was I always the only girl there? What did "Cocksucker mean?"
Once my Dad got punched in the face by a sore loser over a pool game and his nose started bleeding. I was five. Who would take care of me? I thought at the time. Who would protect me?
When my mother worried about my safety at the pool room, my Dad laughed and got all Norman Mailer on her - "You think I'm going to worry about what somebody's gonna do to me? Other people need to worry about what I might do to THEM!"
On Sundays, I remember "disappearing" into brand new worlds - of my own invention - which transported me. I would write stories into my notebook, even poetry. Sometimes I would compose songs(I loved disco and/or robots - especially disco robots) and I dreamed of a life so unlike the one I was living in. A life I created based on what I wanted and which I would later achieve. I have to credit my twin set of Jewish godmothers for teaching me that the world was much bigger than the mafia owned apartment wedged between two methadone clinics that I lived in, behind a bus stop, on North Clark Street, down the block from the pool room.
My Dad is of a high intellect(as most hustlers are) one of the most well read people I know, and has an art for talking about the abstract, and making sense of it. On a particularly great car ride to grandma's house, he would talk about Doctor Who and Carlos Casteneda and "good magic." When your life was forever in danger, or unpredictable as ours was back then, a belief in "good magic" was essential. Oh, and he loved to talk about the Gulag - he loved the Gulag! He loved how you had to learn how to keep your mind sharp and busy if you were locked in a prison cell. How you had to come up with new activities, rituals, every day, just to get through the day, how you had to control your interior monologue...just to survive...
Today my father is deservedly known as "The Foremost Pool Scientist of America," "The Heir to Minnesota Fats," "Banking Hall of Fame Inductee" and best-selling author, but back then, when I was a kid, he was simply, "Pool Hustler." Try explaining that one to your college admissions officer or better yet, your first boyfriend.
Today, Sundays for my kids are often spent eating three dollar doughnuts from Michelin star restaurants, or perusing farmers markets while dressed in Patagonia. I always tell my kids that they are living in "Candyland" in comparison to how their mother grew up. They just laugh at me, "Candyland! Ha, ha!"
I'm fortunate, as my kids have unknowingly inherited the gift of self-amusement from their mother. They sit soundly at the coffeehouse or bookstore by my side while I write - just as thirty years ago I read Archie Comics, attempted crossword puzzles, daydreamed, invented numerical games, drew and wrote into my journal while waiting for the last pool match, horse race, or card game to finally end.
Sundays provided a few hours every week to study the world around me; to invent, to think, to keep my brain busy. It was a unique education. Sundays weren't as bad as <i>the Gulag</i>, to be certain, but the lessons I learned from hanging out at the pool room as a kid were valuable.
Didn't I learn patience? Didn't I learn not only to have a soft spot for "suckers" and "loveable losers" but how to entertain myself? How to process information? Isn't this where I fostered my highly lauded memory for sights and sounds? Did the pool room teach me how to be a writer? Did Sundays at the pool room, result in making me what my father affectionately refers to as, "The squarest person he's ever met?"
When my children and I are at the coffee house on Sundays, I write while my son draws magical worlds into his sketchbook - worlds that only a grandson of a Doctor Who fan can love, magical worlds with different strata, creatures, landscapes and skies filled with dragons and angels and robots (with the best names!) and a Gandalf like wise man with a staph(or is it a pool cue?) who "knows everything." I am glad for my son's "tagging around with Mommy" time, mainly electronic-free, where he can just think, and imagine and dream up brand new worlds that no one can imagine for him - but him - just like his Mommy did when she was a kid. When he points to the bearded character he has drawn and tells me that he (my son) wants to know "the secrets of the universe" I want to tell him - but you already do know them - you already do. A wise man once told me, "Everything you need to know about the world, you can learn in the pool room" - and you know what, he was right.