Guy stuff: The pool hall

by Brian Clarey

He’s 13 now, a big 13, just a couple inches shorter than me and with feet nearly as big, lean muscle starting to swell from his slender frame.

In some cultures, he would be considered a man now; if he were able to sneak into some of the bars I used to work, he might even be able to pull some action.

I had him with me in the car the other day for a summertime ride-along while I pursued a column. But as we turned west on Wendover Avenue, I suddenly had another idea.

“You want to learn how to shoot pool?” I asked him.

“Definitely.” Of course he does. Pool-shooting falls into the category of Things Every Man Needs to Know, along with shaving, card-playing, lawn-cutting, toilet-fixing, handshaking and gaining a working understanding of professional sports.

One thing at a time. We went to Jake’s Billiards on Spring Garden Street, where an afternoon food purchase got us a free table: a fine, regulationsize Brunswick with a few fresh chalks, much finer conditions than the ones under which I learned the game.

I grew up in a suburbia where basement pool tables were as common as driveway basketball hoops and Ataris. I sunk my first bank shot on Pete Case’s basement table with a short cue necessitated by the confines of the space. My father picked one up in 1983, when he had the basement finished: a 4-by-8 of fair quality. On that table, he showed me how to set up combos, apply English to the cue, hit softly into the side pockets. Like all native upstate New Yorkers, he was proficient at all indoor sports.

His training served me well on high school afternoons, when my friends and I would play Kylie V’s basement on a table identical to my father’s, with the aid of a device known as the US II.

I became fairly deft in the use of both. My first week of college, I went to a bar with a few friends I made on my dormitory hall and held one of the tables all night, dropping banks and combos and long-green shots with unusual efficacy, enough to earn a reputation as a shooter among the crowd that hung around the saggy tables in the university’s arcade. Fun fact: One of those guys eventually joined a band that had a one-hit wonder in 2000. He used to hold a napkin in his bridge hand while he shot to cut down friction.

At just 50 cents pool was an affordable luxury for college students, with a potential payoff: Get good enough, and you could hustle a few beers in the bars and maybe catch the eye of a suitable woman.

When I started tending bar a couple years later, I played almost every day in the soft hours of the evening, before the crowds filled the club, or the fleeting hours after last call as dawn broke over the city, on tables with uneven legs, untrue trajectory and stained felts, with sticks bowed by years of leaning and tips worn thin from the constant grinding of blue chalk.

I didn’t need to tell my son these things as I set the first rack — he intuitively understood the cachet of knowing the game — but I did anyway. He was, I believe, as impressed as a 13-year-old boy can be with his father.

I showed him how to set the rack for a game of 8 ball, with the 1 ball at the apex and the 8 in the middle, alternating solids and stripes on the border. I showed him how to square his stance for the break, the importance of a solid bridge. I explained the geometry of the game and showed him, the same way my father showed me, how to line up a bank shot using the diamonds along the rails.

And so we shot a little 8 ball, my kid and me, pool-hall style, with good lighting and table service and a few hours to fill. As the balls clicked around on the felt, the kid’s game curved towards basement respectability and my own skills revived enough to sink a few decent bank shots, though I couldn’t drop anything in the side pockets to save my life.

Later, I scuttled a few balls off the table and racked up a diamond for a game of 9 ball, gave a short and mostly ignored lecture about the importance of shot sequence and, on a long ball, showed him how to use the bridge cue, which my friends and I used to call the “ladies’ helper.” He didn’t want to use it after I told him that.

We’re going to do it again. I want to show him how to sneak a ball into the side pocket, make the cue ball stop dead after its initial strike, knock the excess chalk off his tip by tapping it over a pocket.

The next time my dad comes around we’ll bring him along for a game of three man, and keep the whole thing going.