Carry a Big Stick

by

01/02/2001

282 Flatbush Ave Brooklyn, NY 11217

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

The night was thick and hot and I was done playing, ready to go home, but Dan persuaded me to have one more beer with him. He looked like a cartoon character: large head, square matinee-idol hair and perfect shiny teeth.

I had lost my match; he had won. Dan was bright and funny and he was feeling garrulous, as usual, so I sat with him for another beer, my sundress sticking to me even though I was directly under the fan. Then Dan turned to me and said, “Let’s go to Brooklyn.” I was surprised and touched by the overture. My first pool friend.

Since I had come to the bar straight from work, I had several handbags of varying sizes with me plus my pool case, which Dan grabbed as we headed out. I herded my stuff into the cab he hailed. Dan slouched in the seat and said, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” I gave the cab driver the address of a bar a block from my apartment. I didn’t know where else to go but I hated the place, a dark, wood-planked pub that seemed to play nothing but Van Morrison and shoved its neighborhoodiness in your face, all benches and picnic tables and faux-Irish bartenders and people wearing baseball caps.

Dan paid the driver and we went inside the pub. He ordered a seltzer, embarrassed, I think, at being drunk. We hadn’t really asked each other many questions yet, so we went through the usual: where we grew up, went to school, our romantic status, why Dan never voted. It was easy and relaxing.

I grew sleepy after an hour, so Dan settled up and I began the ridiculous, painstaking process of collecting my things. I stood up and said, “Where’s my cue?”

Dan’s gaze traveled to the floor, as did mine. It wasn’t there. He started to laugh, his big piano-key teeth filling up his face.

“I left it in the cab,” he said.

“Very funny.”

He kept laughing. “No seriously,” he was in hysterics now, “I left it in the cab.”

I froze. My next reaction was as swift as it was shocking: I began to cry. I felt my eyes fill, the way my young niece’s did when her mom left the room, and I croaked out, “I can’t believe this, are you serious? You lost my cue?” My voice was thick, heartbroken.

Dan sobered immediately, his smile gone, his eyes huge.

“Oh my God, you’re crying. Holy…” he put his hand over his face and stifled a chortle. “Wait, are you really crying? Holy shit. You are. Oh God. I am so sorry. I’ll get it back. Please, just stop crying.”

“You can’t get it back, it’s in a cab. Someone’s probably playing with it by now.” I could not believe I was behaving this way, could not understand why I felt like I’d been stabbed. I remember buying the cue at Blatt’s Billiards last summer, by myself. I remember feeling like I had earned it somehow. It had given me both credibility and originality. And then I didn’t even notice when it was gone, my cue, rolling around in the back of a cab somewhere like a forgotten umbrella. Now Dan looked sincerely chagrined. He promised to try to track it down or else buy me a new one. I, in the role of the hysterical teenager, said I didn’t want a new one, I wanted that one. He looked helpless.

Then, as quickly as it started, I put a stop to it. In the space of a few seconds I straightened, wiped my eyes, and put it out of my mind. “It’s fine,” I said. I even managed a smile. What else could I do? Except the obvious. We left the bar and went to my apartment.

The next day Dan called me at work. He had been on the phone with the Taxi and Limousine Commission and no one had turned in a pool cue. I was embarrassed about my display and surprised that he’d called. He wanted to buy me a new cue. I demurred, but he persisted until we made plans for Saturday.

We met at a “Billiards and Games” store on West 26th Street. It was a million degrees outside and Dan was inexplicably wearing long pants. We were the only customers. I beelined to the rows of cues in the back, sleek sticks lined up like weapons, and found the McDermotts, my brand of choice. They were beautiful and expensive. I consulted a bored salesperson. Dan was off in another part of the store shooting on a pool table, acting like he was interested in buying it.

I selected a cue with an emerald green grip – for some reason the gaudy color appealed to me. It had a linen wrapping so you’d never need a glove. It was straight and glossy and stylish. It was also twice as much as the one now being used by some cab driver in Queens, but I could tell it was worth it. Even the bored salesperson nodded approvingly, shocked that I’d been able to pick this out myself.

I brought it up to the cashier. “Well that’s Irish,” she said, staring rudely at the green grip. She rang it up and told me I could get a free McDermott case and cleaning supplies – “a $50 value” – if I filled out a McDermott questionnaire. I did, while Dan pretended that he couldn’t find his wallet, informing me with mock-horror that he had no money on him, cracking himself up. The cashier ignored him until he finally produced his VISA card. Soon we were walking into the scorching sunlight and heading downtown to SoHo Billiards to try out my new purchase. The store gave me a cheap skinny case to carry the cue in until my new one arrived. I was so thrilled I felt guilty. My old cue was forgotten.

****

The season had only just started. I had, predictably, lost my first two matches. I showed up the following week with my new cue; everyone gawked when I slid it out. “Sweet!” This from Paul G., a jittery cokehead who the team regularly threatened to toss. He bounced over, his eyes narrow and glittering. Paul G. was 35 and lived with his mother. He was a sad guy, but a superb player when he wasn’t too wound, and he asked if he could hold the cue. Another teammate walked in then and said, “Sweet cue.” It was the ultimate compliment: to make a sweet shot, to hit the sweet spot on the ball, to own a piece of equipment that was simply, “Sweet.” I didn’t win that night, but my match lasted an agonzing two hours as I tortured my opponent with safety shots and made him earn his victory.

But after that I did start to win, thrillingly, since until now it had so rarely happened. My case had arrived in the mail by this time, a long black cylinder that resembled a bazooka and had a special pocket for chalk.

I had a real case and a real cue. I played in places with names like Pool Beg and Bull’s Head and Barfly, smokey bars with bad juke boxes and crowds that were a mixture of posturing toughs and guys wearing Dockers, cell phones clamped to their belts in little black cases that looked like beetles. As summer faded into fall, I got bumped up a rank, and by the end of the season I trounced a woman a full three rankings higher than me. We were in a creepy place called Plug Uglies on 3rd Avenue, a smelly, narrow bar with a miniature bowling lane that ran alongside the pool area, annoying the hell out of everyone. My opponent had a quivering little Pug puppy that her boyfriend held in his lap, while the woman wondered how I could possibly be beating her. But I couldn’t miss that night, sank bank shots, made crazy cuts. It wasn’t me.

After it was over, a grizzled, elderly guy from the other side of the bar approached. I hadn’t noticed him before. A cross between Al Sharpton and somebody’s vagrant great-uncle, his suit was shabby and his belly pushed forward, straining his shirt. He had steel-wool sideburns flecked with white.

“I just wanted to shake your hand, young lady,” he said. “That was some fine playing. I was watching you. Fine playing. Have I seen you out in Bay Ridge?”

I shook his hand and thanked him, my face hot and excited, and said no, it wasn’t me he saw. “Are you sure? You sure you don’t play out in Bay Ridge? I thought I recognized you.”

I was, it turns out, a legend in Bay Ridge.

The idea that I could be mistaken for someone – anyone – who played “real” pool made me dizzy with delight, and in Bay Ridge no less, where I was certain all the toughest, bad-ass, pool-playing motherfuckers congregated, remarked on each other’s sweet cues and slid crumpled bills across tables, the women all sounding like Linda Fiorantino in “The Last Seduction.”

****

I finished the season with a winning record – my first – and we had a few weeks off. But when we resumed in October, everything felt different, something had soured. I lost my first match and felt glum. It hadn’t even been close. My shots were all over the place, my break wimpy. I was puzzled and alarmed and felt like no one was supporting me, like the magic cue had let me down. It happened again the following week, and again. I was fast becoming the Chuck Knobloch of the East Village.

The captains of my team, of which Dan, my pool cue sugar daddy was one, decided not to play me as much. It made me angry and distracted, and unlike the wide-eyed, sultry woman with the emerald cue, who played with exuberance and a little awe, the one often confused with a well-known shark out in Bay Ridge – this new player was losing her cool. I complained about the way I was being treated, about the way women were treated in general, about the lack of appreciation for my stellar attendance record and my worth ethic. I borrowed the great petulant routines of Gary Sheffield, Ricky Henderson, Ken Griffey, Jr. And I lost and lost and lost and lost and lost. Everyone on the team seemed to be losing, even when they weren’t.

Dan and I had been talking less, an indirect result of his drinking more. He sat at the bar and offended people, squandered games, his eyes barely able to focus, his chisled cartoon features now blurred, his body and his face soft and dumpy and defeated. Paul G. lost his job and spent most of his time in Vermont now, skiing and selling whatever coke he didn’t use. Jorge never showed up anymore and we suspected Ned was using heroin. Todd punched a guy one night and got thrown out of the bar. Big Tony, a pool veteran with giant blow-dried hair and a Lexus, cheerfully offer Vicodin or Atavan to anyone not feeling loose, his own face slack, eyelids low and menacing. He was the best shot on our team, one of the best in the league, in fact. And he could start the engine of his Lexus by standing on the sidewalk and pressing a button on his keyring.

Finally, relief: I won my last match of the season, against a spindly, pathetic guy with glasses who had probably played three times in his life. I left the bar, still a little sour, hoping my rapid rise and spectacular fall would not be repeated next season.

It wouldn’t be.

I got a call from a teammate, who tremulously let me know I’d been replaced. The decision had been made a while ago. If she hadn’t called I would’ve shown up for the first match of the new season to find the co-captain’s girlfriend chalking up, a gooey blonde, absolutely thrilled with her own breasts, who was one of the few people who’d played worse than I had last season.

I was incredulous. I’d been fired?

All over the city people were losing their jobs, yet I had no doubt I was the only one who’d been let go from her pool team. I was informed that Dan “didn’t want to deal with me anymore.” Our cab out to Brooklyn was as distant as the lights of New Jersey, as the train out to Bay Ridge. I hung up the phone, stunned and humiliated. There went Tuesday nights. Jesus, I was running out of days of the week.

A few weeks later I went over to Brownstone Billiards on Flatbush Avenue, only a block from my new apartment in Brooklyn. I’d practiced at Brownstone many times. The place was dreary, full of pock-marked pool tables. A lot of harmless older guys played there by themselves, without judgment. I slid my cue from its bazooka case, holding the two pieces in front of me. They looked liked parts of a toy, fig. A and fig. B., a toy with no purpose, other than maybe to jab your kid brother in the eye.

I put the shaft and the butt together and screwed the joint tight like I had done a hundred times. The stick felt sturdy now. This was the moment, I guess, when I was supposed to turn the cue slowly in my hands and see the word Wonderboy burned into one side. Instead I crouched over the table and knocked some balls around, then began stroking long shots, trying to remember how it was done. I hit the balls over and over, most refusing to go in, just missing the pocket or careening off the rail. I kept at it, until finally a 4-ball wobbled down the length of the table, teetered on the edge, and plopped into the corner pocket. My heart lifted. I looked around and caught the eye of a skinny guy in an oversized fooball shirt a few tables away. He met my gaze and barely nodded. I heard him say under his breath, “Sweet.”

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