58 Inches of ambiance

by

11/14/2002

237 3rd Ave, New York, NY

Neighborhood: Manhattan

I choose what I’m wearing carefully on Tuesdays. I like to show a little midriff, some shoulder. In a bar, before I play, I look around and notice other people’s midriffs and shoulders. I look at the curve of bodies bending across tables and feel my own. I want to laugh the throaty laugh of a James Bond ingenue.

I favor the side pockets and can cut a ball nicely, but my break is weak and I invariably clutch on the eight, a maddening condition that once caused me to throw and splinter a cue, McEnroe-style.

I own my own cue, a 58-inch McDermott. I carry it in a soft red canvas case, which I throw over my shoulder every Tuesday. People stare at it — and me — on the subway. Their stares, for once, are not crude or hostile or blank, but curious, aroused.

I took up pool a year-and-a-half ago, after years of fantasizing about it. I loved watching people play the game, in bars or on TV. They seemed so confident. They didn’t have to talk: they thought, decided, moved. I liked that the balls came in so many colors, that you had to keep track of them — their numbers meant something. I liked listening to the elegant click click of a game, liked the way players faced each shot like they were behind the plate, anticipating the next pitch. I liked cigarettes hanging out of mouths, long-necks tapping thighs, ambiance. I liked Paul Newman.

It took me five years to walk into a Manhattan pool hall and ask if someone could teach me; it took me another nine months to play in front of people without shaking. When I first learned to shoot, that’s all I wanted to do. I would stroke the same shot over and over, allowing the instructors to set up situations for me, but backing off when asked to play against the other students. I just liked the math, the thinking, the green felt, the silence — so quiet compared to my jabbering media friends.

Then I joined a league, learned to face an opponent, and started playing pool. And everything changed. There is something sexual and powerful (or is it powerful and sexual?) about a woman who plays pool. And no, it has nothing to do with sliding a stick through your hands or putting balls in pockets or any of the other obvious visual double entendres. Sometimes I think about my former teammate, Patty, who wore a lot of red. She had a big, curvy body and she hated to lose. When she won her face lit up and she laughed that throaty laugh and was extra nice to her boyfriend.

In pool you use your brain but communicate through your body, slowly, sometimes languorously. If you sit at a computer all day and type words, or use your large vocabulary in long, boring meetings, then playing pool — communicating this way — is like taking off a nun’s habit and being given a pair of spiked boots and a whip.

About a year into it, I joined one of the Monday night leagues and learned how to stalk a table. I learned how to get people to take me seriously — or playfully — without uttering a word. Pool players pretend to ignore each other but are, in fact, reading every twitch, cigarette puff, beer swig, grin flashed at a teammate for a sign of their opponent’s game. You have to be close, intimate, alive to notice these things. You think, aim, shoot, smile dangerously, taking as long as you want. And in 8-ball, the kind that’s played in the New York bar leagues, you’ll often hear someone explain that “slop counts.” It’s an indelicate expression for an important rule: if you try to sink a ball but miss and sink one of your others instead, it counts. Your accident, your excess, is sweet.

Last summer, in my first league match, I went up against a much better player, a cocky guy named Simon who was from somewhere in Northern England. He wore an ugly gold chain and had big teeth. Our face-off took place in a garishly lit Irish-style pub on the east side of 3rd Avenue, between 19th and 20th. I set up the balls in their triangle but worried that I might not have done it quite right. Simon shrugged and said, “It’s all right, it looks nice.”

“Gee, no one’s ever told me I had a nice rack before,” I said.

He grinned, and proceeded to kick my ass. At one point, the trouncing was so bad that he actually ordered a pizza, which was delivered during the third game of our match, and he turned his back to me while he ate it. So I went for the billiard equivalent of a Hail Mary and smacked the cue ball across the length of the table, where it hit the rail and sliced back, knocking the three-ball into the far corner pocket. The bar erupted. Simon didn’t move. He continued to chomp coolly on his slice, so I said, “Turn around, asshole,” or something equally Clint Eastwood. And he did turn. And gave me a nod. He also beat me, but it didn’t matter.

I look at the women in my bar in the East Village, and they look at me, and we seem to have this silent bond, like we’re all addicted to the same thing. The same body thing. The same sex thing. And yes, I guess it was bound to happen: I had an affair with a pool player (no, we never did it on a pool table), a tall, gangly guy, a bit dopey, not someone you would think could be graceful, or steely, but he was both at the table. He had beautiful hands; something seemed to fall off of him when he played, his outer coat. His essence came through, like I think mine does. We had nothing else in common, and the sexual charge lasted only as long as a night of pool, which is why our affair endured barely three months. I switched to the Tuesday night league, but I have no regrets. Slop counts.

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