- Missing the Cues
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 twenty 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 the 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.
For much of its existence, it was open twenty-four 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 [End Page 1] incalculably far away, immune to its correctness and self-importance. It was one of the few places I knew during my twenty-one years in the capital where race, class, and ambition meant nothing.
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 to not 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 10:00 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 mattered. It was all about the game. One soft-spoken guy always wore cardigans and reminded me of Mister Rogers. We knew he'd...