Requiem for a Pool Table
Chuck isn’t given to retrospection, or introspection, or really any other type of spection.
Chuck – my father to the uninitiated – follows the philosophy of Satchel Paige, who said, “Don’t ever look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Only once have I heard him say that he missed his father, gone thirteen years, and I’ve never heard a similar sentiment about his mother, gone five years, cross his lips.
So I was surprised when he said, “There was a lot of history in that pool table.”
For the second time since Chuck sold it in 2000, our old homestead on Wilkinson Avenue had gone up for sale – one of many houses on the West Side of Youngstown that went up for sale as soon as the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that residency requirements for municipal workers were unconstitutional.
My father happened along the photos of the house, including photos of the basement he, his father and I finished. The centerpiece in the paneled basement was the pool table. It was not to be found in the photos.
The pool table had a one-piece slate surface. We moved it into the house (I say we only in the royal sense. A crew of movers from H.H. Pincham did the heavy lifting) and then finished the basement around it. When we moved out, we saw no good way to move it out in any usable condition.
Neither did the current owner. He cut the pool table into pieces and threw it out. The table had already moved three times.
Charlie – my grandfather and Chuck’s father, to the uninitiated – bought the pool table at some point in the late 1960s. It was the piece de resistance of his finished basement in a raised ranch on Sandalwood Lane in Austintown.
The eight-foot Gotham pool table was covered in green felt over a solid piece of slate. It had a bar ball return, where all the balls, no matter what pocket they went in, rolled into a space at the back end of the pool table. It was gloriously satisfying to hit a solid bank and then hear the ball rolling down and finally plopping at the end of its journey – unless it was one of those occasions where I dropped the eight-ball before I was supposed to.
Charlie’s father ran a bar, as did many of Charlie’s brothers at one point or another. As a result, Charlie spent a lot of time in close proximity to a pool table. He learned to be pretty good with a cue, even hustling on occasion to shake loose a couple extra bucks – or to teach someone a lesson, even if they didn’t want to learn.
The family would gather for birthdays, Christmas, baptisms, any type of celebration or holiday. After a hearty meal upstairs, the men would adjourn to the basement to tell dirty jokes and shoot pool.
Charlie would hold court with his son and his nephews: Dom, the scholar; Lenny the Jeweler, who lived in Las Vegas when what happened in Vegas might put you in a hole in the desert outside of Vegas; Jimmy, the laconic high-school-football-player-turned-steelworker who married Charlie’s niece; Billy, who had been known to hold court at a local bowling alley; Georgie, Charlie’s brother Cheech’s son, and Cheech’s grandson Donnie.
Charlie was a big man whose hands were built for strength, not dexterity. His fingers had to be surgically repaired after an incident with a circular saw. His right middle finger was sewed on crooked, making sure I could never take him seriously when he flipped someone off in traffic. He once unscrewed a stripped bolt on an engine block with a pair of vise grips.
But if you put a pool cue in his hands, well, Paul Newman in “The Hustler” did a better job describing him – even if he was talking about Minnesota Fats – than I ever could. He moved around the table like a dancer. His stroke was like he was playing the violin.
Shortly after I was born, the pool table was moved from Charlie’s house to the house my father built on McCollum Road on the West Side of Youngstown. Well, Chuck paid the bills. Charlie, recently retired due to disability, supervised construction and helped wherever he could. Grandma packed him a lunch every day – she probably wanted to get him the hell out of the house – and sent him on his way, with a purpose.
When I was old enough to walk and had enough hand-eye coordination to hit the ball by myself, Charlie built me a little stool so I could stand up over the edge of the pool table and shoot some stick with him, like a young Willie Hoppe.
For many years, he most likely let me win. When we played eight ball, he always took a handicap. I could shoot the eight ball in straight; he had to bank it.
But still, I learned a lot about shooting pool – some of it was even applicable to real life. Pool’s a game of finesse. You can overpower your own shot – and miss as a result. Sometimes, you can get by on a good eye and nerves of steel.
And then, the pool table became the center of our basement. On family gatherings for the holidays or birthday parties, a sheet of plywood was placed over it for food. On the night my mother’s father died, we came home to see Uncle Cheech and Donnie shooting pool and manning the phone, in the days before answering machines. Three nights later, after the wake, a sheet of plywood was placed over the pool table to serve family members who gathered at the house to do the Lebanese equivalent of sit shiv.
My brother Adam and I hid under the table, pretending it was a fort or an airplane. At one point, a ping-pong tabletop was put over it, but you eventually always come back to your best love.
Eventually, Charlie bought another pool table to put in the basement on Sandalwood Lane. It was another eight-footer, with red felt and leather pockets. On the nights I was at my grandparents’ house, I whiled away significant parts of it after dinner downstairs shooting pool with Charlie and listening to Frank Sinatra on the hi-fi set.
When I was 12, we moved, literally around the corner, to the house on Wilkinson Avenue. This time, Chuck contracted the construction himself. Charlie helped, but the one thing I remember him doing during the construction of the house was locking himself out of his car on a cold, rainy night that turned out to be a vocabulary-expanding experience for me.
The pool table went into the basement. By then, Charlie had sold his house as well. The red pool table went to the home of his daughter Patti, her husband AJ and their two children, Nate and Dana. Charlie kept his pool cue at our house.
We finished the basement as Chuck had the money to do so, little by little over a series of years. First the rooms were framed – a laundry room and a bathroom in addition to a closet under the stairs. Then Charlie did the wiring. Then the drop ceiling was put in. Then the paneling was put up.
One day, I came downstairs to find my father tapping on the cinder block wall. “What are you doing,” I asked. “Checking for studs,” he said. I thought about it for a minute. “There are no studs in the cinder-block walls.” “Very good,” he said. “You pass.”
The phone rang, and Chuck went upstairs to answer it. In the meantime, my brother came down while Charlie and I were putting up pieces of paneling. “Can I help,” he asked. I handed him the hammer. “Check for studs on that cinder-block wall over there.”
Dad returned to find Adam tapping on the wall with a hammer. “What the hell are you doing,” he yelled. Charlie and I were rolling around on the ground laughing.
There is one house in every neighborhood where youth congregate. On Wilkinson Avenue, it was our house. We had a basketball hoop in the front yard, with a three-car driveway providing more than enough playing room. And we had a pool table, which we would adjourn to when we couldn’t see the ball or neighbors started yelling for us to go in because we were too loud, whichever came first.
My buddy Jeff mooned me while I was taking a shot to beat him (I made it). I made my prom plans around the pool table, and later held a surprise birthday party for my Prom Date. The cynic in me said that it had to be love, because there were better-looking people to lust after. The romantic in me relies on those words of Alan Squier in “The Petrified Forest:” Any woman’s worth everything any man has to give. That’s what makes it worthwhile.
The day I graduated high school, Charlie gave me two presents: the gold watch bought for him by Uncle Cheech – being retired, he no longer really gave a damn what time it was – and a pool cue autographed by Steve Mizerak.
Charlie had a stroke at the end of my junior year in high school. He had recovered suitably enough to drive to our house. I figured that at that point, I could beat him in my own right. Despite my well-developed sense of Catholic guilt, I didn’t feel I was taking advantage of him when I asked him if he was up for a game.
He took the steps slowly, which wasn’t necessarily a result of his stroke. He was a big man for a long time, putting strain on his back and knees. He racked the balls, and I broke. I didn’t sink anything, and he took his turn.
He ran the table on me.
I decided he was just lucky, and played him again. He broke, and he ran the table on me again. He had started to lose weight after the stroke, and looked as old as he was – or older. He moved more slowly. But that day, again, he was dancing around the pool table, with a stroke like a concertmaster’s.
I figured it was a fluke, and we played one more game. Again, he embarrassed me. After that performance, I thought he would live forever.
When I was 18, I went away to college. I spent many nights in the student lounge of my dorm, watching the Cleveland Indians march to the pennant while shooting pool. My father secured tickets to Game 5 of the World Series, where the Indians were taking on the Atlanta Braves. I saw Charlie the next day, a pleasant surprise for him – and just as pleasant for me.
I got to see Charlie a lot over winter break. Then a week after I returned to my second semester of college, I got the call to come home for Charlie’s funeral. He went to bed one Friday night and never woke up.
After that, the basement became my fortress of solitude. I would go downstairs, turn on some Springsteen and shoot pool to my heart’s content. I used Charlie’s cue. It wasn’t quite the same.
By then, my friends from high school were starting to scatter to the four winds. We gathered again in the fall of 2000. We had a party for my friend Art. He had just graduated college, but not before being diagnosed with cancer. He couldn’t beat it back. He, like Charlie, had a moment where I thought he’d live forever, when he was leading a troop of his friends through midtown Manhattan, but it was not to be.
Shooting pool well, they say, is a sign of misspent youth. I’m out of practice now, but I used to be pretty good, based on the times I’d shoot against Charlie, Chuck, Adam and any and all comers. And if it’s a misspent youth, I can only hope everyone has one so squandered.