We went to Chris’s Billiards on a Saturday night in February. Chicago’s notorious winter was uncharacteristically mild. Gabe and I were wearing hoodies. We sauntered into a liquor store, bought a six pack, and left for next door.
By the entrance was an invitation written in white plastic letters, like a miniature church sign. “Come in and see where the Color of Money was filmed.”
We ascended the stairs, the sounds of pool balls banging against one another, the cue striking the hard glass spheres, and their satisfying spin over felt growing louder. We arrived, Gabe talked, we showed the man that we had brought only beer, not liquor.
It was my first time at Chris’s. Old asian men with bleached hair and button downs played at one table, who I thought looked like Yakuza. Around a center table was a large crowd, mostly Latinos, one guy wore a cowboy hat. Hard looking men clustered around every table in the front room. Some had their legs on the edges of the table and their butts out, elbows bent as they lined up their shot. I was lightly stoned, and nervously envisioned bumping into one of these hard ass men and getting a pool stick broken over my head.
It was the kind of scene I imagined was filmed in here for the Color of Money, even though I haven’t seen it.
I let Gabe lead the way. I didn’t bump into anyone or get beat up. We passed through hard plastic strips that divided in the doorway between the rooms, like a feature in a car wash. The back room revealed the size of Chris’s to be about half a block. A warehouse, with high ceilings and cinderblock walls covered in thick paint. It was filled with the musk of teenage boy’s room. The meditative sound of pool balls was muted by loud music. Instead of the old hard asses in the front room, this backroom had a younger crowd.
Bass thudded through the warehouse, young guys tapped the ground impatiently with their cues, or chalked the tips and eyed their opponents. The smaller ‘bar’ tables were lit by low hanging lamps. Their harsh blue light defined one side of the room, where we were. The other side was described by the long fluorescent tubes. The light bounced off the green and blue surfaces and died in the dark corners and ceilings.
Gabe asked me to rack the balls while he searched for cues. I pulled out my phone and searched ‘the right way’ to arrange them. I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching. I determined that no one cared about me or my inexperience.
I cracked a beer and Gabe broke. I got confused if I was stripes or solids and on the third game I told him I was having a hard time remembering and we had a good laugh about it. Gabe’s broad shoulders spread to hold the cue, and his stout legs poised his torso for the shot. He was a lot better than me, which wasn’t saying much. My only hope for winning was if he sunk the eight ball prematurely or scratched on the last shot.
Pool is a mysterious game. For me the mystery is compounded by my lack of skill. The color coded glass spheres wildly bang against one another and bounce against the padded sides of the table, or decide to fall down the hole, where they are spat out on either end. I wondered what the tube system underneath a pool table looks like. I wondered how people master this challenging game.
Maybe it was because I was stoned, a little drunk and nervous, that my brain latched onto the game of pool. I was focused on the concept of the game, and remained completely distracted from playing it. We joked that I could tell if I was playing stripes or solids based what type their was more of on the table. My aim didn’t improve. The game remained wildly out of my control, and my mind raced.
When I was a kid my Dad gave me a book, written by Chicago actor and magician Ricky Jay, called Jay’s Journal of Anomalies. I didn’t open it for a long time then one day I rediscovered it. Jay gives a history of magic tricks, grifting, and the dark arts. There are illustrations of dwarves, bearded ladies, people getting cut in half, people levitating, and so on. What shocked me most was a chapter about bowling.
I remember a drawing of a man clutching a ball, like the type used for croquet. He was on a lawn, and was scowling. The depiction might have been a Middle Ages era wooden cut. Maybe my memory is the one drawing this picture in thick lines of ink. The chapter described the fear, distrust, and suspicion of magic that was cast over a game called “lawn bowls.”
Experts at this medieval form of bowling were suspected of having made pacts with devil.
Without doubt, I thought, the game I was poorly playing at Chris’s is a relative of ‘lawn bowls.’ There is almost no way to determine the beginning of human games which involve whacking one thing with another. Sloppy internet searches reveal a history of ‘lawn bowls’ that begins in Ancient Egypt which would make the game more than 5,000 years old. There are derivatives which involve felt covered surfaces the size of living rooms in New Zealand, candlepin bowling that is only found in Connecticut, something called duckpin bowling, Kegels, and a viking game where a log is chucked at another log. Pool is the refined game. The weight of the balls are standardized and the playing surface is smooth and near-perfect. Tables are covered with felt and leveled. The cue is calibrated and covered in chalk. Pool is like the well dressed cousin of bowling, and lawn bowls is their patriarch.
An innate knowledge of the physical world must be required by these kinds of games. And I jokingly wonder if expert lawn bowl players were vilified for the same reasons as Galileo and Copernicus. It would be as if expert players, who could accurately strike equal weighted balls to reach a target or eliminate others, possessed the same type of profane knowledge of the world that was leveled against those pioneers of science.
Without an understanding of heliocentrism and gravity, bowling would be quite the mystical ordeal. I wonder if bowling became less scary as the dark ages waned. Perhaps this dirty pastime was sterilized by scientific and secular society.
Here I was, playing pool on planet Earth, which revolves around the Sun in the Milky Way Galaxy. I thought about the forces of gravity which sent the eightball spinning, colliding against the other ones and pattering across the felt lined table. Gravity pulls straight downward to the Earth’s molten core, and hurls our planet through space, whirling on an axis. I imagined what it meant to master pool and the games like it which are inseparable to these once heretical laws.
I was just striking at random. A real pool player knows the consequences of their actions, calibrates their strike, and slowly circles the table. They lean low, and judge distance like a marksman. Perspective and force are balanced in this controlled environment.
I lost the third game in a row. It must take a really long time to get good at pool, I thought. I sipped the last of my beer and imagined pool balls arranged in the place of the planets around the sun, like in an elementary school assignment.
What do astrologists think when they play pool?
It’s safe to say people like to hear from experts. Resumes are required for jobs to weed out the unprepared. Submissions to magazines are ignored or scrutinized severely if they come from untested sources. A person’s name is a prefered introduction, it can authorize their voice.
I’m not an expert writer, not a published author and I am bad at pool. I feel disconnected to Chicago, which has a history that is known for it’s masculine toughness, described as having ‘broad shoulders,’ and being hard on fakes. It’s famous writers are gritty, it’s actors are tireless, and it’s winters are harsh. My father has built a name working as a freelance photographer for three decades in this hard city. His business is his name, it is more important than his equipment, and is second only to his eyesight. I don’t feel like a manly Chicagoan. I only grew up a mile away from Chris’s and feel like a stranger amongst the tough crowd and hand painted signs.
And here I am, writing about being bad at pool, in a city that is supposed to weed out my types and cast them beyond its gates. I should have been sent away to California or some candy assed place a long time ago. I’m made to feel too timid for the bitter cold and quaking train cars. I felt like an outsider a mile away from where I was born, a tourist at Chris’s Billiards. As if I was an alien here to visit ‘real Chicago,’ a phony who has descended from some temperature controlled place to take notes on the rough crowd and pontificate about bullshit.
It is not pool that I am faking. That I never pretended to be good at. It is scholarship, writing and research. Do I know the difference between Copernicus and Galileo? When were the dark ages? Is pool related to lawn bowls? I don’t even have the copy of Ricky Jay’s Journal of Anomalies handy. I can’t find anything on the internet to verify the claims of sorcery and dark arts that sent my stoned brain spinning, that made my thoughts ricochet against one another like pool balls.
I feel like a fake because I am not a writer with an established name, and am insecure about being from Chicago, which isn’t that important.
I imagine the perspective of the guy running the show, who hobbles around, jockeying the tables, collecting the triangles and ID’s and checking the black plastic bags for liquor. He sees guys who have mastered this tough game, and kids who come in and roll the balls in their hands for fun, just to get away. He is both tough and real, and has a distaste for fakes. I wondered what would happen if I told him I was a writer. I bet he would show a reverential respect, as old guys from Chicago sometimes do, regarding writing as a labor with words and truths instead of tools and strength.
And then there’s me.
I write like how I played pool at Chris’s Billiards on that Saturday night. I shoot with too much force and miss the target, sending the balls to unforeseen places for no reason, distracted by strange thoughts, and hoping something makes it in.