Wednesday Afternoon, 3 P.M.
It was slowly beginning to dawn on me that the time was fast approaching when it might be necessary to find a new home bar. The place that had been our home bar for the past couple of years was starting to change into something unpleasant. Word was getting around. There were some initial signs near the end of last summer that there was some sickness afoot?but then it went into remission for
a few months. Fall and winter were fine.
This spring, however, it's back again, and worse. It began with an infestation of children (both strollered and free-range). I've never had the patience for children in my bars; I'm always tempted to spill things on them, or kick them. Then came the hepcat cigar smokers and the dozens upon dozens of cellphones. I just wasn't comfortable there anymore. And what the hell's the point of going to a bar if you're not comfortable there?
"It's becoming more and more like Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo's Nest," Morgan said of the bar earlier this week, "you just want to smother it with a pillow and run away."
So on Wednesday afternoon, we did (except for the smothering part).
It had happened before?we'd be settled in all comfortable in a home bar, know our bartenders, know when to expect knocks?have a good long ride there?until something happened that made finding a new bar imperative. Sometimes it took a while?spending night after night in places we knew from the outset weren't going to do it?and sometimes we got lucky.
There was another place we usually passed on the way to the home bar?a place I first noticed a few years ago. We'd been talking about going there for some time, giving it a shot, but just hadn't gotten around to it yet. The kicker came when Morgan noticed in passing that they had a pool table.
It's growing increasingly difficult to find a decent New York bar with a pool table these days. I'm ignoring places like Max Fish?concentrating instead on those establishments I'd actually care to visit. There's one in my neighborhood, but it's a small table, only half of it is lit, it's missing a few balls and it's positioned in such a way?between a broken jukebox and a large wooden pillar?that several shots are impossible.
But it's free, and you can get a beer, so we don't complain much.
That was the problem with the Brooklyn pool hall I used to hang out in, back in the early 90s, during various stretches of unemployment. It was bright, it was cheap, it was never very crowded?but they didn't have a liquor license. All you could get there was watery soda and a basket of something they called "nachos," which amounted to a small pile of Doritos floating in a lake of Cheez Whiz. You could smoke, though it was frowned upon, but you couldn't get a beer. And they blasted the rap music?oh, how they loved their rap music in that place.
This new place, however, had potential.
I may not be the world's greatest pool player?what with the eyes and all?but I'm not the world's greatest typer, either, and that hasn't stopped me.
The moment we walked through the door, I knew we'd found a contender for new home bar. It was on a fairly busy street, but inside, on a comfortably cool Wednesday afternoon, the bar was empty. Completely, gloriously empty?except for the bartender and us. While there may have been a time once when I might immediately begin to wonder what was wrong with the place, I didn't do that now. Nice long bar, scarred wooden tables and surprisingly well lit (it wasn't lit like a McDonald's?I have a thing for bars lit like McDonald's?but it was okay). And while the beer selection wasn't on a par with the old home bar?which prided itself on its beer selection?you could still get yourself a beer. And it was all ours.
Eagles on the radio, beers in hand, we worked our way back?and back and back, it seemed?toward the pool table, which was separated from the rest of the bar by a small half-wall, with a shelf to set your beer on and an ashtray or two. The pool table itself was a beauty. It seemed either new or unused, though the bar, I knew, had been there forever. Gray felt, green bumpers, the balls unscratched.
The walls were lined with tables and bookshelves. We set our beers down and Morgan glanced at a few of the titles. I was very relieved, somehow, to discover that they were neither hipster books?no Beats or Bukowski or Jim Carroll?nor hipster academic tomes?no Baudrillard, no Deleuze and Guattari for slumming Columbia lit-crit fops. Instead, they were just books that normal people might read: Joan Collins, Joan Rivers, some popular science, some old bestselling histories.
Unless, I began to worry, it's just a ploy to keep them from being stolen by slumming Columbia students.
"Want to have these beers first before we get started?" Morgan asked.
We sat down, as the Eagles segued into something from Don Henley's first solo album.
"Uh-oh," I said a minute later. I heard voices. Heard voices and saw shadows. Shadows and voices that didn't stop at the bar, but moved straight back to where we were sitting. They threw their coats on a chair, then I heard the sound of quarters being plinked into a slot?followed by a ka-chunk and the slow rumbling of pool balls.
"Well, shit," I said quietly.
"No big deal," Morgan said. "We'll just wait them out."
The two youngsters?I'd guess they were in their late 20s, but I'm inevitably dead wrong when I try to guess things like that?sounded like they were from Bay Ridge, with their talk of "the old neighborhood" and "my boys." But if they were a couple Italian guys from Bay Ridge, I'm surprised they were such miserable pool players.
Shortly after the break, I heard the tok of the cue, then a long silence, as the ball bounced around the table with abandon, hitting nothing. It takes an odd sort of skill to do that so early in the game.
"Shit, man," one of them said.
As they continued to blunder their way around the table, singing along with the Foreigner (which might make them older than I thought), I leaned in and whispered, "We should take these guys on. I'll lay a $20 down. Whaddya think?"
She gave me a little smile which seemed to say, "Yes, we'd probably win?but that might not be such a good idea."
Yeah, I thought?what if this first game's just a ruse to sucker us in?
(Though I think she was thinking more in terms of the beating I would end up taking.)
Instead, we drank our beer, listened to the music?most all of it, it seemed, dating from between 1982 and 1987?got more beer, talked about stuff.
"I have climbed...the highest mountain," Morgan announced in a nerdy voice when U2 came on. "I have run through the fields. Only to be with you."
"You have that?" I asked, referring to the notorious Negativland single. Negativland was always one of those bands I appreciated in theory (much as I appreciated Throbbing Gristle in theory)?I loved what they were doing but found it extremely difficult to actually listen to their records for any span of time. Except maybe that one. God bless 'em, anyway.
"Yeah," she said.
"I think I need to hear that again sometime soon."
Meanwhile, our boys kept playing. When they finished the first game, they racked up for another. I sighed, even as I had to duck out of the way of a cuestick.
"They aren't even drinking," Morgan said. "What the hell's that all about?come in here, play pool, not drink anything?"
"Bad news," I agreed. So we got another round for ourselves. The young (there I go again) Irish bartender pulled a Murphy's the same way she'd pull a Guinness, so it took a while.
Despite the pool table situation, I was still liking it there. I was comfortable. It was quiet. I could even see a little bit.
"I'm thinking of getting that 'white supremacy' tattoo covered up," one of the Bay Ridge Boys said. "You suppose Eddie could do that for me?"
"Yeah," his friend replied.
"Just cover it up in black or something?"
Meanwhile, I worked on the beer, wondering why they didn't stick to croquet.
After the fourth game, they finally left. Never had a drink. Just gathered up their coats and walked out. The afternoon had cost them $4?which, come to think of it, is pretty good.
Unfortunately, by the time they left, the beers were starting to do what they do. I wasn't exactly Jackie Gleason to begin with?well, in some ways?and now, none of the balls seemed to be going where I wanted them to.
In short order, Morgan kicked my ass in four straight games.
"I don't know," she said when we were finished, "there's just something not very satisfying about saying, 'Yeah, I beat a blind guy at pool.'"
We sat down and had a few more beers. The late afternoon sun was pouring through the front windows, crawling across the wooden floor, but wasn't coming anywhere near us. The bar remained empty, and the radio kept playing songs that meant nothing to me when I was in high school, but somehow meant something to me now.
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