When I was a kid growing up in the late ’50s, there was a push to make pool a family game. I remember ads showing “Mom” — permed blond, high heels, and in a chemise — demonstrating for Junior — red-headed, freckly-faced, about 11 — the correct stance for the break. Dad stood by, usually with Sis, anxious to participate, observing good, clean family fun. But it didn't work. And you don't need Freud to tell you why. Pool is not just a game. Pool is a sexy game And sex is always there, below the surface, when people play,
At my first pool room, Bacchi's in New Bedford, Massachusetts, sex was macho, two men betting their money and their pride. A man beaten at pool — Eight Ball hurt; Nine Ball hurt more; Straight Pool hurt worst of all — was beaten bad. Women hung out at the room. But as spectators, as trophies, really, to be picked up by the men who won.
Bacchi’s presented money matches every night. But '‘presented' is the wrong word. Bacchi’s supplied the table, the balls, a 100-watt lamp, and a cue tapered thin by 20 years of use. Young guys played Nine Ball; veterans played Straight. Hundreds of dollars would be won and lost. Pool was, then, as much as anything else, stamina.
After four or five hours of Nine Ball, at $20 a game, shooters staggered to the table drunk with fatigue. At Bacchi's no liquor was served. Not even beer. A city ordinance forbade it. The city fathers considered a mix of pool and booze dangerous. Of course they were right, and of course everyone drank surreptitiously, from hip flasks or pints in brown bags, and seemed to prefer it that way.
Bacchi’s functioned on the caste system. People who counted, the accomplished players, got tables one through five, those closest to the entrance where “anyone dropping in” — meaning other accomplished players — could see the “quality” of the room. You could determine your rank easily. Just come in early Saturday morning, when a black kid named Sammy Grace was dusting up, and ask for a rack of balls. If you could run 30 regularly, like a 180 average in bowling, you’d get table three.
Bacchi’s was black and white. And various shades of gray. The only color in the place: the red Coke sign, the green felt, and blue cubes of chalk. There were a few stale candy bars, a few packages of Wriglcy’s spearmint, all dust-covered, displayed in the' glass case beside the National cash register. Every Saturday morning, two old men in shabby business suits played three-cushion billiards for a sawbuck a game.
But Bacchi’s was Massachusetts, 1960, the year Paul Newman made The Hustler. Thirty-four years later, and a continent away, there’s Fats Billiards.
Fats Billiards sits at the corner of Fourth and J streets, bordered by Dick’s Last Resort and the Grand Pacific Hotel. Dick’s, a nightclub, features ribs, crabs. Dixieland, and a sawdust floor. The hotel, shabbily genteel, hasn’t been grand for years. Across J Street lies Goodwill.
But Fats is beautiful. (My guess, the building was once a factory; and all that’s left of the factory are weathered brick walls.) Fats now is glass: huge storefront windows all around — and colors: blue awnings impressed with Fats’s gobs of yellow logo, brass-fixture doors pegged open, and a red welcome carpet out a couple feet onto the scoured brick sidewalk.
Naturally I wondered about the name. Why call a place Fats, especially in this age of slim? Then I remembered: Minnesota Fats, the code hero of The Hustler, played by that dear man Jackie Gleason and created entirely by the author, Walter Tevis. (A well-worn hustler named Rudolph Wanderone, quite fat himself, has usurped the name, claims he was the model for the character, and has made a career with the lie.) Come to think of it, the name seemed right. Didn’t Fats ignore conventional wisdom, in a physically pleasing way? The message: This is the place to be mellow. To indulge a bit. To feel, again, at ease.
I first got to Fats Billiards one Sunday afternoon in late May. My wife and I met a charmingly distracted lady at the desk. She’d just been hired, she told us. Her first week, she said. (Maybe she said her first day!) Oddly enough, she was the wife of the manager of the nightclub next door. A Jaclyn Smith look-alike, she might have behaved with the utmost aplomb. But she wanted to help. “I’ll call Peter,” she said. Peter managed Fats.
Unfortunately, Peter the manager hadn’t heard of me. I didn’t know what to say. Richard Hoag, who, with Mark Rosenberg and Pat Murphy, had started the Fats billiard chain with a club in Riverside in 1992, had told me, when I’d called corporate headquarters in Sacramento, that he’d be delighted by the story. He’d said he’d encourage all his employees to cooperate, but Peter, over the phone, had actually warned the young woman, “Don’t answer any questions.” He’d have to check with ownership. Of course I was irritated, but in a way I appreciated the caution. Apparently, Mr. Hoag and company were protective in the best sense of that word. The next evening Peter had gotten permission, and our introduction to Fats began.
The first member of the Fats organization we met, officially, was the doorman. The I.D. checker. The appearance checker. To a couple of would-be clients he said, “No hats; no tattered jeans.” I’ve seen bouncers before: big, tattooed, T-shirt muscles. Ready and anxious to work their trade. But this guy was a gymnast in a tuxedo. He folded his arms when he talked to me. And he was polite.
He’d been working at Fats for three months — the place had been open only six, had, in fact, opened last New Year’s Day. He’d lived out on Coronado for 20 years. He was 23.
“I’m staying on Coronado myself. It’s beautiful,” I said, and mentioned the scent of jasmine my wife and I had noticed carrying in our luggage the night before. (We’d flown nonstop from JFK.)
“Yeah,” he said, “got the beach right there. Nice town.... Not too much crime.”
I asked him about school. Yes, he was going. “Southwestern J.C.”
“Junior College,” he said. He was taking “G.E.” I waited. “General education. I’m planning to transfer to S.D. State.”
“Major?” I asked.
“Psychology. Criminal psychology.”
“Because I want to be a cop.”
“You got your own place?”
“Nah,” he said. “I live with my parents, just now.”
I wanted to know about Fats’s clientele. How old were they?
“At night,” he said, “about 23.” But some were “40, even 50.” I winced; I’m 51.
“Do the older people come in at night or in the afternoon?” I asked, hoping it would be with the hip nighttime crowd.
“Yeah,” he said. “Mostly in the afternoon; a few late at night." From “10:00 p.m. on it’s mostly late 20s, mid-20s.”
“How about women? Do you get a lot of women coming in?”
“Not a lot. But, ah, probably 30 percent.”
“Is this a good place to pick up girls?”
“Nah. Usually they come with their boyfriends, you know. Not many girls want to come here, just packs of girls.”
“Do you have any trouble with the booze? I mean, people getting loaded, causing fights.”
“Nah. Since I’ve been working here, we haven’t had any fights.” “No kidding! Nobody losing control of himself, throwing pool balls around, busting cues?”
“Nah. Nothing like that.”
“Do guys play for money?”
“Do guys play for money?”
“No. Can’t allow that. No gambling. If we see money on the table then a — they’re out of here. It’s illegal, so can’t let that happen.”
Just then two John Belushis strolled up, got acknowledged, and began to joke around. It was 10-10:30. I told my friend the doorman I was going in.
Fats in the afternoon is neat; Fats at night is lustrous. No pool room, it’s a pool parlor. Whoever designed Fats knows what lamps do. And brass shades and railings. Each partition in Fats is its own clean, well-lighted place. The tables, new World of Leisure wood, are right from the 1920s, with pockets of crossed-hatched leather strips and legs that look like legs. At the downstairs bar, the customers sit on brass stools, blue cushioned, lean against polished maple, and drink under the same style lamps that light the tables. The best beers on draft: Pale Ale, Moosehead, Wicked Ale, Bass Ale, Guinness, Riptide, Samuel Adams. (I thought, “This place has Boston-brewed Samuel Adams on draft. I can’t get Samuel Adams on draft in my hometown, 50 miles south of Boston.”) The liquors, arranged on shelves around the spigots, looking more for decoration than drinking, were those beautiful bottles with exotic names: Tia Maria, Kahlua, Corbelle, Cointreau, Bacardi, Drambuie, Grand Marnier.
I noticed a waitress at the far end of the bar, between the brass rails of her station. A tall, slender blond she was, early 20s, wearing a jersey, shorts, stockings — all black — and suede leather boots. She had the look of composure lovely women have no matter what their age. (I know all about lovely blondes; my wife is a full-blooded Swede.) The bartender asked, “Can I get you something, sir?” I yearned to settle at that bar, to share a pitcher of Samuel Adams. But an “Excuse me” got my attention. Peter Herlan, the club manager, introduced himself, and held out his hand.
Dressed in the same formal attire as his employees, Peter Herlan looked dapper, young, self-assured. We would do business, his cheerful smile said. He would sell me the club. For the next hour Peter presented a dissertation on Fats Billiards — from the company philosophy, to the advertising agenda, to the details of daily operation.
My first question concerned the computers: one at the cashing-out station near the J Street door, the other behind the bar. The monitors were color, with tables displayed.
Peter explained, “Tables one through eight on the left side of the screen signify the eight tables down here on the bottom level. The red means the tables are occupied. There’s two other colors. The white and the green. The white means it’s an eight-foot table; the green signifies a nine-foot table. The room directly above us is located in the center of the screen. That’s the Blue Room, meaning [the color of] the felt on the table. Originally it was designed to house the under-21 crowd. However, we don’t pull that clientele here.”
Then, pointing at the screen, he said, “And the tables begin. The two occupied are red, the rest are eight- and nine-foot tables. If the customer says I want a nine-foot regulation table, I’ll know exactly where to send him.”
I asked Peter about the family angle. That old ’50s approach to popularizing the game. “The downtown area,” he said, “being the hottest nightclub area in San Diego, by far, will attract, definitely, a 21-and-older crowd. Very seldom do we pull family clientele. However, we’re more than gracious. Obviously, I have a good time meeting children, and we have a good time with them. But we just don’t get a lot of under-21 people here.”
Peter seemed especially proud of his second-floor Green Room.
“The Green Room, which is by far our most popular room, is beautiful. It’s got an outdoor dining area and a huge bar, probably twice the size of the bottom one here. It has another 15 or so tables, and two of the side private ones are very similar to number five and number six downstairs. [Numbers five and six downstairs were each set apart, for more intimate games.] They’re very private for big crowds. They’ve become very popular on a Friday or Saturday night for people coming in in big groups.” Peter asked if I would like to see his Green Room. “Of course,” I said. There was a stairwell, carpeted, with railings, well lighted, leading to the second floor. But we took an elevator.
Peter continued, “This room is located directly above Dick’s Last Resort. It does have an outdoor patio with about seven or eight hundred square feet in it. Maybe, somewhere around that. Definitely the largest bar of the house, and uh, certainly because of the amount of tables, and the popularity, and the view of the room, [it] tends to attract bigger crowds than the downstairs bar. I understand when the club first opened not many people knew about the upstairs part, so the downstairs was always busy, and one of the better bartenders that works here was downstairs all the time. Well, once it, this room, was discovered (I was a customer at the time), I eventually always came up here along with everybody else. So this is definitely the place where we attract the crowds.” “We’re starting a new promotion,” Peter volunteered. “It’s our happy-hour party promotion. You probably saw the fishbowl downstairs. (I did and remembered, “Win a half-hour party — for 12, including food and pool.”) This is the room that I’m really happy about opening up at four o’clock in the afternoon. Typically it’s 7:00 p.m. when we open it, and there are some disappointed people that come by in the daytime and want to be in this room. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough business to keep both bars open during the daytime. So at four o’clock now we have our happy-hour parties and we’re doing that with a big blastoff. We’ll be open pretty much every day at four o’clock here. As long as we have the parties.
“Whenever we have a private party or a big promotion, they use this area. In fact, one of the local radio stations had a setup here when they had an auction. It was called Break for Life. It was for the San Diego Blood Bank and the American Heart Association. This is where we had all the auctions; all the donations were up here on display, and it serves us quite a purpose. I’d like to see us eventually go into the cabaret license. Where we can do more of a dance style, more of a nightclub style in this area because of the uniqueness of this room. There’s so many different ideas that we have for the future that we’d like to see happen here. And we’ll just have to see where the future takes us. But we’re definitely pleased with the setup.”
The Green Room, spacious and chic, with a brass-trimmed fireplace, a splendid bar, attractive table settings below colorful Budweiser and Miller Lite neon signs, had plenty of tables free.
Peter Herlan started out in nightclubs at 19, in Tucson, where he “really learned how to talk to people.” He knew, “You eat a lot of humble pie working in a nightclub as a manager. You’ve got to be the first to clean up messes. You’ve got to be the first to set an example for the rest of the employees. Whereas I feel if it’s a big corporation, somebody coming in new doesn’t have to, you don’t have to prove to the mail carriers in a big corporation that you’re the top. You are. It’s understood. It’s accepted. Whereas here I need to set an example, and I try to use some of my ideas. I’ll try to do whatever it takes to make my employees more money and obviously happier.”
“People tend to tip on the amount that they drink or the food that they order. If we’re a really busy club consistently, the employees, the cocktail waitresses are happier, the bartenders are happier. That’s pretty much the bottom line. Obviously the ownership is happier, which is definitely going to make the management happier.”
Then Peter escorted me across the hall, past swinging maple doors with windows, into the Blue Room.
“The Blue Room was designed to house our under-21 crowd. We don’t allow any under-21s after 9:00 p.m. However, if somebody’s here with their family, they can hang out here in the upstairs. Real simple design. Eight nine-foot tables, straight down in two rows. It seems to be our least popular room. Compared to our downstairs where the bar is, and upstairs where the bar is. Obviously our clientele, they want to be right where the bar is.” I had heard about the Blue Room, and from pool professional Dawn Meurin, currently ranked number 13 in the world. Hadn’t there been, recently, a tournament played here? I asked Peter. The Saint Croix Press San Diego Classic?
“Yes. When the women were here it went through quite a change. Just because of the tournament itself. It was about three days of hard work. Setting up the bleachers and everything else. But we got our room back, our Blue Room.”
Peter told me he was a marketing major at Mesa College. I asked him what year. “Sophomore,” he said, suddenly diffident and shy. He reflected for a moment and said, “You get all kinds of people in here. I was surprised. I went up to La Jolla one day, up to the Torrey Pines area. Went to the Sheraton Grande Torrey Pines, and I introduced myself. I gave them some passes, told them about our hospitality night. It’s called Fats Tuesday. (Nice allusion, I thought.) Tuesday night there were about 20 people from that hotel that came down as employees. I think that’s special.”
I asked Peter for a little bit about himself. He was born in Reno, he said, but had lived in East County all his life. He’d gone to three different high schools, ending up at Grossmont. He’d tutored children while in high school, in a program called AVID, designed for low-income and minority students. Peter said that AVID pays high school students and college students to come in and tutor minority and low-income students. People who would “otherwise get lost in the crowd.”
I had a thought, remembering the women’s national class tournament played at Fats in March. “How about,” I asked Peter, “how about hiring a professional pool player to teach at your room and to represent your room in national tournaments? I mean, golfers work out of clubs, even tennis pros.”
Peter said, “Ariane Gaudet,” and nodded toward a young woman wearing a handmade sweater, white jeans, and obviously delighted with the company of a fellow I took for a college professor. “The person we’re actually trying to negotiate a contract with right now is Ariane Gaudet.” I had not heard of Ms. Gaudet. But I asked Peter for an introduction. What a name! Peter had pronounced it beautifully — “Areeann Gauday.”
Before he brought me over, Peter told me of his plans. “The three things that we’ll be using Ariane for, just to start off with, is on Thursday night. We’re going to have a women’s instructional group, and she’s going to be in charge of that. And it’s ladies’ night, so all ladies get to shoot pool for free. I think it’s important to allow a sport that’s definitely dominated by men so far, for women to have a good opportunity to learn and compete with their boyfriends and brothers.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Ariane Gaudet was young and wholesome. Another blond. with bright blue, innocent eyes, perfect teeth, and a voice that meant what it said. She introduced her escort, a Britisher, met my wife, and bought us a drink.
For starters, I gave her a long, too long, resume. All about my schooling and my books and my experience with pool. She listened politely. Then, in response to my “Well, enough about me," she said, “Exactly.”
“Okay, give me your background,” I said.
“I am 28. I just turned 28 May 18. I’ve been shooting pool approximately 11 to 13 years, about 6 years very seriously. The man that taught me most of the things I know, and that was back in Atlanta, was Mark Jones, a black guy in a wheelchair, and he has phenomenal talent. He taught me composure, he taught me...” “Composure?”
“How’d he teach you composure?”
“Basically, he taught me discipline.”
“What kind of discipline?”
“Because seeing as he’s in a wheelchair he’s had to overcome a lot, and he’s really had to experience life to its fullest from a deficiency. He just taught me a whole new realm, a whole new area of life, and taught me to appreciate things, and he really got me into pool because he was very into pool.”
Ariane continued, “I started out in Busch League Pool. Which is now Bud Lite League. And I played in Bud Lite League for five years. And so I’ve had years and years of experience. I had my first pro tournament — a year ago in Atlanta, and the Green Room, which is a pool hall in Atlanta, sponsored me in that tournament. I ended up getting knocked out. I won my first match against Pat Upchurch, 9-1, and then lost my next two matches. I did not end up in the money. I’ve played in four pro tournaments since then and ended up in the San Diego tournament 17 through 24. So I ended up placing in the tournament. So I’ve come a long way. My problem is probably getting over a lot of mental obstacles. But once I get past that I’m on my way.”
“You mentioned composure,” I said. “Dawn Meurin told me a lot about composure and how she thought it was one of her strengths. She was into Zen for some...”
“She said she thought it was a great help. In fact, she’s making a videotape about how Zen helps your game. It seems that in pool players two things come together. There’s a need for acquiring composure and an ability to acquire it.”
“And somehow pool becomes the means for doing it. How does that work?”
“To me there’s a fire that’s burning inside of you. That always says, ‘Pool, pool, pool.’ You live it. You need it.”
“Okay. But why not, ‘Darts, darts, darts’?”
“Because there’s something in you that clicks; there’s something in the game of pool.”
“What do you think that is?”
“I think it is a basic love for the game. I think it’s a basic.... It has a lot to do with chess. It has a lot to do with conquering and succeeding and eventual conquest.”
“Against your opponent?”
“No, not against my opponent. Against the table. The table is what you’re looking at. It’s not the opponent. The opponent is there to throw obstacles in front of you. And to throw little flares at you. And once you get to the table, the opponent has nothing to do with your game. He shouldn’t have. Mentally or physically. It’s you against the table. And what you can execute and how smart you can play. That’s my philosophy of the game.”
Ariane paused, and her escort, charmed and impressed, said in all sincerity, “That was beautifully put.”
I told Ariane that I’d first met the pros — most of the top names in the men’s game — at the Eastern States Nine Ball Championships in 1989. “I was looking around to write another book, and I was talking to some people who didn’t have a, you know, didn’t have a high school education. And yet there was an understanding of human nature and this composure, and this sense of self-discipline...”
“...that gave them a dignity that I found lacking in myself. And I thought, my God. I’ve got three degrees. I’ve written two books on Ernest Hemingway. And yet I haven’t a tenth of their confidence when I put it on the line. Hemingway loved the kind of inner silence true artists have...”
“...that allows them to perform — to perform with grace under pressure.” I had made another speech.
“When l am in a tight match, when I am in a very intense match, the whole building can fall down around me and I would not notice it. That’s how focused....”
“The guy who’s number one in New England, Tom McGonagle, is a friend of mine. Tommy has a beautiful stroke.”
“What’s his name?”
“Tom McGonagle. He’s played a couple of close matches with Steve Mizerak. But Tommy’s got this hydraulic stroke. It’s just wonderful. One match he was shooting the nine ball for real money, and a ball from another table rolled right between his legs, and he didn’t know it.”
“All right. I mean, that’s how focused you are,” Ariane said.
“And he didn’t even know it.”
I asked Ariane about luck. Surely luck plays a big role in pool. Your ball rattles and doesn’t drop. And then his does.
She said, “Don’t you realize that every time you think, ’That’s the cue ball shape for my next position,’ and execute the position, but you miss, you hook the other fellow? Or you leave him really bad. Because the object ball is supposed to be in the pocket. Supposed to be gone. Off the table. So when he comes up to the table and says, ‘God, you’re so lucky,’ it’s not luck because the ball’s supposed to be down. And I screwed up. I should have made the shot, and I would be out.”
I asked Ariane about how your personal life affects your game. I knew from experience that when mine went sour, my personal life that is, I couldn’t make a ball.
“For me it’s not necessarily wise to let your personal life get involved in your game. ’Cause it’s not. But yet it always does. Mentally, it’s always there. Always at the back of your mind. Kicking at you and hitting at you. ‘This is wrong with my life. Am I going to make this shot?’ You just have to pay attention. Play pool. Just do it. Go for it.”
I told Ariane that my life once got to the point where I had to close my eyes to shoot. I feared a miss so much, I couldn’t shoot with my eyes open.
“You’ve got to stand up,” she said. “That’s what I do. When I see there’s an infraction. Because if you think about it, your brain says it first; then your body reacts. You have to visualize the shot first. And if you see yourself missing the shot, you say, this doesn’t look right; it doesn’t fall right. You stand up and regroup. Because your body is not doing what your brain says. Your brain is saying, 'I’m going to make the six ball.’ Your body is saying, ‘I don’t think I will.’ There’s something that’s wrong there. So you stand up and regroup. You look at the shot again. You line it up again; you walk around the table; you take a chokehold; you get back down and you focus and shoot. That’s what I do. I have to, or else I’ll ruin the shot. Once you have that lack of concentration, you’re going to ruin it. I’d say 95 percent of the time.”
I told Ariane about my suggestion to Peter Herlan, Fats’s manager, that a big-time billiard club needed a pro on staff. “That’s in the works here,” she said.
“What kind of plans would you have? What would you do with a place like this?”
“Basically, I would like to start leagues, which would bring in the money, but also would bring the interest from people who are not normally pool shooters and get them into the game. Once you get that, when pro tournaments come around, come into town, then people would come in and watch and say, ‘I shoot that game. And these pros are really good. They’re probably better than me, so why don’t we go watch.’ And it would really ignite the flame. Get the ball rolling in the pool industry. Get people to come watch and support the game.”
“How do you overcome,” I asked, “how do you overcome it when people have no idea what’s going on on the table. I remember one time I dumped the balls and ran them. This was on a table at the clubhouse where I live. And I heard an old guy say, ‘He just sunk 15 balls. But he had all easy shots.’ ”
“They don’t understand what you’re doing with the cue ball. But I think that when these people actually do come to a match to watch pros shoot, they’re sitting next to somebody who actually knows what’s going on, who’ll say, ‘Did you see that. He put right-hand bottom english on that shot. To draw it back and get shape for the two,’ or the three, whatever. And I think it’s by word of mouth. I mean, they don’t know what’s bottom english. And then they find somebody who knows what they’re doing. It’s by word of mouth. And then once that interest starts, they might read up on it. Or they might get somebody who knows what they’re doing. Maybe a friend of theirs, and say, ‘What is bottom; what is top? What is a kill shot, a forced follow?’ ”
“That’s why I thought a pro would be so important in a place like this,” I said to Ariane. “Not only would people admire you for your game and like to watch you and like to know you because you’d be a celebrity, but also because once they started to understand what you did on the table, they’d get really interested in the game.”
“When people are just banging balls, who gives a damn? It gets boring really fast. But it’s the execution.”
“Exactly. That happens once you get into the realm of pool, once you get past the point of just banging balls around. Like, Mark took me from nothing. I couldn’t make a ball two inches from the pocket. Six years ago. Actually, I could do it. But I didn’t know what I was doing and how it was happening. I just boinked them. But then Mark taught me the philosophy of bottom, top, cue ball control, left, right, draw, anything—he taught me all of that. Listen. I got it. It clicked, and I got it. I have a natural stroke. I have a natural talent and a good eye. And it all fell into place. And I might not be the best pool shooter in the world, but I have a really good time doing it. And it makes my heart feel good.”
“It’s funny. Tommy McGonagle said, ‘You know something, Pete? Don’t tell anybody. But sometimes it’s better than sex.’ ” “Exactly. It is. Really it is. If I have a choice between a date and pool, I’d probably choose pool. I would.’’
While I’d stood outside Fats Billiards talking to the doorman, Ariane had been shooting with a fellow from Dallas-Fort Worth. He was one of five, playing at the “party” table, number five, the set-off one close by the door. Ariane suggested I meet these people. They were typical, she said, of the nighttime clientele. “Twenties and 30s, you know.”
I don’t know how you feel about names. Mine, “Peter Griffin,” equals “Joe Average.” But have you noticed that good-looking people so often have nice-sounding names? I met Gina Visser, Michele Pelletier, Jack Harvey, Peter Whipple, Anthony Matchus.
As far as looks go: Gina Visser, very early 20s, tall (maybe five-ten), slim, blond, tanned. A Christie Brinkley face, but thoughtful. Then, Michele Pelletier. Small, delicate, black hair and slacks, with heels and, well, an attitude. The guys: Whipple, Harvey, Matchus. Stylish, educated, and, well, handsome. We shook hands all around.
Somebody kidded Peter Whipple. Tell him [me] about the greeting we got, at the airport. (Texan Jack Harvey had, a few days before, graduated from San Diego State University. He’d invited up two of his Texas friends for the celebration.) With a little encouragement, Peter began: “So we got off the plane and walked up the ramp. There was this pretty blond girl standing at the top of the ramp with this Dr. Golicowitz sign, as in the limo driver from the Bud Lite commercial — have you seen it? So we’re walking up and I go, ‘Tony, isn’t that so funny. I mean, somebody’s getting a limousine and it’s a joke.’ Well, the girl, as we approach, flips the sign and has both our last names on the back of it. She’s a friend of Jack. She embarrassed the heck out of us in front of all those people at the airport.”
“Great story,” I said. And it was.
First choice for my Panasonic, Gina Visser:
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Do you like to shoot pool?”
“I like to shoot pool.”
“Do you do it seriously?”
“I don’t do it very seriously. I’m better when I’m not drinking. When I drink a little more, then I’m not as good.”
“Do you go to school?”
“I’m in college. I go to Point Loma Nazarene College.”
“What’s your major?”
“I’m a...blah (she stumbles over a word) liberal studies.”
“What do you figure you’re going to do?"
“I want to be a teacher.”
“No you don’t.”
“Yes I do. Yes I do. I want to be a teacher for little kids. ’Cause I think that’s something. And I want to marry a rich man who can support me for the rest of my life, and I don’t have to do anything except take care of his kids. Okay?”
Somebody from the bar area hollers, “Last call.”
“How often do you play?” I asked.
“I play at least five times a month.”
“Really? That much? Is it usually on dates?”
“Usually I go for dates.”
Michele, the dark one, remarks to no one in particular, “No, it’s not last call.”
“What do you think of this place?” I asked Gina.
“Oh, this is a great place. They have tables upstairs. There’s tons of tables upstairs. There’s always a table. Have you been upstairs?”
“Yes, I have. It’s a beautiful place.”
“The raddest place in San Diego to go.”
“The raddest place in San Diego to go. If I want to play pool, I would definitely come here.”
It was Gina’s shot, for at least the third time. I’d taken up a lot of her evening already. I thanked her and moved on to Michele.
My first question, “Do you play seriously or just recreational?” hung in the air while we all turned our attention to the table. Jack Harvey, stretched out for an uptable corner pocket shot on the nine, a foot of cue past his open bridge, faced an obstacle. Gina had placed the butt of her cue in the pocket, and she stood there, swaying to Garth Brooks, while Jack took his stroke. I’ve noticed that people drinking, out for a good time, tend to apologize for the quality of their game. To make excuses before almost every shot. But Jack said nothing. Nor did he stand up and regroup. He just made the shot, the nine rolling around the cue butt like a golf ball around the flag. Gina removed her cue and pouted. But she was clearly impressed.
Back to Michele: “Do you play seriously?” I asked again.
“I play for fun.”
Set to thinking by the “definitely,” I asked a foolish question. “Do you have your own cue?”
“How many times do you play in a week?”
“Sometimes once. Sometimes more than once.”
“Do you like anything about the game? Or is it just something to do?”
“It goes along good with music.”
“That’s interesting. Tell me why.”
“I don’t know. You get into the music and the alcohol with it and it kind of lets you go free and you kind of play better that way. You do, don’t you?”
“There’s a rhythm to pool...” I began.
“A lot of Eagles. The Eagles are good. They’re good to play for. Those are who I learned with.”
“There’s an old-time movie when I was a kid called The Hustler with Paul Newman,” I said.
“And Jackie Gleason.”
“And one of the lines in the movie...when Newman is watching Fats go around the table, Newman says, ‘Look at him. He moves like a dancer.’ ”
“Uh-huh. To music.”
“And I thought of that when you said that about music.” But then I thought to myself, “Where was the music coming from that Fats danced to?”
“It’s all in the setting,” Michele said. “It’s all in the setting, you know.”
“When I was a kid in a pool room,” I said, “if you made a sound, everybody would go —” and I opened my eyes wide and stared.
“No. It’s not like that anymore."
“And there was gambling,” I said. “Gambling was an essential part of it. Everybody gambled. And they thought it was necessary. To show you were a man. That you could make a ball with money on it.” I asked Michele, “When you play, do you feel any pressure about performing? Do you feel embarrassed? I mean, if you don’t play well.”
“No. I feel pretty much easygoing about it. You know. If I make it, I do. If I don’t, I don’t."
“Are you going to college now?" I asked.
“Uh-huh. At Point Loma Nazarene College.”
“Same place as Gina.”
“Same place. We’re together.”
“Are you in liberal studies, too?”
“Oh, no. Nursing.”
“Oh, really. That’s funny, because I teach at a little community college back East, and I’ve got a lot of nursing students. That’s because there’s jobs in nursing.”
“Actually, there’s not anymore. In San Diego there’s no nursing jobs right now.”
“You figure you’re going to marry a rich guy, like she [Gina] is, and settle down and have kids?”
“There are requirements I have. But they’re not appropriate. So. Basically, physical things. You know.” This was a determined woman. And I wished her well.
Peter Whipple, six-two, long hair, scruffy beginnings of a beard, intelligent, observant eyes, looked anxious to talk. I figured he’d have something to say about his game with Ariane. And would say it with originality.
Peter spoke enthusiastically. “This is Peter again. I’m from Fort Worth, Texas. I came out here because a buddy of mine was graduating college. I came out to visit him. And I’ve been shooting pool, God, I think I pretty much supported my college career with shooting pool. I had a really good time when I was at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. I went to Drake University first. Then got accepted at TCU. And I shot pool all through college. I grew up with a pool table in my house. My dad was from New Jersey originally. And my mother’s from Chicago. Actually he’s from Montclair, New Jersey, she’s from Wilmette, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. After they eloped in college....” At this point, Gina began an awkwardly graceful dance with her pool cue, passing the cue over her shoulders, spiraling it around her waist and hips, then down to her ankles. I took this as her version of the dance Tom Cruise did in The Color of Money. But Peter saw it another way. “Look at the majorette go.” Then he said, “Hold it. Time-out. We’re going to laugh too hard.” But laughter was the last thing anybody had in mind. Gina stopped, giggled, said something neither Peter nor I could hear.
The interview continued. Peter: “My folks met at the University of Colorado at Boulder and eloped. When school was out at the end of the year, they announced to everybody they’d gone off April 8 and had gotten married. Ann and Jay Whipple of Fort Worth, Texas, by the way.
“When they moved up to Chicago, my dad worked for my mother’s father, my grandfather, and had a table built by a billiards company up in Chicago. Then when we moved to Texas, four years after I was born, in 1963, the table came with us and Mother didn’t get her breakfast room. It became a pool table hall right next to Mom’s kitchen.”
There’s something about being familiar with a sport, knowing it in a way that requires attention only for the essential moves, where the rest is natural. I saw that Peter Whipple had this knowledge of pool. His stance was comfortable, balanced. His cue, held lightly, three fingers and thumb. His finger bridge, shifting when needed from open to closed. Peter had an artist’s tendency to admire his work. And after every shot, he massaged the cue tip with chalk.
“I just been kinda shooting pool all my life,” Peter said. “With my dad, and always loved it. And did real well in college. Made a lot of money at it. Terrible to say on air, but a....” (Gina, uptable, about to make the seven ball in the corner, says, “He’s lying.”) Peter collected himself. “I enjoyed playing with the young lady [Ariane]. She kind of gave us a little challenge there for Nine Ball. I like a member of the opposite sex that comes in and likes to challenge me on a pool table.”
“How is it playing with women?” I asked.
“I love playing with women. I love women. I love women. Some of the ladies are not great pool players. But they’re fun to have around. But it’s also fun to find a gal who wants to whip your butt in pool, and some of them can, I tell you. They’re very good. And they’ll take your money from you real quick. They’ll surprise you. It’s fun to see a cute gal come in and shoot pool well. Like Gina. She’s not an expert. But she’s having a good time.”
“Are Michele and Gina dates?” I asked.
“We just walked up to the bar and said would you all like to, uh, I need a partner. Would any of you ladies like to play? We’ll buy you a cocktail. One gal, Michele, said, 'I don’t know how to play, but,’ she said, ‘Gina, you get over there. You know how to play, and we’ll have a drink.’ Nice way to meet people.”
I told Peter what Michele had said, about pool going well with music.
“Well, it’s great to hear some of the old classics. I like to hear Tenille. It takes me back years. But they’re good memories.” “How old are you?”
“I’m 35 years old. Just turned 35 May 3. But it’s neat to come in and listen to some of the old tunes. I was talking with the young lady over there — Gina — about some old Van Morrison tapes."
We both heard, “Peter, did you tell him about my name?” It’s Gina. Peter did not tell me about her name. What he said was, “She’s a hot shot. I’m crazy about her.”
Gina wanted to show us something. Her grip. Most players wrap their hand around the butt of the cue. The good ones caress it between their thumb and first three fingers. Gina held that cue tight in her right hand, her index finger pointing straight toward the tip. “You’ve got quite a grip,” I said.
“Yeh. The guys make fun of me because I go like this. (She stroked a little.) And the guys will tell me, 'I'll try to show you how to do it the right way.’ And, no, I want to do it my way.”
Peter joked, “They’re like in golf. They try to show you the right way. (He gestures out the cliche pose of the man, arms around the woman, holding her hands onto the shaft, teaching her to swing.) Those animals,” Peter said.
But Gina was serious. “I mean, I know it’s wrong. I point my thumb up like this. (It sticks straight up, as if she’s hitching a ride.) And I put this foot up. (She raised the heel of her forward foot, her left one, off the floor.) And they go, ‘No.’ And so I say to myself, ‘Ugh.’ I want to do it on my own.”
“You’re right,” Peter said. “Go with the most comfortable way to shoot.”
I was sorely tempted to tell Gina that with her grip, she’ll never develop a stroke; she’ll never achieve cue ball control; she’ll be lucky to make a five-ball run. But this isn’t Bacchi’s. And 1960 is a long time ago.
The focus of this night’s celebration, Jack Harvey, the height and build of a middleweight slugger, and what used to be called “clean-cut,” had drunk plenty of beer. Yet he was a model of self-control. “Tell me a little about yourself,” I suggested.
“I’m 32,” Jack said. “I was born in Austin, Texas. I’ve lived in Texas most of my life. Started at the University of Texas at Austin. But I didn’t finish until just this last semester, at San Diego State."
“What’s your major?”
“Political science and economics.”
“What are you going to do with that?”
“I was in sales for 13 years. I was a wine consultant for a wholesale company in Texas. And a sales manager. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a fun industry. It’s always on the change. I mean, it’s not as boring as selling straight booze. There’s always a new vintage or a new winemaker, and there’s new things that are happening technology-wise in producing wine.”
“Now that you’ve finished the degree, are you going to do something different?”
“Well, actually. I’ve finished this degree, but I’ve decided that since I’m such an old guy I’m going to stay in school for another year and a half and I’m going for a master’s in international business at USD. I start in the fall.”
“I’m curious. How are you going to support yourself while you’re doing it? Part-time work?”
“Fortunately, I made a lot of money in the wine business. And I am fortunate enough to have some other income. I do work part-time with a friend of mine’s company — it’s conference calling, and I sell the airtime for conference calls. Between that and what I’ve done in the past, and part from my family. I’ve got enough to provide for me.”
“How long have you been playing pool?”
“Ever since I was a real young kid.”
“Have you had your own table?”
“Yes. You couldn’t tell it right now. But that could be because of the four days that I’ve been with my friends.”
“But I saw you make a ball in the corner pocket with the girl’s cue stick in there, which is not as easy as it looks. What’s your favorite game, by the way? Nine Ball, Eight Ball, Straight?”
“I think I like Eight Ball just because you can play with partners. A few more people involved. It’s kind of like, this is a relaxing game for me. I don’t come and play for money. But when I want to play against myself and have some competition, I play golf.”
When I asked him about the presence of women in a pool room, do they make a difference in how the men behave, I hit a nerve.
“I think that’s a bunch of crap,” he said.
“You know. People have to take responsibility for their own actions. And whether there’s women here or not, if they’re going to get into fights, they’re probably going to get into a fight anyway. I guess my viewpoint on life in general is that you have to take responsibility for your own actions. It’s always been that way. I’ve been very conservative. All my life. And it’s not because of my upbringing. In my family.”
“Well, you’ve got a good steady stroke, and a good eye.”
“No, not right now. We were shooting last night. And I was playing well.”
The last but not least member of our group was Anthony Matchus. Apparently, in an effort to introduce himself to the young ladies that evening, Anthony had spelled out his last name — u as in ukelele, s as in saxophone — and this had become a running joke. Anthony is 28, from Austin, Texas, attending the University of Texas there.
“Good school," I said, “great school.”
“That is an excellent school. I’m a bartender."
“What’s your major?”
“I taught speech for three years,” I said. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I had a Ph.D. from Brown in American literature, but I needed a job.”
“Well, my concentration is in organizational communication. I have developed a fondness for interpersonal communication through the classes I have taken. That’s some very interesting courses. But back to the topic. I’m a bartender there. Putting myself through school. I love to play pool.”
“How long have you been playing?”
“I’m 28 now. I’ve probably been playing 15 years.” “Really?”
“I know it doesn’t show. It’s a recreational thing, a hobby. It goes with partying and having a good time. Pool is something I would much rather do than go to a dance club and dance. I think women are coming in pool halls more these days because it’s not as threatening as a dance club.”
“Well, most dance clubs there’s a real connotation about being a meat market. It’s a pickup place. You go to a dance hall and try to pick up women. Pool halls are more intimate.”
“That’s an insight.”
“And they are. You’re able to communicate over pool. You go to a dance hall the music’s so loud — not that the music isn’t good — but it’s at a listening level where you can’t enjoy the music and actually enjoy what you’re doing at the same time. That’s why I kinda prefer going to pool halls instead of dance halls, because I can pick up chicks, so to speak, because I can’t talk to them when the music’s so loud and we’re dancing and sweating on the floor, you know, with a hundred other people. It’s just too intense a situation."
I was surprised, and said so. The idea of a pool room being less “intense” than a club.
Anthony went on. “I’ll tell you a little bit about my feelings towards Fats, because it is the first time I’ve been here. And first impressions are very important.”
“Damn right they are.”
“Fats is a very nice pool hall. Thirty-eight tables on two floors. All regulation-sized tables. They’ve got a nine-by-four-foot here. I believe it’s a nine-by-four.”
“Actually, it’s nine by four and a half,” I said.
“That’s why I’m off. And upstairs, they’ve got some eight-by-fours. I’ve not been here in any type of competitive atmosphere, except the competitive atmosphere that you and your peers and other people in the bar drinking together would be involved in. And as far as competitions go, I couldn’t tell you much about that, but just coming here and being in several pool halls for the past ten years, since I’ve been of a legal drinking age, [I’d say] Fats is a standout place. Very nice. From what I’ve seen tonight. Beautiful tables. And they sell sticks here. Which is unusual. And coming from Texas, there’s a few franchise places in Texas. One named Speed’s Billiards and another named Click’s. And they’re not even comparable.
“This establishment here is much better than each of those establishments. Those are the places I usually frequent and play. Just because of the quality of the sticks and the tables. I’m not particularly a pool player or as good as to own my own stick and take it with me and go play. Those are the kind of guys I like to beat. The jokers that come in with their own stick. And you know I could grab a bar stick, slightly warped and rounded out a little bit. I just want to say one more thing. I don’t know if your article is about this particular pool hall.”
“It’s not just necessarily the pool tables or the playing atmosphere. But what creates that overall atmosphere is the staff. The bar. I may be a little biased here because I’m a bartender. But I think they have about ten beers on tap. The waitress, Michele, has been very wonderful. Great service. And I would definitely come back if I was to spend more time in San Diego.”
This time there was no need for a “last call” announcement. We all knew the night was over. I noticed Ariane talking to Peter Whipple. A waitress, perhaps the “Michele” Anthony had referred to, volunteered to be interviewed. She’d call the next day. My wife and I looked at each other, tired and pleased.
“So you’re doing something for the Reader, ” said a fellow I had honest-to-God not noticed though he sat at the table right in front of me. Crew-cut tough, young, he introduced himself as the cook at Fats. Tall draft in hand, and a plate of fries, he wanted to talk. What a surprise, I thought. One night, three hours, in fact, and I’m so comfortable, feeling so familiar with the place. I’m ready for an insider’s conversation with the cook.
Early the next afternoon, just before heading for Lindbergh Field, my wife and I returned to Fats. The day bartender, articulate, clearly a member of the Fats team, spoke with knowledge and enthusiasm of the operation. In 1991 he had helped open Dick’s Last Resort. He’d seen the area around Fats blossom, he said, from “bums sleeping in every doorway” to a “growing concern.” He said Fats’s “nighttime clientele spent a little money on what they wear. They’re not here to start fights.” Since he’d been there, he’d seen “one little scuffle.” Women, he said, were not “hit on constantly” at Fats. "If we’ve got somebody out there who’s asking every woman in the place for a date, they’re out the door.” This bartender knew a lot about “moving product.” But he also refused to “sell up” when somebody bought a cue. Unlike most of the Fats people, he had played serious pool, for 20 years.
I asked him for a rack of balls. I’d play on table five, the one my last-night friends played on. I’d shoot for just a little while, my wife on a stool, watching. It was too early, but I bought a beer. The bar cue was straight, the table smooth and clean. I’d started running balls, getting into the feel of things, when a family — father, mother, two kids (boy and girl) came in from a Jeep Cherokee. I think a grandfather was with them, too. The girl stood by, watching me. Then asked if she could play.