The old man with the custom cue knocks the balls off the table as if he were a schoolboy with a slingshot and the stripes and solids were so many crows perched on a telephone wire. Click click click. When the pool table has been cleared. 74-year-old Willie Mosconi shrugs and says, "Nothin' to this game." He's playing in front of the Sears store at the Northridge shopping mall in Milwaukee; the pool legend is making another exhibition appearance.
"I could arrange it so she doesn't make a ball," Mosconi tells the audience while setting up a trick shot for a young woman he has selected from the crowd. Almost 200 people are watching, if you count shopping-weary passersby and ascending escalator riders. It turns out the woman can't make a ball, even though Mosconi has arranged it so that a simple shot should pocket six at once. After three failed attempts and as many tedious setups, the Showman grows impatient and the Shark in Mosconi surfaces.
"Ever play this game before?" he asks her. (By his tone he is clearly saying, "You have played this game before, haven't you?")
"No," the woman says.
The Shark takes—yanks, really—the cue from her hand and the woman slinks back into the crowd, disappearing behind a potted palm. Then Mosconi the Salesman catches himself and remembers that he's here to pitch pool tables and make friends for Sears.
"Thank you," he says to the potted palm. "Uh, let's hear it for the young lady."
For two decades Mosconi was the best pool player on earth. He won the world title a record 15 times between 1941 and '57 and once ran 526 balls without a miss during an exhibition in Springfield, Ohio. "I never did miss," he says. "I got tired and quit." The Shark is cool. He is impeccable. Today Mosconi is dressed in a silver-gray suit with matching silver-gray breast-pocket handkerchief, matching silver-gray tie, matching...hair. In short, he's damn near perfect, if you overlook his impatience with women who can't handle a cue stick.
When a teenage boy thrusts forward a copy of Willie Mosconi on Pocket Billiards, the Shark becomes the Showman again. "I had black hair then," says the author, glancing at a photo in the book of himself in his 20's. "Hell, I had hair then." (He still does.) Mosconi signs the title page and the Showman swiftly becomes the Salesman.
"Still a good book, huh?" Mosconi asks his fan.
The kid nods.