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A Clutch of Odd Birds
Pat Jordan
August 30, 1971
In the pool hall's pecking order, there was a spot for each of the town's wastrels, a niche where even a cue-room turkey felt at home. It was not a bad place to come of age
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August 30, 1971

A Clutch Of Odd Birds

In the pool hall's pecking order, there was a spot for each of the town's wastrels, a niche where even a cue-room turkey felt at home. It was not a bad place to come of age

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When the turkeys were rare on particular days, the regulars passed the time playing practical jokes on Berger. One day Len the Worm threw a cue ball through the television screen in front of which Berger was placidly watching the Preakness; on another day Hambone took Berger to lunch at the nearby greasy spoon and, as he casually tossed a dead rat on the grill, turned to Berger and said, "Medium or well?" And on still another day The Rodent, in frustration over a missed shot, javelined his cue stick through the front window, almost impaling a bleary-eyed Berger, who was returning from an all-night poker session.

It is hard to say just how Berger viewed these pranks. Invariably they resulted in temporary banishment for the perpetrators, but when the big Chicago game began in the early afternoon, the exiled were readmitted.

The daily center of attention was the Chicago game played on table No. 1. In Chicago the players shoot the balls in rotation—one, two, three, etc.—and are paid only when they sink the one, five, eight, 10 or 15 balls, which are called "money balls." The player whose balls total the highest number of points also wins money.

The players in the game seldom varied, including Speedo, The Rodent, Len the Worm, Hank, Gary, Berger and myself. Speedo was so slight and baby-faced that he looked more like a fifth-grader than a high school senior. No one would ever have taken him for the consummate pool shooter he was, and this more than anything helped him assemble a faithful gaggle of turkeys, who found it inconceivable that they should lose money "to that little squirt." Speedo acquired his nickname because of the speed with which he could divest turkeys of cash and because he shot pool without taking so much as a split second to sight his shot, a tactic he had learned from Mort Berger.

Speedo was Berger's greatest admirer. He considered the proprietor a hustler of artistic proportions and studied assiduously at Berger's knee, to which he barely reached. However, Speedo lost confidence in his mentor one day when he and Berger teamed up to play a pair of strangers in a very expensive Chicago game. Midway through the game Berger stole an eight ball from the opponents' rack and placed it in his and Speedo's rack. When this discrepancy was discovered by one of the strangers he brought it to Berger's attention by repeatedly poking the tip of his cue stick into Berger's chest. This left little blue chalk marks on Mort's white shirt and drops of perspiration on his brow. The chalk marks looked like bullet holes from a distance. Berger assumed his most smitten air—wide-eyed, open-mouthed, incredulously pointing a finger at himself—and turned to a confused Speedo and said, "Son, I told you never to do that. I run an honest game here. I have my reputation, you know."

If it were not for Berger's intervention the two strangers would have played chicken wishbone with Speedo's frail and trembling frame. As it was, they left contentedly after scooping up all his spare cash. As the door shut behind them Berger was heard whispering to Speedo, "I told you never to steal a money ball, Speedo. Steal the four or six if you need to. Nobody ever pays attention to a four or a six."

Len the Worm, another regular, was a dark, shifty-eyed youth who perpetually glanced over his shoulder as if expecting some fearful specter to tap him at any moment and lead him away to God only knew what torments. The Worm had an odd, shaky, clawlike bridge with a cue stick, and although he shot a decent enough game he seldom sank a money ball. His bridge hand would shake terribly. He would gulp in air, running his tongue over his dry and pursed lips as he bent over to sight a shot. Pool affected us all a little like that, I guess. It was more than just a game or a means to easy cash. It was for us a symbolic playing out of some inner turmoil. The confrontation was not with a $5 money ball but with something that ball represented for each of us, some inner and complex doubt we were unable to overcome in reality, but which could be momentarily mastered by the simple act of shooting a colored plastic ball into a leather-lined pocket. It always brought short-lived success. Those inner doubts remained, undiminished, and they would reappear the moment we stepped outside of The Stick into what we began to refer to as "the real world." For most of us at that time, however, success on the pool table was a satisfactory substitute. It was for Speedo, say, proof enough that despite his size and appearance he could exhibit as much tenacity and courage as any 225-pound football player.

But alas, The Worm hadn't even that meager consolation. He was a thorough loser. And whenever he did miss an easy shot, the ball hanging precariously on the lip of a pocket but refusing to fall in, The Worm would turn to his audience, his eyes flitting in their sockets like ball bearings in an empty glass, and say: "It moved, it moved! The table moved. Did you see it?" He would grab Jack the Rat's sleeve and tug it until in the end Jack nodded tiredly in agreement. "It musta been a earthquake or somethin', Jack. It musta. Why does it always happen to me?"

The Worm was particularly susceptible to the ploys of Mort Berger, who could be counted on to sneeze, squeakily chalk his stick, jingle coins in his pocket or make a sudden move as if to catch a falling cue stick, causing The Worm to miscue and send the cue ball squibbling past a money ball. The Worm became so conscious of Berger's presence that after a while Mort no longer had to make a move or a sound in order to throw off The Worm's shot.

The Rodent, so named because his face came to a point at his nose, was the worst pool shooter among us. But he could afford to be. He was immaculately dressed in Brooks Brothers button-downs and Lord Jeff crew necks and seemed to be in possession of a bankroll large enough to sustain the heaviest losses in a Chicago game. The Rodent was very status conscious. He was always working on some plan that would propel him into the public limelight. In his Stick days he even went so far as to pay some of the regulars $10 a week just to let him hang around with them so he could learn to be "one of the boys," as he put it. The Rodent and his schemes (which included weekend trips to New York City to attend arty East Side parties where he could make himself known) were a source of amusement to The Stick regulars. However, The Rodent had the last laugh. He married a New York fashion model who earned about $200,000 a year and was five years older than The Rodent. As proof of his elevated status in life, The Rodent returned to Fairfield County one day, rustled up as many former Stick buddies as he could find and carted them off to his $250,000 New Jersey estate. There he showed them his 20-room mansion, his servants and the chauffeur-driven limousine that transported him and his wife to New York City each morning. When his friends asked him just what he did for a living The Rodent looked incredulously at them and said, "You mean, work?" He chuckled. He said he was a sort of producer, although he never mentioned what sort. Then he showed them a few yellowing Leonard Lyons columns from the New York Post that read something like: "What handsome young Broadway producer was seen holding hands with what high-fashion model at Arthur until the wee hours of the morning?" It was hard for his friends to believe that the "handsome young Broadway producer" was The Rodent. In fact, to this day none of us can ever remember seeing or hearing of any play that he produced. Of course, to be fair, I have to admit that we always tended to think of him as "The Rodent," which surely wouldn't be how his name would appear in the credits, and so we might have missed it a few times.

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