The only regular who had not turned out well, he said, was The Worm. "He's a junkie with a very bad habit," Hank said.
"I could have figured that," I said. "I read how The Stick was raided for drugs a few years ago. It's a wonder all the regulars didn't end up like The Worm what with Berger to influence us."
"Oh, Berger wasn't the owner then," said Hank. "He'd gone back to Philly. When he left, the whole place fell apart. No one had any ambition to hustle pool anymore, so they just sat back and started taking dope. That's when I joined the Air Force. If Berger had been there maybe The Stick would never have seen any drugs."
I asked him what he meant, and he told me, "Berger would never have stood for any drugs in his place. It would have hurt business. Junkies don't shoot pool, it doesn't hold any interest for them. When Berger was there he gave us all a common interest. It wasn't much of an interest, hustling pool, but it was better than some of the things we could have been doing. At the time, most of those guys were in pretty bad shape. We were messed up and needed someone like Mort Berger to keep us above water. He kept us occupied just long enough for most of us to straighten out, and those that didn't, like The Worm, well, he held them up as long as he could and when he left they just sank to their own level, that's all. But without Berger he might have gone down a lot sooner, you can bet on that."
"And what about Gary?" I said. "How did Berger help him?"
"Gary, I almost forgot about him. I don't know, unless it was that without pool and Mort Berger, Gary wouldn't have had anything to make him want to get out of bed in the morning." And as Hank spoke, it fell so neatly into place, and I realized he was right. That Mort Berger had played an important part in my life, too, and I owed him not a small debt of gratitude.
"But I don't think that Mort Berger had any idea what he was doing for us," said Hank. "I don't think he could see that far ahead. In fact, if he ever heard us talking about him like this he'd probably say we were lunatics."
And he might be right.