Joe McNeill's mother used to say, there's a Mort Berger in every town, and she may have been right. But those of us who knew him in the summer of 1962 liked to think she was wrong and secretly hoped he was unique. Berger was the proprietor of the only pool hall I can ever remember seeing in our small town in Fairfield County, Conn. He was a Jew from South Philadelphia who spoke out of the side of his mouth. On windy days he stuck bobby pins in his hair, which was deep reddish brown, the color of an Irish setter's. But, at 33, he didn't have much to stick bobby pins in. To compensate, Berger let the little patch of hair at the base of his neck grow until it would reach far down his back if he let it—which he didn't. Instead, he combed it forward over his brow where he teased it into a tuft like a rooster's comb. Actually, Berger resembled a rooster more than anything. He had watery blue eyes, a pointy nose and the gently curving, bottom-heavy build of a Rhode Island Red. He waddled.
Berger's greatest fear was that a strong wind might come along and reveal his artifice. To defend against this possibility he ventured outside the pool hall as infrequently as possible. This tended to make his pale and mottled redhead's skin so opaque that veins were visible beneath it. Whenever he did appear outside he walked about with his hand flattened over the top of his head like a man who had misplaced a migraine. Finally, in desperation, he had resorted to bobby pins. It was hard for anyone, at first, to talk casually to Berger without breaking up at the sight of the bobby pins, but after a few withering looks one learned to ignore them. The only person I ever heard question Berger about them was a college freshman who wandered into the pool hall one day, challenged Jack the Rat to a game of dollar nine ball and then, pointing to Berger's hair, asked, "How come you got bobby pins in your head?" The place fell mute. It seemed even the skidding billiard balls froze in midflight. Berger's face took on the color of his tuft. He fixed a beady-eyed stare on the offender and said in a voice the recollection of which still sends shivers down my spine, "You, my friend, are banished for life." The humiliation! Worse even than Kant's categorical imperative! It would have been better for the boob if Berger, yarmulke over his tuft, prayer shawl about his shoulders, had intoned the Hebrew prayers for the dead.
That moment left a deep impression on all who witnessed it. Berger had banished most of us at one time or other, for offenses like firing a cue ball through a plate-glass window, or breaking a cue stick over the head of a $20 loser who promised he would return the next day with the money, but never for life. The worst we had ever received were indeterminate banishments such as, "until Jack the Rat returns with coffee." But a lifetime banishment! That went contrary to the one, all-abiding dictum with which Berger governed his life: "Never bounce a potential turkey." To have broken that golden rule without the slightest hesitation forced us all to view Mort Berger in a more spiritual light. He became for us, from that moment on, a man of principle.
Berger's ambition almost from childhood was to become a hustler—cards, pool, horses, craps, etc.—so that eventually he could fulfill his dream of owning a combination bowling alley and pool hall that would cater only to families and young couples. "A place with class," he liked to say. It must have occurred to Berger somewhere along the way that Philadelphia was too large a city for his modest talents, and so he began shopping about for a nice suburban community where his meager ability would be magnified by the citizenry's naivet�. He would content himself with being a big fish in a small pond or, rather, a big rooster in a small henhouse. That was why, in the spring of 1962, Mort Berger turned up in the quiet Fairfield County community. It was an affluent and virginal suburb of New York City, ripe for Morty's talents.
Berger promptly opened The Golden Stick in a neat boxlike building out on the Boston Post Road. The day before the opening he was confronted by a delegation of the town's teen-age wastrels. The group included Jack the Rat, Speedo, The Rodent, Len the Worm and Hank. Berger, perched high on a ladder outside The Stick, was swathed in white overalls and had a paintbrush in his hand. He warned the delegation below that The Stick would be "a place with class." Then he added, shaking his paintbrush in a menacing manner, "No trash is gonna be allowed inside." Looking up, Speedo was splattered with orange paint. The boys nodded at the warning and departed.
For a while Berger seemed to make an effort to be faithful to his word. The Stick did not look like one of those musty, nefarious pool halls that can be found in any big city. Outside it was painted that bright orange, and within the walls were a soft powder blue. There was a gold carpet on the floor. Berger's small office was paneled in pine and had a half-door that allowed him to follow the action around the room. The pool tables were new Brunswick models with felts of orange, gold, blue and the more traditional green. Hanging from the walls were dozens of cue sticks and an assortment of placards that warned The Stick's patrons the management would tolerate no profanity, no gambling and no minors. A minor was defined eventually as someone who had no money and/or was still being breast-fed.
On the first few days Berger stood in the doorway of The Stick, resplendent in a brown blazer with a crest of grapevines on the breast pocket, and handed out orange membership cards for the sum of $1. Nobody could enter without one. The card informed the bearer that he was entitled to all the privileges of The Stick. Berger (or rather "the management," as he liked to refer to himself) reserved the right to revoke those privileges at any time and for "any reason. Today the membership cards are considered something of a collector's item in Fairfield County. Their holders are a parochial lot, often referring to one another (much as the survivors of a great battle might) as the "originals." The originals still meet once a year, making a pilgrimage to Philadelphia, where today Mort Berger is the proud owner of his combination bowling alley and pool hall. Joe McNeill, who purchased the first membership card, had it laminated recently.
Although Berger might honestly have conceived of The Stick as a place with class, it did not take long before it became, in fact, a hangout for the town's high school and college students, fledgling pool sharks fresh from seven viewings of The Hustler and assorted "trash" between the ages of 15 and 25. Day or night one could find games of stud poker, nine ball and Chicago; baseball, basketball and football betting slips; racing programs and forms from Roosevelt and Aqueduct; and three small shells under which Mort Berger would gladly place a bean that would magically disappear the moment you slapped down a dollar bill. Berger did not need a house to fall on his tuft before he realized that his conception of what The Stick should be had to be altered drastically. He stopped wearing his blazer, threw away his membership cards, rolled up his sleeves and became The Stick's chief organizer of any and all games of chance.
As a result, The Stick became crowded and boisterous, so filled with the sounds of laughter, anger, profanity and anguish that it seemed always on the verge of destroying itself with its own pent-up energy. The place was dominated by the regulars, who stood conspicuously against the walls, Knights of the Cue Stick leaning on their foils, waiting faithfully for the approach of a turkey. When one stepped through the door there was a barely audible "gobble, gobble, gobble" around the room before someone pounced on him. The turkeys seemed to enjoy the attention they received as much as anyone. It gave some of them a sense of importance, a recognition they probably would receive nowhere else in life. The $10 or $15 they lost daily was small price to pay for the solicitous and faithful attention of such a hustler as Speedo.
"Kwasi, where ya been? I thought you had died on me or somethin'."