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The Boys at the Billiard Cafe

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Tony and Marvin have finished playing billiards for the night and are standing close together at the far end of the table. Using both his hands, Tony gestures toward the side rail, then toward the opposite end of the table. Marvin points across the table with his cue, drops the point on the felt, and then pivots the stick around its tip, checking the angles. Their voices are lost in the large room and in the click of balls on the other tables. Their faces are half lost in shadow. The hall is dim, most of its light coming from fluorescent lamps that hang only a few feet above each table and are turned on only when a game is being played. It's late Saturday night, and the other two billiard tables are dark, as are many of the room's 13 pool tables. Every pocket of light is dull with cigar and cigarette smoke.

Tony points again across the table, then back at the rail in front of Marvin. Marvin, whose head is tilted toward Tony and slightly back, nods. He picks up his cue, retrieves the one red and two white balls from the table, and sets them in their cardboard box.

I turn to Ernie Presto, who is sitting next to me in the row of chairs that runs down the center of the pool hall, and ask him if he knows what they were trying to figure out.

"No," Ernie says, giving a little snort. "And neither do they." His hand swats the air. "Marvin comes in every day and he always asks Tony the same question. Tony explains it. But Marvin forgets. Marvin writes the answer down in a little book he carries. The next time he comes in he tries to look it up, but he forgets what sheet he wrote it on." A smile lifts one of Ernie's cheeks. "Sometimes Tony gets mad and starts yelling at Marvin."

Ernie Presto is 81 years old. He wears wing-tip shoes, a brown shirt that is buttoned tight at the collar, and baggy slacks that are cinched in by his belt. He often has part of an unlit cigar somewhere close by. "Every day I smoke a grand total of one," he says. "I smoke a half and throw it away. Smoke another half and throw it away." Cigarettes, he says, are too expensive, though he occasionally buys an expensive cigar. "Sometimes I buy the $2.85 kind--after I have a good meal at a restaurant. You know, to impress people." Like who? "Oh, the bartender," he says, smiling.

Ernie was an engineer with the Cook County highway department for 40 years until he retired. He started playing billiards when he was 16 and at one time was probably one of the ten best billiard players in the country. He still plays every day, including Sundays, at the Chicago Billiard Cafe on Irving Park at Austin.

Marvin comes over and stands in front of Ernie, waving a spiral-bound book--Gilbert's book, he calls it. He says he's heard that Ernie is the only guy in the room who could understand Gilbert's book. He pushes it at Ernie, who says he's never seen the book before.

Marvin insists that Ernie must at least know who Gilbert is. Oh, Gilbert, says Ernie. Yeah, but he's never seen a copy bound the way this one is. Ernie then introduces me as someone who wants to meet some billiard players.

"You'd better hurry up," Marvin chuckles. "They're dying fast."

Marvin Goodman, who is 84, has a face that crinkles easily into deep laughter lines. He says proudly that he once beat two billiard champs in tournament games: Harry Sims and Bob Ameen. Marvin lives alone on the near north side and is vague about the kind of work he's done in the past--he was an OSHA investigator, that sort of thing. He says he has long been in city politics and for many years was an adviser to political heavyweights and a top organizer in the 43rd Ward. "I'm the kind of guy that turned one vote into two," he jokes.

Ernie opens the Gilbert book and flips quickly through it.

"This guy worked it out by trial and error," he says in disgust. "You can't do that because every table's different."

He hands the book back to Marvin, who looks annoyed and walks away.

Ernie explains that the rails on one table may be slightly higher or lower than those on another. Or one table may have a slightly different kind of rubber in its cushions, or older or newer rubber. Each little difference changes the speed at which a ball rolls, the angle at which it will come off the rail, the distance it will finally travel. Whenever you play on a new table you have to adjust your game to it, not just follow diagrams in a book. This, Ernie says, is something Marvin still hasn't figured out, even though he's been playing for years.

But then Marvin's a politician, not a mathematician, Ernie says.

Milt, who is sitting on the other side of Ernie, chuckles softly. "Yeah. Politicians are used to changing figures. They make them come out the way they want them to."

I ask Ernie if he calculates every angle of every shot he makes.

"Of course I do," he exclaims. "I'm a mathematician. "

Another player, Merhl, steps in front of Ernie. "What? Has Marvin been taking lessons from Tony for three years?"

"Five years, I think," says Ernie.

"Next year they'll go to page two."

They both chuckle.

Tony Amendola--"that's Italian," he says--has a smile that breaks wide across his face when he laughs. He is 67 and lives alone with his cat on the south side. "No arguments, no problems," he says almost defiantly. Then he looks a little embarrassed and says, "I used to be married once."

Tony has been teaching a young man to play. "See, if more billiard players would take the time to teach the younger players, we'd have more players. But everyone wants big money. See, some of these guys want 30, 40 dollars an hour. Who can afford that?"

Tony doesn't get paid for his lessons; his students pay for his time on the table. He says he once tried asking students for ten dollars an hour, but then they didn't remember what he taught them.

"I like to teach, but there aren't many who want to learn. These young fellows, they want to learn everything in one lesson. . . . I had some college kids want to learn. They can't even play pool and they want to learn this game. This game's 30, 40 times as hard as pool.

"Yeah, if I could get ten pupils at ten dollars an hour, I wouldn't have to go back to work," he chuckles. He retired last July, having worked for years doing home remodeling and heating and plumbing repairs. He doesn't like not working and is going back soon.

I tell him Merhl's crack about Marvin being nearly ready to go on to page two. He dips his head and lets out a long, wheezy laugh. "I told him, if he don't start listening, he's gonna die, I'm gonna die, and he won't learn."

Tony says he and Marvin have been playing together for 13 years, but Marvin forgets what he tells him. "Sometimes he'll ask me the same question 30 times. Then he'll have to make the shot, and he'll say, 'You never taught me that.'"

Once, he says, Marvin claimed that Tony had never taught him a certain shot, and Tony said he knew he had; Marvin swore at him loud enough so everyone in the hall could hear. Tony refused to play him for two months. "Marvin would come in, and we'd sit down and have coffee. He'd start asking me didn't I want to play? I'd say no. And he'd get mad. He'd start yelling at me, why was I wasting my time with these other guys?"

Tony stops smiling. Actually, he says, Marvin is good. He's playing the best he's ever played in his life. "Perfect eyesight. His stroke ain't so good now, but he's got his speed down."

"If I tell him to hit a point [a certain spot on the rail], he'll hit it within that much," Tony says, spreading his fingers a quarter-inch apart. "I once set a shot up for him, and he made it seven times in a row. But he said, 'I still don't understand it.' I said, 'Marvin, I can't make that shot seven times in a row. What's to understand? You want to hit it seven more and sink it in?'" He laughs and shakes his head.

"When he shoots with me, he shoots good. Because I let him do whatever he wants." Marvin is known for taking a long time to shoot. Ernie says a lot of people won't play with him because of it.

Tony says Marvin sometimes refuses to make a shot the way he shows him. Now he looks hurt. He once asked Marvin why, and Marvin explained that he was afraid Tony would tell him wrong on purpose. Tony shakes his head in disbelief. "I'm proud of him when he makes a shot," he says.

It's late on a Wednesday night. Ernie and Milt are sitting a few chairs apart, silently watching a game. Milt rarely says much. Few of the hall's billiard players say much while they're playing or watching a game.

Milt Shaw is 75. He started playing billiards 20 years ago, but hasn't played much in the last eight years. He has glaucoma; he's completely blind in his left eye and only has 10 percent vision in the right. He can't see anything at the far end of the game he's watching; it's like looking through wax paper, he says. A few days before, he filled in for Ernie when Ernie went to make a phone call. Milt set up a shot and made it. Then he made two more in a row. He smiles as he says this, then sighs. "It's just a guess as to whether I can make a shot."

Until he retired, he worked for the telephone company. He helped plan the door-opening system at Marina City, a feat he calls "the living symbol of my 36 years with the telephone company."

He lives alone now on the north side and comes to the billiard hall nearly every day but Sunday. "It's something to do," he says, since he can't read the paper or watch television. He rides the bus down but usually gets a ride home with Ernie.

Milt leans forward on his cane, whose black varnish is worn away around the handle, and looks over toward Ernie. The lights over the nearby tables are all out, and Ernie has fallen asleep in the dark. His chin has dropped onto his chest, and his arms lie limp in his lap.

Ernie nods off frequently, Milt says softly; ordinarily he catches himself and gets up, walks around, has some coffee, or goes next door to get something to eat. But he's been trimming his hedges and pulling weeds lately, and that tires him out more than usual, Milt says.

He watches Ernie for a minute.

"He's remarkable," he says.

In what way?

"His mind. He's been around. He's done everything." Milt's jaw works up and down. "I was always just behind him," he says. He explains that both he and Ernie played semiprofessional baseball, though on different circuits, and bowled at the same alleys.

He sits thinking a moment. "He has a good sense of humor. And he's got a good outlook on life, too."

"About ten years ago," says Ernie, "I was getting into my car, and two kids were playing catch down the block. They missed the ball, and it rolled toward me. I picked it up--I was gonna throw it back, you know. Well, that damn ball only went about 40 feet. My arm felt like a telephone pole."

In addition to semiprofessional baseball, Ernie played basketball, football, golf, and horseshoes. He also skated, bowled, and boxed. He chuckles when he says he has kept his old boxing gloves. "They've still got blood on them."

"I worked hard all my life, and I played hard," he says. "And anything I did, I wanted to do to perfection. I didn't do anything haphazard. I could throw a ball farther than anyone, hit a ball harder than anyone."

He says he played trumpet with a band at various dance halls around the city and was invited to play on the vaudeville circuit. He chose to go to college instead. Later he says he played for Florie Mack's Musical Maniacs. "Florie Mack. Geez, did we think he was an old guy. He was 30 years old."

He sang, too. "Oh, hell yes. I was a member of a barbershop quartet. Sure."

Ernie lived with his parents for most of his life, in the house they built on North Talman. "I'm the only one left," he says, "and I've still got the house." He had two brothers and one sister. "Yeah, I was six feet one and I was the shortest one in the family and at one time the heaviest. For years I was six feet one and 209. And what do you suppose Joe DiMaggio was? Six feet one and 209."

Ernie never married, though he says he was once considered handsome and had lots of girlfriends. "Geez," he exclaims with annoyance, "what would I want to get married for? Oh, sure, I met the right one. But I was having too much fun to get married." He stops and thinks. "I might get married yet. If the right girl came along."

Billiards was Ernie's great love. For 40 years he played in the numerous pool halls that used to be in the Loop, all of which have since closed. "I saw all the best players, and I played most of them," he says. Including Willie Hoppe, who, though long dead, still holds most of the world's records in three-cushion billiards. (Bob Nelson, who has watched Ernie play for 42 years, says that in tournaments Ernie always barely missed the shots he missed, while other great players missed by far more: "I always said that if billiard balls were one one-thousandth of an inch wider, nobody would ever have heard of Willie Hoppe.")

"I used to be so crazy about billiards," says Ernie, "I'd come in to play every day, and I'd play all the time. I used to be known as a tough money player."

He doesn't play much now. "I can come in, sit down with a cigar, and watch for four hours. I like to watch billiards. I don't care too much about playing anymore because I can't make a bridge, and I can't play my speed."

A few years ago, Ernie had a tumor removed from the back of his left hand. The incision became badly infected, and the doctors had to do more surgery. The scar tissue prevents him from closing his fingers tight enough to make a secure bridge for his cue. Besides that, he says, he can't see the edges of the balls very well anymore. He doesn't tell me, but later Merhl's wife does, that he is also diabetic.

I ask Ernie whether he ever watches the pool players. He snorts.

"I'd never go over to watch a pool player." He waves his arm at the door. "I'd rather go outside and watch the grass grow. Pool is just a game of skill. No science. Billiards is a game of science."

He swats the air with the back of his hand. "It's just like bowling. You can be the world's dumbest guy and be a great bowler." In pool, he says, "all you've got to do is shoot the ball into the pocket. What's exciting about that?"

Moreover, Ernie says, billiard players are professional men, gentlemen: "They always have jobs." Pool players tend to be gamblers. "Do you know no one would watch a game if they weren't playing for money?"

Billiard players never gamble?

He frowns. "Oh, yeah. There's gambling on billiards. But most guys play for the thrill of the game." He pauses. "I'm talking about guys that shoot pretty good. The rest, they wouldn't play two minutes for the fun of the game."

Ernie, of course, plays for the thrill of the game, though later he says that he can still play a real tough game if he has to: "Just lay some money on the table," he says.

Two young men are playing billiards and Ernie, Milt, Merhl, and Merhl's wife, Rose, are watching. The other two billiard tables are dark.

When the players finish their game, Merhl rushes over to show one of them how he should have shot a setup. Ernie leans toward me and scoffs, "They played that game for $200. Neither of them plays very well, so they have to play for $200."

Ernie is smoking a cigar. He pulls it out of his mouth and says with satisfaction, "I shot the eyes out of the game today." He adds that he and Merhl are going to play in a tournament in Rockford the following weekend.

Merhl comes back and asks Ernie if he wants to go for a ride with Rose and him in the cab he drives. He says he has a new Buddy Hackett tape he wants Ernie to hear.

"So, you want to go for a spin?" Ernie asks, smiling.

"Yeah," Merhl laughs. "We'll probably go to the corner and back."

Ernie grunts and pushes himself up out of his chair. Merhl gets his coat from the wall rack and helps him on with it.

I ask Tony if there's anyone in the room who hustles. He points to ten pool players. If there are so many of them, I ask, who's dumb enough to play them for money?

"That's why there's so many of them," he laughs. "We call them gypsies and pigeons." Then he quickly points out that Frank, proprietor of the Chicago Billiard Cafe, runs a "good room"; he won't let anyone hustle kids, and he doesn't hesitate to throw someone out.

Many of the habits of a good pool player and a good billiard player are the same. Each burnishes the tapered end of his cue until it's like glass. Each carefully chalks the leather cue tip before each shot. Each curls one finger around the cue and splays the rest on the felt to hold the cue stable.

But the two games are quite different. A billiard table has no pockets, so the three balls used--a single red one and two white ones, one of which has a red dot--stay on the table. In three-cushion carom, the most commonly played billiard game in the country, each player uses one of the white balls as his cue ball throughout the game. To score a point, or "make the billiard," he must hit both of the other two balls--the "object balls"--with his cue ball, and his cue ball must hit at least three cushions, or rails, before it hits the second object ball. It can hit any number of rails or none at all before hitting the first object ball, and it can hit the two object balls in any order. That variability makes it possible to shoot each setup several different ways, though Ernie says "there's really only one right way to shoot a shot." Then he quickly adds, "Of course, that's just my opinion."

In pool, it takes a great deal of skill to sight the angle at which the cue ball must hit the object ball: a good pool player not only wants to drive the object ball toward a pocket, he also wants the cue ball to wind up in a good position for the next shot (or a bad position for the opponent if he misses). But billiards requires much more skill: the cue ball must hit not only one object ball, it must come off that ball at the right angle to hit the second object ball--and somewhere in between it must hit several rails. The cue ball often travels 30 or 40 feet as it bounces from one side of the table to another.

It would take an extraordinary eye to sight the number of angles a cue ball has to make on most billiard shots; a cue ball that is hit only a few degrees off will often end up several inches off target--and the target is only two and three-eighths inches wide. So good billiard players actually calculate the angles of their shots, using some system to figure out exactly where a ball must come off the final rail to score and, working backward, to figure out exactly how the ball must be shot to end up there. Most good players give various number values to the diamond markers placed around the rails--seven along the long edges of the table, three along the short. The balls are then given number values according to where they are on the table relative to a diamond, and those values are subtracted or divided to calculate which diamond to shoot at. Of course no system, even the most basic, can cover every shot. So good players use more than one, renumbering the diamonds for a portion of the table or for a tricky setup.

Ernie says he uses 40 such systems. In the winter of 1945, he remembers, he traded lessons with Jake Schaefer Jr., whom Ernie calls the greatest billiard player ever. Schaefer had announced he would give lessons while he was staying in Chicago. Ernie went to his hotel and handed him a $100 bill--Schaefer had insisted on being paid up front. Schaefer rolled the bill up and stuck it back in Ernie's shirt pocket. He'd teach Ernie the shots, he said, if Ernie would teach him the mathematics. They played all day long whenever they could for four months. That same year, Ernie beat him in an exhibition game, 50 to 33.

Given the difficulty of the game, making more than a few billiards in a row is rare, even for masters. Ernie says his longest run ever was 18.

I ask Tony how good the players who regularly come to the Billiard Cafe are.

"Mathematically, Ernie probably knows more than anybody," he says. "But he shakes."

He's still good, though?

"Oh, yeah. If you keep him close to the object ball, he's great. And he's a terrific banker and a great safety player. But if he has a shot where he has to reach, then it's hard."

Do his friends take advantage of his weak point?

Tony laughs. "Of course."

Most players are front-runners, Tony says. "It's just like the horse that breaks out, but when he gets to the finish line, the pacer has beat him. Most guys get behind and quit. You should never quit. Now, Ernie--it doesn't matter if he's behind. If you leave him a shot, he'll get you."

So who are the ten best players in the city?

Tony lists several people, including Merhl and Frank, the owner of the room. And where is Tony?

"I'm there," he says.

In the top ten?

"Yeah," he says, looking embarrassed.

Most of the people who come into the Billiard Cafe play pool. There were once six billiard tables, but not enough people played on them to justify keeping all of them, so Frank replaced three of them with pool tables.

At one time, Ernie says, almost everyone who now plays billiards at Frank's went to Chris's Billiards on North Milwaukee, which has six tables and many more players. A few years ago, he says, Merhl's son Billy, who's probably one of the five best players in the country, got in a fight with Chris, and Chris threw him out of the place.

Billy's parting shot was that he'd start a new room and put Chris out of business. Billy knew Frank, who had wanted to set up a pool hall for a long time, and when Frank opened the Billiard Cafe a number of players moved over out of loyalty to Billy and then stayed. "You get in the habit," says Ernie, who taught Billy for five years. And anyway, he adds, the crowd at Frank's is cleaner, more intellectual. He says there are probably 40 billiard players who come into the Billiard Cafe regularly, and another 60 or so who come in once in a while.

Billy is no longer among them. He has been barred by Frank.

Never mind what my last name is, Nick the Greek tells me. And he doesn't know why people call him "the Greek," since he was born and raised in the U.S. Most of the Billiard Cafe's regulars know each other only by their first names or by nicknames given them years before. Nick is 74, but has few lines in his face to show it. He loaded truck freight until he retired; he now lives alone and comes into the Billiard Cafe to play several days a week.

Nick unwraps and lights an enormous cigar. He has talked to me less than five minutes when he asks if I know what the best statue in the city is. The Goethe statue at Diversey and Sheridan, he says.

"Yeah, I'd say it's right up there with the best," he says, taking a long slow pull on his cigar.

He shifts forward in his seat, scowling. You know, the city keeps moving its statues around, he grumbles. Now he's leaning toward me, poking the air with his cigar. "You know what they're doing when they move them? They're destroying nostalgia. We used to meet at the cannons. Everyone knew where you meant if you said, 'Meet at the cannons.'"

He pauses and sucks on his cigar. "Things were different in those days."

Nick sits quietly for a while, watching the players. "You can collect all kinds of old things, but they don't bring nostalgia with them. Familiarity. That's nostalgia." His voice starts to rise again. "You go back to your old neighborhood and nothing's there where it was. There's nothing to hang on to." He stops and then growls, "Nostalgia's not that bullshit you get today."

Tony has something he wants to show me; it's in his car. He disappears and comes back with a small package wrapped in a plastic bag and cinched with rubber bands. He snaps off the rubber bands and pulls out a smudged and scratched four-inch by two-inch plastic model of a billiard table.

It has three layers of plastic, the bottom two of which trap three small, flat metal "balls" that can be moved into any setup with a magnet that is glued to the end of a stick. Tony pulls out 16 plastic sheets that have been marked with a felt-tip pen to show the most common angles used to make a billiard. For any given setup, he says, there are at least eight basic ways to make the shot. His sheets can be slid back and forth between the top and middle layers of plastic to show variations on each shot.

Tony has been studying and working on this system for ten years, and hopes to market the model through a local company that says it's interested. He says he hasn't shown it to any of his billiard friends except Marvin. "But he doesn't believe it," he says and laughs. "They all have their own systems, and they'd want to change it."

Is his system at all like Gilbert's?

Gilbert's is bullshit, Tony says. "It's so complicated."

Tony says maybe he'll show his model to Ernie, who is slowly walking toward us. But Nick is right behind him, and Tony partially covers the model with his hands until they both walk away.

A few days later, I ask Tony if he's shown Ernie his system yet. He shakes his head back and forth. "I will someday," he says.

The "cafe" part of the Billiard Cafe is a snack counter and about half a dozen small tables on a platform in the back corner. Ernie is sitting there eating a large sweet roll.

"I was thinking about that whole crowd of guys that I used to play with downtown," he says. "They're all dead. About a hundred of them. The last one was a guy I played billiards with. He died one night when it was hot and humid--you know, a hundred degrees--and he never woke up in the morning. His sister told me.

"I never thought he would die. We played billiards together the night before." He pauses. "That's the last old friend that I had. I knew him since 1927--60 years."

He doesn't say anything for a minute, and then sits back in his chair. "Oh, boy, we had a lot of fun back then. The taverns opened up--is it April seventh?"

It's the sixth.

"All the taverns opened up on April 7, 1933. But they could only sell 3.2 beer. I remember that night because I was bowling."

He had come out of the bowling alley and spotted a beer truck, which he quickly followed. "And where did he go, but to my old friend George Bock's. And who was there but my brother." Ernie laughs out loud.

"I like to drink," he says. "But I never got in a fight in my life that I can remember. Some guys when they drink get rowdy. I'm just the opposite. I want conversation, music."

He doesn't drink much anymore, he says. Once a week maybe. "I love beer, but I stay away from it because I'd just gain weight.

"I went to the doctor's, and he told me, geez, I was in great shape. He didn't have to tell me that because I know I'm in great shape. For billiards." He says he does calisthenics every day and is "hard as a rock."

"I wouldn't know what to do if I didn't have billiards," he says. "Billiards keeps you young--the bending, stretching. Everybody plays billiards for the exercise."

It's late in the afternoon on a Wednesday. Jerry, who is probably in his late 40s, is practicing by himself, moving quickly around the table, making one shot after another, chewing hard on his gum.

Merhl comes in and heads for the back, where he talks to some of the pool players sitting at the cafe tables. He keeps turning to watch Jerry play and finally calls out to him across the room, "I see you're a daytime player. You play better in the day than you do at night."

A slight smile crosses Jerry's face. "I can see better."

Jerry shoots again. "Let's play a game."

"Does that mean yes?" asks Merhl, who is a little hard of hearing. He wears a hearing aid in his left ear.

"Yeah. C'mon and play me a game."

Although he is 65 and has a bad heart, Merhl still works full-time driving a cab. He wears bifocals and has a gold wedding band on his left hand and a faded, five-inch woman in a bikini tattooed on his right forearm. He got the tattoo when he worked the carnivals. "She's exactly 40 years old," he says, smiling.

Jerry used to come in a couple times a week, Ernie says, but he hasn't seen him for more than a month. "I think he's in the junk business," Ernie says. "Picks up scrap metal and things."

Merhl was a great athlete, according to Ernie. "He held some kind of a record for the pole vault. He's got pictures of himself flying over the thing." Ernie considers Merhl the best billiard player in Chicago. "Merhl will have to spot Jerry five points at least," Ernie says.

I ask Ernie how many points Merhl spots him. He pulls his head back a little and raise's his eyebrows. "Nothing," he says, offended.

Merhl and Jerry haven't been playing long before they're yelling at each other about whether Jerry's cue ball actually hit the second object ball.

"You rubbed it and it didn't move?" shouts Merhl, who's glaring at Jerry.

"It rubbed it," Jerry shouts back.

"I tell you, you're a winner," Merhl says, waving his cigarette in disgust. "If you can't win one way, you're gonna win in another."

Jerry is chewing his gum hard. "Aw, c'mon," he says.

The two glare at each other for another moment, then Jerry picks up his cue and shoots. He misses, and Merhl shoots.

After the game, Merhl comes storming back to the cafe tables, where Ernie and Milt are sitting. He's lost two games to Jerry.

"Ah, you're losing it," says Billy, a young man who's standing nearby.

"I'm not losing it," Merhl snaps, then leans over the table to demonstrate a foul shot that Jerry had refused to acknowledge.

"He does that all the time," says Ernie. "That's why nobody ever plays him. And another guy that does that is--what's his name? Gary?"

Merhl explains that the game finally ended when Jerry refused to lag at the same time he did. Players generally "lag" to determine who will shoot first in a game: the idea is to shoot a ball down the length of the table and back; the one whose ball stops closest to the near rail wins. It's customary for both players to shoot simultaneously.

"I said, 'You lag when I lag, or forget it.' So he quit." Merhl shakes his head. "He was looking for a way to quit anyway." He stands for a moment, his mouth pinched. Then he shrugs his shoulders. "Oh, well. That's the first time I ever lost to him. It doesn't matter."

Later, Frank says that Merhl was probably angry about losing to Jerry because he thought he would be "stealing" when he agreed to play.

Instead, Merhl lost $60.

"So, Jerry beat you. Two games," Pancho says to Merhl with a smirk the next night. He is one of the room's better pool players.

Merhl ignores the remark and starts talking about a tournament his son Billy recently played in. Their talk shifts to games they each have played and who's winning what where. In a loud voice, Pancho tells most of the stories--stories of New York games, west coast games, high-stakes games, backers and players who sweat in terror of how much they'll lose if they don't win--all punctuated by laughter so loud that Frank comes over and tells him to be quiet.

Merhl takes a box of balls and heads over to the tables. He starts practicing intently, moving quickly and surely. Next to him, Marvin is practicing on the best table. Marvin asks Merhl if he wants his table. He asks three times before Merhl acknowledges him. Merhl says he's just fine where he is, but Marvin packs up his balls and leaves anyway.

Pancho starts practicing billiards at the table Marvin has vacated. He moves smoother but slower than Merhl. Below the short bump of his chin, his neck slides straight into the middle of his chest, which then slopes quickly into a round paunch. He is carefully dressed and has a gold chain around his neck, a thin gold watch on his right wrist, a gold chain-link bracelet on the left, and heavy gold rings on his pinkie fingers.

Pancho continues his stream of jokes and stories, grinning and laughing, constantly checking to see who's listening. He sings part of "See You in September," then asks if anyone knows the rest of the words. Oh, yes, he says. My, my. He played in the Philippines in the old days. Back in the 20s or 30s. The Pineapple Tournament. He won, and got sliced pineapple. It was in the fruit league.

He shoots with his cue behind his back, then tries three times to hit nine rails with a one-handed jab of his cue. He doesn't.

Next to him, Merhl moves quickly around his table, setting up shots, hitting them hard, bringing the cue ball back to him with a swift, graceful flick of his stick, catching the ball when it's not rolling exactly where he meant it to go.

There is tension between the two men--each seems keenly aware of the other, yet neither openly watches the other.

"Merhl could beat Pancho anytime," says Ernie later.

Merhl shoots for half an hour or so and then closes his three balls in their box and heads back toward the register.

He comes back with a plastic gallon jug of water, which he sets down while he helps Ernie on with his coat. The two go out to put the water in Ernie's radiator.

Nick the Greek asks Ernie if he's checked his numbers yet. Ernie says he hasn't; Nick says he hasn't either and heads back toward the counter to check for the both of them. Ernie bets two dollars every week on the Wednesday and Saturday lotteries. "I've been playing for four years and haven't won a nickel yet," he says. Nor has he today, and neither has Nick.

Nick bends over Ernie and asks him whether he's told me the one about the guy who wanted to be a wit.

"Oh, yeah," says Ernie. "I think that was him there," and waves vaguely toward the end of the room. "He wanted to be a wit, so he took a course. Twenty lessons to learn to be a wit. Well, he only finished ten lessons." The two of them chortle and leave together to get dinner.

It's Friday night, and Ernie and Bob are playing on the new Danish table, which, unlike most of the tables in the room, is lit by three bright spotlights instead of fluorescent tubes.

"I'll try an Ernie Presto shot," says Bob in his loud, jolly voice. He shoots and misses.

Ernie moves over to make his shot. He leans across the table, his left hand clasping the cue, both of them shaking hard until he settles his fingers firmly on the felt. As he lines up his shot, his right arm, which holds the heavy back end of the cue, flops back and forth where it hangs from the elbow. With a quick, hard jab, he shoots, his cue still wobbling as he lifts himself back off the rail. But the cue ball spins straight and fast away from his stick. He makes his billiard, then misses the next shot.

Bob shoots again, reaching far across the table. The ball rounds the table, hitting nothing but cushions. "Haw, haw," he laughs. "I'll bet you can't do that, Ernie."

Ernie smiles. He shoots and, confident that he has made the billiard long before the ball has hit, chalks his cue again. His hand trembles so much that he must steady it on the table before he can set the chalk block down. He shoots again and misses. He slowly lowers himself onto a stool that is standing next to the wall. His face is stern, and as he sits staring across the room, his chin falls, pulling the corners of his mouth lower.

Bob Nelson introduces himself as a man who collects homophones. He has 719 of them, which he suspects may be a world record. He says he has also invented 130 magic tricks and was once what he calls a magician's magician. He quickly tumbles a quarter over the back of his knuckles, throws it in the air, and retrieves it from his eye, his ear, under his arm. He says he also bowled and golfed well. "I pitched horseshoes--87 percent--87 of a hundred," he says. Then he sighs. "But nothing I could make money at."

Bob retired from Western Union in 1985. He lost his close vision several years ago and wears horn-rimmed glasses, the lenses of which he flips down when he shoots and back up when he's watching. He and his friend Wally, who started playing billiards only six months ago, drive up from Gardner every Monday and Friday to play.

Gardner is on I-55 south of Joliet, 78 miles away. Bob lives alone there in a trailer. Wally lives alone, too, Bob says--just like most of the other regular billiard players. "How else could they come here?" he asks. "They couldn't come if they had a wife, responsibilities."

Bob shoots, makes a point, and then misses. Ernie shoots and barely misses.

"That was a beautiful shot," says Bob in a sympathetic tone. "You couldn't have come any closer."

Ernie walks over to Tony, shaking his cue. "I can't see," he shouts angrily. "I get a shot all set up and then I have to lean over--and I can't see anything because the goddamn lights are so bright. I should have made all those billiards but for the goddamn lights."

Then half angry, half chuckling, he points at Bob. "And he's picking up all the crumbs!"

Bob laughs, and Ernie goes back to the table. He shoots a long shot around the table that barely misses the second object ball. There's a big "Aww" from Bob. Ernie lands hard on his stool. The store is 23 for Ernie, 21 for Bob.

Bob shoots and misses. Ernie shoots and misses. "Goddamn son of a bitch," he growls.

I ask him if he's playing to 25.

"We're playing until what's his name shows up," Ernie mutters.

Ernie, Nick, Merhl, and Rose are crowded around a single cafe table when Anita, Prank's mother, comes over to tell them that their friend Charlie has been in looking for them. He has a letter, she says, that he'd sent to another billiard friend of theirs, Paul; it came back marked that Paul had died.

No one says anything for a moment, then Rose says sadly, "Oh, that's too bad." She sighs and then says again, "Oh, that's too bad."

Ernie says nothing. Merhl coughs and says that Paul did have a bad heart. He's quiet a moment. Then he says he's sorry for Paul, but that when Paul played billiards, he'd played even when he was in pain, so Merhl couldn't feel sorry for his pain.

Charlie comes in and pulls the letter from his jacket pocket. The handwriting across it is dated April 5, four days earlier. Nick, Merhl, and Charlie go back and forth on where Paul had been for the last couple weeks. He was in the VA hospital, says one. No, he'd gone home. He was living alone. No, he'd rented a room in a house. Rose shakes her head and says again, "Oh, it's too bad."

Later, Rose is watching Ernie and Charlie play on one table, Merhl on another. She doesn't play billiards, but she often comes in just to watch, sitting quietly for an hour or two with her arms wrapped around her purse. Nick crosses in front of her, and she asks him whether he's seen Tony. He stops and says he hasn't, but that he has seen some butts of the kind of cigarettes Tony smokes in the ashtray. Rose nods, then tells Nick that Merhl is going to try to find out more about Paul from the VA on Monday. Nick moves in front of her and stands staring at her. He pulls his cigar out of his mouth, bends toward her, spreading his hands out from his sides, and says in a loud voice, "What's to find out?"

She looks confused. "Well," she says, "about what happened to him." She sucks her lips into her mouth.

Nick gives a big shrug and turns back to watch Ernie and Charlie.

Two weeks later, Nick is dead of a heart attack. Though he hadn't wanted any fuss made over him, his two sons who came in from Michigan wanted to at least hold some kind of memorial. But the place they called would only take a party of 20 or more. Nick's best friend had to work that day and only six or seven of his billiard friends could come. "They didn't even lay him out," says Merhl. "They canceled it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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