Me and Billy Was Talking


 We were raising a glass to old Martin G, God rest his soul.  His hands, I said, hurt something awful when he clapped.  This was indeed unfortunate.  The world so pleased him that he had reason to applaud a hundred times a day.  And no, he needn’t have had a whiskey or a beer or even good sex to feel this way. Morning sunlight reflected off the windows of the new building across the avenue, the drumming of rain on the air conditioner, the fresh roar of motors each time the traffic light outside his bedroom window changed, the sliding scratch of cat claws on wood as Wookie (the gray & white) chased Fred (the amber tiger) out of the bedroom for no reason at all– and these no more than the top of a list as long as the Chinese Army marching past you ten abreast.  You’d be dead before he finished.  The man lived and died a happy man, no more than that. 

Billy, a bit bleary-eyed, looked me—just looked.  The Saturday coming up his youngest daughter was to be married.  He was already out of money and energy both.  Not even a “grumpf” out of him, but that didn’t mean I was to remain quiet.  He don’t speak, I’ll speak for him.

But, ‘ah,’ you say, I say to imitate Billy, and, of course, he’d not said a thing.  ‘What a rare thing is that, a happy man.’  Billy swirls his empty glass—not even remnants of ice cubes.

And I reply, ‘Are you sure?  Or do you perhaps put too high a standard on ‘happy’? 

Then, as Billy, “And what do you mean by that?” 

So I’m here to tell ya.  But first things first.  “Barman,” I call out.  “Give us another, me and my poor listener.  If I’m gonna carry on maintaining both sides of this here conversation, I’ll need lubrication.  If he’s gonna put up with me, he’ll need some numbing.”  Tall John was on that night, him grinning his ‘it’s-almost-closing-time grin’ as he strides down the catwalk, a spigot-topped bottle in each hand.  An old fashioned bartender, Tall John.  For years he worked at Smith’s down by Penn Station.  This quiet neighborhood joint was his idea of retirement.  Still he kept to his old ways.  No fresh set-ups for the refills, just more booze.

“If yer glasses are dirty, it’s yer dirt, an’ anything I pour into them’ll kill anything that’s already there.”  I remember it was almost midnight and John’s white apron was still spotless.  Clearly the man knew something.  He filled the two glasses, gently tapped the bottles to each other, set them down in the gutter rail in front of us and left us to our talk.

A swallow and good friend Billy speaks out.  “You were about to tell me about happiness.”

Truth is I was, and yet I really wasn’t.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I can carry on, especially when I’ve been sitting at the bar for an hour or two.  But looking back it seems my talk of Martin G had more to do with me than with him.  Things had been slowing down of late.  It’s this retirement thing.  Almost a year now I’ve been not working and still not comfortable with it.  My family, you see, my family’s a working family.  We put great stock in doing what’s ours to do and taking care of ourselves without the government.  Sitting around is something we’re just not at home with.  If it wasn’t for sports on TV or a bar to sit down in, we’d all have second jobs or go crazy with the boredom.  Now here I am with a Medicare card and a senior citizen’s half-price Metro Card and asking every time I buy something, “Do you have a senior discount rate?”  It doesn’t feel right, even though I know it’s all legal.

Martin G was from the same stock as me, brought up with the same values.  He’d been retired for about four years before he left us and, I wasn’t lying, he was happy as your fabled clam.  He knew something I didn’t and, clearly, this was something I needed to know.  It wasn’t like he was running here to there doing from morning to night.  Something else.  More than once I wanted to invite him out for a glass, for a chance to pick at his brain, but every time it was the right time, I’d get kind of stupid and drop the idea.  Then, of course, I’d go to the bar alone and spend the night kicking myself for having done just that. Dumb son of the sod I can be!  By the time I felt like I couldn’t postpone things any more, he was too ill to step out, and I was too self-conscious to visit.

Now I was wishing Billy was Martin G, wishing I could say something as simple as, “Fer Chrissakes, Marty, how do you do it?”  Instead I’m here with Billy who don’t give a rat’s ass what I talk about so long as I sport him a shot now and then.  Martin’d order one tequila on the rocks—how he started drinking that stuff I’ll never know—with a soda back and sit there all night with it.  The only reason he’d get that is because he’s renting the stool.  He’s good without the buzz.  I don’t get it.  I wish I did.

“You were gonna tell me about being a happy man or something,” Billy wakes me up.

“Yeah, I was,” I respond.

“’Tell ya the truth,” he goes on.  “I don’t think you know shit about it.  I mean, you can tell me about Marty G, not that I didn’t know the man myself, but when it comes to being happy, that hasn’t been you since you left the shop.”

What?  Was this Billy talking?

“Huh,” was the best I could come back with.

“’Huh,’ right,” he says to me.  “Face it, man.  You haven’t had a minute of happy time since Sally passed, and it’s only gotten worse since they pushed you into this retirement bullshit.  You haven’t a clue about happy or anything like it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at your calendar—if you have a calendar—the only thing it might say on it is ‘go to the bar.’  You got no idea how on God’s earth to use your waking hours once you feed yer cat and dump the litter.”

“And who the hell are you to be telling me this crap!”  Now I’m pissed.  “If I wasn’t buying, you wouldn’t be here.”

“Well you are, and I am, and I guess that means I owe you.  So here it is: You’re alone and retired, so accept that and act alone and retired.  Get a hobby!  Read a book!  Go down to the senior center and see what all them widows are about!  At home you got nothing but pictures of your dead wife, God cherish dear Sally’s name, and your overfed cat.  You spend your damn’ day doing nothing but waiting until you can feel all right about walking into this place.  This place!  Nothing new or interesting has happened in this hole in the fifty years you’ve been coming here.  There are probably more women in gay bars than in this one.  Get yourself a life goddammit!”

I swear to God I wanted to clock the motherfucker.  I wanted to lay him out no thicker than the sawdust on the floor after they sweep.  He was right, and I hated him for it.  I just looked at him. 

“Now you listen to me,” he goes on.  “I know it all hurts.  I know what I said hurt, but I’m not about to apologize.  I needed to say it.  You needed to hear it.  More than that, my friend, you need to do something about it.  Y’understand me?”

Whoa!  I could feel my shoulders come down from under my ears.  I took a deep breath, stretched my neck up out of my collar.

He smiled.  “Ya pissed at me?”

I smiled a little, chuckled sort of.  “I thought you didn’t care about that?”

With raised eyebrows, “Are ya?”

I showed him a deep sigh.  “No, no I’m not.”

“Sometimes things gotta be said,” he said.

“I suppose,” I answered him.  We both finished off our drinks.  I was gonna ask him what he had planned for the next day, but next day was a Tuesday.  He’d be at work.  I wouldn’t.  I thought about the Yankees.  They had a day game, but they’d been nothing but disappointment all season.  No reason to go back to what don’t work.  Besides, I figured there’s a whole bunch of places I’ve never been I could probably go to.  Museums and such, and, I suppose, that senior center.  I’ve walked by there more than once.  They got a whole bunch of groups and classes and the like.  As for the widows, that feels like a way off. 

“Look” Billy says.  “It’s getting late.”  He gets up and reaches for his wallet. 

“Where you going with that,” I ask him.

“Let me just get the tip,” he says.

“What the hell,” I answer.  I pay.  He tips.

“Safe home,” he says.

“Safe home.”

The end

Published in: on October 9, 2013 at 5:39 pm  Comments (10)  

Abie, Rebel and, Somehow, Me


At the Wooster, Hartford 1960 

I still remember the pool room.  Guys and Dolls they used to call it.  Back in the ‘70’s when my first marriage was falling apart I spent a lot of time in that place.  Sometimes now it feels like I’m the only one left who remembers it.   

Guys and Dolls was enormous.  ‘Must have been thirty tables, six for billiards clustered down away from the door and the others for pool.  High ceilings so nobody got bothered by all the smoke—everybody smoked in those days.  I was a Camels man—no filters, just like my dad.  It was up on the second floor.  Beats me what was on the first floor.  It might have been a 5 & 10.  The place had this wrap-around wall of windows on two sides.  You could see the whole intersection of Broadway and 79th Street.   There was the old stone church that always had bums sleeping on the steps, the same one that’s still there, and a bank—not the one that’s there now.  The subway and the bus stop were right there.  You could see who was going in and coming out of the liquor store on 79th.  That was a good thing for later.  You wanted to know who might have a taste hidden in his jacket pocket.

Abe Rosen used to hang out there.  We used to call him Abie.  Abie’d been an honest-to-God world champ at three rail billiards.  By the time I got there he didn’t play that much.  Not like he was totally past his prime, but more because everybody knew how good he was, and nobody was ready to throw away good money shooting against him.  Once a hustler gets a reputation, he’s gotta go out of town to make his money. 

Abe Rosen, he shot like a text book: he stood close to the ground, if you know what I mean.  Feet apart but not too far apart; a strong bridge; he held the back hand right at the balance point, with the cue loose between his thumb and first finger.  You’d look at him and there was nothing on his face, just blank.  I think more than anything that was what scared the shit outta guys when he was out there.  No fear.  No joy.  Not even confidence.  He was nothing but business.  His eyes looked like they could burn holes in the table.  At Guys and Dolls he’d shoot pool for the hell of it.  In the middle of a game he’d always break things up with trick shots.   “Here, here,” he’d say.  “Lemme just show ya this one.” 

I liked Abie.  He was short and solid, never bragged.  He reminded me of my father except those eyes and, even though he was quiet, he wasn’t as quiet as my dad.  Besides the half dozen guys who came in on the way home from office jobs, Abe was the only one in the place to wear a suit.  Freddy, the manager, liked having Abie around.  Freddy used to work in vaudeville before he took over at Guys and Dolls, and he did have a kind of showbiz thing.  His hair was always slicked back, no part.  That made his face look thin.  He wore Hawaiian shirts, even in the winter.  He always called Abie a “draw.”  When Abie shot three rail billiards, Freddy would call everybody around to watch.  See, you rented the tables.  As long as the clock was running on all those tables, Freddy didn’t care if anybody was actually shooting or not.  The more time you spent watching the show, the more time you’d need later on to finish up your games.

Billiards wasn’t that much for gamblers, especially three rail.  Real gambling, hustler gambling was for the pool shooters.  Eight ball, nine ball, short games with lots of room to set things up, to maneuver, lotsa chances to bet.  Three rail was a long, slow game.  More about a simple, gentleman-style wager on the outcome.  Once in a while, maybe, a side bet on a particularly tough shot.  Only a fool or what you’d call a newbie nowadays would bet against Abe Rosen.

Rebel was different.  He was the opposite of Abe.  Rebel.  Just thinking about the guy you gotta smile.  Poor, sad Rebel.  He was short like me, about 5’6”.  (I used to say 5’6” and three quarters.  I never made it to 5’7”.  Now it’s more like 5’5”.)  He must have outweighed me by at least fifty pounds.  As classy as Abie dressed, Rebel dressed the mess.  Always dark, baggy slacks with always some stain somewhere hanging down so low you couldn’t see his shoes.  Guys used to joke and call him “Barefoot Billy” behind his back.  His shirt was always half out of his pants and you could see the crack of his ass after he’d been shooting for a while.  He was that sickly kind of white you see on guys who don’t spend much time out of doors.  I’d guess he was in his thirties back then.  Whatever, he was nothing but a wannabe hustler.  No one knew what he did during the day or how he got the name “Rebel.”  Nobody cared.  The regulars stayed as far away from him as possible.  He always smelled a little funny—like some cheap kind of aftershave he was using to avoid taking a shower. 

Every night about seven he’d show up.  A little small talk about the Yankees or the Knicks depending on the season, then to work.  First he’d walk around the room to see who was playing alone.  He’d offer to shoot with them “for the time,” you know, the rent on the table.  If they said o.k., he’d grab a stick and they’d play.  Don’t get me wrong.  He had skills, but he’d lose more than he’d win.  After a while he’d suggest they “make it interesting,” you know, a small bet to get things started. 

If cruising the room didn’t work out, he had a favorite spot up front by the cash register where he could be the first one to spot suckers.  Anyone walking through those swinging double doors—especially if they were carrying their own pool cue in one of those imitation leather cases—got to hear Rebel’s gravel-voice welcome, “Hey!  Looking for a game?”  If he got a “yes,” he’d call out, “Set us up” to Freddy and walk the new fish over to the rack to pick out cue sticks.   If the answer was no, I swear to God—and I seen this a hundred times—Rebel would produce new pairs of socks the stranger might be willing to buy “at a real good price.”  Sometimes he had those three-packs of polyester underpants that were poplar back then.

Poor-assed Rebel, the man was lost somewhere between being an extra in that movie with Paul Newman, The Hustler, the one with Jackie Gleason, and that other one where Dustin Hoffman was the bum who dreamed of getting to Florida and eating oranges off the trees and dies in the back of a the Greyhound.  When he couldn’t find a sucker, he’d play me at three rail “for the time.”  That means the loser would pay the table rent—I think I already explained that.  Don’t think this was time off for the fat bastard.  He wouldn’t breathe if he didn’t think he could make a buck off it.  He knew I wouldn’t play him for cash and I wasn’t going to buy underpants, but that was o.k.  He had other games, if you know what I mean.  When I miss-played a shot, Rebel would grab up the three balls and put them back in their original positions.

“Try it again,” he’d say.   Then he’d say something like, “This time hit above center to the right.  You wanna stretch it out way down the table to catch the corner long.”  I’d try it.  If I missed the shot again, we’d play on.  If I made it, Rebel would wait a few turns then hit me up for a five or a ten.  A loan to Rebel would always turn out to be a gift.  You could count on that!

And there was another thing.  Rebel used to talk to me while we played.  He hated Abie.  “Ya know,” he’d tell me.  “Abie’s ascared of me.  He wouldn’t play me even for the time.  He knows I can outlast him.  Maybe I can’t do them fancy trick shots, but that’s not what it takes to win.  I got perseverance.  That means I got strength.  I got a good back and good legs and feet.  I can stand at that table for hours—hell, days if I have to.”  He’d look around the room.  “You just wait,” he’d tell me.  “Someday I’m gonna show all these stupid motherfuckers who’s really number one around here.”

Of course they never played, Abie and Rebel.  Once Rebel tried to get Freddy to set it up.  When Freddy figured out what Rebel was talking about—Rebel never just came out and said anything straight ahead—Freddy just rolled his eyes and walked away.  Most of the time Rebel’d scowl at Abie from his spot by the door.  I never saw Abie look in Rebel’s direction.

 I can remember Rebel like it was yesterday and that it was Abie was the one who finally did move to Florida and that #23 was the best table in the house—the one the serious players would favor.   And—I don’t know his name—but I can remember this guy who wrote jingles for commercials.  He’d beat me at three rail, then we’d go back to his apartment and smoke reefer and listen to Mingus.  This was on records back then, vinyl records! 

You know, it’s funny.  All this comes back like it was yesterday, but real yesterday or even this morning, more and more they feel like mysteries. Anything I can’t find in my pocket might just as well be in another country.  But it’s okay, you know.  Time goes by.  You get used to it.  I used to think this was a problem.  Now it’s just whatever.


The end

Published in: on October 4, 2013 at 3:30 pm  Comments (10)