Friday, January 2, 2015

LOST BY THE EIGHT BALL by Peter Nolan Smith

None of the cops from the 9th Precinct were happy about the closing of the basement bar next to their station house in the summer of 1980.

Even fewer were excited by its re-opening as a French bistro.

Evelyn’s Bistro was another sign that the East Village was giving way to a new crowd. Not wanting to lose customers, the petite Parisienne maintained the old rundown decor, employed the foul-mouthed lesbian bartender, promoted the warped pool table, and cuffed the officers a free drink for every three that they paid for with cash, but the blonde chef won their hearts by cashing their checks without a fee and bought their souls with her cassoulet.

Evelyn truly had a gifted hand at the stove and I adored her cote du porc a moutarde.

I was the doorman at the Jefferson, the after-hour club, above the closed theater with the same name. Evelyn, her daughter, two sons, and friends were on my permanent guest list. Accordingly I ate for free at her restaurant. It was a good deal for all concerned parties.

I never had any trouble with the cops. They were on the payroll of the Jefferson.

Evelyn's real clientele were punks, new wavers, strippers, writers, artists, drug dealers, and b-models. Nobody had achieved a overnight success, although continual failure was no reason to stop the party.

A meal at Evelyn’s was more expensive than the Polish food at the Kiev Diner, however the food was appreciably better and finding money was easy for people on the hustle.

At night laughter drowned out the music from the corner jukebox, the bartender poured three-second shots, and the mélange of law with disorder created a subterranean scene lurking beneath the radar of the rest of New York. I established the rules for the pool table and every Monday Night Evelyn’s held a late-night ‘Mr. Cool’ contest, the prize being that whoever won the final game of eight-ball was called ‘Mr. Cool’ for the rest of the week.

The cops had been playing the dead rails and sodden pockets of the quarter-a-game table for years. They were unbeatable, unless they had been drinking and these cops liked their drink after finishing a long shift on the Lower East Side.

By Ten O'Clock I could beat the best of them and the table opened for Evelyn’s clientele. They ate, they drank, they played pool, and they spent money. It was a very happy place, especially since I had won the Monday Night contest two weeks running. Even Lora, the bartender, addressed me as Mr. Cool.

On the third Monday night I was running the table on my challengers. I sunk four striped balls of on the break, split-pocketed a pair, and knocked down the Eight-bBall on the double bumper, after which I stepped away from the table for my rivals to battle for the chance to dethrone me. Evelyn served me steak-frites at the bar, Lora topped off my wine, and the jukebox was playing Joy Division.

Frank deRocco came over to me. The tall cop was the precinct bagman for the Jefferson. His partner Kevin was the best pool player in the bar. He lay asleep on a pile of beer crates.

“You know that kid over there?” deRocco eyed a young man in his twenties playing pool.

“Never seen him before. Why?”

“Because his family are ‘family’.” The 9th Precinct was north of Little Italy, but the fat boys controlled the drug trade west of Avenue out of a 1st Avenue restaurant. No strangers ate at the Rossi’s. “Heavy family.”

“Really?” My only familiarity with the Mob was from movies and walking by Umberto’s on Mulberry Street, where an assassin murdered Joey Gallo.

“Stay away from him. That kind of wop is nothing, but trouble.” deRocco slapped me on the back and went over to wake up his partner. Kevin and he were working the midnight to eight patrol shift.

I watched, as the trim newcomer vanquished each pretender. He was handsome with slicked black hair and wore a 50s suit.

Evelyn knew him. Her sons hugged him. Several girls whispered in his ear.

After beating the last competitor, he announced, “I’m Mr. Cool.”

“Not so fast.” I walked up to the table with a beer in my hand. He was slightly shorter than me, but gripped his pool cue, as if he might need it. I slipped a quarter into the slot and racked the balls tight. “I was Mr. Cool last week. You have to beat me to be this week’s Mr. Cool. My break. That okay with you?”

“Sounds fair.” He smiled his acquiescence and said, “My name’s Vince.”

I chose the least warped stick from the cues and leaned over the table. My break shot smashed into the triangle of fifteen balls. I sunk one solid, then missed on the Two Ball.

“I’m feeling lucky.” Vince took off his jacket and placed it over a chair. He studied the lay of his balls and dropped three balls in succession. A few customers stopped eating to watch his play.

I grudgingly admitted to myself that the young man had style, even though his shoes were obviously two sizes too big.

“Where you from?”

“Buffalo.” He spun the chalk atop the cue. “Someone told me you used to have a girlfriend from there. Her name was Lisa. I knew her back in Buffalo. She was hot.”

“That she was.” She had left six months ago to model in Europe. I hadn’t heard from her since.

“I went out with her a little. She was a great lay.” The broad-jawed Italian didn’t need to say that, but he apologized sincerely, “Oh, I thought you were over her. Sorry, man.”

“Nothing to be sorry about.” I thought about Lisa all the time. “I’ve moved on.
“It’s the only thing you can do.” He blew the dust off the cue and sank another two shots before blowing a ricochet by a few centimeters.

“Tough luck.” I had three gimmes positioned before the corner pockets. The fourth shot required a long carom from one end of the table to the other. I had been a math major in college and calculated the angles before stroking the ball without any English. Its trajectory off the bumper was perfect, then lost course over a warp in the felt.

“Scratch.” The lantern-jawed actor declared in triumph. “I get two shots, right?”

“It’s the rules.” They were the same everywhere in America. “Looks like I’m in trouble.”

“You can’t win them all.” He bent over the table and sunk his last ball.

The Eight-Ball rested against the bumper and he called, “Eight in the corner.”

He took a second too long to adjust his aim and the cue ball erred off the black to scurry into the side pocket.

“I win.”

“But what about my second shot?” He was shocked by the loss.

“You scratched on the Eight. It’s over. I remain Mr. Cool.”

“For this week.”

“Now is all that matters to me.”

A beautiful blonde entered the bistro carrying a small poodle and Lora shouted from behind the bar, “No dogs allowed in here.”

“It’s not a dog.” Vince went up to Lora and slipped $5 into her hand. “It’s a pet and a cute one too.”

“Okay, but only for you, Vince.” His charm worked even on dykes and he sat with the blonde, who was German.

I found out later that they lived together down in Little Italy. Vince did have family there. He played later that month at the Mudd Club with an art band. The lead singer was the darling of the Warhol set. Vince hated the lack of limelight, although Charlotte Rampling came to the gig. Vince left with me. The German girl cried holding her dog. I bought her a drink. She said ‘danke’ between sobs.

Every Monday night we played for the honor of Mr. Cool. I was more lucky than good and he was more good than lucky.

Evelyn called us ‘les Mssrs.’ Demi-Cool’.

Early one Monday night in September the German girl came into the bar. She drank two whiskeys and picked up the cop Frank. He wasn’t really her type and I asked Lora what was the story.

“I don’t know. Something about Vince and the dog. I don’t understand German. Frank will be back. He has the late shift with Rip Van Winkle.” Lora pointed to Kevin on the crates. They were his home away from home, now that he was separated from his wife.

Two hours later Vince showed up with a black eye and a swollen forehead.

“What happened to you?” He wasn’t anyone’s punk.

“Anna hit me with a frying pan when I wasn’t looking.”

“Really?” He had to have seen it coming. I could read the manufacturer’s mark on his forehead.

“Yeah, it’s the San Gennarro Feast in Little Italy and my uncle has his concession where you have to get a quarter on a spot 100% to win the grand prize. It’s almost impossible, since the spot is the size of a quarter.” He ordered a beer from Lora. She poured it in a glass. Vince drank half in one gulp. “My uncle was sick and asked me to take over the concession. I didn’t have a grand prize, so I grabbed my girlfriend’s puppy. No one ever won the grand prize in the thirty years that my uncle ran the game. It was a good money earner and he said that I could keep 25% of the winnings.”

“Let me guess. He taught you how to bump the game.” I had seen the scam at work. Vince was right. No one won fair and square on Mulberry Street.

“A magician never tells his tricks.” Vince looked to the door and asked me, “You see my girlfriend tonight?”

“She split with Frank the cop about an hour ago.” I could have said nothing, but as an Irishman I couldn’t give up the chance to get back at him for that remark about Lisa.

“Where they go?”

“Don’t know, but he’ll be back.” I nodded over to Frank’s sleeping partner. “He left a security deposit. So what happened to the puppy?”

“Shit happens.” The actor stood up and walked over to the pool table. It was free and he racked the balls. We chose cue sticks and I gave him the break.

Vince was the standing Mr. Cool. He pocketed nothing on his first shot and I dribbled in two. He came back with three and scratch on his fourth shot. I got nothing and he put down one. I was well behind after he eliminated another ball. I sank two, but almost scratched leaving him an excellent lay.

“So what about the puppy?”

“Everything was cool. I was having a good day. Must have made over $500 in quarters. You know how much that weighs? Almost fifty pounds.” Vince shook his head. “I almost had enough to pay my share of the rent and was thinking about closing down, when this Jersey guy comes up with a handful of quarters. About $5 worth. I guess I got greedy, because I said, “What the fuck.” Anyway the guy misses every time and I’m egging him on. Finally he flips a coin in the air and it lands flat on the dot. No bounce. Nothing. I nudged the box. Nothing. The puppy is barking in its cage. The guy wants the dog. His girlfriend wants the dog. I offer him money. He says no and grabs the dog. I punch him, the dog escapes, the cops come and I have to give the guy $100 in quarters. Fucking mook.”

“So you lost the dog?”

“Yes, I lost the dog and when I told Anna, that’s my girlfriend, she went crazy.” Vince drew back his hand and slammed the cue ball with all his strength. It flew off the table and rolled down the bar to the feet of his girlfriend. Frank deRocco was standing behind Anna. He was holding the puppy in his arms.

“I find puppy, no thanks to you.” She stormed out of Evelyn’s and Vince ran after her, grabbing his jacket on the way.

He didn’t come back that night or the next Monday, because Hollywood called him to act in a movie.

I never played anyone else for Mr. Cool.

Vince made a name for himself out west, Lisa remained in Europe, the Jefferson was raided that winter, Evelyn’s remained open for another two years, and every once in a while Vince’s ex-girlfriend came into the bar with her poodle. It was no longer a puppy. Anna said that Vince was sending for her as soon as he had a place.

Lora gave her free drinks. They were a couple some nights. No one liked sleeping alone, but I was then Mr. Cool and Mr. Cool never minded sleeping alone.

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