Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Warning

The roof of my mouth felt like someone had scraped it with steel wool. The back of my throat was pretty much the same. Slowly swallowing my water1 down, I felt a little better. A cold is coming, I thought, and there's nothing I can do about it. I watched highlights from Monday Night Football, caught glimpses of the redheaded waitress, made small talk with Henry - anything to bat that thought away.

My opponent for the night seemed healthy enough; he resembled a squat version of Mark Ruffalo(I should really start taking actual notes during matches, because his name escapes me; I could go look it up on the league website, but that feels like cheating). I won the flip(I think) and broke(probably).

The week before, I'd been distracted, and played pretty good. I gave games away, and only won 6-5. Tonight, I played worse(but not by much) against a better opponent(significantly).

Pool's a funny game, though, and I won 7-1.

Last week, I missed three game balls, and they turned into losses. I started off this match by missing two eight balls, but, I wasn't punished. Mr. Ruffalo2 either hadn't run out his group yet, or he missed the shot I left. I made one tough shot to win, and Mark scratched before another. The last game, thankfully, I closed out legitimately.

If my opponent is on his game or gets a little luck of his own, I could have easily lost eight-ball 1-3 or 0-3. Instead, I won it 3-0.

Funny game.

I went up 2-0 quickly in nine-ball. I was starting to play better, getting my rhythm, and the thought of another 7-0 victory crossed my mind. Then, in the third game, Ruffalo(fresh off his cameo in Where The Wild Things Are, at least in my mind) missed but left me hooked. The four-nine combo was dead in the side pocket. I took the intentional foul, pocketing the nine ball. I spotted it and, smiling, remarked to my opponent that I couldn't just leave the easy win on the table.

He gave me a forced smile in return(which I would have done too, down 0 to 5). Then, he made the four ball, and drilled the five-nine combo. An incredibly difficult shot, exponentially tougher than many shots he'd missed earlier. Funny game.

"So, two to one then," I said cheerfully, racking the balls. Of course I was cheerful, the worst I could do was 6-4, which seemed incredibly unlikely.

"Well, maybe three," he said.

I was confused.


"Didn't you say two more games? I'm saying I'm hoping I can make it three."

"Oh no, no no - I said two to one, two to one!" I said quickly. "I would never say anything like that, I try not to be an asshole."

He laughed. "Oh OK, but it could be two, the way I'm playing."

Relieved that he(apparently) didn't think I was an asshole, I won the next two games, not choking on the last nine like I had the week before. When I shot it, I thought I'd overcut it(again!), and I had(slightly), but the pocket was big enough for it to hit the corner and tumble in.

Despite the bad night, my opponent was cordial, even talkative3. We talked about our seasons, handicaps(we'd been playing even), and teams. Mark had been playing in the league for about three years, and had been a six for most of those, earning the promotion to a seven about a season prior. He said he'd played his best pool the week before, in an extremely close match he'd lost in a tiebreaker. I liked that he could admit he'd played his best in a loss - a real sign of character(or something we all know to say to seem like we have character, but Mark didn't strike me as that cynical).

"But the woman I played, you'll probably have to play her, and let me tell you, she is a cold, cold...cold woman," he said, shaking his head.

We were watching Chris practice straight pool. Effortlessly, he pocketed ball after ball. Seeing Chris play, witnessing what the game looked like when played at such a high level, I briefly felt like Rufallo and I had desecrated our poor table with our unforced errors and bad position play. Chris's smooth, straight stroke, set up with such deliberate tempo and rhythm as he went from shot to shot; it was humbling. Then I remembered our green fees, how much money everyone in the league spent on drinks and food, and I felt better.

"How bad was it? I haven't run into anyone mean yet."

That was true, I hadn't. One guy seemed shady, but likable. He was (of course) a broker. I keep his card next to the condoms in my wallet - seems appropriate, in a strange way.

"Well you know how when your opponent makes a good shot, you say 'hey good shot' or something like that? Nothing. She was just cold, distant, and mean the entire time. And we were playing a close match, both playing great, I was thrilled just to be a part of it, you know what I mean?"

"Yeah, it's great when both of you are really firing. Makes it more exiting."

"Exactly! She just gets more and more pissed, and when we play the tie-breaking game, she gets just a little - a little! - bit out of line on the last nine ball. Slams down her cue, curses to herself, then makes the ball. So she won! And I say, 'hey, good match' and she just blows me off, talks about how mad she was with herself, and storms off!"

"...that's shitty. I mean, if you're playing in a money-tournament, or something like that and there's something actually at stake, I can understand that - but we play in a Tuesday night eight-ball league or Christ's sake, and the only thing at stake is Amsterdam Monopoly Money. That's just shitty."

"Like I sad, she's cold, cold...cold woman."

"You can say bitch, I don't mind."

We both laughed.

I turned to find Alex returning from his match. He'd won 6-5, dominating eight-ball. Which made sense, he'd been playing next to me and every time I looked up, he was on the eight or his next-to-last ball while his opponent had most of his group still on the table. His opponent got a little lucky with a nine on the break in nine-ball, but a win is a win.

Mike beat his guy 5-3, and Henry lost a close match 4-6, giving up a ball. Mike was 13-3 in the last two weeks - I told him he'd probably get bumped up to a five soon.

When I got home, I checked to see when I'd be playing the woman Mark had told me about: she was my next opponent.

Well, I couldn't say I hadn't been warned.

1Despite all the money I spend at Amsterdam, I still feel a little cheap sitting at the bar and only getting a glass of water, like I'm wasting the bartender's time. Usually I order a Diet Coke, and tip a dollar, just to alleviate said guilt. I wonder if I would do this if the bartenders weren't all attractive women.

2Who goes by Chris in real life - damn, we even share a name(almost), and I didn't remember it. I'm terrible.

3I've found that most people, including myself, become more and more talkative after a loss in direction proportion to how much time has passed since the last ball went down.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Drama, Drama

My heart didn't seem to be beating, my stomach felt like it was full of nickels, and a cold sweat coated my forehead. I wasn't even at the pool hall yet.

Instead, I was restlessly standing on an L train that wasn't moving nearly fast enough. Through a series of mental cartwheels, I had convinced myself my apartment had been broken into. Fully expecting to arrive in Brooklyn and be greeted by a kicked down door, an empty bedroom, no laptop, books, TV or even clothes1, I nervously twitched and jerked in place. The people on the train must have thought I was really, really constipated.

Let me back up. Earlier(a little before six), I randomly looked at the balance of my checking account(a bored, work day habit) and saw a check had been cashed for a thousand dollars. Which was troubling, because I'd never written a check for a thousand dollars.

More troubling was the complete lack of help I got from my bank's Customer Service line. All the polite(but useless) woman could offer me was to wait until the checked cleared, then dispute it. She couldn't tell me who the check was written to or where it was cashed.

After considering all the evidence for approximately ten seconds, I came to two conclusions:

1)A mix-up involving my ex-wife, even though her name shouldn't be associated with my bank account anymore but turns out it still is, or

2)Someone broke into my place, and in addition to robbing me, they found my checkbook and were emptying my bank account for good measure.

After e-mailing my ex-wife and waiting five minutes for a response, I went with option two. I briefly considered trying to play through my 7pm match, blocking out the thought of possible burglary.

That didn't seem like a great idea, so there I was, waiting for my stop, wondering what I would do if confronted with a crime scene.

Exiting the subway, my phone buzzed. My ex-wife had replied, and sure enough, the strange deduction had been her. The full details were explained later, and made total sense, but at the time, it just seemed like she was robbing me(and to be completely honest, some people still think she was). By the end of the week, I had all of my money back. Now, I should point out, it's my own fault for not making sure that her name was off the account(which has been taken care of).

Still, it made for a very stressful dash back into Manhattan for my match. I barely made it on time. My heart refused to recognize that danger had passed and continued to pound in my chest as my opponent and I flipped a coin for the break.

The match was a blur. I won 6-5, I know that much. I gave away two games of nine-ball, partly from having my mind on my ex-wife and partly from having my mind on the date I was supposed to have at 8:45. I knew playing at seven it would be cutting it awfully close to meet someone at 8:45, but we were meeting in the heart of Union Square, a quick walk from the pool hall.

I think I played well. While walking up to tell Chris the match results, my opponent mentioned that it was the first time he ever remembered never getting a shot during a game.

"What do you mean?"

"You ran out the last game of eight-ball."

"...really? Wow, I don't remember doing that..."

And I didn't. I do remember running a rack of nine-ball only to piss at a relatively hard cut on the nine, sending it skidding off the side pocket(which means I didn't run a rack of nine-ball). I remember my stroke felt pretty good after my head stopped buzzing. And I remembered feeling relieved when I realized during the last game that a)I was going to win the match regardless of whether or not I own this game and b)I would definitely make my date. Everything was over at 8:40.

During the last game I also made a good run only to miss the nine. I took the match win - a little pissed at myself - rushed out of Amsterdam and briskly walked two blocks to where I was meeting my date.

Waiting on the street corner, she looked a lot like my ex-wife: tall, black, a smile from New York to Japan, and sexy as hell. The night wasn't done being interesting.

1The fact that I had my cue stick and iPod with me was strangely comforting.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Accent That Kills

Jason Voorhees stared me down as I walked into the pool hall, slowly and mechanically swinging his machete. It was a little unsettling.

You couldn't miss that it was almost Halloween at Amsterdam; besides the animatronic villain(hero?) of the Friday The 13th movies, the usual decorations were up: orange and black streamers, bats, skeletons, and flyers for the Halloween Party. Will the redheaded waitress be there?, I briefly wondered. No matter, it was match time.

I had missed the previous week because of work. With no real match or practice time, I had vacated the zone I had found two weeks earlier and moved into a state of sludgy, choppy, ugly play.

The night before I had played some with Mi2, hoping to break out of it. It didn't work. Missed shots, bad position play, and unnerving feeling of something being "off - like a gear slightly out of place - made me more and more frustrated. 

Watching the Redskins getting killed by the Eagles didn't help. Looking up from a missed shot to see Jason Campbell getting sacked(again!) was making me reconsider my no drinking during practice policy. Besides the bad pool and the bad football, I also had a lunch bet riding on the Redskins. A coworker of mine is from Philadelphia, and in a foolish showing of hometown spirit, I bet her lunch that the Skins would beat the Eagles. I wonder what place will she pick for her victory lunch...

For once at match time, everyone was present and on time. To celebrate, Chris informed us that because of a party Amsterdam was hosting our already late nine o'clock start time was going to be pushed back even farther. To keep us from rioting, he offered us a all drink tickets. Free alcohol - a surefire way to a league player's heart.

Using up some of the only luck I would have that night, my match was called within ten minutes of Chris's announcement. My opponent was a nice looking fellow named Ben.

We made our way to the same table I had played on two weeks before, table twenty-three. For some reason I said the same thing I had then: "Man, I haven't played on this table in a while."

Amsterdam was louder than usual, the buzz from the party making it hard to hear Ben as we made small talk. Maybe he didn't even hear my meaningless white lie, I thought, as Ben excused himself to use the bathroom before we started.

Despite the crowd noise, I thought I could hear an accent in Ben's voice. When he came back and we flipped the coin, I heard it clearly: a sharp, charming British accent.

Big Ben had me down two games quick. Despite playing a little better than I had been lately, it wasn't good enough against him(ranked a 9 to my 7). I had a bit of bad luck in the second rack, getting snookered behind my own ball when Ben missed, denying me an easy runout. Still, I had my opportunities and didn't capitalize.

I could feel I was shooting better though; the gear was slowly falling back into place. Nailing a few tough shots and playing good position, even in a couple of losses, had me sitting high in my chair even has Ben ran out.

Being a bit of an anglophile, I couldn't help but smile when Ben said he was "nominating" a pocket for the eight-ball.

"Oh, you mean call it? Cool," I said with a small grin. Nominating! What a trip.

Good feelings weren't going to stop me from doing down 0-3 in eight-ball, though, and finally in the third game I caught a break when Ben jawed a shot in the corner, and I ran out. I almost ran from the break the next game, but finished it one turn later after Ben missed again.

Ben shot with intimidating accuracy, and he shot quickly. He pranced around the table, breaking two of the cardinal rules of pool: not chalking between each shot, and playing with a house cue. Being a sinner was working out for him, though, he was easily the best player I'd seen in a while. After being down 0-2 to him, I felt like I had climbed a mountain to get the race tied.

Ben was on his way to running out the deciding game when he got funny on his next to last ball, and missed the ensuing hard shot. My stroke (partly) back, I made an easy four-ball run(aided by my handicap) to end it.

The first game of nine-ball, Ben broke and made nothing. I pushed on the one, he missed, and we jostled back and forth until I left him a shot on the two ball and he ran out.

Watching him pocket ball after ball after ball, strangely I felt...good. This was the level of opponent I wanted to play, needed to play. My mistakes were being punished brutally and without mercy(even if it was accompanied by a such a delightful, friendly accent). Against some opponents, I could make mistake after mistake and not worry because I knew they weren't good enough to beat me even if I fucked around for a bit. Against Ben, that lazy, unfocused attitude would only leave me sitting in my chair most of the night.

Knowing this, I played some pretty good pool and won the next two games of nine-ball. In the fourth rack, I made a mistake that swung the match back in his favor. He missed a tough shot on the one ball, but left me hooked. Worse yet, the one-nine combo was dead(though a tad long) in the corner.

I decided to foul and take the combo out of play, hitting the nine-ball first on purpose to knock it out of the way. Unfortunately, I hit it three times as hard as I needed to and the ball darted around the table before jawing in the opposite corner pocket, leaving Ben an even easier combo then the one I had tried to prevent.

"Sorry mate, I have to take it," he said.

Damn English, polite even in victory.

From there, I think had all of two or three shots as Ben won two more racks, and that was it. I lost 5-7.

The rest of my team lost close matches as well: Alex 5-6, Mimi 5-6, and Mike 4-5. Even though we all lost, we didn't take that bad a hit in the standings since none of us got blown out. So while not an ideal night, not a total fuck-up either.

I redeemed my free drink ticket at the bar, going over some of the last shots in my head. Sipping my Stoli-Ras and Cran, I chatted with Mike and his opponent Kevin. Kevin seemed nice enough, if a little awkward. He had a pronounced pause before he spoke, as if the conversation was a broadcast he wasn't quite getting live.

The pool hall seems to be a haven for that type: guys who are friendly, but just a Maybe it's the appeal of the subtle forced socialization pool leagues offer: you always have an icebreaker with a fellow league player since you already have something in common. Or maybe I'm just a judgmental prick.


On the way home, I saw a friend on the train just as she was getting off at her stop. It was strange, having that moment of recognition but not being able to do anything about it. She hadn't seen me, so I briefly smiled at the side of her head. A week earlier, I had confessed to having a small1 crush on her(via e-mail, because I can be a total pussy sometimes). She wanted to stay friends, which wasn't as bad to hear as I thought it would be, and the expected awkwardness, so far, had been minuscule.

Still, it was a strange glimpse. My near perfect-night of pool was pre-confession; my mini-slump post. Unrelated, I knew logically, but my state of mind was more positive on that night of perfection: I was looking forward to the possibilities my soon to be revealed crush could open.

Stupid, I know, but you think strange things on the subway ride home.

1The small part I added after being rejected, because I'm vain.