Lessons from a Hustler

Peter Mountford

Photo by superdeluxe.

Rob, whom my co-workers at Babe’s Billiards called ‘Crackhead Rob’ – mainly to distinguish him from Handsome Rob, the bartender – was a bona fide pool hustler. This was how he paid rent. When he was practising and I asked him if he could teach me how to play, he’d say, in his clipped, upstate-New York State twang, ‘Hell no! I don’t give suckers pool lessons for free!’ And then he’d be seized by a brief, mirthless fit of laughter.

‘Not even if I give you a break on your tab?’

‘You’ll give me a break anyway,’ he’d say. Then, lining up for a shot, he’d add, ‘Just pay attention.’

‘I am paying attention.’

He’d make his shot, straighten up and look at me. ‘You know what I don’t care about? I don’t care about you learning how to play pool. Fact is, you ain’t never gonna have no game, so just stick to pouring beer, it’s your speciality in this life.’

Possibly in his thirties, Rob looked easily fifty in his ill-fitting jeans, grease-stained sweatshirts, and large anonymous white sneakers. He wore those puffy shoes favoured by geriatrics and junkies. Like many of my bar-flies at Babe’s, a pool hall in Northwest Washington, DC, Rob didn’t shave often. By day he was, supposedly, a courier. Whether or not that was true, I’d seen him on occasion buzzing down Wisconsin Avenue in the middle of the night on his feeble moped with his dinky astro-blue helmet on – certainly one of the saddest, funniest, sights I’ve ever seen. My surliest customer, by far, Rob was also one of my favourites. He liked me, too, I’m sure, probably because I was one of the only people who didn’t view him as a worthless rodent.

For a couple months, Rob hung around with this emaciated stripper named Bird Brain. I presume that wasn’t her given name, but that was what she went by, unfortunately. That he was quietly, secretly, in love with Bird Brain was obvious.

When she wasn’t around, I’d ask about Bird Brain and Rob would just wave me off. ‘She’s a fucking idiot,’ he’d declare, which was code for: ‘I can’t stand that she will have sex with anyone but me – she’s killing me!

Their relationship was never consummated. I know because they both told me so. Like so much that happened at Babe’s, the entire situation was amazingly futile, freighted with crushing sadness. And like everything at Babe’s, it was hilarious. Everyone meant well and everyone was completely fucked: they were all too busy stealing from their neighbour to notice that their own houses were being ransacked.

I’d graduated from college in California earlier that year and had moved back to DC, where I was from. I’d walked into Babe’s Billiards one afternoon because it was near my friend’s house. Ordering a beer from the perky Russian bartender, Veronica, I said I was looking for a job. She asked me if I’d ever tended bar before.

‘Oh, yes, definitely,’ I said although I had not.

Five minutes later, she told me I was hired. (Simpler times, to be sure.)

The following night, I was behind the bar, solo, pretending I knew what I was doing.

The owner, Ted, moved slowly and steadily, like a tarantula. Rob called him ‘Montgomery Burns,’ because he looked exactly like Montgomery Burns. I don’t think I ever saw him smile as he crept around, eyeing us all warily. Ted’s other nickname, popular with the rest of the bar-flies, was ‘The Crypt Keeper.’

Not fond of spending money on anything whatsoever, Ted barely turned the heat on in the winter, so I had to wear a scarf and gloves while working. Conversely, in the summer, it was shorts and T-shirts. His son, Thad, a cheesy blonde cokehead with a goatee who drank staggering quantities of Grand Marnier while on duty, oversaw the place at night. Thad was sleeping with Veronica, who was also a manager.

She left abruptly, in a cloud of scandal, a few months after hiring me. Whatever had happened, it was unsavoury. Everything at Babe’s was unsavoury.

After Veronica left, the other Rob – Rob the handsome bartender – took over managing the bar. Handsome Rob was a pro, he’d tended bar at countless places around town and could do it in his sleep. He had no ambitions beyond serving drinks swiftly and accurately, nothing beyond getting his customers to give him more money than made sense, but he did that very well. Still, he’d gone to the same fancy private school that I went to, graduated eight years before me, and more than once he made me promise that I would not still be tending bar when I was his age. Handsome Rob was a great guy, and everyone adored him. He was charming, wore crisp shirts, nice cologne, and moved with the swift kinesthetic assurance of a professional athlete.

Still, despite his sweetness, to Handsome Rob our regulars were just cattle from whom it was our job to pull as much milk as possible. Whether it was Mo and Patrick who painted houses and drank oceans of Budweiser, or Crackhead Rob or one of Crackhead Rob’s victims, or Mika, the sensible software engineer.

While everyone was a degenerate, some of us hid it better than others. The Good Deacon, for example, was an upstanding African American Catholic, a man of a certain stature in the community, father of several well-adjusted children, loving husband, successful businessman. The Good Deacon showed up every day for two or three beers before sauntering homeward.

On my final day at Babe’s that winter, he suggested that we go get a motel room and watch dirty movies together. He muttered this proposition in a very congenial way, but also very offhand, and then I finally saw that this person who I’d been talking to every day for the last six months had been trying to flirt with me all along.

At the time, I’d pitied the Good Deacon – thought him too enamoured with the façade he’d invented for himself to be himself – but, in retrospect, I understand why he wouldn’t want to give all that up. A glance around the bar on any given night and you’d see a dozen living examples for why being yourself wasn’t necessarily the best policy.

Handsome Rob laughed when I, scandalised, whispered my story about the Good Deacon to him later that night. Of course, he’d long ago figured out that the Good Deacon was trying to have sex with me.

No matter who he was serving drinks to, Rob was unsentimental about the work: despite his swift and chipper manner, he was – precisely like Crackhead Rob – just there to take your money and get you out the door before you made a scene.

When practising his pool game, Crackhead Rob would line up all the balls down the centre of the table and mechanically shoot each one into the same pocket, as if it was just that simple. He missed none of them. He selected a pocket, and then the balls all went there, one at a time. Watching him, I began to notice how he introduced various types of spin to the cue ball, how his attention was as much about controlling the destination of the cue ball as it was aiming for a pocket. Between practice sessions, he’d drink beer and work on the NYT crossword on the bar. This is how I first noticed that he was secretly, sort of, a genius. He finished the crossword every time, nailed it with the same unnerving accuracy as his bank shot.

‘Kennedy’s secretary of defence?’ he’d say.

‘Um,’ I’d say.

A minute later, he’d grunt and write the answer down. ‘Fuck it, Pete, don’t hurt your brain.’

‘Was it one of the Dulles brothers?’ I’d ask, because I’d taken a class on the Cold War in college and I knew a couple things.

He’d just shake his head, squinting at me, then mutter, ‘Fucking private school!’ and guffaw to himself, shaking his head in disbelief.

Rob liked Babe’s because we let him practise on our tables for free and we had twenty-five cent Buffalo wings and five dollar pitchers of Bud Light. The wings and cheap pitchers courted a lot of degenerates, actually, but Rob was by far the most interesting. At two in the afternoon, he’d enter and order twenty wings, a pitcher of beer. By the time the happy hour customers started rolling-in, Rob would be on his second pitcher. The regulars hated him, and the rest of the staff hated him, everyone hated him except for Handsome Rob, who didn’t take it upon himself to judge people. Handsome Rob understood that, like defence attorneys, bartenders were there to help advance whatever narrative best suited their clients. The rest of the people at Babe’s talked shit about Crackhead Rob, said he’d gone to prison for selling crack and then he’d ratted on people to get out. That all might have been true – I didn’t ask him, although I saw quite a lot of him that year. I certainly wouldn’t have put it past him to sell crack or rat out people to reduce his sentence. He was an unapologetic opportunist. But I trusted him.

Among his spotty list of virtues, Rob was also extremely honest. Unlike Paul Newman’s character in ‘The Hustler,’ Rob didn’t dupe his mark by playing poorly at first, and then getting better. Rob just preyed on people’s sense of superiority over him. People would just look at him and know that they were better than a dirt bag like that. In this way, he separated them from their money.

Working on his third pitcher by the time his prey began to arrive, Rob would pick the most bent cue from the stack by the door. His opponent, often a twenty-something, would usually have one of those special pool-playing gloves that covers only a few fingers. He’d have his own special cue in a little box. The kid would pat a sack of talcum powder against his left hand, rub his cue with the powder, just in case there was any possibility of friction. He’d meticulously chalk the tip. Rob chalked without thinking, without looking at the chalk or the cue, it just happened, like breathing.

Gambling pool players almost always play nine-ball, because it involves some strategy, and because it’s faster than one-pocket, which our non-gambling old-timers who were always on Table One favoured. There were twenty tables at Babe’s. The old timers played one pocket on Table One by the door, and Rob went anywhere, but did his practice on Table Five, beside the bar.

In the evening, swaying drunkenly beside the table with fresh buffalo sauce stains on his sweatshirt, Rob would hiccup, then say: ‘Sink three balls before I clear the table and you win.’

The kid would smile at me and I would smile back, and then quickly break eye-contact.

‘We’ll start at twenty a game.’ Rob would pause for the next hiccup and then continue: ‘We can go up to forty when you get frustrated. Above that is up to you, but people get ugly up there, from my experience, so I prefer to keep it at forty.’

Then he would crouch down and line up for his break, an eerie stillness coming over his body. Within a couple minutes, the cue ball would be alone on the table and he’d be stuffing a twenty into his pocket. He’d light a cigarette and sit down while the kid racked up the balls for the next match. The loser had to rack. You stopped playing when you stopped racking the balls. Rob didn’t talk at all when he played pool for money; he just stared at the table, deep in concentration, and chain-smoked. Later in the night, once he was quite drunk, he’d sometimes yell, like a battle cry: ‘Rack ‘em!’ and then he’d sit down at the bar and drain some of his beer, still watching the table.

At two in the morning, I’d close up.

Sometimes, when he’d taken enough from that night’s kid, Rob would treat me to breakfast at the all-night diner a couple doors down.

The only person who Crackhead Rob had liked in the bar, apart from me and Bird Brain, was Evellyn. A sixty-something grandmotherly-type, she was a waitress in Babe’s small restaurant. She was a waitress her whole life until she died, suddenly, of a stroke one night at her small apartment in the suburbs. One day she was there, and the next she wasn’t. Laura – who was much younger – and who’d been there for more than ten years, had a nervous breakdown as a result of Evellyn’s death and had to be hospitalized.

When Handsome Rob told me about it, I was on the other side of the bar. It was my day off, but I couldn’t resist coming by for a free drink.

‘And Laura? In the hospital?’ I said.

He nodded. When tending bar, he kept his sleeves rolled halfway up his muscular forearms, and when listening to someone intently, he planted his hands on the bar, very wide apart. After a moment, he shook his head. ‘I think, you know, Laura realized that – that she doesn’t want to still be stuck here when she’s Evellyn’s age. I think she realized she didn’t want to die here, right where she’s been standing for her whole adult life.’

‘You think?’ I said uncertainly.

‘Definitely,’ he said.

Rob was projecting, I figured. To him, we were characters in ‘The Iceman Cometh,’ but I didn’t think so. At least the people in that play had pipe-dreams; no one in Babe’s was contemplating the future at all.

I had spent a lot of time hanging out with Laura and Evellyn during the slow day shifts, and Laura was brittle, a fragile bird. The two of them were close, too, they played the coin-operated touch-screen video game system when business was slow. Specifically, they played this game called Monster Madness. I played with them, too. We bummed each other cigarettes. Eventually, I got the high score at Monster Madness and they pretended to be furious with me for pushing their names down in the ranking. I still had the high score when Evellyn died, but her name was right there, three steps below mine. I never played that game again.

Like Handsome Rob, Laura didn’t have hobbies or aspirations. She smoked a lot of cigarettes and wore thick black eyeliner, like a goth, but she had blonde hair and was too sweet to be a goth. I think she wanted our little space to be frozen in time: I don’t think she wanted to escape. I think she wanted it to never end.

Around then, as things were winding down for me at Babe’s, for some reason Crackhead Rob faced off against Buck one night, playing nine-ball. Buck was one of the old timers who played on Table One. I remember it was clear and cold that night, and they played on Table Five, beside the bar. I’d never seen Buck play Table Five. I don’t know why they played; Rob never explained it to me. I assume he had no one else to play, no suckers on hand, and he’d had enough to drink that he thought he’d see if he could take some money from Buck.

Like most of the old timers, Buck was black, and didn’t say much. A retired bus driver, he had a huge pot belly, but was fairly thin otherwise. Word among the other players was that he was unbelievably good, one of the best in the city. I don’t think I ever spoke to Buck, because he drank non-alcoholic beverages and ordered from Laura, but I remember him well, his Redskins baseball cap, his potbelly, his blue jeans.

Rob must have known he was out of his league, but he liked to put money on pool games, so he took the bait. I don’t know what the spot was, if there was one – that is, I don’t know if they’d handicapped the game to try to even it out. Probably not. Buck moved slowly and played defensively. He didn’t bend down much when he shot, and his belly hung there, prominently. With Buck, pool was clearly an intellectual exercise and he was scarily cool at the table.

One pocket, the old timers’ game of choice, is won by defence. The most important thing is to leave the cue ball in an untenable place for your opponent, far more important than sinking a ball. If you place the cue ball on the wrong side of the cluster of balls in the center of the table just once, the game is over, you’ve lost. Playing nine ball, Buck employed much the same tactics, but to offensive purposes; after every shot, the cue ball drifted gorgeously into perfect placement for his next shot. More often than not, he ended up banking the nine in and winning before the game was really underway.

By the third game, Rob was visibly rattled. Losing money fast, he even stopped drinking beer. The pros, guys like Rob and Buck, would just assign a pocket to each player, and when a game was done, the loser would drop the cash into that pocket. That night, Rob spent a lot of time hanging around Buck’s pocket, dropping bills.

At the end of the night, Rob was busted. He’d gone to the ATM already and maxed it out, could withdraw no more. The match was over. Buck fished the bills out of his pocket, folded them up, slid them into his wallet. Rob sat down, dead sober, at last. He looked traumatized.

They said nothing to each other at the end. Buck just took his money and walked away.

After what seemed like an appropriate pause, I said, ‘Drinks are on me, man.’

Rob just lit a cigarette. Then, a few minutes later, he stood up and left.

Not long after their game, I bought a one way ticket to Ecuador.

My days of living like I was a character in a Tom Waits song were over. I never entered Babe’s Billiards again. What happened was that I quit and, as if it’d been arranged just for me, the whole place imploded right behind me. Evellyn was dead, Laura in the hospital, and everyone else was eyeing the exits. A year later, I came back to the States for a wedding, and Babe’s had already been shuttered.

Over the two years I spent in Ecuador, I wrote about economics for a think tank and lived alone on a hillside in a charming house with two dogs, a tall wall around my yard. I had bars on my windows to stop the thieves. A maid cooked beef bones in oatmeal for the dogs, and a gardener tended to the flowers once a week. There were broken bottles cemented to the tops of my walls, but the thieves were eager. One morning I awoke and tried to water my petunias, but found the garden hose was gone. Someone had climbed over the broken glass and fought off the dogs to steal a mouldy hose.

The cab drivers, every day, tried to filch me – I am, after all, tall and white. When they realized that I lived in Quito and spoke Spanish, they’d lay off, but it was very exhausting getting hustled all the time like that. All of it was exhausting, all the batting off of thieves. I was mugged six times in one year, often by the same people. It got so that I’d see them approaching and would step against the wall, hold my arms out.

Once, when I was playing a game of pool, I actually told a guy not to steal my jacket while I took a shot, and then, when I took the shot, he stole my jacket. After that, I promised fifty dollars to whichever unscrupulous thug could retrieve my jacket first. Within twelve hours, I had it back. The guy who had stolen it had been beaten bloody by several Columbian gangsters on the floor of his mother’s living room. For the next six months, I saw him often in the neighbourhood, but he never looked me in the eye again.

Thieves honour. I’d learned that already. That and more. The fact is, you might be a better pool player than me, you probably are, but I’ve got twenty dollars says I’ll beat you anyway.

It’s been twelve years but I think of those people all the time. I think about Patrick the Irish house-painter who was an inexpert alcoholic (he’d already be making a scene, aggressively hitting on the demure Washington ladies who’d just stopped in from the cold by his third beer, so much so that I sometimes had to ask him to leave, even though he could easily drink another ten pints of beer without getting much drunker). Another house-painter from that same crew, Mo, sucked down Budweiser and was smart and self-assured, and I considered him a friend for a while. Mo was a working class black man who’d grown up in DC, one of the most segregated cities in the United States; he was always rolling his eyes at my upper middle class white man angst. I’ve tried to look him and a few of the others up on Facebook, but I don’t even know their last names. I think of the Good Deacon with his golden cufflinks, crisp pocket squares, Cheshire cat grin. I think of the two Robs most often, but I also think of Buck and Ted and Thad and Laura and poor sweet Evellyn, with her Marlboro Light 100s and her melancholy grin. We had a blast. Then again, maybe I was the only one having fun.


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