In my early years, probably age seven to nine, I found Main Street in my hometown an endless source of mystery and adventure. My family home was a short walk, two and one-half blocks from the corner of Main Street (State Highway 13) and Bennet Street. This was the fork in the road, and businesses dotted both sides of Bennet Street and Main Street from that intersection to the Soo Line Railroad Depot and the schoolhouse. It was the heart of town. The other landmark was the Bad River that ran through the town. In the spring it was a constant source of floods. My hometown was a river town.
My parents had warned me about some of the places where I wished to have adventures. I wasn’t to go into this place or that place without their being my protector and chaperone. My mother was particularly phobic about the Pool Hall.
When I first saw the musical The Music Man, I laughed and laughed at the lyrics to “Ya Got Trouble.” What I thought was so funny were the words and fears about pool. My mother’s words expressed some of the sentiments of the song. Here are a few words from the second verse:
Friends, let me tell you what I mean.
You got one, two, three, four, five, six pockets in a table. Pockets that mark the diff’rence
Between a gentlemen and a bum,
With a capital “B,”
And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
And all week long your River City
Youth’ll be frittering away,
I say your young men’ll be frittering!
Frittering away their noontime, suppertime, chore time too! Get the ball in the pocket,
Never mind gettin’ Dandelions pulled
Or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded. Never mind pumpin’ any water
‘Til your parents are caught with the Cistern empty
On a Saturday night and that’s trouble,
Oh, yes we got lots and lots a’ trouble.
I’m thinkin’ of the kids in the knickerbockers,
Shirt-tail young ones, peekin’ in the pool
Hall window after school, ya got trouble, folks!
The Pool Hall in my hometown was operated by Mr. Lee, that was the only name I knew him by. He always wore a white shirt and string tie, a black suit, and a fedora, and in his mouth was his ever-present cigar. Years later I learned the brand was William Penn and the name of his preferred cigar was the Perfecto.
Mr. Lee sat near a cash register, surveying his little kingdom. Iif my memory is correct there were ten pool tables spread out with six on one side and four on the other. I don’t know if they served beer, but I think they did. There were lots of ash trays on stands throughout the place where the crack of cue ball against the eight ball signaled a defeat or a victory. The game I remember being played most often was 8 ball. How did I know this? When my parents would go to Block’s Market (next door to the Pool Hall) I would go into the market with them. As they busied themselves shopping I would slowly, ever so slowly sneak back to the door, go outside, and stand in the open door of the Pool Hall and watch and listen.
This got to be a game of sorts for me. I would stand in the entry way of the Pool Hall so my parents would have to walk to the door to see me. Occasionally I would get a wave, a royal wave from the king of the hall, Mr. Lee. He would raise his hand, with the cigar between his fingers and wave at me, making a kind of sign, not unlike the sign of the cross, only this sign was to and for the pool gods.
Then when I was lost in the rapture of looking and hoping to go in to watch a game, to stand with all those men who were holding cues and smoking and talking and playing this wonderful and mysterious game called pool, my mother’s voice would cut through my revery: “Michael get over here right now.” The voice was sometimes accompanied by a hand that twisted and pulled at one of my ears.
When I would sneak away from my father (who I thought would like to secretly play a game of pool) there was no voice, just a hand grabbing me by the scruff of the neck, pulling me back toward the store and then into the truck or car to go back home.
After these wonderful doorway fantasies there would be a dinner time lecture on the kind of people who went to pool halls. “Nice people,” my mother would say, “do not go to pool halls.” The lectures had no effect. The game continued and I would try to sneak into the pool hall every chance I got. I remember the sneaking and the reprimands and then one day the Pool Hall was closed.
Years later when I was pumping gas at the Shell Station, Mr. Lee, still wearing his white shirt, black suit, and string tie, would come to the station to smoke a cigar and talk to this young boy who he had always known. He was old now, hair snow white, with skin beginning to exhibit the translucency of old age.
His age at this point in time was probably 80 odd, and he regaled me with stories of my hometown. He was able to smoke a limited number of cigars (still William Penn Perfectos) but he made them last and would put a toothpick in the end of the cigar so he could smoke it down to nearly nothing. He still had a royal bearing and was always well spoken with a secret smile that always made me think that he knew things that I would like to know.
There are times when I regret not asking him more questions, times I think that I just listened too much and did not express my inquisitiveness. But then I remember just listening to the stories and I’m filled with a kind of nostalgic contentment and I smile my own secret smile, and I remember the Pool Hall.