Playing For Keeps

Five days a week, a group of widowers and retirees gather around three worn pool tables in a South Shore rec room to shoot some stick and razz one another. The men are old; their bodies are breaking down—but to Baby Ray and the rest, the place is one big, slow gulp from the fountain of youth.

pool hall

There’s no music, but Baby Ray is dancing. No jitterbug or jump-and-jive, but the kind of high strut that a man uses when he’s feeling it, say, when he’s rolling a hot pair of dice or flipping pocket aces or holding sway on a faded felt pool table through five games of sloppy eight—and not just doing it, but telling you about it, the way Baby Ray is right now. “Yow!” he says, stroking his cue, strutting around the rectangle of green. “Looka’ here.” One after another, balls clop into pockets. Racks fill. Baby Ray is 70, but it doesn’t slow his two-step. “I came here to play pool today!” he crows. He is wearing a yellow cap swung backwards and an old gray apron soiled with the chalk and table-grime of a thousand games. He always dons the apron before playing, using the pockets to stash cubes of chalk and a small blue container of baby powder, which he bangs in his hands before taking up his cue. The apron’s front bears his nickname—Baby Ray—hand-inked in crooked blue letters. As if it were needed, the name also ornaments the butt of his cue and his cue case. “Get out of Baby Ray’s way,” he declares, as another ball rolls across the green and thunks into a pocket.

Lucky Lazard, deep in a game of his own, looks up with wry amusement. “Go ahead, Ray-Ray,” the 74-year-old says. “Ain’t nobody in your way.” Ernest Calhoun, 87, who has been dozing in a plastic chair against the wall, lifts a seamed face, grumbles something about luck, sinks back into slumber. Lucky and Ed Strong, shooting two tables over, look over at Baby Ray, then back at each other.

“What?” Strong says, eyebrows raised.

“Got my eye on you,” Lucky volleys.

“I hope it’s your good eye.”

“Ahhh, getting sassy down here!”

“C’mon, someone rack them balls,” Strong says. “Let me run this turkey off the table.”

One by one, the old men have arrived—some by bus, some on foot, others by senior citizen van. They have come down the stairs, into the fluorescent shine of this large recreation room at 79th and Cregier in the South Shore neighborhood. They’ve hung their jackets on little brass hooks, unfastened their small cylindrical cases, and settled into a routine as worn as the baize of the room’s three overused tables. They come to shoot pool, Baby Ray and Lucky Lazard and Lefty, Jamaica Joe and Mississippi Willie, Calhoun and Rambo, Isaiah the Prophet, Frank Sparks, known as the “salsero,” and a man who calls himself The Truth. Retired workers and widowers in their 70s and 80s, all African American, spry men in flannel shirts and jeans and pressed pants and polished Stacy Adams lace-ups, most getting by on small pensions earned in hardscrabble years of another era, pouring steel and pressing garments and cleaning stockyards and selling insurance, South Siders either by birth or by right—the non-natives having traveled to Chicago during the great migration to escape the poverty and hard bigotry of small towns in the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas and Louisiana. They come five days a week to trade gossip and insults, to compare aches and ailments, slowed only by doctor’s orders or death.

“Who’s hot?”

“He’s hot.”

“I’ll cool him down.”

Chalk squeaks. Balls roll. Racks drop.

“My name is Isaiah and I’m a prophet,” says Isaiah.

“I predict you ain’t going to make it,” Jamaica Joe shoots back.

And now, Baby Ray jabs his pool cue fiercely, thrusting like a fencer. He sights his shot, and smacks the eight ball across the cloth toward a corner pocket. He’s had the table too long now. The other men are growing annoyed. They’re decent players, good, not great, and when someone gets on a run like this, it irritates, especially when that someone is dancing and talking like Baby Ray. The eight ball creeps toward the pocket, but slows as it nears the lip, teetering on the edge. The moment sends Baby Ray into a spasm of body English, his pool cue cradled like a dance partner waiting to be dipped. And the old men watch through ancient, amused eyes, readying whatever quip they need, make or miss, to needle Baby Ray and to keep alive the place that means so much more to them and their dwindling numbers than winning or losing.

* * *

Under a cone of light, Fast Eddie Felson and Minnesota Fats pounded whiskey and chain-smoked while they wagered thousands a game in the seedy, smoke-stained upstairs of Bennington’s Billiard Hall in the novel The Hustler. Surly, sharp-eyed crowds skulked around the tables, dazzled into silence by the virtuosos. In this poolroom, there is no gambling. No gathering of pool sharks. There’s no whiskey. No video games. No smoking. Just old men playing and waiting to play.

The Francis J. Atlas Regional Senior Center at 1767 East 79th Street crouches along a faded thoroughfare of mom-and-pop shops, squeezed into a gap between stores like Buddie’s Liquors and Wilma’s Chateau of Beauty. Here, five days a week, these old-heads gather, each with his own brand of comic timing and wicked repartee. In the poolroom, after all, wit is the hustle; bragging rights, not bets, the spoils. It’s part vaudeville, part sitcom—with the ability to cap, crack, rank, rib, diss, and snap as important as any fancy cue stick.

At the Atlas, the games are about getting the old bones—and the blood—moving. The playful putdowns—the kidding, jiving, and teasing—are about exercising the mind, not rattling an opponent. In another era, the practice was called “playing the dozens,” a rich tradition in the African American community of matching insults in a kind of workingman’s duel. But the Atlas also provides the men with an escape from apartments that roast in the summer and chill in the winter. Most important, it furloughs them from houses left empty by children long gone and spouses now departed. For them, these hours, these games heal body and soul better than any medicine, any doctor’s prescription, certainly better than sitting home, alone with their years. The hours are, in a sense, life, youth, home.

* * *

Calhoun gets there first, followed closely by the other regulars. At 87, he moves with a ponderous but efficient shuffle that transforms into a skater’s slide around the pool table, a swooping step that gives him an unlikely grace. He is soft-spoken, with a raspy voice dredged from the bottom of a box of gravel, and he has been coming to the Atlas Center for more than two decades. Cataracts, for which he has had two surgeries, coat his eyes, and make them weepy, giving him a vaguely sad appearance. He was born Ernest Calhoun, but around here he’s simply Calhoun. “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” his blue cap declares.

“’Morning, everybody!” he rasps, walking in with a cane, his cue satchel slung over his shoulder. It’s raw outside and he’s bundled in a ski jacket and scarf and gloves.

“Don’t go too hard on me. You know I can’t see.”

“Hey, Calhoun,” says Ray. “You put on all the clothes you got?”

“Just the good ones,” he says. “I got more.”

You reach the poolroom by walking through the Atlas lobby, past the lunchroom, where men are required to remove their hats before eating the day’s potluck, past several seniors lolling on benches and chairs, working on art projects or waiting for flu shots. The three tables form a row in the basement, under a low fiberboard ceiling, next to a glass-enclosed workout room, where some of the men toddle over to watch the older women stretch and scissor their way through their daily aerobics. Bid whist players crowd tables at one end, hurling insults as fast as the snap of the cards. The checkers crew commands a small alcove at the entrance, slapping the disks down and, if anything, strafing their fellow players with insults more caustic, more cutting, than those of their poolroom counterparts.

In the poolroom, the smell of menthol and balm fills the place, giving it the familiar, musty feel of a grandfather’s favorite parlor. A TV murmurs at one end. In the summer it’s tuned to White Sox games. The rest of the time, the screen flickers through those shows where smart-aleck judges scold trailer park divorcées, programs all but ignored until the Lotto numbers are announced. A bottle of talc dangles from a frayed string attached to the metal frame of the tile ceiling like a spider suspended on a thread of silk over the linoleum. House cues on a rack line one of the walls.

Within a few minutes, pool games bristle on each of the three four-and-a-half-foot tables. Like the men who play them, the tables show the wear of many years, gouged and scuffed, but still sturdy and dignified. Tape wraps the triangle racks, each of which has cracked from use. Blue chalk marks streak the felt, mingled with smudges of powder. A Band-Aid binds a fault line in one of the plastic pocket drops. But the tables work fine, the men will tell you. Just fine.

Except for the Chicago cop who occasionally sneaks in for a few games on his lunch hour, and the janitor who wanders by to talk a little pidgen Spanish, the men are old. Gray dusts their hair and beards. Some walk with canes; fine lines trace their hands like faint road maps. Anyone under 60 is automatically a “young blood.”

“Now, see, that’s a colossal miss,” muses one of the players, after badly botching an easy corner pocket shot. “None of these penny-ante misses.”

“Oh, no!” adds another player, who strands a striped 10 ball just short of the pocket. “You didn’t eat your damn Wheaties!”

“Wait a minute; I thought I had stripes,” says his opponent.

“Well, senility comes in all ages,” the other player observes.

The morning wears on, and the other regulars arrive. Leo “Lucky” Lazard, 74, dapper, as always, dressed in creased black pants, polished wingtips, and a silver-and-black merino wool sweater. He is lean and fit looking, with a salt-sprinkled goat-ee. Like many of the men, he was born in the South—New Orleans in his case—and came to Chicago in 1950 in search of more work and fewer racial hassles. He was unaware, he says, that his family was actually moving to one of the most segregated cities in the country at the time.

* * *

Indeed, when he arrived in Chicago, he found much more work than tolerance.

“In New Orleans, because of the Creole, there wasn’t as many problems,” he says. “You couldn’t tell who was black and who was white. When I first came here, blacks couldn’t go over Drexel, couldn’t go to the beach. There were white people sitting out on their porches and they would tell you.”

He found work delivering medicine for a drugstore, then at a printing company, until he settled into what would be his trade for the next 41 years—one reason he’s always so natty: pressing lapels and sewing side seams for Hart Shaffner & Marx. He began coming to the Atlas about a decade ago after wandering by one day. “I didn’t play pool for a long time,” Lucky says. “I never used to play pool when I was younger. I bowled. I would sit up there [by the door] watching. Finally, someone asked me and I said, ‘Why not?’” He picked up the game quickly, so quickly that the other players began calling him “Lucky.”

One of the men, James C. Wills, spent 30 months overseas, in Casablanca and Corsica, during the Korean War, one of the many veterans who frequent the poolroom. “Army buck sergeant was as high as I got,” he says. “It was rough being a soldier. Some fellas just lost their minds.” He says he was wounded three times in the war and pulls out a gold Veterans of Foreign Wars card with his name on it to confirm his status. “I’m not a lying guy,” says Wills. “I don’t have to impress anybody.” He used to play a lot—even entered the citywide pool tour-nament for seniors. Now, he’s content to watch. “I don’t need it anymore,” he says. “I leave it to these youngsters. But you know I could play.”

“Baby” Ray Rayford was born in Arkansas, then moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he worked in a bowling alley. “There were six or seven pool tables there,” he recalls. “That’s where I learned to play better.” He came to Chicago after four years stationed in Japan during the Korean War. He worked in a packinghouse, for White Castle and Sara Lee. He’s here virtually every morning, dancing to his own music.

“How are your eyes, Calhoun?” he asks.

“They’re open,” the old man says.

* * *

By noon, the room’s three tables are full. The players on deck sit on the plastic and metal chairs. “Skill and cunning, skill and cunning,” Lucky is saying. His playing partner, a big man with a two-day growth of silver-flecked beard, leans on the table to attempt a difficult cut shot. “Doggonit, I think you broke the table,” Lucky says.

“How?” the other player asks.

“By putting your big booty up there!”

So it begins.

“Whoa, you shot already?” Strong asks at the next table over.

“It don’t take me long to shoot.”

“Don’t take you too long to do anything.”

“He doesn’t do that much,” says Lucky.

“It takes me all day to do what I used to do in one hour,” another man says.

“Hey, Baby Ray.”

“What?”

“Baby Ray.”

“What?”

“Baby Ray.”

“What you want?”

“Where you from, Baby Ray?”

“California.”

“California?”

“Twenty-sixth and California.”

The room explodes with laughter.

“C’mon, Baby. Tell the truth. I thought you were from the Show-Me State.”

“Did I show him?”

“You showed him.”

“Then I guess it’s the Show-Me State.”

Hours pass. Tables click with the sound of balls hitting balls, balls slapping the back of pockets, racks busting open. And always, always, the talking, the rapid-fire chatter, the running commentary, the carping over bad rolls, the injustice of unlucky shots, the regret for poor play, the boasting, the big talk, the tall tales, the showboating; cursing the gods, the tables, each other; and laughter, always laughter.

“All right,” says a player. “Let me win this game so I can leave.”

“You’re about to be late,” says another.

“All I can say is I just sank seven balls on you.”

“Six!”

“Seven,” he says, bending over. “And here come eight!”

In the convivial swirl of the poolroom’s wit and wordplay, serious topics rarely find voice. It’s not that kind of place. When a woman occasionally shuffles by—usually Rose on her way to play cards—they display a gentleman’s charm and politeness, nodding and stepping out of the way.

Nearly every man can lay claim to the hard knocks, the joy and loss, the regrets and triumphs that come with their longevity. In 2004, Calhoun lost his wife of 62 years, Helle; his bereavement still shows in a sort of resigned bemusement. The sparseness of his words in describing such loss speaks more poignantly than the tears that fill his ravaged eyes: “Sixty-two happy years,” he says. “She was a good girl—she had to be to live with me.”

Leonard Lucas, 72, presides as the closest thing the poolroom has to a sage. Born in Vidalia, Louisiana, his life has traversed the disparate roles of the Renaissance man, from a poor Southern boy who attended segregated schools to an athlete scouted by the Harlem Globetrotters to the holder of a master’s degree in urban sociology to the author of three books of poetry. For more than three decades he has recited his work at colleges and penal institutions, churches and senior citizen centers. He came to Atlas six or seven years ago, he says, after a friend mentioned the poolroom. “For me, this is a place where old people can come to eliminate their stress—to touch their humanity,” he says, then adds, laughing, “and their humility.”

James Wills, like Calhoun, like Lucas, like so many of the men here, grew up in a Chicago that exists now only in sepia photographs and history books—and in the memories of men such as themselves. They recall streets clip-clopping with horses and brimming with streetcars, and neighborhoods where they knew not to venture. They reminisce about show palaces like the Savoy, Regal, and Metropolitan theatres; the rise and slow decline of the “Black Metropolis”—areas like Bronzeville that once bustled with shops and restaurants only to slide into urban blight. “Segregation was everywhere,” recalls Wills, who spent most of his career building diesel locomotives in La Grange. “We couldn’t get into most places.”

That doesn’t mean some areas of the country weren’t worse. One of the poolroom regulars tells the story of how he came to Chicago. “I was born in Little Rock,” he says. “I remember walking with my father and he looked over at something. They had hung a man and had him down on the ground. My father told me to run all the way to the house. He put my sister and me on a train [to a relative’s house in Chicago] and followed as soon as he could. But I don’t have no regrets. I’ve had a nice life. Where I live, I keep clean and neat. Sometimes I go to Country Buffet. I wouldn’t take nothing for it.”

Some regulars have a second life. Frank Sparks, for one. By day, he is known as the thin, elegantly dressed sharpshooter with an unshakable grin and a quiver full of barbed insults. By night, he is the “salsero,” dancing the evening away at clubs around town. Sparks, like the other men here, credits the poolroom with keeping him young, and indeed, the men seem to take on a new energy, move with newfound grace, around these tables, as if, for a moment, they forget how old they are, how their bodies no longer work as they once did.

* * * 

As the afternoon wears on, one of the other regulars, Herman, beats Ed Strong, rousing Calhoun out of a doze. “C’mon, Calhoun, your turn,” Herman says. As Calhoun shuffles to the table, Strong teases Herman: “The man is blind, a hundred years old and he’s still going to beat you.” But Calhoun, despite playing well, doesn’t win. “We’re going to have to do something about this,” Strong says. “I don’t like what you did to Calhoun,” he tells Herman. Baby Ray steps up, the next challenger to Herman. Strong looks at him. “Take off the mask, Baby Ray. Halloween was last month.”

Baby Ray ignores him and sends the cue ball into the rack like a sledgehammer. The balls dance and swirl on the break, a solid falling in the corner.

“I thought you were a man of peace, not violence,” Herman says.

“C’mon, don’t do me like that!” Ray grouses at the table, finding himself snookered behind a clump of balls.

“Talk to it, Ray,” Calhoun says. “Talk to it.”

“That ain’t an easy shot,” Strong says.

“I’m gonna make it easy.”

Just as life is apparent in this room, death lurks as a constant if unspoken presence. It’s easy to forget, watching the men day after day. But sometimes, one of the regulars just stops showing up. One Tuesday night in October, Frank Sparks went to one of his favorite salsa haunts, Green Dolphin Street on North Ashland. His wife of 43 years stayed home, as usual, having resigned herself long ago to Sparks’s love of dance, just as she has learned to tolerate his love of pool. Like Lucky, Sparks dresses sharp, favoring open-collared silk shirts and, occasionally, a driver’s cap tipped at an angle. Thin like Lucky, he wears a clean-shaven head and moves with the easy grace of someone who has danced many years. On this night, as ever, he waits for a song he likes, then picks a partner, then turns her and dips to the beat. But when he returns to the bar, something is wrong.

A few days later, the men arrive at the poolroom as they always do. Calhoun first. Baby Ray. Lucky. They don’t notice at first that a newspaper clipping has been taped to one of the walls. “Longtime salsa dancer died on the dance floor,” the headline on the Sun-Times obituary reads. “Did what he loved right up to the end.” At the bar, Sparks collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack.

One by one, the men pause before the article, read, shake their heads. Later, several stop by the funeral home for the service. Many don’t. Not for lack of caring, but perhaps because, for all the life this room gives them, moments like this also remind them that it won’t go on forever. For them, coming to this place, playing a game in Frank’s honor, serves as an appropriate tribute. Still, the jibes take on a softer edge. The room is quiet. But as the day proceeds, the regulars loosen up. Once again, like balls bursting on a break, the jokes and insults begin to fly. That seems right, too. This place accommodates many things, but sadness is not welcome. They are old. One day, somebody here will be the one who doesn’t show up.

It’s late afternoon in the poolroom. The guys are done for the day. Ed Strong twists his cue apart and tucks it into his satchel.

“That’s it for me.”

“Don’t leave, Ed,” Calhoun pleads.

“Oh, I know. You just want to whup me like everyone else.”

“I’ll play you,” Baby Ray tells Calhoun. “I don’t like what you did to me yesterday.”

It has been a difficult few weeks for Calhoun. Earlier this morning, he had yet another procedure on his eyes. They have been bothering him all day—so much so, that he has been wearing dark glasses, hiding behind inky blue lenses. For as long as he has been coming here, the balls on the table have held crisp edges under the fluorescent lights. Now, they cast small shadows, blur when they are hit very hard. Stripes and solids are no longer so easy to discern. The pockets seem farther and farther away. He lifts his cue butt, the way he always does, and strokes the cue ball gently. It rolls across the felt and taps a ball in the corner.

And Calhoun does his skater’s slide around the table to the other side.

Baby Ray watches and smiles. Of all the players here, Baby Ray can be the most animated, one of the loudest—at times—and, when he gets to strutting like a gamecock, one of the most exasperating. But now Baby Ray holds a bottle of eye drops, tenderly leaning over Calhoun, who is sitting with his head tilted back. “Take it easy, Cal,” he says, gently. “Let’s get these in there.” The players around take little notice as Ray puts in the drops as reverently as a priest anointing a baby’s forehead. Calhoun tilts his head back up, blinks his ancient eyes, and nods. He’s ready to play, ready to get back into the game, one more game. “I can see!” he says, with mock exultation.

* * * 

The eight ball rolls and Baby Ray dances. Time slows down, as the ball seems to hang on the lip. In slow motion, it drops. The men roar. One stretches his arms skyward. Baby Ray jumps, then lands flat-footed and skips to the side, bellowing out, “Yow! That’s what I’m talking about!” And as he dances his dance, his vanquished foe digs into the pockets and begins clopping the balls in the center, pulling out the triangle with the thick tape that covers its cracks. “All that dancing ain’t going to help you, Baby Ray,” he says.

“It already has,” Ray shoots back. And he dances again, as the other men laugh, and turn back to their tables, their shots, their games, always ready for one more rack, one more shot, one more joke, until they grab their coats from the peg and head out for the day; until tomorrow, when Calhoun and Lucky and Baby Ray, and Ed Strong and Isaiah the Prophet and Jamaica Joe and Mississippi Willie will once again trudge down the stairs, back to the place they love, to see the men who are more than just foils, to do what keeps them, for a few hours at least, young.

 

Photograph: bartlec (CC by 2.0)

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