Aching Tourist Finds Comfort

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Tonight I am in Soria, Spain; one of the hauntingly beautiful areas of the Western world. It is a cold, rainy night and I am drinking a glass of Rioja under the awning of Bar Chayofa. OK, that’s it for the faux-Hemmingway stuff. Just an intro. Cut me a little slack. I’m brooding. My Pilgrimage this year was supposed to be a walk of 600 miles. I walked 150 and hurt my back. Tonight is all pain and distress. This year’s walk is over and I am brooding. There is some pleasure in it. In fact, it’s kind of a hobby of mine. I like to ruminate about life’s mutability and my own intransigence. I stole those last words. They are from the greatest novel of the 20th century: Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities.” “Ruminating” has been a guilty pleasure since I can remember. It bears a high cost (like learning to play pool) and, most times, the truth I seek comes as partial as it is bitter. 

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The door to the bar opens. Primi and a man come outside. Primi is one of the owners of Bar Chayofa. She has a cool haircut. Earlier, when we met, she gave me that sweet, Euro, both-cheeks-to-kiss move which I always bungle and will never be comfortable with. The man is showing Primi something. I eavesdrop. I can’t help it. It’s a pool cue. A good one. A player’s cue. In Soria, pool is played. 

I horn in (I am Carpet Jimmy after all!). My Spanish is as clumsy as the kisses I gave Primi. No one minds. Carlos is a 3-Cushion player. He gives me his number and warmly invites me to meet him at Soria’s private billiards club. He also mentions a good player, Javier del Santo, who lives in town and pines for competition. Carlos gives me Javier’s number as well. I wait a couple of days for my back to get better [it doesn’t] before I call Javier. Again, such a warm conversation. We have already googled each other and it turns out he knows about Greenleaf’s from a mutual friend, Mark Vidal; a solid Spanish player I got to know in New York and, later, saw a lot of action in Seattle with Vince, Harry, Z, and the crew from a previous incarnation of my pool life. 

As Javier and I chatted my brooding subsided. I was no longer a tourist with a bad back. I was somewhere I knew, among people I knew. We spoke in pidgin English and descompuesto Spanish and laughed in common over the instrument of our passion and suffering. We shared stories about the absurd behavior of pool players. I told him about life at Greenleaf’s; about Phil, Jesse, Roman and Camille. I told him about Devon’s improvement and Everett’s private life. We agreed about Everett’s private life. Javier was on his way to a tournament in Austria but promised to come see us around the time of the U.S. Open in the Fall.  

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Later that night I found Carlos at his club. I drank a beer and watched him play 3-Cushion Billiards with his friend Eduardo. It was artful; speed and spin, a physics lesson with every shot. 

We’re a far flung community. We struggle and yearn. We dedicate ourselves to a discipline impossible to master. We partner up, scheme, bicker and refuse to speak to each other for months. Just like families. In the end the reward these fickle pool games allow us is that we know for certain that anywhere we happen to be we find something akin to a home.  

Cisero Murphy

Wide World of Sports with Chris Schenkel. Only gentlemen of a certain age know what that is. It was broadcast on Saturday afternoons and became a kind of religion. In 1966, I was 12, I tuned in and saw something truly stunning; a tournament final between Luther Lassiter and Cisero Murphy.

Those names! Luther Lassiter. Alliteration made for a marquee. Money player. World champion. And Cisero Murphy. Cisero with an “s.” A strange name. His given name conjures up the Classical World, a name of oration and debate; an Elysian name. The surname is pure County Armagh and evokes images of hardened immigrants in the 19th century; tough men who carried in their pockets everything they owned and would just as soon crack you one as look at you. A name of high and low, of ideal and action.

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I watched Cisero Murphy play. Spellbound. He was methodical. Inexorable. He wore a dark sharkskin suit. On every shot, just before his final stroke, he would pause for a split second. He described it as “taking a picture” of the shot. He won that match. He won a lot. He won the World’s Championship of Straight Pool in his first opportunity to participate.

Cisero Murphy, one of the best pool players who ever lived, was inducted into the Billiards Hall of Fame in 1995, and died the following year at age 60—still owing Danny Barouty 40 bucks (this is a pool story after all).

Murphy’s biography is an all too common one in urban America. He grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, had 7 siblings, and a gone father. He dropped out of school at age 15, worked odd jobs, boxed, and sought community in the pool room. Murphy has been compared, rightly, to Jackie Robinson as a pioneer of breaking down the color barrier in sport. He knew who he was and where he came from. In a profession not known for its altruism, Murphy was an exception. He often visited veterans’ hospitals and senior citizen homes, and started “Billiards in the Streets” with New York City Parks and Recreation Department—a program where he instructed young people about the game.

Cisero Murphy, champion, world beater, was from a time and place where everything for him was hard fought, hard won and hard lost. He had mettle. He took what he could, gave back what he could, and earned every good thing that ever came to him.

James Evans

At the House of Billiards in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-70s, I got to meet Robert “Rags” Woods. He was an old man. He was tall and wore vintage suits. I quickly realized it was not a “look.” They were his suits. In his day, Rags was a solid hustler and great all-around player. He played Greenleaf. He played everybody. He was African American. I got to ask him the question: “who is the greatest black player that ever lived?” I thought I knew the answer, the world champion Cisero Murphy. Without any pretext of a pause to reflect, Rags said “Mr. Evans.” That was the first time I heard the name James Evans. Not the last. Later, I asked Johnny Ervolino: “no contest, James Evans.” Still later, I asked Cisero himself. Cisero was famous, justifiably in the elite of a generation of the best players. He liked himself and happily shared his own assessments about his skills in all things. He responded: “Mr. Evans.”

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James Evans is a ghost. Scant documentation exists. He owned a pool room in Harlem at the height of the borough’s renaissance. A direct contemporary of Ralph Greenleaf, it is said that they played many times and that Evans more than held his own. It is said that he was a great money player who disdained entering tournaments. Others have compared him to baseball’s Josh Gibson, the best player of his day—but not allowed to compete in the big arena because of racism. It is said that James Evans actually took a world championship in a challenge match against Erwin Rudolph in the late 1920s, and that a plaque on the wall of long-gone Bensinger’s in Chicago proved it. It is said that Mr. Evans was an upright family man. It is said that he drank, womanized, and went to the track. All of this is true. Or false. Or something shifting in between.

James Evans’ legacy rests upon vague recollections of men dead for decades, told to others, and retold, embellished until foggy and translated into folklore. Still, there is a consensus. There is little doubt Mr. Evans was the best black player who ever lived. Being truly great at something is a remarkable thing, even if it is just a game. It’s Black History Month. We honor James Evans and the other men and women who excelled with little hope of receiving accolades and rewards automatically granted to others.

Surviving images of our Namesake

Ralph Greenleaf is on YouTube. It is optimistically called a “Highlight Reel.” It is not. It is an odd assemblage of a few newsreel clips and outtakes. They are snapshots of a great champion, wishing he were anywhere else, going through the motions. We, the audience, are never engaged. We stumbled upon something we were not meant to see. The first clip is of a world’s straight pool championship final between Greenleaf and the “Chicago Wizard,” Erwin Rudolph. Likely from the mid 1930’s, held at Dwyer’s Billiard Club in New York City. Rudolph defeats Greenleaf. Greenleaf seems defeated from the start. Rudolph opens with a classic safety. Greenleaf thinks he sees a dead combination and fires at it. It is not dead. The shot misses, Greenleaf slouches back to his chair and Rudolph begins his run. Spliced in with Rudolph’s great pattern play are some absurd shots probably meant to show us his “Wizardry.” The Chicagoan gets the trophy and we see little else of Greenleaf. Greenleaf’s single shot is hard to watch. He doesn’t even LOOK at it. He just takes a couple perfunctory strokes and slaps at it. What was he thinking? Was he overconfident against the “Chicago Wizard”? Did he not care? Was he thinking of his next drink? It is puzzling. In our sweet, forlorn game, Ralph Greenleaf owns a mythic stature. His name is a spoken talisman. This crappy clip of a disinterested man in a sharp looking suit just makes me sad.

We can see the ‘Aristocrat’ bored, frustrated, pandering to a movie camera that has already dumbed down and recast our heroes as ‘celebrities.’

The film’s next segment is of Greenleaf shooting trick shots on an empty sound stage. He is tall, with a handsome, boyish face. The sharp suit is there and the hair (perhaps somewhat anachronistically) is slick with pomade. He goes through the basic canon of the time; the “Hat Shot”, the “Handkerchief Shot” and the “Rack Shot”. He makes three rail lags, finds disguised combinations and strokes a beautiful masse. End results. All well and good.  Next, however, we see process. This is not so good. Greenleaf tries and fails multiple times to execute the shots (not uncommon), gets fidgety and gestures in annoyance (again, not uncommon). Here’s the thing; players hate doing trick shots. The very name connotes something of the trained monkey. Players labor for years, honing their skills in this most subtle game and then, when they get truly great, they are asked to perform a bunch of nonsense to an often wildly uninterested public. We can see the “Aristocrat” bored, frustrated, pandering to a movie camera that has already dumbed down and recast our heroes as “celebrities.”

The final clip offers the sad, staged, denouement. Greenleaf is in Hollywood performing his shots for a glittering, politely applauding, small crowd. Most everyone feigns a good time except a slender dude with his arms folded at the far left. He is resolutely unimpressed and even seems disdainful of the champion. Asshole. The film literally ends with an extra doing a dopey, slapstick, pratfall.

Pool has always straddled purity and shtick. Indeed, a great part of its appeal is found in the con man, the shameless self-promoter, the American original. It is as true today as it was in the Roaring Twenties. The game is hard and there is such little reward. Our champions have to shill all the time. I get it. Not too long after Greenleaf performed for the selection of Hollywood B-listers he had a stomach ache, went to a hospital in New York City and died in the waiting room at age 51. The historian loves the information found in the “Highlight Reel.” The poet does not.

 

Byzantium

The photo is posed. A newspaper wants "local color" and a pool player (like every one of us) is secretly flattered to be singled out. He is self-conscious and will not directly engage. His eyes are distracted. Maybe a mark just walked in. He's got five o'clock shadow and is surely a "night person". He sports an expensive haircut and a fancy new shirt. What a shirt! He wears it open at the collar where an ornate cross inhabits a mossy, pre-manscaped world. His pinky ring glistens in the Pool Room's fluorescence.

He is a welder, drives a Dodge Charger and has a sexy girlfriend named Suzy. The balls are racked for a game he does not play. This guy plays Nine-Ball. He plays for money and snaps off local tournaments. Growing up, I knew guys like him. I idolized them. I listened to them. They taught me how to spin my rock, how to ease into a score and how to avoid being trapped into a bad bet.

He plays in the kind of joint of my youth. Mine was in Southern California but they were ubiquitous. They were in strip malls and had unimaginative names like Rack and Cue, Cue and Cushion, Rack 'Em and The Eight Ball. Their cheap wood paneling served as backdrops to rows of pin ball machines on a line to infinity (I see one is named Luna Beach) that in turn served as backdrops to each day's drama. They sold toasted sandwiches in plastic baskets and Cokes in frosted mugs. There was nowhere finer in all the world.

Like an ambassador to Byzantium from a distant land, a newspaper photographer sought and found the exotic. He got a glimpse of finery, pomp and ritual. He took back for us an icon, a small souvenir from a courtly world.