A few summers ago, a friend and I took a lazy four-day float on the Upper San Juan River in the Four Corners Region of Southeastern Utah. Our guide was “Zeke” (later he confided it was a “stage name”). He was in his early sixties. He had a full beard and wore colorful, long-sleeve shirts his wife made for him to fight off the sun. Zeke knew all the flora and fauna of the region. He called to birds and they called back. He took us to remote canyons and quietly, never lecturing, told us about the beautiful native art that decorated the walls. When pressed, he modestly recalled for us epic adventures of a lifetime on rivers. He spoke of the Salmon in Idaho and the Rogue in Oregon; of guiding in Alaska, Chile and the Ural Mountains. He told us how he “reads” a rapid and that all river guides take great pride in their baking skills. He reassured a couple of city-slickers about quicksand, scorpions, Gila Monsters and everything else that lurked and, just after sunset, before turning in, read us cowboy poetry.
In camp the first night over a delicious peach cobbler Zeke asked what I did. I told him “I play pool.” Zeke transformed. Instantly. His spine stiffened and he took on the look of a bad actor. He said he wished there was a pool table around. Being thrilled I was miles away from one I asked him why. I knew where the conversation was headed but I couldn’t help it. He said what I was hoping not to hear. The phrase, the sad lie, the silly cliché that I and every other pool player has had to endure all our lives. He said “I put myself through college shooting pool.” Zeke, our guide and protector, our story teller and river God filled up and burst apart like a water balloon.
Pool and life have an uneasy relationship. The only certainty they both hold is that no one ever put himself through college shooting pool. This pervasive fantasy speaks to many things. The obvious I refuse to look closely at. I mean, if Zeke has to concoct an alternate personal mythology, if his life is unfulfilled, then we’re all screwed. Another take is that Zeke’s fib projects a wishful incarnation of the complete person; on the one hand educated, a success, “don’t worry honey I can hold down a job,” and on the other the romantic, the hustler, traveling in hostile territory, living by pluck, the dark wanderer that no one can truly know. The pool hustler was to 20th century American lore what the gun slinger was to the 19th. He’s good. He lays down his con. He looks like Paul Newman.
Pool has wormed its way into the American psyche. It’s a sublime addiction. It is high philosophy and low behavior. I started playing when I was thirteen. It was cool. It still is.