Kesner’s Billiards was downtown in my hometown of Pomona, California—a basement room across from the Southern Pacific depot just off of the town’s esteemed outdoor mall. In the time of my apprenticeship it had already become something of a relic. Progressive members of the City Council called it “an eye sore.” Women shoppers hustled quickly past on the way to their cars. As a teenage boy, it was a siren singing in clicks and cusswords. From Kesner’s I would learn all the applied laws of the known universe. I would learn courage and humility, anger and addiction; knightly virtues and worldly vices.

There was one problem. Mr. Kesner had a no-one-under-eighteen policy. That first evening I hung around outside the entrance by the fountain in the green neon glow for two hours building up the courage to bluff my way into the temple. Freight trains with hoppers filled with coal or sugar beets rattled by. Pool players came and went. No one acknowledged me though all who passed knew well the pent up fervor of a recent convert awaiting a sign. Each swing of the door hinted a mystery play was evolving. Muffled voices. Cursing. Woofing. A click and a scatter. A scrap of a dispute. The soundtrack that would accompany my life. Surely there was room for another actor. Too briskly I bounded down the stairs. Too casually I opened the door, frowning like someone old. Everything swirled. I saw and heard nothing. I fiddled with the cue sticks, rolled a few across the table to check if they were warped—something I once saw a guy do when I peeked inside the Rocket Room—selected one, went to the counter and asked for a “good” table. Mr. Kesner asked how old I was.

That was that.

He works the day shift and plays at night. He is never the best player. He is always one of the best gamblers. To get on his good side is paramount though he is no one’s friend.

There my bravado ended. The jig was up. A plan poorly conceived; I had no fall back position. “Fourteen” I said. He thanked me for being honest, said he admired my spunk and with a kind smile kicked me out. Eleven times. Over the next few months eleven times after school I would ride my bike to Kesner’s, risk alienating forever the goodwill of the proprietor and plead my case. One day the house man Ricky took my side. That day I learned the value of a great house man. Every decent room has one.

A great house man maintains the equipment, advises on rules of etiquette, settles disputes and facilitates the action. He re-tips the cue sticks, keeps the tables brushed and adjusts the lighting. At his own game’s expense he will interrupt his practice or hold up the ring game to help a customer. A house man takes care of his regulars. For them he saves the best balls—the Brunswick Centennials. He knows who prefers the blue dot or the red dot cue ball—the red dot is lighter, easier to draw—and twice a year recovers the tables. He is always there. He works the day shift and plays at night. He is never the best player. He is always one of the best gamblers. To get on his good side is paramount though he is no one’s friend.

Ricky was the perfect house man, amoral, neutral as a Swiss, for a toke he’d steer you into a good game, never queer anyone’s action, never give up information to road players and for big money matches, for a percentage from both sides, would keep the room open after hours.

Our house man — Jesse Rice

Our house man — Jesse Rice

I don’t know why he took pity on me but he became my intercessor and gained me conditional entry. He got me a coke, laid down the rules and took me to the cue racks. Ricky explained what to look for in a cue, that only an amateur rolls cues all over the table checking the warp and that all that really mattered was the tip. A cue could be heavy or light, crooked or straight, thick shafted or thin. None of that mattered much so long as the profile of the tip was the roundness of a nickel. Ricky taught me the correct way to chalk, to keep the tip scuffed so that it will grab Whitey, how to stand and how to stroke. Ricky showed me that no shot is straight forward; that even the simplest of shots merits respect. He told me of spin and speed; immutable laws of physics. He explained deflection. How, when english is applied, even a little off center, the path of the cue ball alters its course; how that must be compensated for or the result will be disaster. He gave me a table in the back. Earnestly, fully aware of my journey’s length, I hit my first ball. It slammed into the pocket. It was heroin.