Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Hustler

Fall 1976, Nevada, Iowa

I was partly raised in bars and pool halls. On Bald Eagle Lake we stopped into a little bar almost every day and I’d get a Tom Collins with extra cherry juice, shooting pool on tiptoe while my Dad gave me little tips. We had a pool table in the basement in Ames, before Nevada, as well as a ping pong table and horseshoe pit and batting net out back. We always went to gambling night at the Elks Club where I found the pool table alone on the second floor for many a practice session while the folks played roulette or blackjack.

Going from Ames to Nevada meant I had to make new friends. At first I tried to integrate the two groups, the Ames crowd only 15 miles away, and had a bunch of guys over one day to play bumper pool, regular pool and ping pong in the new acreage my folks bought in Nevada. I felt like I was going from a big University town to a little backwater, but from the Suburbs to the country, so you could see the paradox. My city friends didn’t like Hicksville, and my country friends didn’t like the city slickers. They never really mixed and I kind of forgot about my Ames friends.

Besides the new junior high dynamic, I had to get used to a little crowd downtown and driving around the Loop. I could drive legally when I was 14 with a permit, and was the tallest kid in school until the girls passed me up in 8th grade, so no problem with the police going around the Loop in the Galaxie 500, Econoline Van with tinted windows, the yellow Fiat deathmobile, or the Lincoln with tilting seats.

The streets in Nevada are A to Z and 1 to 100. I think there’s a 121st and MM street now. The grid system, just like the furrowed soybean and corn fields being encroached upon with every unwelcome settler. Downtown was small, one main street with all the bars, shops and restaurants. When I first moved there, the main center for the youth was The Head Shop, selling bongs and other paraphernalia out in the open. And there was a pool table so I started to spend more and more time there.
Mind you, I didn’t do drugs yet. I was a drinker, sloe gin in the theater making out in the back row, whisky in the Econoline, yard surfing in the Fiat, first and last at the kegger party at the cool parents’ house. The Heads had their own thing going on, I thought they were more like hillbillies with no future. But there was a pool table at The Head Shop, so I had to mingle.

Being tall and husky, I was used to older guys picking fights, but I usually managed to stave off any violence, at least after turning 13, through my wit and eloquence. And in my pool game. In The Head Shop, regular clients hung out, pinball machines clanging and pool balls clacking, bleary eyed patrons scattered in wooden chairs, looking at no posters on the walls. There was no overhead fan like a Bogart movie, but the jukebox had the classic rock songs that served as soundtrack to our meager lives.

The daughter of the owners ran the place. Jean Ackerman. Even though I may not have known it at the time, she was a lesbian, but like one of those corn fed tough lesbians, trapped in a virgin sixteen year old body. Every time I went in there she gave me some grief. One thing sticks out in my mind for some reason. I was playing pool with one of the regulars and using the pool cue as an air guitar, jamming to Since I’ve Been Loving You. She leaned her elbows on the top of the glass case with the paraphernalia, watching me for a while.

Then she said You think you’re pretty cool doncha? My air guitar became less animated but I didn’t stop moving around the table. After less than a year in this little backwater I was at a crossroads, all The Heads looking on. So I pushed up my chin and nodded affirmatively, saying Yeah I DO think I’m pretty cool, but I’m just whistling through town honey!! I scratched on the eight ball and Jean was vindicated.

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