Friday, October 12, 2018
“Shoot Pools ‘Fast Eddie,’ Shoot Pools”-With Paul Newman’s “The Hustler” In Mind
“Shoot Pools ‘Fast Eddie,’ Shoot Pools”-With Paul Newman’s “The Hustler” In Mind
By Lance Lawrence
“Fast Eddie” Felson was the greatest pool player to ever put chalk to stick and you had better believe that hard fact because I know from whence I speak. In most quarters, among the serious followers of the game, I, Jackie “Big Man” Gleason think that title belongs to me. Think an old tub who learned the game in Hell’s Kitchen at Jackie Kane’s dimly lit pool hall from guys who would break your knuckles if they even had seen a breath of air that you might be hustling them. I never had my knuckles broken but they also never knew when I hustled their carfare home if I had the chance. I was that raw and thought I was that good. Until “Fast Eddie” came strolling in the door one day all hungry and eager to take on “Big Man,” make a name for himself and put me on cheap street. I knew that I would take that strutting bastard down at first but I also knew deep down that whatever the “official” rankings which in those days was how much jack you took from the competition I also knew that someday I would be uttering those words that I just said to start my story about “Fast Eddie”
Maybe you never heard of “Fast Eddie,” never knew the story behind the story of how for a couple of years anyhow, maybe three, he ruled the roost, he was the king of the hill. All I know is from the first moment Eddie entered Sharkey’s Pool Hall, the place where my manager, Bart, and I hustled all comers at the sport of kings, down on 12th Avenue in the teeming city of New York I was afraid to play him. Afraid he would damage my reputation as the king of the hill. I had never played game one against him but still I sensed something in his swagger, in his bravado that made my hands shake. Shaky hands the kiss of death in our profession.
I don’t know if I can explain that pit in my stomach feeling I am not much given to introspection a word I never heard of before the guy who I first told this story, a journalist, he called himself, and as long as he was not blowing smoke my way I believe him and if this little story ever gets published that my view of fucking hard luck sports reporters who get assigned to interview “retired” sports figure like me will improve greatly. If not, fuck it I just wanted to get the tale told and that is that. This introspection stuff, this thinking about why I had that pit in the stomach and why I worried about cheap street like a lot of other guys, Willie Hoppe, the legendary “Minnesota Fats, “Jersey Fats,” guys like that who had to hang up their hats when they magic left their when a guy like me, like “Big Man” or then “Fast Eddie” came up and took at the dingy pool hall air away. Let me try to give you an idea, okay. I was a guy, a wiseass guy no question, laughing at the idea that some two bit strong arms would miff my play, would do my knuckles in when I was in my Jake. But see I had learned the game, learned all angles and hustles by putting what they nowadays call doing the 10,000 hours of work to perfect whatever skill you were trying to perfect. I knew at any given time on any given night what I could and could not do with the rack when they spread their wings. That and maybe a cynical hustler’s sense of another man’s weaknesses (woman as far as I knew did play, play high stakes pool then at least I never ran across and who wanted to play although I ran into plenty of women was wanted to help me spend my money, and they did).
“Fast Eddie” though the minute he came in the door, the minute he put chalk to stick just had a feel for what to do. Maybe he spent about five minutes doing the work I spent those lonely 10, 000 hours and the rest was pure spirit, karma, Zen whatever the fuck you want to call it. Made me almost pee my pants when he strutted up the table all lean and hungry, a guy named Shakespeare I remember from school or maybe my father who loved the cat, told everybody to watch out for those kinds and avoid them like the plague. Yeah, strutted right up to the table knowing that I was sitting right there with my manager Bart and proceeded to run the rack without stopping to look, closing those damn blue eyes before every fucking shot. So I knew I was done except I also knew, or maybe Bart had a better handle on it just then that I would take him down the first time he wanted to challenge me. He had to be bloodied first before he took over the kingship. There was no other way. Bart and I laughed, maybe a cynical laugh, how we would skin that cat before he even knew what hit him. See young lean and hungry guys, blue eyes or not forget about the barrelful of tricks an old pro had accumulated to keep the landlord from the door.
In case you don’t know, and maybe some readers might not having decided to read my homage to “Fast Eddie” based on the “hook” that this was about Paul Newman the movie actor shooting big-time pool, hustling pool in the old days before Vegas, Atlantic City, Carson City started putting up money to have high dollar championships was about more that learning technique, having a vision of where the fucking balls would enter the pockets like your mother’s womb. A lot more. It was about having heart, about something that they would call Zen today but which we called “from hunger” in my day. Eddie’s too. That’s what Eddie had, that is what I sensed, what brought me to cold sweats when that swaggering son of a bitch came looking for me like I was somebody’s crippled up grandfather. It took a while, Eddie took his beatings before he understood what drove his art but he got it, got it so good that I left the game for a couple of years and went out West to hustler wealthy Hollywood moguls who loved the idea of “beating” “Big Man” Gleason at ten thousand a showing just for the sake of playing will a big time pool hustler.
But forget about me and my troubles once Fast Eddie came through that long ago door after all this is about how the best man who ever handled a stick got to earn that title in my book. Like a lot of guys after the war, after World War II, after seeing the world in one way Eddie was ready to ditch his old life, was ready to take some chances and say “fuck you” to the nine to five world that would be death to a free spirit like him (that “free spirit” would put a few daggers in his heart before he was done but that is for later). Eddie, against my doughty frame, my big man languid frame, was a rangy kid, kind of tall, wiry, good built and Hollywood bedroom eyes like, well, like Paul Newman when he was a matinee idol making all the women, girls too, wet. Strictly “from hunger” just like in my time, the Great Depression, I had been the same before I left Minnesota for the great big lights of the city and “action.” Like I said raw and untamed but I could tell that very first time he put the stick to the green clothe he had the magic, had that something that cannot be learned but only come to the saints and those headed for the sky.
So Eddie came in with a few thousand ready to take on the “Big Man.” While I feared this young pup I sensed that I could teach him a lesson, maybe a lesson that would hold him in good stead, maybe not, but which would at least give me enough breathing room to figure out what I would do when Eddie claimed his crown. His first mistake, a rookie error that I myself had committed was not having a partner, a manager to rein him in, to hold him back in tough times. He had some old rum dum, Charley, Billy, something like that, who cares except this rum dum was a timid bastard who couldn’t hold up his end. His end being strictly to estimate his opponent and rein the kid in when he was off his game like we all get sometimes. Me, like I said after I wised up, teamed up with Bart, Bart who knew exactly who and who was not a “loser” and who didn’t lose my money by making bad matches or bad side bets (those side bets were the cushion money that got us through hard times and many times were more than whatever we won at straight up games).
All I am saying is that this kid’s manager did Fast Eddie wrong, let him go wild that first night when he was all gassed up to beat the Big Man. You already know that I whipped his ass or you haven’t been paying close enough attention. But that was all a ruse like I said, all kid bravado and swagger added in so it was like taking candy from a baby that first night. But I knew I was beat, beat bad in a straight up contest. What saved me that night was two things, no three. First, Fast Eddie like lots of kids figured that he could beat an old man with his hands tied behind his back and so he started his “victory lap” drinking, drinking hard high-end scotch even before the match had started. Second, he was cocky enough to declare that the only way to determine the winner was who cried “uncle” first (Bart smiled and whispered “loser” in my ear at hearing that). Third and last he had picked up this broad, some boozer and maybe a hooker named, Sandy, Susie, no, Sarah whom he was trying to impress somehow. She looked like a lost kitten but I didn’t give a damn about that just that Fast Eddie’s mind would be half on getting her down under the sheets, maybe had dreams of getting a blow job for his efforts she looked the type who was into some kinky stuff just for kicks. At least that was the way it looked at the time. As I will tell you later it was very different and I was totally wrong about the dame.
It took almost twenty-eight hours in that dark dank smelly booze-strewn Sharkey pool hall which looked like something out of the movies’ idea of what a low rent pool hall should look like complete with low-lifes but eventually between the booze, the bravado, and the broad I took Eddie down, left him about two hundred bucks “walking around” money. Left him to cry “uncle.” Cry it for the last time. Between grabbing Fast Eddie’s money and the side bets Bart made I, we were able to lay off for a couple of months (usually after a big score that was standard practice since the one-time suckers who want to brag to the hometown folks that they played hard and fast with the Big Man and almost won scatter to the winds for a while before they inevitably come back for their well-deserved beatings). Bart said, no crowed, that he had had Fast Eddie’s number, a “loser.” Was another gone guy, forget him. But I had seen some moves, some moves especially before the booze got the better of the kid that I could only dream of trying without looking like a rube.
This part of the story coming up I pieced together from what Bart told me, what Sharkey had heard, and what little Fast Eddie let on when he came back at me in earnest, in that Zen state or whatever the fuck you want to call it when a guy is “walking with the king.” Eddie went into “hiding,” went licking his wounds, which in the pool world meant that he was trying to put a stake together hustling at pool halls in bowling alleys, places like that where the rubes are dying to lose a fin or double sawbuck and not cry about it. A player at the kid’s level though would have a hard time of making much scratch with the carnival-wheelers so unbeknownst to me Eddie got in touch with Bart who staked him to some dough for a big cut of the proceedings. They made money, a fair amount, but Bart, at least this is what he told me later after I pistol-whipped him before I left for Hollywood and the big beautiful suckers there figured that would just come back to me in the end because Bart still had the kid down as a loser, a big bad loser.
This part is murkier still. Along the way on this trip that Bart and Fast Eddie took to fleece the rubes this Sarah started to get religion, started wanted to settle down with Eddie, make Eddie settle down. After I had beaten him when he was laying low he moved in with her, they got along okay until Eddie connected with Bart whom Sarah definitely did not like, I guess she was off the bottle for a while but started in again once she saw that Eddie wouldn’t give up his dream, his dream of beating the Big Man. This part is even murkier but one night Eddie was hustling some Bourbon king and Bart and Sarah were left behind to drink the night away. Somehow Bart, who except when negotiating bets and matches was a pretty smooth talker, conned Sarah who was miffed at Eddie like I said into bed. Got her to either take him around the world or let him take her anally (or he forced the issue figuring she was just a bent whore anyway he had odd sexual desires from what I was able to figure out after a few years with him). The boozy haze, the rough sex, being unfaithful to Eddie, maybe her whole fucking life marching before her left her with who knows what angry feelings. In any case that night before Eddie got home she had slit her wrists.
This last part is not murky, not murky at all. After beating the hell out of Bart he took the bus back to New York and one night he came through Sharkey’s door and I knew I was roasted (Bart had telegramed about what had happened and told me that he would put up fifty thousand dollars against Fast Eddie’s luck). I had no choice but to play the play out. After Fast Eddie took that fifty thousand and another twenty-five that I had put up I cried “uncle.” Cried uncle and left for Hollywood and the bright lights. Left Fast Eddie to play out his string, left Eddie to “shoot pools, ‘Fast Eddie’, shoot pools.”