The Pool Game – Your Shot
Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on February 10, 2008
Armored troop carriers rolled down the streets over deep tread marks in the soft blacktop. Tanks had preceded them. There were troops already bivouaced in Druid Hill Park. It wasn’t a town in Czechoslovakia, or Poland, or Afghanistan. It was Crabtown, grave-site of Edgar Allen Poe, birthplace of the United States’ national anthem, and headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. It was Bal’more, Mar’lan’. It was the time we call 1968. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and city officials had persuaded Governor Spiro Theodore Agnew to send in the National Guard. Houses and businesses had burned before, and fireman had been shot at before in the inner city, but troops occupying the city – this was new.
I thought Agnew was a good man, Mike was thinking while he rode the bus past his old high school, I never expected him to put Baltimore under martial law. The bus went east on North Avenue past Gay Street, where his parents had once lived, past boarded-up storefronts and burned-out buildings, where it connected to Belair Road, and a transfer took him to the hamburger place where he worked after school, near his parent’s home in the whiter northeast section.
I would’ve voted for him if I could’ve, he thought, seeing a billboard with the Governor’s bulldog face. Agnew had run against a man who wanted to keep black people out of white neighborhoods. Mike knew that wasn’t right. He was almost eighteen, but the voting age was twenty-one, and he didn’t like that. At least that racist Mahoney creep didn’t get elected. George P. was an Irish Catholic, the Democratic Party nominee for Governor in 1966. His campaign slogan was, “Your Home Is Your Castle; Protect It”. Mike went to school with blacks. Daniel had told Mike how hard it was for his parents to move into a white neighborhood. Mike had asked Daniel why so many blacks lived in slum neighborhoods if they could afford Cadillacs and Continentals.
“You don’t understand, Mike,” Daniel told him, “We’ve got no place to move to.”
“Can’t you just move? I mean, isn’t discrimination illegal?”
“Mike, Mike, Mike. What do you think happens when a colored family looks at a house? The real estate man smiles, and the owner smiles, but nobody can be forced to sell their house. Don’t you see how it works?
“Yeah, Coonskin, I think I see. I never knew that was going on.”
“Damn it, I told you never to call me that.”
“I was just kidding, Daniel. It’s just your name that gets me. I watch Daniel Boone on TV, and that’s what Mingo calls him all the time.”
“It’s not funny.”
“I guess not. Sorry. It is kind of stupid. So that guy running for governor wants to keep things the way they are, huh?”
“Now you’re getting it. He says people should be able to sell their home to whoever they want. He’s talking about white people not having to sell their homes to black people.”
When Mike got home he watched the news. Governor Agnew said the troops would keep order. There was a curfew, and all citizens were “strongly urged” to stay home. Arsonists and looters would be shot on sight. By the time the ’68 Baltimore riots died down, six people had been killed, about 5,300 arrested and more than 5,500 armed troops were on patrol throughout the city.
A year later, Mike graduated, and moved into the inner city. He had a new job, one that he had seen posted on a bulletin board outside the guidance counselor’s office. He’d been so glad to get away from the hamburger stand, with their miserly wages and short hours, that he’d have done almost anything. As it was, he’d been hired by an old Physics professor at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, to run some old research equipment that used x-rays to measure molecular spacing in crystals.
Mike couldn’t get over how lucky he was, and Dr. Pshaw treated him like a grandson. Eventually, however, Mike came to believe that Pshaw was not quite the kindly old man he seemed. Pshaw was always coming up with strange ideas, like the time he said, “Mike, I think I know what to do about juvenile delinquency,” which intrigued Mike.
“What’s that, Dr. Pshaw?”
“It’s like this, I don’t think that young people should be treated like hardened criminals, and put in prison to learn, well, the sort of stuff they learn there from the other inmates.”
“Sure, I agree with you there. But what’s the alternative?”
“Well, this is my idea. It may not be a good one, but I think it would work.”
“I think that all offenders should be made to wear a jacket with the name of their crime on it. That way they would be recognized easily, and, more importantly, they wouldn’t be able to commit the same crime again.”
“But, wouldn’t they just take their jackets off?”
“No, that’s the beauty of it. If they don’t wear their jackets, they have to go to jail, so they’ll wear them.
Mike thought about it for a long time, hoping that Pshaw could be right, that there could be such simple answers. Of course, once someone took the jacket off, who would know? However, he respected Pshaw. He was the only role model in his life since he’d left home. But, Pshaw finally blew the kindly-old-man image one day, when Mike asked him, out of curiosity, about the other applicants for his job.
“Well, Mike,” he explained, in a grandfatherly voice, “there were a few others, as I believe I told you. But they were colored, you know?”
Mike just stared at him.
“It’s not that I’m prejudiced,” Pshaw elaborated,” it’s just that I grew up in the countryside, and well, there just weren’t any of them around when I was growing up.”
Mike was still staring, not sure that he was really hearing this. Dr. Pshaw seemed to be so honest, and fair, and, after all, a “scientist.” It had never occurred to Mike that a seeker of knowledge and truth could be biased. Mike was a little naive.
Pshaw continued: “I don’t know what it is, but I’m just too uncomfortable around those people.”
That was the most racist thing I ever heard, Mike thought, but he didn’t say anything. Now, he felt the guilt of the privileged. I thought I’d gotten this job on my own merits. Now it’s ruined, he complained silently.
Mike was sure that he, of course, was not racist, and he continued in that belief for several years, until now, until he found himself playing pool in a part of town where he was the only white guy around. Doesn’t bother me, he told himself, but he felt uncomfortable when he saw the bartender come out of the back room. The bartender owned the place. He was white.
Figures, Mike thought, that’s what Daniel used to tell me. He said that the reason people burned their own houses and looted the downtown stores was that the whites owned everything there. “The Whites,” he remembered him saying, “charge the people outrageous prices for things, and then they go home to their white suburbs, and take the money out of the community. The worst slums are owned by white slumlords, who don’t bother to fix anything.” Mike believed him, but he didn’t know what he could do about it.
“Anyone want to play?” he asked, glancing around the room at several people who weren’t.
“Sure. I’ll play. Rotation alright with you?” asked a middle aged man. Mike nodded, “I get so tired of playing Eight Ball, it’s too damn easy, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, you’re right, it’s too easy,” Mike said, but he thought, Oh shit, so he added, “but I don’t want to play for money, I just like to play, you know?”
“Yeah, OK. We’ll just play for the table.”
The older man moved around to shoot, and two balls fell in. “Your shot,” he said.
“Why’s that?” Mike asked.
“Because they were out of order.”
Oh, we’re playing serious, huh? Mike thought. He didn’t do too bad on that first game, but he still lost, and kept losing. He put a quarter in the slot. Bang, the balls fell into the hole when Mike pulled the slot back. He was filling up the rack, one ball here, two ball here, three ball here, when, Bang, there was a sound like a truck backfiring outside the pool hall. Heads lifted up from the tables.
Mike filled the rest of the rack quickly. Bang. Someone yelled, “There’s a shooting!” and everybody ran out of the hall, dropping cue sticks as they went. Mike watched everyone scramble outside in the seconds it took him to move his own feet. He left an empty building.
He stopped when he saw the gun directly in front of him. Bang. It fired again, at the ground. Mike looked down. He saw a young black guy, well dressed, bleeding. Bang. The body jerked. Mike saw his chest moving spasmodically. “He’s still alive!” Mike shouted. He looked at the man doing the shooting. The shooter, another black man, looked about fifty years old, and his face was contorted with hate. The man looked at Mike, seeing him for the first time.
“He deserved it,” he shouted at Mike.
People die that deserve to live, Mike wanted to say. Can you bring them back? he wanted to ask this guy with a gun. But he just stood there, watching the man’s face. Maybe it was Mike’s look, maybe it was the surprise of seeing him standing there, but the man suddenly lowered his gun, lowered his eyes, and turned and walked away, slowly.
People gathered around the wounded man. Mike stood apart, separate, but unequal. In a few minutes an ambulance silently turned the corner, followed by another police vehicle. Paramedics lifted the man onto a stretcher while the police stood by. They’ll probably question me, Mike thought, and want witnesses. What do I say? He looked at the crowd, at all the black faces, conscious of his own white skin. He couldn’t read their expressions. It looked more like no expressions at all to Mike. This is their neighborhood, what right do I have to be here? he thought. Do I tell the police what I saw? or is this none of my business? But he knew that he would never have hesitated anywhere else. He felt that the people standing there in that large crowd were different. He felt that their thoughts were alien to his way of thinking. No one looked at him, or entered the large open space around him. The ambulance door closed. The cops were writing something, but no one had spoken.
Maybe they already know all about it, Mike thought. Maybe the guy is going to be alright. Mike waited for them to come over, still unsure what to say. The cops walked around the ambulance, got back in their car, and escorted it away. Mike went back into the pool hall. What should I have done? he wondered. What should I have said? Why couldn’t I talk to that guy with the gun?
The hall was silent, but then small groups of men started quiet conversations along the walls. A ball cracked! against another.
“Do you want to finish the game?” Mike asked his partner.
“Uh, yeah. Might as well.”
They started playing, Mike’s partner sinking ball after ball, until he couldn’t find a shot. The remaining balls were crowded together on one side of the table, and he had tapped the cue ball lightly, so it banked off the side, but it rolled softly into a corner pocket. Mike retrieved it, lined it up on the center of the crowded balls, and shot. The crowded balls scattered, but the ivory cue ball leaped off the dark green table like it’d been shot. The other man laughed, retrieved the ball, and finished the game.
“Might as well call it a night,” Mike said, “Thanks for the games.” On the corner, the North Avenue bus hissed to a stop in front of him. The black driver stared at him, silently, as he dropped his coins into the box. He walked down the empty bus to a rear seat.