Right after my Dad passed away, I had to go through his things at the hospital and the first thing that struck me was this lovingly wrapped piece of chalk in his pants. He carried it with him, old school like he was, in case he “got a game.”
When you’re a hustler, you just never know when the opportunity will present itself to play for cash — when you might jump in the back of an American car (always) and disappear for a few weeks with a group of mad geniuses identified only by their nicknames and territorial accents.
My father also carried big bills in his bankroll in his cargo pants, Scott Frost style, in case he got a game. He always slept with one eye open, too — and knew how “to count.” One of his best backers, Augie in LA in the 1960’s, taught him this lesson.
If I snuck a sawbuck from his bankroll while he slept, he always knew.
My father’s palms were permanently stained pool chalk blue and he was buried with those same blue hands. He used to joke that his hands were so soft and hadn’t aged, “because I haven’t worked a square job in my life, okay?”
He would laugh and snicker about this, and then steal all the condiments he could fit into his coat pockets before leaving the breakfast joint we had been eating at. “You never know when you’re going to need this,” he’d tell me. For the life of me, I’m not sure if he ever had to buy his own sugar or creamer.
His kitchen was filled with branded condiment packets from across the country. When I entered the Tulane University dorm freshman year, I carried a heavy plastic hotel bag filled with mini glass jars of Heinz ketchup bottles, salt and pepper packets and, of course, sugars. This bag was compulsory or I would not have received the g-note in fins that came next as I began my studies.
I was the first person in our family to go away to college, and this was a big deal. My father just equated it to “going on the road” and needed to make sure I applied all the rules of the road to college life.
He was especially worried about someone slipping a “mickey” in my drink and insisted I put my cash in my bra. He insisted New Orleans French Quarter street denizens were “top players” and that first week of college, as freshmen kept returning busted from the shell game and other street hustles, I felt vindicated.
The Beard had already warned me about each and every one.
Sam Fels, Award winning sports writer for Billiard Digest the late George Fels’ son, came to my father’s wake with a cube of pool chalk in his hands. He said the torch had been passed down to him to make sure the old timers from Chicago’s pool glory days were buried with pool chalk so they were ready to go once they got through the front door of Bensinger’s pool room, i.e. the gates of pool hustler heaven.
I felt bad that he had to do this job, the poor kid, but he did it to honor his Dad and his legacy and it’s a testament to life-long friendships. When George was in a coma, in the last few hours of his great life, the late Adam and his brother Sam put my Dad on the phone with him.
George was a widower and Freddy was his oldest friend. I was there with my Dad and rubbed his back while he spoke, better than a priest performing last rites, saying something like this:
“George, you’re gonna see our old pals real soon, Mexican Johnny, Bugs, Jack Gunne, Fatty — plenty of others. There’s gonna be a lot of action. Tell ‘em all I say hi and know I’ll meet you there one day, old pal.”