When I first got my job at the BAC, Nora and I came down to Boston a couple of times to look at apartments and neighborhoods. And one of the things I did was look in the phone book under "billiards halls" and "pool rooms." (There seems to be a local variation in how these places are listed, just as a bar can be a bar in one city and a tavern in the next.) I found a lot of places that I knew immediately would be all wrong.
Felt, Boston Theater District. First off, pool table cloth is not felt. It's worsted wool. Maybe they use the name as a warning of what will happen to young women if they go there. Here's their web opener. "Welcome to Felt! Felt restaurant, billiards, lounge and night club, features four levels of entertainment. Ideally situated right next door to the Opera House, and just around the corner from the Ritz Carlton, Boston Common. FELT is the perfect place for a night out on the town, dining and corporate functions." Not so much about the pool, is it?
Flat Top Johnny's, Kendall Square, Cambridge. The tables all have red cloth, but good pool rooms are not about decorator colors. It's a hipster paradise, full of early-30s with awkward sideburns and big cans of PBR. "We feature 12 tournament sized pool tables, a rotating line up of old school pinball, dart boards, and Golden Tee golf. Couples, singles, and parties of up to 150 people will find Flat Tops a comfortable place for nighttime fun. It's the perfect place for pool-hall junkies to get their fix or a group of friends to unwind and have a few drinks." Pool-hall junkies is the giveaway phrase there; that was the name of a particularly horrid 2002 movie about pool gamblers that features hipster icon Christopher Walken.
Kings, Boston Back Bay. You'd think it was nothing short of a miracle that there's a pool room two blocks from my office. But no, I can scarcely stand to go there. It's a post-work hangout for the Prudential, full of crowds of young people looking to hang out and find temporary heterosexual partnerings. When there are eight or ten people using one pool table, pool is not really on their agenda. Kings is a 24,000-square-foot entertainment facility featuring 16 ten-pin bowling lanes, three premium bars and a full-service restaurant, and the private Royal Room featuring 6 Brunswick Gold Crown Tables, 4 retro oak SKEE BALL tables, and a regulation shuffleboard table. Our bars offer classic, yet innovative cocktails, while our restaurant serves an impressive array of American favorites and delicious comfort food. The venue accommodates 500 guests and features 30+ big-screen, high-definition televisions and projector screens with audio system, making it the perfect place to catch all the local and national sports action. With its retro-inspired vibe and state-of-the-art equipment, Kings offers a modern option for those seeking a hotspot that hearkens back to an era when good times ruled. That era is back at Kings! Yeah, just like the 1950s, plus $14 an hour to play pool...
But I found this little place in Somerville called Sacco's Bowl Haven. Nora and I stopped in around noon one weekday and had a long chat with Barbara, who's done the day shift there since... well, for a long time. Fifteen candlepins lanes, and eight Gold Crown tables in an adjacent room. I knew I had to find an apartment somewhat nearby.
So for the next three years and a bit, I was at Sacco's probably three or four times a week. They had no liquor license nor food license, so you could get a candy bar from the vending machine and use the drinking fountain to refill your Dunkin Donuts cup, and play pool for $7.50 an hour (that's per table, not per person, so playing a partner cost each person $3.75 an hour). That's where I met Mike K and Mike D and Dan and Corey and Fred and Dave and Matty and Roger. And Frank Bates.
Frank's a retired pipeline engineer who, because of his skill with GIS and spatial analysis, became a crime analyst for the Somerville Police Department after he left the energy business. He's a Vietnam vet (Marine Corps), a Somerville lifer, a proud parent and grandparent, and an all around good guy. Frank worked Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Sacco's, and he and I had a standing match of straight pool every Tuesday for three years. So when Sacco's closed in early 2010 to become a pizza restaurant, I knew I had to keep in contact with Frank.
My weekends have been unpredictable at best in the past few months, so I hadn't actually seen Frank since he and Rosie came to our wedding (135 days ago). But Nora was scheduled for an early bus yesterday to NYC, so I called Frank on Saturday and asked if he wanted to go up to World Class Billiards in Peabody on Sunday afternoon.
What a perfectly wonderful afternoon. We caught up on each others' families and work, talked about both of us being in the data analysis business and shared insider hints, and played a glorious set of straight pool. We played from 1:00 to about 4:30, and left feeling more energized and more at home than we'd been in months.
We change jobs or communities or hangouts, and find that most of our friendships there were temporary and conditional. "Keep in touch," we say, and then don't. It's a special relationship that transcends the circumstances of its origin. But its only those circumstances that allow the origins to occur at all. If a place can bring dozens or hundreds of people together, some of them will find some others whom they never would have otherwise encountered, and some of THOSE relationships will endure. It's because of my lifelong reliance on places like Sacco's that I want to build a place like that myself. It's an opportunity to give others the same chance I had to find themselves and their tribes.