COLUMBUS, OHIO: He wore a green army jacket and was stooped under the weight of a duffle bag almost as big as himself. He crossed the brick main street of Athens, a college town near the Ohio River, and climbed aboard the Greyhound from Baltimore that is bound for Columbus, two hours north. He took the seat behind the driver across from me.
Gazing towards him, he appeared more boy than man. It wasn’t apparent that he had begun to shave. Unexpectedly, after twilight became night and the bus was silent, he asked, “do they have pool halls in Maryland?”
Over the next hour the lad calling himself Boston Shorty told a story that roused the sleeping passengers who were within earshot. He began shooting pool at three and was very good by ten. He’d traveled to 49 states playing all varieties of pool—billiards, snooker, eight and nine-ball. Warming to his tale, he sat straighter, making him look more like his 16 years. He says he’s in 10thgrade. An unopened school book lies next to the black case that holds his pool cues.
Pool, says Boston Shorty, is a terrible way to earn a living. But, he insists, he intends to be world champion. “I won’t quit because I want to be the best pool player I possibly can be. I’m five two and 1/2 and a little overweight and there’s not much else I can do except construction on the side.” His slow talking is more mountain than mid-west. He goes on, “once you’re in pool, that’s about all you can do.”
Shorty complains that you don’t meet other teenagers when you sleep during the day and play pool at night. He’s been in Athens for a college tournament. But the money, he says, comes from gambling over games in bars and pool halls. He practices six hours a day, is ranked 5thin the state. After bowling, pool has moved up to become the most popular recreational sport in America, he believes. Television is promoting pool. He hopes it will be an Olympic sport by the time he’s world champion at 21.
His real name is Chris. They call him Boston Shorty, he tells me, because that’s where he won his first tournament, at age ten. His mother, he laments, doesn’t approve of pool but likes the money it brings.
Shorty says he would like to be a pool hustler but it’s too dangerous to withhold your skills in order to lure competitors into high stakes games. He holds up crooked thumbs and says they and both arms have been broken by irate losers. “A hustler,” says Shorty, “always leaves town in a hurry.”
“When I was ten,” says Shorty, “I was 16thin Ohio and would walk into a bar with my dad. And I mean I could beat anybody there.” Turning, arms high as the story builds, “you know, a little ten-year old—how well can he shoot? So, these old men would put up a lot of money.” He says that last word as, MUN-ee, revealing linguistic roots. “So, you know, that worked out quite often. But you’ve got be able to run fast if you’re a hustler.”
At half past ten the Greyhound turns into the Columbus depot. There are many people and several buses. College students hurry to get off. With the interior lights switched on, Shorty looks like a child. He climbs down, his body obscured by his load.
The large man waiting, I’m sure is his father. There is the same spread around the middle. Both wear tee shirts behind unzipped jackets. There is conversation but no emotion in their meeting. Then as they turn the older man puts an arm over the son’s shoulder. They walk off into the night talking, I imagine, of another town, another game. #
( spring 1990)