Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 160 - Robert Crisman


Like Prince said one time, parties are not meant to last. Guys who don’t get the message are guys who die by the inch.

Stevie Wonder partied his ass off down at the Green Felt in downtown Seattle. He partied a year and then the fun times were over.

The Felt was a pool hall, a hustlers’ paradise just north of Pike Street on Fourth. It was the baddest joint on the coast for awhile, a stone fucking asskick, back in the ‘60s, when people still thought that the future looked good. Seattle had never had anything like it, and will not again as far as that goes.

You hoofed up the stairs and stepped out, and, there you were—in the Starship Enterprise rec room, no shit. A long, low, wide room, maybe 40’ by 80’, the walls white on white, with mirrors running the whole way around. Except the front wall, all windows, looking out over Fourth. The rug was blood red, where the cigarette burns hadn’t smoked it.

Eighteen pool tables, tourney-size Brunswicks, nine in one row, six in another, and three in an alcove off to the left as you headed on back toward the can. The balcony there at the end of the alcove had action that sometimes made you forget about pool.

Eighteen pool tables, plus one for snooker and another for billiards, both of those way in the back.

By late ’66, the place was the number one hotspot for pool on the coast. Top hustlers came from all over to lay down their money. Some walked out Cadillac rich, and some limped away in their socks. Some came and went and some found a home. Always, the money was flying. Fast Eddie Kelly, the national one-pocket king, came up from L.A. He gave the Felt’s owner, Doug Tom, a ball and the break, and danced home with some 25 grand.

Pool hustlers’ heaven! But, more than that, it was home to anyone hustling the bucks off the books. Burglars and boosters with hot shit to go had here-and-gone shops in the back. Pressed-and-dressed pimps took their rest and talked shop at all hours. Hos would parade their way through before dawn, to drop off the money and powder their noses. The candymen came with their baggies and treats. The hos were good business, like just about everyone else in the mix.

The place was all day and all night. Four am weekends, you’d have to wait like an hour or two for a table. And, maybe a third of those bouncing around there had ever picked up a stick.

Everyone came. Rounders and squarejohns, and all the seekers and strays in the world. All colors made it: black, yellow, red, white, and brown. There were doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs. The mayor came through incognito one time, to collar his bag man before he got stupid with Candi, the six-foot-tall hooker, transgendered no less, who carried a strap-on and promised the bagman heaven and hell in one session.

There were also the usual junkies and tweakers, the twelve-year-old mutants from Kansas, and every runaway teenybop girlie that God ever made. And, natch, every hard dick their moms ever warned them about.

Bent cops and straight cops and priests on the prowl made the scene. Also this short-eyes who worked at the Post Office days, who’d come in just to peek up the runaways’ dresses.

You might see your grandma run rack after rack on Table 14 at three in the morning, then pick up the cash off the rail and jack up the bet. The vice cop she’s hosing, down past case money, says, Fuck it, and goes it on ass. She knocks his ass in, then heads to the can to refresh. He creeps out the door.

It was a dance, man, no shit. All the folks there, the sharks and the marks, the pimps and the players, the hos and their dopemen, the burglars and bag men, the hippies and squares—high-fiving, back-slapping, jaw-jacking, juking, and sipping and tipping, and doping and toping, and wheeling and dealing and reeling! The jukebox was Dyke & the Blazers, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, the Dells. Cannonball Adderley’s kickass quintet. The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Jack…all day and all night.

Come the wee hours, Wendell Hunter’d get down in the back by the box. He looked, danced and sang like James Brown. Had runaways doing a whiteface Supremes right behind him, miniskirts, beehives, and all.

Partytime, baby, that was the Felt. And Stevie was right in the mix. He shot a good stick, mostly nine-ball and one-pocket, the money games then. He won steady as Eddie. Always had change in his pockets.

What he’d do is, he’d hook some yokel, rack his ass up to $20 or $50 a pop, whatever the traffic would bear, and then knock his ass in.

Stevie’d be stroking. Willie Mosconi, Cicero Murphy, Jesus, the Buddha, you name the player—when Stevie was on, he could shoot with his johnson and knock them all in.

He’d take a guy down for, say, $300. Quick as a snake, bang, bang, bang, bang. Whole lots of guys. We all used to wonder, how does he do it? Other guys up there with six-inch-long teeth, they had to sneak up on tiptoe. For Stevie, the victims would float in like mallards, signs on their backs saying Pluck Me.

What we figured was, Stevie? A nice, friendly guy. Unassuming, you know? Some guy comes in, he wants to kill time, might even want to get down. But he sure doesn’t want to get raped. And he’s heard that the place is a shark pit. So he’s looking around for the lions and tigers and bears, ready to break for the door at the first sudden move, and now, here’s this guy who looks like he works at the Texaco station, nice friendly guy, sort of low-key and hanging around killing time, just like him. They get to talking, you know, like, How about them Dawgs? and good stuff like that. Next thing you know, maybe Stevie says, Hey, or the other guy says, You wanna play some? Stevie says, Sure, make it light on yourself.

Three hours later, the guy’s stumbling around in the rain. He’s shirtless and wondering, what the hell happened? Stevie put him to sleep is what happened.

Keep money and you are a star in this world and action keeps coming your way. Stevie was in with the players. They’d lounge and talk smack. Then go blow some dope, hit the flicks 20 strong, and root for the Man With No Name. Then, out for thick steaks at KC, conversation now salted with philosophical yak yak, mostly on how the game goes, should be played, and all that.

Whatever the game, it all starts with front; you’ve got to look good: The players wore gators and sharkskins, and leathers and ban-lons, pimped highboy shirts, the wrap-around cufflinks, those bad thick-and-thins in all weather. The fly bonaroos. Their hair, cut just so, looked like glass.

Sartorial arbiters? Pimps, the men who ruled ladies.

The players wanted to look like they ruled.

Except Stevie it seemed, who looked like he worked at the Texaco station.

But Stevie had bank, he had game, and he strode with the In Crowd. They’d blasé down Pike Street, cutting a swathe like the Young Kings they were.

Stevie’s dick might get hard. He’d hook up with one of the runaway girlies, go freak in some no-tell, get back for the action, his one real true love.

Party, man, party.

And then he went up to Alaska. The Summer of Love, ’67.

He worked on a boat and came back with $12,000. He got into town and came right to the Felt. Knocked a guy in for $400. Took him two hours. Then Tommy McFarland sold him some acid, a Welcome Back Stevie that took him right over the moon. He didn’t come down for the next 20 years.

Actually, it wasn’t the acid. That was just sort of a booster, to bump him up into the ozone. After that it was speed, Benzedrine, those little white criss-crosses, man. Two for a buck, and better than jets at getting you up in the sky.

Speed. The hustlers’ quick fix. Shit keeps you wired. Makes you think that you’ll never get tired.

Stevie lived at the Felt now. Wouldn’t go home to eat, sleep, or shit. And his game got good-good, like before—but with one bigtime difference.

The way it would go, he’d knock a guy in, and then wait for the next guy. Sucking those bennies. Two days, three days, month-and-a-half, didn’t matter.

You know how it goes with the speed. You’re cool, for awhile. But then, you come down, and shit changes up. Then, doesn’t matter, you can bang all the speed in the world. You stay on the table, you’re toast.

Which is what happened. The next guy’d show up, Stevie’s right there, but it’s been like three days, and he’s not worth a fuck. Guy knocks him in like he’s blind, which, by this time, he is.

Now he’s flat broke. He’s gotta go home, maybe crash, and pick up more money. Two or three days, he comes back. Same fucking music.

You think he’d have learned, but, you know?

What it was, really, I think, was, Stevie, he had to do that. Like a dopefiend has to do dope. He had all this money he got off the boat, and nothing, really, to do. No job, no old lady to take up his time and help spend his money. And, so, he was out there and floating around.

Even then, though, you’ve got to do something. For him, it was wait for the next guy.

Week after week, through the whole goddamn fall and on into winter. Guys would come up, they’d get in a line now, counting the days. “Okay, lessee, he came in on Tuesday, it’s Saturday, right? He’s tore to the floor, let’s bend him over.” Then they’d draw straws. Winner broke luck.

It was incredible, man. And then, to top it, the Felt went tits up in the space of two weeks. Early November. The manager, Slim, went and fucked it all up with a two-dollar cover. A cover charge to get in a pool hall? The place fucking divebombed. All the squares drifted, then a lot of the players, and soon, just the Felt rats were left. The rest went to Smokey’s or places out north.

So now just the same fucking cannibals, right? And Stevie, of course. By this time he couldn’t have found his way out the door. But, man, the action was gone. And Stevie, he really went nuts.

This one time, he’d been there six days, loaded like dump trucks, itching and scratching and tearing his hair out, and—every five minutes he’s back in the can, and then he comes out, his eyes are like neon, and—Jesus… Dude’s like a fish on dry land, jaws working like, yoink yoink yoink yoink and—Stevie’s a stone fucking mess.

He wanders on up to the desk. Checks the billiard balls out. He’s gonna knock them around. Something to do, till the next guy gets up there to take his last nickel.

He goes to the table, starts screwing around. By himself. You ever play billiards? All by yourself? It’s like watching the rain peeling paint off a house.

Stevie stayed on that table for 24 hours and change!

I was up there, alright? I went out, came back in, then went home, ate some dinner, and then went to bed. I got up, took a dump, ate some breakfast. Went downtown, bought a suit. Got married, divorced, and then shacked up again. Bought a dog, the fucking dog died of old age. I went back to the Felt—and Stevie was still on that table.

His mouth’s crusted over with white shit, there’s holes in his cheeks where he gnawed them to ribbons, and, Jesus, I could not believe it!

He went back to the can and powered his millionth dime bag or whatever. He didn’t come out. Hour or so later, what gives? Heart blew up maybe? He flew through the roof? Me and this guy went on back there—and, there he was, in front of the mirror, asleep like a baby. Stone cold dead to the world.

Goddamndest thing you ever saw in your life. His eyes are closed tight and he’s snoring like chainsaws. His hair’s all messed up like the wind’s blowing six ways at once.

Slim comes in laughing. Tells us don’t wake him. He goes, gets some chalk. Comes back and turns Stevie around—and writes FOOL on his forehead in big, old block letters. Then frogwalks him out of the bathroom. Stevie’s still in a coma.

Slim shakes him awake. “They took off with your hat, man! Two dopefiends! Young white dudes! Gimps, man, they ain’t got no teeth! So go get ‘em!”

Stevie’s like, huh? Feeling around on the top of his head. He ain’t got no hat! His fucking hat’s gone! The pricks took his hat!

What fucking hat? He never had a hat in his life! He goes tearing on out, find those two toothless cocksuckers who snatched up his hat. Straight out to the street, Fourth and Pike, dead in the middle of downtown Seattle, Saturday, noon. Millions of people, all out there shopping, all the grandmas and teenybops, etc.—and here is this wild man out on the sidewalk, hopping around like 600 monkeys, with white shit slathered and caked on his lips, shock treatment hair, eyes like he came from a psych ward on Pluto—FOOL on his forehead big as a billboard.

We’re in the window there, watching. Slim’s falling out. It’s like the circus hit town. We hear screams. And then sirens.

We don’t see Stevie again for three weeks.

And then he came back. He’d run through his money. Twelve thousand bucks in three months, and nothing to show but the holes in his cheeks.

Also—bad timing—he’d started in banging the smack. That shit costs money, and his was all gone.

The couple of times I saw him there after, he was all on his lips and begging for change. He didn’t have too much to say. A couple of times I duked him some bills, and I knew he was hitting the other guys up, and they’d slip him the odd ten or twenty. They hadn’t picked up on it yet, his monkey and all, and it’s hard to see how, but, well, Stevie had always had money, you know, and they figured, he’s down on his luck for a minute.

Then he got Mackey for $500. Right after that he was gone.

Into thin air. And then, months and months, and the Felt finally closed. The cover charge killed it. After that all the guys went up to Smokey’s. The place was a dump, but after the Felt, there wasn’t another place you could go that wasn’t way out in the dingles.

A couple more months, then one night, there’s Stevie, strung like a dog. He didn’t go back by the tables, just sat at the counter sucking down coffee, his lips on his shoes. He’s jungled up at this flop down the street, him and the rest of the skag monkeys there. Dealing the 20s, so he could stay well.

One look, you knew he didn’t have long.

Then, one night, Mackey came in and he saw him. Didn’t say word one. Just snatched Stevie up and dragged him back into the alley. He took all his shit and then kicked him into a coma. Real ugly, man. Mackey could hurt you. Stevie was all in a heap. You’d’ve thought Mackey’d killed him.

I got Stevie up and helped him back up to his room. I couldn’t just leave him, you know? Then I went back into Smokey’s and called for an aid car and they came and got him. He never came back into Smokey’s again.

Twenty years later, I saw him. At this Denny’s in Renton. He weighed about 300 pounds. I couldn’t believe it. I said, how you doing? I always liked him, you know? Turns out, he’s staying with his folks. He got off the smack and into the methadone line. The methadone blimped him. He wasn’t out there dopesick and stealing at least.

We talked for a minute. It was all this and that, and, pretty quick, there wasn’t a whole lot to say. His rap was shrugs, mostly. He had this sort of a shit-eating grin, he was dressed off the dork rack at Thriftko, and, after awhile, I said, well, hey, Stevie, I’ll see you. Keep keeping on. It was good running into you, man. And all that. I felt kind of bad.

I don’t know, man. Shit happens, you know? Who would’ve thought? Dude used to be one of the fellas, you know? Young Kings and all that. And, now, man, goddamn. He’s been flatlined these past 20 years. Fifty years old, at home with his folks, and looks like he’s just going to flatline his way to the graveyard.

Partytime, man. Talk about over.

BIO: The Green Felt Pool Hall was a real place, and ‘60s surreal to the max. Robert Crisman spent tons of time there and would know. He also knew Stevies and realized early, it could have been him. The realization took him out of the mix. Noir may be a nice place to visit, but you sure as hell don’t want to live there. Crisman spends these days writing about pool halls and Stevies and streets as he knew them and knows them. He’ll tell you it gives him a needed perspective on life and the byways he’s been through.

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