If there’s a sunny place for shady people I’m going to find it. If humans are tribal, then my sense of belonging to this tribe has been a lifelong bug. I could blame Jack Kerouac for his stated appreciation for “the mad ones … the ones who are mad to live,” but I can’t abide by the commonplace he pegs as the counter to the madness he prefers.
Which means driving around Puerto Rico with my then-girlfriend looking for trouble and somewhere cool. Something off the beaten path. Someplace the guidebooks avoid that’s got the cool she craves and the trouble I want. Not so easy in pre-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico, a place not especially known for having dangerous and daring on tap. Totally different story now but back then you had to look, and we did finally come upon a beach shack.
And calling it a beach shack is making it sound a tad more picturesque than it was. White clapboard lean-to style. No name. No visible number. But lights that worked and music that screamed, “You’re home.” By which I mean a bartender who doesn’t look up when you come in, a television and a stereo going, patrons kicking at stray dogs that have wandered in hoping for scraps or some kind of luck, and flies. Lots of flies. And if a fly could seem angry? These flies seemed angry.
When he pulled out a pool cue case, it finally became clear that I was in trouble.
Which spelled a kind of earthly perfection to me. And as the night crept in and “the crowd” wandered in with it, it only became more so.
But I need to explain a little. When I was 15, I was in a bar in upstate New York with four friends, three of us Black, two White. We were drinking, because of course. The table was surrounded by five angry rednecks at some point. Now, they could have been angry because I had just played Macho Man on the jukebox. Five times. In a row. Or it could have been for other reasons. But they expressed a very direct interest in having us leave. I looked to the one karate black belt in our midst. I would follow his lead.
When he stood up, eyes cast down, and left, I followed him, but I thought: “This will never happen again.”
So maybe that’s where the penchant came from, this danger-seeking.
At the shack/bar in Puerto Rico, I was 32 and hadn’t had a drink since I was 17, so I was really just there for the scene. Which amounted to the aforementioned and a pool table. My girlfriend had a beer and rolled the pool balls around the table, sending some into pockets. I was ready to leave.
I should have. But while I was waiting for her to finish the beer, I had failed to notice a loose collection of men, maybe six, gathering around us. I wordlessly stepped away from the pool table right as one of the men stepped in front of me.
He had a $20 bill in his hand and not a glimmer of a smile on his face. He put the money on the edge of the pool table. My Spanish was high-school level, but the hand wave is universal. Despite a misspent youth at the Brooklyn Boys Club, I couldn’t (and still can’t) play pool for shit. I boxed at the Boys Club. Swam. Every time I tried to play pool, a fight broke out and I didn’t want to lose teeth or an eye, so I always left, taking with me the idea that in a pinch a pool ball would make a good weapon.
A thought I had as I noted, finally, that the “loose” collection of men seemed to be together and though they were making no moves toward the pool table, they all had pool cues. And they weren’t smiling either.
The money was merely totemic. Symbolic. Balls were the real issue, as is often the case between men. So I weighed the balls move: Refuse to put the money down, fight right then, maybe lose, inevitably much more than the $20, or put the money down, and in the unlikely chance that I win, fight to keep his $20, and lose, inevitably, much more than that.
I put the $20 down.
He finally smiled — just a little — and racked the balls. It was a game of eight ball. He decided he would go first. Traditional rules would dictate that we flip for it, but there was nothing traditional going on here. When he pulled out a pool cue case, it finally became clear that I was in trouble.
As he screwed together the halves, chalked his tip and silently lined up his first shot, I was planning the fight. Fighting six guys sounds like movie stuff for laymen, but if you’ve fought groups before, unless they coordinate their attack, you know the game could go your way. In other words, I liked my odds. Me with a pool cue and pool balls and my girlfriend with a bottle of beer could launch an attack that drove back anybody who figured this was worth more than $20.
But then he took his first shot and we all watched while the eight ball rolled down and into a pocket. I may have been more disappointed than he was, but he had lost, and for a moment, everyone tried to figure out what to do, until he walked over to the $20 and handed it to me. And I used it to buy everyone drinks. It was the right thing to do.