HOW I LOST A RIDE TO L. A. IN 1949
by Clay Geerdes
The drummer walked into the Derby one Friday night, a chubby little man in a shiny blue suit with diamond cuff links, a fast-talking dandy with eyes that rolled around like little black marbles, serious eyes that belied the smile that never left his face, the eyes of a man who never let the marks know what was really on his mind. He was crafty, that salesman, smooth, a player who knew which games to avoid, the kind of guy who knew just when to drift to the back of the crowd.
Cox, Kelley, and the silent kid from Nebraska City were playing short racks on the front snooker table that evening. There were eleven tables in the Derby, four snooker and seven slop. It was mid-evening and all the tables were in play. Snooker was twenty cents a rack; slop, or rotation, was a dime. The Dinges brothers, Ray and Leonard ran the place, and when someone hit the floor with the butt of a cue Ray or Leonard came back to reset the table. Most of the men played eight or nine ball, but there were always a few amateurs who played slop. The sharks played the front tables and the amateurs might hang in the shadows and watch as Cox cleared the table, but they never got too close. Harold Cox wore a white suit and two-tone shoes, black saddles over white toes and heels, always shined. His hair was snow white and his moustache reminded folks of Mark Twain; fact is, he did resemble the man who wrote Huck Finn, but the bets would have gone against the writer had he taken a cue against Cox. Herman Kelley was the tallest man in the room and he had the habit of spearing his cue into the air after a shot. Once or twice an evening this resulted in a ringing sound as the cue connected with the shade of the green lamp above the table. Kelley always laughed and said, "hot damn." He wore nondescript dark suits and striped ties. Cox wore a black bow tie.
There wasnt anything unusual about that Friday night. Cox and Kelley always played the front table unless someone challenged them to a game of golf or pea pool and they had to shift back to the first slop table to pick up the chumps money. Nor was it out of the ordinary for the silent kid from Nebraska City to lose some of his money in the game. He drove a truck and when he had a stopover in Lincoln, Nebraska, He spent the evening at the Derby. If the sharpies cleaned him out, he joined the rest of the lounge lizards and watched.
From the look of Cox, the careful, deliberate way he drank his spiked 7-Up from a paper cup, the way he swirled that booze around in his gums before swallowing it, youd think the dude was a wine taster from California, but it you walked around the corner youd find a blue pick-up truck parked two or three spots down the street and if you looked in the bed of that truck youd see a locked trunk that contained Coxs tools, and though there was no company logo painted on the doors of the pick-up, anyone could have told you that Harold Cox was a plumber. Lincolns finest snooker player spent his week fixing toilets and clogged drains. His tall pal, Herman Kelley, was a carpenter, a man who, it was said, could walk into your kitchen and tell you exactly what kind of cabinets you needed and how much wood it would take for him to make them and how much the whole job would cost you, all in the time it took you to pour him a cup of coffee; Lincolns number two snooker and billiard player spent his week fixing screen doors and porch steps. The cabinet-making was primarily a hobby, but there were two or three houses near completion on the South Side of town where the bankers and insurance hustlers lived and had you been allowed in the large kitchens of those houses you would have seen the work Kelley was most proud of. Im sure he pointed those houses out to his wife and kids when they rode along South Cotner on a Sunday outing.
I kept an eye on the drummer. He had put his black sample case down next to one of the chairs and he was watching Ray rack the balls for a new round. Cox had sent one of his fans back to the john for a refill and Kelley was scratching his left ear. The silent kid still had his cue, which meant he still had enough to stay in the game for awhile. You could always divide the Derby up like that. The guys playing had some change in their pockets, the others had lost what they had or come in broke. I was jerking sodas over at the Cornhuskers Teepee Room, and I always had a few bucks and that night I had a sneaking suspicion I could take that drummer for a few more, but the last time I saw him he said he was driving out to California in a week or two and when I mentioned I would like to go out there and look over the lay of the land he said I could ride with him, so I figured I would have to play it cagey and let the drummer win enough to at least stay even with me.
I dont want to sound like a sharpie here, hey, I was only 15-years-old, but I had been playing pool for about three years, ever since Dick Hunning introduced me to the Derby when I was 12. Dick and I met over a pinball machine in a shoebox diner on North 10th one day when my dad and his workers went there for lunch. Dad wrecked buildings and he was working on a job nearby. Dick was friendly, the first Catholic kid I ever met, and he shared the pinball game with me and said if I went along to the Derby sometime he would teach me how to play pool. I said Id like that. I didnt have any close buddies out in University Place where we lived, and I had been taking the bus around since I was eight, so I knew I wouldnt have any trouble with Mom. Id just say I was going downtown the way I always did and Id check out the Derby. Dick met me there one afternoon and showed me the ropes and over the years I got to be a pretty good player. I was never a sharpie in the class with Cox and Kelley, but I could hold my own against a lot of the working stiffs who came in to play a few games before going home and facing their families.
I knew I could take the drummer. He froze up on rail shots and was visibly uncomfortable with long shots and I had learned a good safety game from Dick. He always told me if I wasnt sure of a shot, I should leave a lot of green between the cue and the next ball.
I was a standard horny 15-year-old in early 1949 and my life in Lincoln left a lot to be desired. My Dad came down with ALS in 1946, just after the end of the war, and he was sitting at home in his wheelchair waiting for the end. The diagnosis had been three years. Buddy, my pop, was the fifth guy in history to come down with what was called the Lou Gehrig disease because it killed the baseball player. Buddys wrecking business had ground to a standstill without him to keep an eye on things and our house had been divided up into apartments and sleeping rooms. The tenants paid the bills now. Mom was nursing Buddy full-time, because there was no money to pay for hospital care or a trained nurse. For awhile I tried to handle high school and night work but it wore me down. With Buddys sickness, everything that was normal about my life disappeared. All our family routines came to an end. I coped by working and hanging out with the guys at the Derby, but my main goal was escape. I wanted to get out of Lincoln, to move somewhere and leave the misery behind, to have a life of my own. I was tired of having a few dollars in my pocket but no more, of having to hand everything over to Mom, of never being able to date regular girls because my life was so irregular.
I couldnt stand to be around Buddy. Seeing him so helpless in that wheelchair, always dressed in those depressing khaki work clothes, always staring into space, made me feel like I was dying. I felt trapped in a cycle of misery. I wanted to have sex with pretty girls, to go to some nice clubs and restaurants, to wear sharp clothes, drive a fast car, and be recognized as someone; instead, I was making sodas and fancy sundaes for the rich kids who hung out at The Teepee after they went to the Keen Time dances in the park or the latest movies. I couldnt stand to go home. After work, I went with one of the bellhops over to Tillmans coffee shop in the Greyhound Depot across the street from the hotel. We sat around and drank shitty coffee and flirted with the night shift waitresses until it was after four. Even then when I got home I could hear Buddy coughing out his life and I knew my mother was having another sleepless night. My brother, Ken, and my sister, Carol, both several years younger than me, were still kids. They werent suffering the rage and sexual frustration that I associated with Buddys tragic paralysis.
The guys on table four quit and the drummer appeared at my shoulder asking me if I wanted to shoot a few racks of eight ball. I said, sure, why not, and walked back to the cue rack to look for the 12 I liked. Most guys like a heavier cue, an 18 or 22, but I always liked a light weight cue with a thin tip. I had a lot of control with a cue like that. My English was a lot more precise. A larger cue meant a more solid break and sometimes I used an 18 to break, then switched to a 12 or 13. It wasnt legal for me to play pool at all. The law said 18 or older. There wasnt any logic to this from my point of view, because liquor wasnt sold in the Derby. The guys who wanted to drink a beer had to go next door and drink it there. It wasnt legal for Cox and Kelley to drink their spikes in the Derby, but I never noticed the beat cop sniff their paper cups when he stopped in during the evening. I figured he knew the score and just let it be. Someone always kept an eye out for the cop anyway and a friend of Cox would be back in the john stashing his pint before the blue coat was in the front door. Ray Dinges liked me and the other young guys who hung out at his place and he didnt see anything wrong with our playing pool. The way he dealt with the cop was to stroll over and take my cue during the time he was making his round. I never understood that either. If it was all right for us to be in the pool hall, what did it matter whether we were playing or not?
I glanced at Ray as he finished racking the table and he nodded that it was fine for me to play the drummer. He noticed a burning cigarette on the rail of the next table and he told Felton to put his cigarette over in the ashtray where it belonged. Felton snorted, but he did as he was told. He was an old friend of Dick Hunning, but nothing at all like Dick. Felton had a chip on his shoulder, and he was always trying to get into a fight. His routine line to me was "Come out in the alley, Lucky." He was a couple of inches taller than me, short-haired; think of early Dick Van Dyke in black and white and youve got him pegged.
The drummer was chalking a cue and saying, "Play for a half?" and I was about to say sure, when Felton butted in and asked, "So whaddayu guys gonna play for? Can I get in?" I would have said no, because I didnt like Feltons personality and didnt like to play with him, but the drummer told him it was fine with him, "the more the merrier." He had that patronizing attitude some older people get when they deal with young people. I knew I had to take him at least one extra game to make him pay for the smirk. I wasnt concerned about Felton, because I knew his game was nowhere near mine. I also knew he couldnt be trusted to pay up when he lost, so I suggested we ante up in a corner pocket before breaking. I dropped in a half dollar and the Drummer followed suit and we waited for Felton. Then we had to go odd man for the break and I wound up shooting last, but following Felton which was good position because his English was lousy and he couldnt play shape for shit. It was also good because it meant I could make sure the Drummer didnt lose often enough to make him renege on his offer to take me along on the trip to California.
We played for awhile and I stayed about even with the Drummer, but Felton was down a few dollars and not happy. I figured he would just quit, but I picked up on something going on between him and the salesman. While I was running several balls, they were whispering near the chairs that lined the wall. Not really whispering, actually, but talking softly. There was a lot of conversation around the various tables and someone had fed the juke box a quarter so we were hearing Les Paul and Mary Ford drone on about the world waiting for a sunrise. I dropped the eight with a rail shot to the corner and pocketed the buck fifty and hit the floor for the house man. I saw Ray look up from his seat at the front candy counter and I turned my gaze to the others to see if we were going to continue. Felton and the Drummer were into something, but I had no idea what it was.
Felton said yeah he was into another rack but he had to do something and he stood his cue next to a chair, crossed to the middle of the room, and walked back and out of the rear door. It was a screened door and on warm nights it was left open for the breeze. There were a couple of ceiling fans, but they had little effect on the smoke that filled the place when all 11 tables were in play. Ray was racking another table and we were waiting. The Drummer got his sample case and said he would be back, then he went out the back door. I was curious about what was going on with those two, but there were other games going on and I just watched the shooters while I waited for Ray to get to our table. He racked the balls, glancing at me to ask "still playing 8-ball?" and when I nodded yes, he popped the eight in the center of the rack, lifted it off, pocketed the dime from the end of the table and headed up front.
I waited, but the others didnt come back. It was around 9:30 or so. There was a clock on the wall. I could see some guys standing around near the soda pop case near the front counter and I knew they were waiting for a table and that Ray would be miffed because he didnt like to see an empty table when some players were waiting. I saw him glance back in my direction a couple of times and I shrugged but he had turned away to sell someone something.
The back screen door banged shut and I watched the Drummer hurry toward the front of the hall. I set my cue next to Feltons and walked in the same direction. When I got to where he was leaning over the counter I could see that he was bleeding from the nose and mouth. Ray was asking him what happened and he was telling Ray to just call the police. I looked back to see if Felton had returned, but saw no sign of him. Ray shrugged and dialed the police and told whoever answered to sent an officer around to the Derby. The Drummer had bloodied up his own handkerchief and Ray had some paper towels on the glass case for him to use. I wanted to ask him what happened, but he was plainly angry and not going to say anything more to Ray or me. I went back and put the cues in the rack, then I went out the back screen door and looked up and down the alley. I could see Rays car parked in its usual spot, but nothing else. It was a pretty clear night and the alley was empty. Felton was nowhere around. At the time I just thought he had run out of money and instead of admitting it he just took off. That was like him. He hated to lose face.
I stuck around watching Cox and Kelley on the front table. I was several dollars ahead and I felt flush so I bought a Baby Ruth and a soft drink. The Drummer stood near the front window with his back to the room. A cop passed the front window and came in the glass-paned door. He glanced over at Ray, but the Drummer walked over to him right away and started talking. After a moment or two he seemed to become aware that Ray might be able to hear what he was saying and he lowered his voice. The cop held the door open and they went out on the front sidewalk. I could see them through the front window, but the talk seemed to go on and on so my attention returned to the finish of Cox and Kelleys game. Cox dropped the last two balls and said he thought hed call it a night. When I looked toward the front window again, the Drummer and the cop were looking inside and the salesman seemed to be pointing in my direction. Sure enough, the cop comes inside and walks right over to where I am standing.
"Will you step over here. Id like to talk to you for a minute."
I followed obediently and we stood near the juke box. I sensed every eye in the place turning in my direction and I am certain my face was as red as part of the coloring on the face of the Wurlitzer that just finished playing a soupy western hit about "achin hearts." I saw Cox and Kelley framed in the front doorway, hesitating a moment, watching me and the cop, then Kelley pulled the door to and they were gone.
"Were you playing pool with Mr. Albertson earlier this evening?" One question and I was fried. If I said yes, the cop was going to ID me and cite me for playing pool underage and it was going to cost me a couple of weeks pay and I would have one more reason for not looking my mother in the eye. Whacking off wasnt shame enough. I had to turn out to be a hard core criminal, hanging around with riff raff in a pool hall. Her lecture started in my head while I tried to mumble an answer for this tired, bored cop.
"Would you speak up a little please?"
"Yeah. I mean, yes, I was."
"Was there someone else playing with the two of you?"
"Did you know him?"
"Who? Felton? Well, he hangs out here some nights like I do. I dont really know know him."
"Do you know where he is now?"
"No. He took off earlier. Must have gone home."
"Do you know where he lives?"
"Isnt he a friend of yours?"
"I dont quite follow that. Is he a friend or not."
"No. I mean, a lot of guys just come here. You know. Play some pool and go home."
"So youve never been to Feltons home?"
"No, why would I go there?"
"Does he know where you live?"
"I dont know. I doubt it. Why would he?"
"All right. Just stick around for a while. I may want to talk to you a little more."
The cop walked back out to where the Drummer was standing near the door. They talked for awhile on the sidewalk. Ray was putting things away behind the counter, starting his closing up routine. Several people were walking toward the counter. There were two or three tables left in play.
I remained standing by the juke box. A twangy voice was singing about Honky Tonk Angels. I was daydreaming about having sex with one of those Angels on top of the front table when I saw the cop come in and go over to Ray. They glanced in my direction a couple of times during their conversation. I suspected Ray was going to read me the riot act after the cop was finished and I would be kicked out of the Derby for good. Id have to start playing over at the Rialto and while Billy Bool was fun to watch I really didnt like the cranky old guy who ran the place. Id stopped having sex with the Angel who looked like several different girls I knew around town and I was ready to accept my ticket and take it home to Mom and reorganize my life when the cop and Ray laughed and the cop went out the door. I didnt see the Drummer, but I just figured he was next door in the beer joint.
I waited by the juke box a few more minutes, then I asked myself what I was standing there for when the cop was gone and I forced myself to walk up and see what Ray had to say. I asked him what it was all about.
"You dont know?"
"Hey, that cop didnt tell me anything. He just wanted to know if Felton and I were friends. Man, you know how I feel about Felton. Hes an asshole. Hes always trying to get me in a fight."
"But you guys were playing pool for almost an hour back there."
"Cmon, Ray. The salesman wanted to shoot some eight-ball and Felton horned in."
"Well, Lucky, you must have said the right thing. But Feltons in deep shit. Albertson told the cop Felton punched him in the nose and ran off with his sample case."
"No shit? That Feltons really stupid. But I didnt know anything about that. How come that cop was giving me the third degree?"
"Because Albertson told him he thought you and Felton set him up."
"Git outa here. Really? That asshole."
"Well, you cant blame the guy. Look at his side of it. He gets in a game with you, then suddenly Felton joins in, and you win most of the money, then Felton asks him what kind of stuff he has in his sample case and does he have any pens or cigarette cases and Albertson says he has and Felton says he would like to see some of the stuff and maybe buy a present for his girl friend and Albertson goes to get his sample case from the chair and Felton says its too noisy and they ought to go out back to his car where they can sit and do business with a little more peace and quiet and Albertson starts to say they can do it after the game because he knows you are waiting by the table but Felton has already gone out the back door assuming Albertson will follow so he does. Well, he told Richards, the cop LPD sent over, that he went out the back door and when he didnt see Felton he walked a few steps up the alley and before he knew what was happening he got smacked in the nose and there was Felton off up the alley with his sample case."
"Boy, I knew Felton was fucked up, but I never thought he was that stupid."
Ray racked the last couple of tables, unplugged the juke box, turned out the lights, and finished closing up, then we were left alone in the front of the room. I always hated it when the night was over and I had to face going home. He knew that. He asked about my Dad and I told him nothing had changed. My mother was still praying about having faith and Dad was still coughing and choking all night. Ray gave me a lift home in his DeSoto. The house was dark and I figured everyone was asleep. There were a couple of peanut butter sandwiches on a plate on the kitchen table and I grabbed those and a Hires root beer out of the fridge and ran upstairs to my room.
In the next few days I learned that the cops found the Drummers sample case in front of a sorority house over by the University of Nebraska campus. There were a couple of decks of pornographic playing cards inside along with various black and white stills of burlesque queens. There was no burlesque show in Lincoln. The nearest one was in Omaha, about sixty miles away, and I had always promised myself I would go up there and check those naked women out when I got my new car. The cops knew it was the Drummers case because the dumbo left a bunch of his business cards in one of the pockets. Felton was at home when the cops stopped by to question him but they didnt bust him because the Drummer had left town and there wasnt anyone to pursue the complaint.
The following Friday I was playing nine-ball with Gar Sedoris and Fred Eissler when Felton strolled up to our table and started talking as though nothing at all had happened the previous week. I finished the game and turned my attention to him for a few minutes.
"Felton, you asshole. You cost me a free ride to California. That salesman you robbed was going to drive me out to L. A. with him. Now hes gone and Im stuck here in Lincoln!"
"What the hell would you do out there? Man, you think its bad here, you have to be eighteen to take a shit out there."
"Ah, you dont know."
"I know. I know. I got friends and I know. Anyway, I didnt know you were a homo, Lucky."
"Whaddaya mean a homo? You know Im no homo. What makes you say something like that?"
"Well, man, you really dont know what happened last week, do you?"
"Hell, yes, you suckered a drummer out in the alley and ran off with his sample case."
"Thats what he said, huh?"
"Thats what the cop said."
"Well, la dee fuckin da. That guy was as queer as a three-dollar bill. Didnt you hear all of that shit? Whaddaya do, close up your ears when youre running the table on a chump? This guy tells me he has some sexy playing cards and I might like to buy a deck of them and since I have been hearing about these cards since I was old enough to get a hard on I said I was interested in having a look at them but I didnt know whether I could afford to buy them or not. Well, He says I ought to go out back and he will come along in a minute or two with his sample case and I can check out the cards. The game was over and I figured it would only take a few minutes to have a look and wed be back to the table, anyway, I go out and wait for him and he comes out and we walk up the alley a little ways so people cant see us in the doorway. It was bright outside that night, almost a full moon and I wait while he opens his case and shows me some pictures of sexy women. All the time he is talking quietly, telling me about a burleycue show and asking me if Ive even been to Chicago or L. A. and I am looking through his pictures when I feel a hand on my ass and the fingers on that hand move down around my thigh and I know in a second or two they are going to reach a couple of things quite personal to me and I say Hey, what the fuck is this? and I drop the pictures and smack the guy in the kisser. He lets go of the case and runs like a scared rabbit for the door of the pool hall. Well, I stood there a few seconds, then not knowing what else to do I got the pictures together, put them in the case, closed it up and took off. I hopped in the Chevy and tossed the case in the back and Im driving toward home out by the fairgrounds and it comes to me that that little shit will probably call the cops so I decide Id better get rid of the case--even though I was looking forward to going through one of those decks of cards, hey, hey, hey--anyway I drove around the campus until I hit a dark spot, 86ed the case, and heade d for home."
"So that guy was really--"
"A first class fruit, and you --" Felton poked his finger in the center of my chest-- "were going to California with him."
"Did you tell that story to the cops?"
"Are you kiddin?You think Im nuts? Ive talked to those guys before. I told em I didnt know what they were talkin about."
"Did they ask you how you skinned your knuckles?"
"Whatre you, Perry Mason? I fix radios. I was putting the back on an RCA console when I scraped my hand. The cops didnt want to do anything anyway. They knew that salesman was a fruitcake and he was long gone. They just gave me their lecture about keeping my nose clean."
"So you want in with us?"
"Ah, you guysre bettern me. Im going out to Capital Beach and look for some pussy." Fact is, Felton had been watching the front and caught a glimpse of Ray starting back our way and he knew it would be best if he hung out somewhere else for a week or two until the whole thing blew over.
"Well, let us know if you find any. You can bring them back to the Derby." The screen door bounced behind Felton and we turned our attention back to the game. Ray must have seen Felton leave, because he was back at the front counter when I glanced in his direction.
"Thatll be the day when they let women in the poor halls," said Fred.
We all laughed at that.
"Yeah, thatll be the day," I said.
Copyright © 1995 by Clay Geerdes
Clay Geerdes was a cartoonist and writer, Bay area correspondent for the L.A. Free Press, and from 1994 until his death in 1997 a regular contributor to the weekly Anderson Valley Advertiser. His book The Last Bus will be published by Electron Press in the first quarter of 1998.
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