Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bank Shots

You are in the midst of a long, leisurely letter to a friend, engaging the discussion of critical moments in your early life, moments where opposing or distracting forces collide to produce true learning experiences you carry with you to this very day.

For a while, you'd already begun to hum the tune to the UCLA Alma Mater, "Hail, Blue and Gold."  But. The anthem never quite catches traction.  In its place, two other landscapes come crashing to the front of your mind, places where transformative thoughts and realizations coalesced even more time than on that years-ago campus you now see in your mind, this instead of the campus of the University of California where you are employed as a professor.

Both these other landscapes, also in Los Angeles, are subject to the same rules of physicality to which so many other Los Angeles places are subject.  They no longer exist, except in your memories and, perhaps, the recall of others.  Like so many things of this spectral nature, they await your recall.  But in their defense, in fairness to them, they are not tortured ghosts, calling upon you to perform some act of recognition or retribution.  They are detritus of the past, as useful as you wish them to be.

The first landscape was close to the southeast corner of the intersection of La Brea Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard.  Memory has had its way with your recall of its exact name, a fact possibly related to your thinking of it in the more generic sense of The Used Book Store.  It was neither large nor small, three or four rooms at the most.

In retrospect, you have already extracted information about it and its proprietor that had not registered on you at the time.  The rooms were scrupulous in their neatness and order, inviting your rapt browsing attention.  No stray cartons filled with unshelved books, so common to some of the other used bookstores of your patronage.  The owner showed up for work in one of two suits, a brown or a blue, reminding you of one of your professors at UCLA.  He was shaved and trim, his thick, dark-rimmed glasses polished to the point where, were he to make eye contact with you, there was a visible and unambiguous connection.  

You mention his appearance in these terms because so many other employees or proprietors of used book stores seemed to favor sweaters at the point of unraveling, their trousers revealing some latent attempt at repairing a rent or worn-out spot, their faces featuring a disregard for the comforts of a fresh shave.  Many seemed to you to favor eyeglasses clouded by streaks of one sort or another.

The proprietor of the Hollywood/La Brea used bookstore encouraged browsing by offering to anyone who remained for four hours and then purchased two dollars and fifty cents worth or more of his stock a coupon for a plate of meatless spaghetti at a nearby Italian restaurant.

He'd sized you up on a number of occasions to the point of knowing there was a motive to your browsing, an educational motive.  Often, he'd recommend titles to you by thrusting them at you.  "You need to know this author.  If you don't agree, I'll exchange it for books of equal value."  Thus you got to the short stories of Dashiell Hammett, Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, and Katherine Mansfield.

The other venue was a mile or so to the southwest, on Santa Monica Boulevard, where it resided below a sign that read with brutal simplicity, Spider's.  A major source of income at Spider's was from rentals, the objects in question being tables.  Pool tables.  Snooker tables.  And that highest plateau of all, the pocketless billiard table, a venue that drew your most emphatic attention, simultaneous with the kind of frustration resident within a vision of yourself being able to perform a maneuver that seemed so elegant, magisterial, and romantic, and not quite getting the hang of it.  Of all the things outside the sphere and sway of writing to which you aspired, being adept at three-cushion billiards seemed to haunt your dreams to the point where you ran up four and five consecutive scoring points against older, craftier, wilier men than you.  

Spider's also sold great quantities of beer and the kinds of sandwiches best eaten over sinks or the large paper plates provided by the woman who made the sandwiches.  One could also order a custom-made cue, which Spider, himself, measured you for, in the process observing how this particular cue would help you improve some technique of yours in which he'd observed a hitch.  For the longest time, he assured you the cues he provided his customers were adequate to your needs.  This fueled your own awareness.  "What you're saying is, no cue is going to help."

"What I'm saying is, you got to practice.  You want something, you gotta practice to get it right. You practice to get the vision of what you want, then you practice to see the angles you need to set the play into the motion you want, then you practice to learn where you want the cue ball to be for your next good shot."

This is not to reduce the effect the university had on you so much as it is to place that effect and drive in perspective.  You learned theory and research and a sense of which levels of performance you considered meaningful.

In the used bookstore and at Spider's, you learned what to look for, what risks to take, and what to practice.

At one point, when you were practicing on the billiard table, Spider stood next to you for a time, sipping from a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon.  "I see you lining up a shot like that,"  he said, "it breaks my heart.  Way you hold that cue is like you think it's gonna run away from you."

You didn't want to break Spider's heart.  You did not want to break your own.  You watched.  You listened.  You practiced.  Then you went home and looked at a few stories you'd written earlier, stories you thought were pretty good, stories you thought had a chance.  When you looked at such stories, the rule you set for yourself was, you had to have a pencil at hand, to mark, to line up the shots, to see the places you wanted the characters to end up after a move, and where you wanted the events positioned for the next scene.  You wanted the rails clear for daring, twisting bank shots, with the right English applied for the cue to know whether to follow, stay, or come back.

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