It would be fair to describe the time I spent in pool halls in my teens and twenties as wasted. Hanging out in such places is the kind of open-ended unconstructive activity — bringing together irresponsibly self-directed young people with seedy older ones in an atmosphere redolent of vice — that parents do their best to exclude from the repertoires of their offspring. But I can’t say that I never learned anything useful in a pool hall.
For instance, it was in pool halls that I first noticed the speed-up effect that I now encounter every day all across the culture. When I first started playing pool, serious players played straight pool, often to 100 or more points, leading to extended contests in which opponents played it safe for rack after rack, each trying to keep the other from going on a long run.
Then a quick-and-dirty game, nine-ball, rose up and seduced the serious players. Things happen fast in nine-ball: a booming break, a chancy decisive shot or two, the loser pays the winner, rack ’em up, do it again. After a while, the straight-pool virtues — patience, steadiness, stamina — began to give way to the nine-ball virtue of boldness in risk-taking and shot-making. Nine-ball’s higher rate of visible action, with balls flying everywhere and table stakes changing hands at a brisk pace, made straight pool feel like a chore.
The nine-ball effect suffuses contemporary life. The growing influence of the Internet, in particular, has encouraged a shift in expectations in everything from shopping to reading. Turning the unhyperlinked pages of a physical newspaper or putting on your nonvirtual shoes and leaving the house to acquire a consumer item now seem to many people like a prohibitive bother. Even strong college students are intimidated by long books, especially those written in elegant prose requiring concentrated attention. Life online has trained them out of the habit of reading without interruption, acclimating them instead to lots of stimulating change on the screen — more visible action, in other words. I saw it first in a pool hall, then everywhere.
I received another pool-hall lesson, about the shifting nature of the social contract, one day in New York City when a cop came in and announced that drinking alcohol would no longer be allowed in public. Since the pool hall lacked a liquor license, he said, those who had an open drink had to throw it away. Like others around me, I held up my tall boy to show him that it was wrapped in a paper bag. It had been informally understood in that city for many years that the police let you drink in places where the letter of the law forbade it as long as you demonstrated respect by putting the bottle in a paper bag.
“I’m sorry, fellas,” he said, gesturing downtown toward city hall and police headquarters. “New guys, new rules. The bag doesn’t cut it anymore.” He added that gambling was also no longer tolerated. There was grumbling as players picked up bills from the rails of the tables. Once the cop left, a couple of defiant characters opened fresh drinks and put their stakes back on the rails, but the possibility of a surprise followup visit from the police had robbed these routines of much of their familiar pleasure.
A big change was underway in official and popular perceptions of law and order in New York. Like subway graffiti, panhandling, low-grade chaos, and other things previously accepted as part of the basic texture of life in a profoundly ungovernable city, drinking was suddenly regarded as unacceptable in public space. There would be plenty of argument about the meaning and effects of this shift in attitudes toward governance, but I caught my first inkling of the coming change in a pool hall.
I learned other generally applicable lessons in pool halls, of course: about how to tell the difference between a genuine commitment to craft excellence and the mere desire to be seen as formidable, for instance (that one has proved useful in academia), and about the mutually degrading dynamic between slummers and hustlers. And I learned a valuable meta-lesson about lessons: If you pay attention, you can learn something of value from whatever and whoever you find in front of you.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’