This year has been a bad year for pool tables I have known. Earlier in the spring, I got an alarming text message from my mother at 8:26am that read “The clubhouse burned down last nite.” I was devastated. She was referring to a community building that served as a meeting place at the yacht club my parents have belonged to since before I was born. It was where they met, it was where they had their wedding reception, it was where I had my first kiss and my first stolen sip of beer. But most importantly, that clubhouse was where I learned to play pool on idle summer weekends as a kid.
Along with my brother and several other wee ones (whose parents were also busy getting sloshed on the back decks of their modest cabin cruisers listening to Jimmy Buffet) we formed an informal pool league. Barely tall enough to see over the table, we actually had a great vantage point for the angles and geometric pathways required for getting the ball in the hole. By the time we reached middle school, our skills were such that we posed a formidable threat to any adult opponent. Or so we liked to think.
The pool table was located in the basement of the clubhouse, which meant it always stayed cool on sticky summer days. There were three mostly functional vending machines: one for soda, one for snacks, and one for cigarettes (the last of which we never dared to put our quarters into). We hadn’t quite reached the age of tobacco interest yet, and by the time we did that machine was long gone. Besides, we had our candy cigarettes which produced a sweet scented cloud of “smoke” when you blew the chalk dust out from the wrapper.
That isn’t to say we had no interest in taboo adult privileges. The television set bolted to the wall in the corner next to the fireplace was always set to Comedy Central. This is where I first became enthralled with the stand up specials of George Carlin, Janeane Garafalo, Chris Rock, Jim Breuer, and Dennis Leary. Movies like Half Baked and The Big Lebowski were always playing on repeat. We felt so devious sneaking a glimpse at this expletive laden entertainment filled with drug references we were too young to get at the time, as we clacked the cue ball with fervor, candy cigarettes hanging from our lips.
As the years progressed, my love for playing pool was one of the few interests I retained from childhood. When I moved to Brooklyn after college, I immediately fell in love with a shitty little dive bar in Bushwick known as the Wreck Room. My standards for bars are simple: good music, cheap drinks, pool table. That’s it. Wreck Room (at the time) boasted not one, but two tables. I was in heaven. Sure, they had bathrooms where the stall doors never closed and the floors were often flooded, but when you’re four beer/shot specials deep, basic sanitation and privacy are of little concern.
While I preferred slow nights for easily navigating around the pool table in the center of their graffiti drenched seating area, a crowd was no deterrent. The challenges of sinking a shot while surrounded by throngs of drunken revelers bumping into your outstretched pool stick, with the only lighting coming from the passing glimmer of a disco ball, made the victories taste as sweet as candy cigarettes.
I experienced a lot of Brooklyn firsts at Wreck Room. My first Brooklyn one night stand. My first Brooklyn black out. The first time I lost my driver’s license. After I celebrated my 25th birthday by shooting a gun for the first time at the West Side Pistol & Rifle Range, I rode the adrenaline wave over the river and straight to Wreck Room to continue the party. Over the last few years in New York, I have changed jobs and apartments many times, but Wreck Room was a constant. The eye of the storm where it rained whiskey sun showers. A magical place where rice balls were to be eaten with your hands, no utensils allowed. Paradise, really.
Learning this week that Wreck Room was closing its doors, I felt the same pang of sadness as when I heard of the fire that decimated the clubhouse I spent so much time in as a child. Memories are great, but there’s something nice about being able to revisit the place where they were formed. Like the house you grew up in that your parents have since moved out of, or the now defunct drive in where you lost your virginity. It’s not that you would actually go back there, but it is nice knowing you have the option. As if its existence makes those memories real, tangible. One sad truth of growing up is accepting the loss of places you love. Whether it be by fire, or by the greed of an indifferent landlord, sometimes the destruction of sanctuary is out of your control. But there will always be other pool tables.