Everyone in the Jim Celebre Memorial Pool League knows that Foto Club is the team to beat. Yet there is some debate among the men who shoot for Tailgators (who are not shooting so well tonight at the 3 Fish Pub in Port Richmond) as to why.
"They're all from West Philly, Southwest Philly," says one Tailgator. "None of them near Foto Club," an after-hours bar on Frankford Avenue.
"We used to have the bomb squad," says another.
"We never played this bad."
"Something with this table."
Other teams raise suspicion, too.
"They got a good team, Old Philly."
"That's because they buy their players," a Tailgator responds.
The row house blocks that stretch through the river wards of Fishtown and Port Richmond and across deindustrialized Kensington have long been riven by meager opportunities for good work, active drug markets and racial conflict. But this neighborhood retains ties less visible to outsiders, including an archipelago of bars with pool teams that every Wednesday night ferry men away from wives and children, and into foreign watering holes.
"This is Kensington, technically, this side of Frankford," says Franny, Old Philly's captain. "When I was a kid, I didn't go over there." He points to Frankford Avenue, where "Fishtown kids" once stood ready to brawl. To the east, "We were fighting with blacks and Puerto Ricans." Neighborhoods formed defensible fortresses.
"We'd have to stay in a four- to five-block vicinity," he says. "We had corners ... the Swoop Troop, the Bomb Squad, the WTO." Short for "We're The Ones," or maybe "Whites Taking Over."
At Old Philadelphia, a bar on East Dauphin Street, whites, blacks and what a fair observer might call hipsters — the El Bar is visiting — play pool. One black player wears an Old Philly polo.
"No, no," says Franny, contemplating changing demographics and values. "Back in the day, blacks weren't even supposed to be on this side of the El."
One member of Old Philly tells me the El Bar plays "nigger pool." Yet pool now clearly trumps old racial hostilities: Franny prematurely sinks the eight-ball and then throws the cue. Face in hands, he says the game had, for a variety of reasons, gone wrong from the beginning.
"My buddy got beat with a brick over his head, so he can't see over one eye," says Franny, lifting his face. "He was having trouble shooting."
Another player blames City Paper's photographer: "My man flashed the camera while he was shooting."
The bartender, who parries with ballbusting men for a living, doesn't buy it. "If they miss the shot," she smiles, "they'll look for any excuse."
The league, however, manages to keep pool-related anger in check. Fights are rare.
"With pool, there's a lot of rules involved," El Bar co-captain Reese tells me, picking up an overstuffed folder of league regulations.
"You have rivalries, a lot of trash-talking between the bars, people that hate each other," says Brian, the team captain and owner of Tailgators Sports Bar in Fishtown.
Some players, he says, specialize in it. Take Mickey, who shoots for Old Philly.
"Mickey, all he does is talk shit. ... Part of some teams' strategy is to have a shit-talker. And he doesn't talk shit to the bad players, he talks shit to the good ones to get them off their game."
One Wednesday night at 3 Fish, some guys are talking shit about the entrepreneurs who opened Memphis Taproom, which replaced local watering hole Walt's — and, says Tailgators shooter Don, displaced their pool team midseason.
"Memphis Taproom is for hipsters," says teammate Matt, a thickly muscled man with pending assault charges and "white pride" tattooed across his biceps. Matt, who says he loves breaking balls, might be this team's shit-talker.
"Best thing about it is: It is diverse," he tells me.
Rashid knows several of the players from North Catholic, where he was the "only black guy."
Most of the men who administer the league — co-presidents Henny and Junior, and secretary Paul — play for Yesterday's Tavern in Kensington. At an away game at the El Bar, the team sits together in a corner. Across the room, skinny jeans and a certain kind of mustache predominate. Paul is excited to be someplace new. He takes me on an impromptu tour of the bar, guiding me upstairs to show off a jam session he's discovered on the second floor.
"Wednesday night is my Friday night," he says.
Foto Club captain Dave takes a cigarette break while his team members mess around, Peanut reaching for his beer and Tone enjoying a laugh.
At Foto Club, no one ever picks up the phone. I finally tracked them down at the Polish American Club in Port Richmond. The pool table is in the back, separated by a low-slung partition from two bowling lanes. Teenage boys sit on ledges above the pins, jumping down to reset them after each game.
The club's century-old incorporation certificate is, notes longtime member Bill, mostly in Polish, the neighborhood's dwindling lingua franca.
"It was in its prime in the '50s," before the construction of I-95, the eight-lane behemoth just one block away. "It killed the neighborhood." He recalls the bulldozed homes.
"We used to have fish fights," when the neighborhood was connected to the Delaware River. "They would dump dead fish" and kids could throw them at each other. They would go swim in the river, and then "you'd have to throw away your underwear."
"We needed I-95," adds Bill, whose wife is one highway exit south gambling at SugarHouse Casino. "Don't get me wrong."
I turn to Walt, outfitted in a monogrammed Foto Club shirt, a spider-web tattoo encapsulating his shaven head like an arachnid yarmulke. "We have a variety," says Walt of the white, black and Puerto Rican shooters. "That's why I think we're good."
Some have played professionally and some also shoot for "the Spanish league." Says Walt, "We had to sit out last year. We won a couple of years in a row, and a lot of guys were complaining."
I hear that Joe, watching with his arms crossed, is Foto Club's elder statesman. Says Dave, the team captain, "He's forgot more about pool than we will ever learn."
"I've been playing pool for over 50 years," says Joe, a Port Richmond native. "When I was young, every neighborhood had a poolroom. Now you are lucky if you got three in the whole city."
Bill is worried that the Polish American Club, too, will close if they can't get young people like his son, a soccer fan who frequents the 700 Club in Northern Liberties, to join. "I don't understand how these guys, who don't make any more money than me, pay $6 or $7 for a beer."
A Polish American member shouts out to a Foto Club player circling the table: "Don't shoot with a cigarette in your mouth! Yo!"
Joe used to shoot at a poolroom at Seventh and Chestnut in Center City. "Some of the best shooters in the world came in that place: Minnesota Fats. ... Pool was a really big thing in Philadelphia in those days. All the best shooters in the world came out of Philly. Now they come out of Europe, Asia."
Now 73, he's retired — but not from pool. Not ever. "Pool is an interesting game. We're all pool-drunk."
"It'll consume your whole life," adds Foto Club member Frank. But his attention, like most everyone's, quickly shifts back to the game.
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