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.