I have always been leery of stories too obviously Based On Real Life Experience. Herein, however, the bar, “American Pool”, the LeShan book, and the general milieu are very much my Summer of 1999 in NYC. However all characters are fictional any resemblance to anyone etc etc. I leave the rather twee last line in for historical interest.
I can still pinpoint the exact moment when I realised that pub games could be the path to inner peace, deep contentedness, spiritual fulfillment, and all that sort of thing. It came the day I bought Lawrence LeShan’s definitive work on the subject, How to Meditate – The Acclaimed Guide to Self-Discovery, (with an Afterword by Edgar N Jackson) in which, as Booklist said, “LeShan offers an authoritative, commonsense approach compacting a wealth of information in a succinct beginner’s guide to meditation.”
The decisive insight was in Chapter 5, ‘The Basic Types of Meditation’, under the heading ‘The Path of Action’. This began “The path of action consists of learning how to ‘be’ and to perceive and relate to the world during the performance of a particular type of skill. This approach has been most widely used in the East. Various skills have been used: archery, flower arrangement, aikido and karate (two methods of unarmed combat) in the Zen tradition and rug weaving in the Sufi tradition. Singing and prayer have been used in the Christian tradition.”
I bought the book for 50 cents at a sale in the New York Public Library. Battered and worn, its cover creased, folded and refolded over the years, it had evidently pointed many adepts in the right direction towards inner tranquility. I bought it, along with an equally distressed-looking Portnoy’s Complaint for the same price.
On the 4am train home I flicked through the two books, and finding LeShan easier to read than Roth, I began to read it with slightly more attention. Thus I came to read of the Path of Action, the discovery of “how to ‘be'” via a particular skill.
My visit to the New York Public Library was, I regret to say, one of my first gestures towards the cultural life of New York city. When TJ and Jack and myself had planned this summer, we chose New York precisely because it was the place J1 students didn’t go. It was too big, too expensive, to hard to get work in. All in the way of encouragement to us. If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere, etc. etc. Add my febrile visions of Jay Gatsby and Holly Golighty waltzing down Fifth Avenue, of taxi-drivers with machine-gun wits reading The New Yorker, of the million and one disordered visions of New York in books and films, and I anticipated a sort of personal renaissance.
My summer in New York on a J1 visa was reaching a sunbaked conclusion. We had arrived in the hottest New York summer ever, or at least since the last hottest New York summer – which turned out to have been the year before. Myself and Jack and TJ had all worked in various apartment blocks, sweating in the service elevators as we took out the trash of rich Manhattanites. I had always managed to get stuck on either the very early shift, which meant making one’s way through the city streets to work at 4am – and when they call it the city that never sleeps don’t believe them, on a Tuesday morning at 4.30am it’s slumbering alright – or the late one, which meant getting out of the place at midnight. This schedule had cut into my plans to immerse myself in the cultural delights of New York.
On my days off I did little better. All three of us had airily disdained the clichés of the Irish abroad before we left, and on arrival we took to the amniotic fluid of Woodlawn, with its GAA-jersey clad drinkers spilling out on the streets every 4am, with its Tayto crisps and Lucozade and Irish Independents in the general stores. The most popular bar for the young J1er was The Place. The Place was a gigantic bar-cum-diner which seemed to employ most of the female J1ers. Over the course of the summer it hosted theme nights condensing an entire year into one season – as well as a mock wedding, a mock christening and a mock wake.
In late July the three of us felt gloriously superior to all this and began to patronise Scruffy Murphy’s, an even more ostentatiously Irish bar elsewhere in the Bronx. For all its studied steeping in Gaeldom, it was nowhere near the success of The Place. Perhaps the Republican paraphrenalia – not only the usual 1916 Proclamation, but various more recent Sinn Fein posters – was a little too much.
Later the day I bought How To Meditate we went, as usual, to Scruffy Murphy’s, which boasted a dartboard, a pool table, and a Tetris game. And little else that night – three male customers, two of whom were from Laois and huddled in the corner talking football and Laois men and women who had made good, the other was Mick, who we had met on all our previous visits. He was a worn figure of indeterminate age, with an equally indeterminate job description. We had asked on the first night, and five minutes of explication later we were still resolutely unsure what if anything he did for a living. It seemed to involve walking around the parks with a tape recorder. He offered to help get us jobs, which we respectfully declined. The first night we played himself and Jimmy the barman in doubles at pool. He won the first game, despite his appalling play, by invoking previously unknown rules in ‘American pool’. Some, I later discovered, were genuine; others simply embellishments designed to win him the game. Once he stated that playing him at pool was like playing a chess master. I asked did he play much chess. His reply:
“Once they came from miles around to play pool ‘gainst me and Jimmy. Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, New Jersey, and they would line up, and they would put money down, and we would play them five minutes six minutes each, and we would win every game, and its like a chess game. And then Joe would be here, and Jimmy… And like chess, it would be full of people lining up to play pool. But let me tell you,” he touched my arm lightly as started speaking in a low, confidential voice, “They came from miles around.”
Such was the establishment where my life would turn. Earlier the day I had tried some of the exercises in LeShan’s masterwork, which involved counting one’s breaths. With each exhalation, you counted one. You counted up to four, at which point you started again. LeShan recommends fifteen minutes of this daily for beginners, building up to twenty minutes daily after a few weeks. I was in a clear, alert, focused state of mind. I felt vaguely militaristic, like a highly trained machine – but a machine for a purpose I couldn’t quite name. The balls on the pool table, the darts stuck in the dartboard, the blocks floating through the words Game Over on the screen of the Tetris game, all seemed sharp, nearby. I felt like I could reach and grab them and bend them to my will.
We played pool against Mick and Jimmy again – a double, myself and TJ against the regular and the barman. American pool tables have enormous pockets, so any incompetent can look like some kind of hustler. Tonight the game seemed even more stark and portentous. The bar was quite dark except for the overhead light above the pool table. When I took my shots, I truly felt the simplicity of the game – one man with a cue, the pure white ball eliminating the gaudy colours from the scene. Writing these words I realise that no doubt some theoretician has compared the game to white supremacism, to notions of “white” equalling pure and innocent and colour needing to be eliminated. Something along those lines, anyhow.
I read somewhere that pool is a mathematical game, a matter of angles and forces. Tonight the truth of that statement felt self-evident. With only a tiny effort surely I could master a game this simple. The light over the table burnishes the scene of the drama into an eternal tableau. I think of ceremony, of ritual, of the rites that bind societies together. I think of when I was a child, and did so many things utterly unselfconsciously.
Yet it seemed beyond me. How many potentially brilliant shots would just be a little overhit, bounce off the cushion right beside the pocket. Another anomalous rule in American pool is that you must indicate which shot you are trying to make; furthermore I was invariably left with ridiculously easy shots which I would invariably miss.
As I played, I became more and more frustrated. Inevitably, I began to miss more and more shots. Mick and Jimmy were looking more and more smug. Their victory followed in due course. Frustrated, I handed the cue to Jack. He would team up with TJ this time.
Mick and Jimmy were crowing, something about students not being so clever. “He needs to do more homework,” said Jimmy to Mick, presumably referring to myself. Mick roared laughing, so Jimmy repeated it.
I turned my attention to the Tetris machine. Putting a quarter in the slot, I began to play. Tetris, for those of you unfamiliar with the game, was an enormously popular computer game from the late 1980s. Its popularity was based on its extreme addictiveness, and this addictiveness was based on its simplicity. Different block of various configurations – T-shapes, L-shapes, squat square blocks, all blocky variations of each other – fall from the top of the screen towards the base, and the player has to position them. Each block lands on the bottom of the screen, either on other blocks that have already fallen, or on the ‘bottom’ of the game screen itself. If a complete, solid line of blocks is formed across the game screen, that line disappears. If the game screen fills to the very top, it’s Game Over. Thus the object is to make as many solid lines of blocks as possible, so as to survive.
The awkwardness of the above description is itself proof that simply playing the game will illustrate it better than any words. Tetris is one of the few video games that seems equally popular, or roughly equally popular, with both sexes. In my pre-adolescent years, hanging around amusement arcades wasting away 20p pieces, it was the one coin-op game that had more girls milling around it than guys.
On this occasion I began to play in anger, thinking of Mick and Jimmy and how irritating they were, and then thinking of how much of a waste so much of my time in New York had been, and how without at all meaning to, we had been sucked into the J1 subculture – a sort of youthful version of sentimental Oirish-abroad subculture – and how here we were spending the best years of our lives, as everyone says, listening to two total losers of doubtful mental capacity talking about their wonderful ability in pool. And here I was feeling inferior to these two characters because of my comparative inability in pool, whether American or Irish or Japanese or Scandanavian, and how stupid I was for feeling inferior to these guys for such a silly reason, and here I was feeling angry at myself for feeling angry at myself for such a stupid stupid reason.
I was in a tizzy over all this. If I remember rightly, I even felt tears forming in the corners of my eyes. And then I realised that I had not only been playing Tetris all this time, but I had achieved a massive score. I had been utterly oblivious to the game up to this point. It came as a sudden realisation, like those times when drifting off to sleep you suddenly jerk into wakefulness, just how well I was doing.
My anger and my shame left me like a thief in the night; lightly, unnnoticed. I was part of the game. Blocks fell – T-shapes, L-shapes, long rectangles and square blocks – and I steered them in, unthinking, into exactly the right slot. Lines formed and dissolved. Bonuses mounted up, and as my score went past the hundred thousands into the millions, I reached the later, more difficult stages of the game, in which random, awkward blocks suddenly appear throughout the game screen. Now, however, these random blocks were not at all awkward, but helpful, filling in spaces that otherwise would have retarded my progress, guiding my hand as it steered more blocks through.
I never had to think about which block to put where. All came immediately, obviously. I was oblivious to the bar, to Mick and Jimmy, to Jack and TJ, to the Bronx, to New York, to America, to Ireland. For that while nothing existed but Tetris.
I could not tell you how long it was that I stood there at the machine. All I know is that the screen suddenly snapped into a tiny white dot in the centre. I turned, somehow not surprised. My score had risen from the millions to the tens of millions to the hundreds of millions. This was far in excess of the high score in the top right hand corner of the screen.
Jimmy the barman was holding the plug in his hand. He had taken it out of the socket.
“It’s long past closing time, student boy,” he said. His voice was not entirely friendly. I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind anything at the time. I didn’t care about the high score disappearing into nothingness, rather than the dubious memorial of remaining in the top right-hand corner for future gamers to measure themselves against. It didn’t matter.
TJ and Jack weren’t there. Mick still was, in a corner, looking even the worse for drink than usual. I looked around Scruffy Murphy’s before I left for the short walk home. It was a terrible bar, really. But at that moment it seemed like paradise to me.