A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
Technically, my college education occurred during "The Sixties," an extraordinary time of change, war and hope which also was known for long hair, sex, drugs, rock and roll and sharing feelings.
But anyone who lived through that period would say it didn't really begin until 1965, a full five years after I enrolled at the University of Michigan and became a "pledge" at the Tau Delta Phi fraternity there.
So when I got to the Ann Arbor campus in the fall of 1960, I'd say nobody was sharing feelings because -- unless “insecurity” is a feeling -- we had no idea what our feelings were.
Our heroes were cool, and always unruffled. The one best known was probably James Dean.
But my personal prince of cool was another actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, who managed in one movie to shift a burning cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other without using his hands. You know we were all trying that trick for weeks.
And then there was Jack Kaufman, the coolest guy I ever knew. He and Bill Cohen, my best friend, also were pledges in my class at Tau Delt.
Let me digress a moment and set the scene.
I told you that I was insecure. I wanted to be cool, popular, and in control, but I had no clue, particularly after 12 years at a Lutheran boys prep school,. (That’s another story.)
But there was one place on the college campus that allowed me the semblance of control: the pool hall at the Michigan Union, the building right next to my dorm.
Pool tables cost a penny a minute, no matter how many players. Four or five or six of us could afford to split the 60 cents an hour charge, even on our meager college allowances. We could play forever, and we did.
You have to understand –- long before there was psychotherapy, there was pocket billiards.
A rectangle of perfect and incredibly predictable cushioned sides.
Fifteen identical balls, each with its own color or stripe, including a white ball, the cue ball, the messenger.
It’s not rocket science. Hit the cue ball into another ball, send it into a pocket of your choice. Hold the stick level and stroke it smoothly. The front of the cue stick travels through your bridge hand, with as little friction as possible, but it is still guided.
You set up the shot. Look first at the object ball, then the cue, then back to the object ball. It’s a lock. You strike. The cue hits at just the right angle, the object ball drops into the pocket and then -- because of "English" -- the cue ball comes to rest in a perfect spot behind the next ball.
So it goes until only one ball is left. Then you rack the other 14 and shoot the remaining ball into a pocket, the cue caroming into the rack and breaking up the pack so you can keep on shooting.
For mere mortals like Bill Cohen and me, theory and practice were hardly coterminous. We could run four or five balls in a row, maybe even eight,. Then our brains would freeze.
You would think that missing a shot would have been frustrating, but it was oddly acceptable because we could always see exactly where we had f**ked up and we could kid ourselves that next game or next shot we’d do better.
Then there was Jack Kaufman. He was the junior pocket billiards champion of Maryland. He could run 30 or 40 balls straight, and do it with a rhythm and style that made even Belmondo look like a wuss.
Jack always wore a Frank Sinatra-type fedora hat when he played and he had a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. We could see his eyes fiercely focused, lining up his next shot.
There was no chit chat, although we did try to distract him as much as possible with stupid banter, trying to goad him into taking more difficult shots by challenging his manhood.
Something like, “A real man would shoot the nine ball.”
Unfazed, mumbling under his breath what sounded like "how'd you know what a real man looked like," Jack would calmly line up the right shot and sink it. No matter how many balls Jack would spot us, he always won. No, strike that. He crushed us.
I never knew what demons Jack was holding under such control. As I said, ours was not a generation of shared feelings. Yes, we were Jewish, but so is comedian Don Rickles. Or gangster Meyer Lansky, for that matter. And, yes, our fraternity had the highest academic standing on campus, but that just meant the brothers could devise more exquisite forms of psychological terror during "hell week," the last week of our pledging experience.
Once, for instance, they lined us up in two rows, blindfolded and facing each other, and told us that it was time to test our loyalty by peeing on the pledge brother facing you. Then they brought in balloons filled with warm water, pricked each of them with a pin and sprayed everyone.
Of course, there was always one sleep-deprived fool who fell for it and pissed all over a future “brother." Trust me, it wasn’t me, or I wouldn’t be telling this story. And it certainly wasn’t Jack.
This was a time long before depression was actually identified as a disease. We all lost friends to suicide.
Richard Wishnetsky took a gun to synagogue, killed the rabbi and then shot himself in front of the entire congregation.
Mike Gutterman, our fraternity’s greatest baseball player, tried out for the Mets, didn’t make it, then killed himself.
Jack got into heavy drugs. By the time he finished law school, he was mainlining heroin.
Over the years, we lost touch, but one day Bill Cohen called. He told me that Jack had had a stroke and was semi-paralyzed -- half his face, drooling, one arm withered, one leg useless.
Eventually, I got bits and pieces of information from a variety of sources that Jack’s wife, a saint, had helped him through major rehabilitation so that he could walk again, albeit with a cane. He couldn’t practice law, but became a social worker in New York.
It was said that Jack was famous for climbing numerous flights of stairs in city housing projects, one painful step after another to visit clients in their apartments. But this was just hearsay. I didn’t want to think of Jack in any way other than as I had remembered him – Mr. Cool, the pocket billiards champion.
Then, about five years ago, Bill Cohen organized a reunion of the fraternity members in Ann Arbor. Jack was invited, and he came.
There was no ignoring how much Jack had changed. He limped, and walked with a cane. His speech was good, but everything about him was slow.
One afternoon during the reunion, I took a walk with Bill and Jack. As we made our way along State Street, we passed in front of the Michigan Union and paused. Bill and I looked at each other.
"Come on, let’s shoot some pool for old times sake."
Jack said he hadn’t touched a cue since his stroke.
"Come on, " we said. "A real man would shoot some pool."
For the first time Jack took the bait. We walked into the pool hall and it was 1960 again.
I racked. Bill broke and ran a few balls. Jack’s turn. He could not hold the cue stick steady. His bad arm was shaking. He also was unable to hold the bridge, a metal piece of equipment at the end of a stick that is used for impossible positions.
We all referred to the bridge as the ladies aid. No self-respecting player used it. Now, we told Jack, "Use the ladies aid, you pussy."
"F**k you," he said.
He kept trying to shoot. Balls were going all over -- except in the pocket. Nonetheless, Bill and I were merciless, taunting him.
"C’mon you f**king cripple, shoot it. What are you waiting for?"
Jack was sweating, but it didn’t get any better. Bill and I crushed him.
After about an hour of total humiliation, we had had enough and left. Nobody said a word about the pool game.
When the reunion was over, I flew home to California. About a week later, a letter came in the mail. I could see from the envelope that it was from Jack’s wife. This can’t be good, I thought, as I opened it.
The first words, in big printed letters, were: "THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU."
From there, she explained that the reunion had been fantastic for Jack, that she had never seen him so happy since the stroke.
And then she wrote that she pressed him to tell her what was so great about it.
All he said over and over: “They treated me like a man.”
Roger Lowenstein is a trial lawyer, screen writer and founder of a social justice-themed leadership academy in California.