A Jewish Story

    April 2011 Passover          
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The Great Pool Hall Caper

By Walter D. Levy

The sign over the door read: "If You're So Smart, Why Ain't You Rich." My mother would say, "It's no place for a mensch." It was dark. Even the walls seemed to sweat. The only sounds I remember hearing were billiard balls clacking against one another and bowling balls crashing into pins. It was: "The Pool Hall". "The Pool Hall" on Blue Hill Ave. in the Dorchester-Mattapan section of Boston, MA.

When I was a boy growing up in a multi-family apartment building, my friends and I would find entertainment wherever it presented itself: movies at the Morton or Oriental Theaters, roller skating at the Chez Vous, stickball or boxball in one of the nearby schoolyards, baseball and football at Norfolk Playground, or candlepin bowling at the Mattapan Bowladrome.

Yet, I remember that one summer day in the early 1950s my friends and I bowled at "The Pool Hall" (I believe the Mattapan Bowladrome was closed for renovations). Just as we had finished our first string, one of my buddies, a fellow named Mike, had asked if we wanted Cokes. Mike's generosity came as a complete surprise. I certainly wouldn't have ever called Mike a shnorer; yet, in all the years I had known him, I couldn't remember a single time that he bought us "tonics" (sodas). Nonetheless, I recall saying, "Sure Mike, thanks." I would soon learn why Mike had suddenly become so generous.

Inside the bowling-alley portion of the "Pool Hall" was this Coke-machine. It wasn't one of those modern-day, well-lit vending devices that stands vertically against the wall. Instead, it resembled a cooler -- albeit a very large one -- that you might have taken on picnics. First, you would put a coin (in those days, a nickel) into a slot in the machine; then, you'd open the lid and the machine would dispense the soft drink. Only in this case, Mike had found a way to "defeat" the machine. It had to do with keeping the dispensing device open so that not just one Coke — but several (all on one coin) -- would leave the machine.

Well, at that moment, we all felt like big machers swigging on our Cokes and comparing our bowling scores. I might mention that — through all this — no one, not the proprietor, nor any of the other patrons, had noticed Mike's "Coke Caper."

After we had finished our three strings of bowling, we headed home. We were giggling and chuckling as we thought about the free Cokes we had consumed.

When I got back home, my mother asked me how my bowling went. I said it was great and that we'd even had Cokes. "Cokes," my mother said with a note of astonishment in her voice. She then said, "I thought I gave you only enough money to bowl three strings and rent bowling shoes." (In hindsight, my mother would have made a great corporate "bean counter"). Well, at first, I thought about making up a story, but, in the end, I couldn't. You see my mother had this pet Yiddish expression: A ligner dark hoben a guten zakhron [If you lie, you'd better have a good memory]. Well, I went on to tell my mother how Mike had "tricked" the machine into dispensing free Cokes. At that moment, I could see my mother's anger building.

Well, seconds later, my mother starts off on this Yiddish rant. I'll call it what it was: a conniption (when my mother was upset, she often spoke Yiddish in a hurried voice). In this case, she's saying: gonif, gazlen, shandeh and finally, ganaivishe shtikeleh. Then, she starts lecturing me on how this businessman who owns the pool hall had paid for the Cokes, and how my friends and I had cheated (I think she actually used the word "swindled") him out of his rightful profit. She then added that even though I hadn't stolen the Cokes, I was an "accessory" (At this point, I might mention that my mother never went to college, but you would have thought that she had earned a law degree). She then asked, "How many Cokes did you have?" I said,"Two, Ma."

Then, in a flash, my mother begins heading out the door. Before she left, I asked, "Ma, where are you going?" My mother replied, "The Pool Hall." Over the next half-hour, my mother walked about a half-mile down Morton Street to Blue Hill Ave., and then back. When she returned, she told me that she had given the "Pool Hall" proprietor a dime for my two Cokes. She went on to say that she felt relieved that she had paid the man. She then mentioned something about "a clear conscience being like a soft pillow." My mother then added, "Velvle, always remember: "Zolst Nit Ganvenen!" ["Thou Shalt Not Steal!"].

Oh, as for my friend Mike, the one who stole the Cokes. Well, I haven't seen him in years. Yet, one my friends recently told me that he's been very successful. I remember asking, "What's Mike been doing?" My friend replied, "He's a mechanical engineer."


from the April 2011 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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