Thursday, February 17, 2005

Rack 'Em Up

Hop into my time machine with me, if you will. We’re going back to late 1999, a time when I was still reeling from Andriy’s return to Ukraine, a time when I was still attending the University of Minnesota and starting in the elite business program, and entering my third year of employment at NABABNA. I had already been going to Bugs, that around-the-corner pool hall I used as part of my identity for so long, yet I had not been a “regular” until this year.

Bugs was a small, hole-in-the-wall establishment. There were only 11 tables in the place, four "bar boxes", four eight-footers, and three nine-footers. The lighting was minimal, the place still held commercialism back, refusing to decorate the walls with neon and refusing to light the tables with fluorescent fixtures. Bugs had the distinct smell associated with bars, you know, the thick cover of cigarette smoke. It didn't matter how many filters the place used, it always smelled of stale cigarettes.

My first impression of Bugs took me aback. The place was the exact type of pool hall I imagined. There are other establishments advertised for their billiards in the Twin Cities, yet Bugs had the feel of a well-kept hall that hadn’t been sold out to corporate America. The crowd was older and it was not the meat market I saw at other pool halls. The people coming to Bugs actually enjoyed playing the sport. They didn’t use the sport as an excuse to check out other patrons.

Music always played through the speakers in each room of Bugs. The jukebox held 100 CDs and still provides the main source of income for the owners. The younger kids, the ones who were not a part of the "Regulars" made sure that Steve Miller's "The Joker" played on that machine at least 8 times an evening. The other overplayed songs of the time made their rounds. Certain Prince (you know, that artist formerly known as a symbol) songs were played only after the owner left for the night. The Santa-looking man was not a fan of "Pussy Control" or "Sexy Motherfucker."

Underlying the music, there were always sounds of someone breaking a fresh rack or the hoots and hollers of a kid who just ran the table clean. And at the counter, you could find the regulars. You could hear them laughing and smiling.

The regulars were a group of fascinating characters. The group always compared itself to the TV show, "Cheers". Everyone knew their names. There was the sassy, yet "fun" woman leading the group, Michelle. Bob held the position of being the funnyman. He would get everyone laughing each night, telling jokes that won't be repeated unless they are inside Bugs. Mouse hung in the back, usually walking through the door in a cloud of cologne, trying to hide the smell of his habit that everyone knew. Uncle Ga-ga would arrive with a smile on his face, get his soda, and then tease the other regulars, sometimes stepping over the lines of decency. Mr. Clean, a result of massive inbreeding, would try to disgust everyone out each night by licking his eyebrows. AJ and Aron would arrive; they were the youngest of the regulars. Focusing more on their love of pool, they would usually grab the bar box right up front and start up games of poker pool for quarters. Susan would show up and the men would fall over her because she had the best "rack" in the joint. On the sidelines, other regulars would appear and disappear. Mikey, Jessie, Dennis, and Terri held honorary places at the counter. Big Dee would show up occasionally. He'd stop and say hello, then he'd find his way to the back by the video games.

And then there was me. I was eighteen when I started hanging out at Bugs, yet it wasn’t until I was twenty (almost twenty-one) that the crowd started to “know my name”. The attendants behind the counter knew what name I put on the table, but I was just a regular customer. In the late summer of 1999, I entered the realm of the accepted regulars and held my place within that clique until May of 2001. Putting the time into perspective makes it seem short. It’s strange really. I think back on that time as a huge period of my life. It was a transition; it was a time of finding myself.

I fell in love with the atmosphere of Bugs the first time I walked into the place with Harry (the jerk). It was my ideal pool hall, the place where I felt I could learn how to actually play the sport and I could act older, not younger. The fancy, neon light filled halls around my home never appealed to me. Sure, I enjoyed playing the game, but I didn’t enjoy having to act like a teenager. I never did like being a teenager. My dad even says that I never truly was one. I went from being a little kid to being an adult. Immaturity in my friends annoyed me and I was always cast as the leader of a group, trying to get my friends to have fun without getting into trouble. I liked the fact that at Bugs I could get into a pick-up game of pool. It was a place where one person could go and not feel out of place. You didn’t have to have friends with to grab a table and play.

After Harry and I stopped seeing each other (or I stopped answering his calls and requests to purchase lewd materials in downtown – what a prick), I still went to Bugs. Sometimes I would call up Charlie and we’d go there. The place was close enough to make it there quickly and easily, but far enough away from our high school that we didn’t run into those we didn’t want to see. When Andriy visited our home, I took him to Bugs. I enjoyed the games of pool; he enjoyed the fact he could actually smoke indoors somewhere in America. I had a couple of other friends from high school that I’d call up and invite them out for a game or two.

One night, in August of 1999, I went up to Bugs with a friend I knew since our high school bowling days. It’s someone I don’t correspond with anymore, but I remember going up there with her because we both loved to play pool. A guy I had a minor interaction with was there that night and it was a strange situation. Looking back, the situation with the guy was so idiotic (it’s not even funny or note-worthy enough to write about and he’s not one of the guys in the Dating 101 section), but it was a door opener. After his group left, my friend and I went up to the counter and started talking to Big D. Big D had been working that night and it was getting late. The place would be closing at 2 AM (back when bars only stayed open until 1, but the pool hall could stay open later). Big D started telling us stories and we started talking to him (at first it was to gain knowledge about that guy, but then that was pointless). Bugs was less than 10 minutes from my home and I didn’t park my car in the driveway until 4:15 AM that morning.

My friend and I started going up to Bugs more than once a week. I started to meet the regulars I had always seen hanging out at the counter. Quickly I was able to walk in and strike up conversation with any of the regulars. The branch of NABABNA that I worked at was right next door to Bugs and I would swing by after work for a pick-up game or two. My friend stopped visiting the establishment after a couple of months, she never kept her focus on any one person or place. She found a new boy-toy and he was more interested in different pastimes, yet I remained as a regular at Bugs. I had new friends.

That sounds terrible, yet it is what happened. I felt included and I felt adult being part of a crowd that was older. I had turned twenty-one and it felt good to be with others that could go to different bars. Our group never frequented the different bars in the area, but we could. It was natural for me to start going to Bugs each night after work. The days I didn’t work, I could be found at Bugs. I am not exaggerating in the slightest to say that I spent more time inside that hole-in-the-wall than I did anywhere else, and I slept at home. I helped close the place each night of the week. I would jump in and help the person closing with certain duties (like brushing tables, cleaning ashtrays, etc). On Friday and Saturday nights, I would help fill in as a “bouncer”. I was never tough, but I was fearless when it came to kicking drunken teenagers out.

For two years, I held a part-time job at Bugs. On Friday nights, I would work a mid-shift, helping to run the counter during the busy hours. I also worked there on Sunday afternoons in the winter. I was paid cash and it wasn’t much, but the discount I got on playing pool was worth the job. Plus, I was there anyway.

I was leaving for work the day my parents told me they were getting divorced. The people at Bugs were the first I spoke to about it. I started spending even more time there. Avoidance was my coping mechanism. Right after my parent’s divorce, I applied for a job at the call center of NABABNA. I got the job and I started working nights. I would swing by Bugs before work and then head back there as soon as my shift ended. I will admit I stopped going to as many classes because I wanted to be with my “crowd”. I had friends at college who would comment that I had found my “hang-out”. A couple of them were jealous that I had a place. And it was my place. Sometimes I miss being one of the regulars at Bugs (the story about why I stopped going there is for another night). It was a good place for me to go during a time of my life where many things changed. It was a transition.

Big D used to comment that I didn’t fit the typical description of a regular. I didn’t do drugs. I had a steady job with a corporation. I didn’t dress in ripped jeans and cut-off T-shirts. And as much as I tried to be classy, there was always a part of me that wanted to be a regular. I wanted to be part of a group that was real. I was a part of the group for a period of time and the question, “Was it real?” still lingers in my mind. As time passed, I saw more superficiality in the “crew”, but there are glimmers of memories in my mind.

My time at Bugs is a period of my life I have not written a ton about on this blog. I think it is time for me to start revisiting some of the stories. I hope to clear my mind and find what I want to remember about the place. I promise more stories in the next few weeks. My hopes about this post are that it helps set the tone for these stories. The backdrop if you will.

I have many memories of the crew. For those who have heard some of these stories before, where should I start?