Posted by: Keir Graff
It’s not easy to found your own holiday.
One of my favorite books is McGoorty: The Story of a Billiard Bum, by Robert Byrne (Lyle Stuart, 1972). Danny McGoorty was an old-time, hard-drinking, unreconstructed billiards player–billiards, not pool, he would be sure to point out if he were still alive. Pool is a game played with nine to fifteen balls on a table with six pockets, while billiards is a game played with three balls on a table with no pockets. Billiards (or “three-cushion”) predates pool (which was dubbed “pocket billiards” only in an attempt to make it more respectable) and was once the more popular of the two. Nowadays, though billiards remains popular in Asia, Europe, and Latin America, it can be tough to find a table in the U.S.
(It’s a sad irony that later editions of McGoorty were subtitled A Pool Room Hustler, which, although technically correct–poolrooms once contained tables for both games, and sometimes even snooker–is still completely wrong.)
I love cue games and once chronicled my attempts to better my pool playing as a columnist for Billiards Digest. And, though I love the game for its fascinating and confounding physics, I was, like most people, first drawn to it by things that had nothing to do with how it’s played. I liked the way poolrooms tended to be dark, quiet rooms dotted by bright islands of green. I liked the sounds of the game, the click and roll of the balls, the slang of the old-timers. And of course, I was fascinated by its seedy reputation.
Robert Byrne met Danny McGoorty near the end of McGoorty’s life, talked him into telling his story, and wrote down the results. It’s a rollicking and completely unexpurgated journey through a byegone era. If anyone is ever fooled by sepia-toned photographs into thinking that the past was a more innocent time, they’ll change their minds after they read McGoorty. If anything, they’ll think that our society is much more prim and rulebound now.
About ten years ago, I got a first edition of McGoorty and read it straight through. So much did I want to identify with this unapologetic billiard bum that I decided to make every November 1–I now can’t even remember whether that was the day of his birth or his death, but I’m guessing the latter–a holiday: McGoorty Day. Every November 1, I decided, I would spend the entire day in a poolroom, drinking and playing pool. (Yes, it should have been billiards, but I had to draw the line of verisimilitude somewhere–also, I’m the worst three-cushion billiards player in the world.)
The problem with making the first day of the month your holiday is that you don’t notice it until you turn the calendar page over. And if you’re like me, you often don’t turn it over until a few days into the new month, at which point you’re left to slap your forehead and curse at the missed opportunity. Because you can’t celebrate McGoorty Day on November 3rd. It’s November 1st.
My problem with calendars is ongoing. And, of course, once I got a regular job, and then had kids–well, at this point I can barely remember how much fun McGoorty Day is. (Somewhere in between the Fourth of July and Festivus.) I only did it up right once or twice. After that, every year, I told myself, “Next year I’ll do it for sure.”
I wish I could report that this was the year I got my act together–or let it fall apart, depending on your point of view. I wish I could write that the reason I didn’t update the blog on Wednesday was that I was at Chris’s Billiards, running racks between sneaky pulls off my hip flask. Alas, I was here in the office, posting fresh November 1 content to Booklist Online.
But I refuse to take McGoorty Day off the calendar. Because one of these years, damn it, I’m going to observe it again. It’s never too late for a misspent youth.