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Thursday, July 18

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A couple Sundays ago my husband and I played pool, something I haven't done in years. I'd been invited to an appreciation party for volunteers of the Old Town School of Folk Music, a Chicago institution that recently celebrated it's 50th anniversary. I've never attended an OTSFM volunteer party, but this one took place about two blocks from my house, in an old pool hall named Marie's Golden Cue. I've been a volunteer at Old Town for about three years off and on, depending on how busy I am at work and how high my tolerance for crowds and strangers is. I'm a secret agorophobe, so having to help strangers find their seat in a concert hall or selling artist merchandise to crowds of people waving 20 dollar bills at me can sometimes be terrifying. On the other hand I'm also a secret extrovert; I sometimes like to pretend that I'm in a rock and roll band, and I enjoy the questionable authority that comes from wearing a name tag that says "Volunteer."

Volunteering at Old Town, besides being a nice thing to do for a great institution, has its benefits. If you volunteer at a concert, you get to see most of it for free. I was introduced to the music of Alejandro Escovedo through volunteering a couple years ago, and I got to see Tinariwen and Mamadou Diabate last fall, which was amazing. There's also a system of points that you earn through volunteering, and after accumulating enough you can register for a free class; I've taken a few guitar and dance classes this way.

Volunteering can be fun — if you're at the right concert, and work with a good group of volunteers, it's not a bad way to spend an evening. It can also be quite taxing, as I discovered when I made the mistake of volunteering for teen open mic night. I spent the evening sitting at a card table next to an angry, barrel shaped man who yelled at the kids like they were delinquents. I kept my nose in a book to avoid conversation, but he wanted to know what I was reading — The Story of French, a fascinating book by Jean Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow — but just knowing the title wasn't enough. The angry man gave me his opinion of the French judicial system, denounced the Napoleonic code as barbaric, and put me on the defensive for a civil code that was written 167 years before I was born, in a country I've never lived in. I went home exhausted. I'm pretty sure that was the last time I volunteered at Old Town.

My only experience of Marie's Golden Cue up to now had been as my polling place. I've cast my vote within its walls in every election since I moved to this neighborhood, and it tickles me that the site of my civic duty occasionally sports lettering on their 1950s era marquee sign spelling out things like, "We have the strongest shafts and the smoothest balls."

Marie's Golden Cue is located in a 1930s deco storefront with glossy white terra cotta tiles. Across the street is a funeral home, and one door over is the El Gallo Carniceria y Fruteria, and the Clothespin Laundromat bearing a sign that reads, "Open at 6am only for you." Gentrification hasn't quite made it to this block of Chicago, although it has touched just a few blocks north in the form of Starbucks, and in the countless condos that have sprung up in recent years. The picture window is hand painted with the words "Cue Stick Repair Shop, Professional Workmanship," and if pool isn't your game, there are a handful of video games and a coin operated claw machine at the front to keep you busy.

Although Chicago is now officially smoke free, there's plenty of evidence of Marie's smoky past — beneath the rails of each of her 20 Brunswick pool tables are dark burn marks from cigarettes smoked long ago. I took a moment to read the signage on the walls, and there was plenty of it; fading signs written in pre-Helvetica script with directives like "Masse shots are not allowed," "rule of the house — keep your butt and your butts off the table" and "I once gave up pool, it was the most terrifying weekend of my life."

The front desk featured a hot dog spit slowly spinning three wrinkled franks; it was the best lit object in the whole place. The spinning mechanism moved in starts, resting every few seconds, then soldiering on for another cycle. Behind the desk and out of reach on a back shelf were boxes of instant ramen noodles in Styrofoam bowls. Like the rest of the house, there was plenty of signage. A caricature of a chef beamed next to one that read "Snack Bar Special #1 — 2 Hot Dogs, Chips, Sm. Drink $4.50 plus tax." The price had been written in black marker on a sheet of 8x10 paper and taped over the original price. There was also a Snack Bar Special #2, which advertised "Polish Sausage, Chips, Sm. Drink $4.25 plus tax."

My fellow volunteers were scattered about the room, some huddled against the wall in observation, others enjoying a slice of free pizza and a dixie cup of soda near the video games, and some playing lighthearted games of pool with each other. My husband picked up a rack from the front desk, brought a couple of cue sticks down from the wall, and a switch was flipped to lit up our table.

My husband set up the balls and made the break. It had been a while since either of us had played, so it took a few turns before either of us sank one; he took stripes, I had solids. Leaning over the table to get my shot I was transported to a different game played years ago, in a pool hall on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. I don't remember how old I was exactly — 19, maybe 20 — and I was home for the summer. It had been a few years since I'd lived in Brooklyn; my mother and I had moved to Pelham — a suburb just north of the Bronx — right after I finished junior high because my mother was engaged to a widowed Catholic man she met at work, and he lived in Pelham with his four children. We moved to a nondescript two bedroom apartment on the other side of town rather than move into his house — he didn't want to live with my mother before they were married. They broke it off before the end of the school year, but we couldn't move back right away because my mother had rented out our brownstone, so I went to boarding school in Poughkeepsie for the remainder of high school.

Ninth grade is a fragile time to move, and I lost touch with everyone I'd known in Brooklyn. We moved just a few miles away, but may as well have moved across the country. My mother recently sent me a few boxes of my old things, and I found an autograph book with signatures of classmates from the end of junior high at I.S. 88.

"To J," one begins, "I really had some fun with you, don't tell my mom. Do not allow weeds to grow on the road to friendship. I love you. Love, Gabby 24 E. 2nd St." Folded in half along the crease of the page is a late pass dated 6-20-85 for Gabriella Napolitano, she was late for Mr. Neilson's language arts class. Everything on the slip is written in pencil, in Gabby's handwriting, except for the time — 9:32 am, written in ink in Mr. Neilson's handwriting.

There are signatures of the popular girls I idolized — the two Francescas, Amanda, and Abby — whose real name was Almond. Someone named Simon wrote "I already wrote something in the other one," and Adam Ableman wrote "I hope you have a dandy time in Pelham with all them goyem."

My best friend Anna wrote "Dear J, Well it's been 4 years that we've known each other. God! Now we're both going to H.S. It's going to be hard for the both of us regardless of what town we're in. But look at the good side — no more Mr. Ashkar or Mme. Winkler! Yeah! So let's keep in touch. Love, Anna." In the corner in all caps she wrote "ONLY WIERDOS READ CORNERS." We'd first met in the fourth grade at the local temple's after-school gymnastics program; we were both latchkey kids and needed a place to go after school before our mothers came home from work.

By the seventh grade she'd blossomed into the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen in real life. While I had become more awkward over time — I'd gotten a pair of pink plastic-framed glasses in the fifth grade, and braces in the sixth — she'd become lithe and elegant. She went to modeling classes where an instructor taught her how to tweeze her eyebrows, started wearing makeup to school, and blow drying her dark blonde hair. I felt possessive of her, and intensely jealous as all the boys who'd previously ignored us flocked to her, almost helplessly, while I remained in the background with my mass of frizzy hair and lack of social skills. I wasn't with her when the photographer took pictures for her portfolio; I only saw the slides later. Here, a picture of Anna posing coyly on a park bench, there a picture of Anna leaning against a tree. When I saw her kissing Nico outside the candy store on 16th street where we played Pac-Man and hung out after school, it was as if I'd been stung by an electric eel. Nico was my lab science partner, and I'd developed a monster crush on him. With tears in my eyes I asked Anna why she'd kissed him — as if she could give me a reason that I'd find acceptable.

In the eighth grade she started dating Drew, a kid from the neighborhood. He was older than us, probably only by a couple years, but he seemed like a grown man to me. One night we all hung out in Prospect Park with two 40 ounce bottles of Olde English 800 that Anna and I had bought from a corner store, the clerk didn't even ask to see our I.D. Drew's friend Stan was there, and Anna had said that Stan liked me. Where Drew was tall and mysterious, a man of few words, Stan was a little thick around the middle, wore Cazal glasses like D.M.C., and talked a mile a minute. We drank too much, and Stan offered to walk me home. Anna took me aside and whispered, "Don't let him take advantage of you!" She was kidding, but I was terrified. I'd never gotten drunk before, and had heard about boys who took advantage of situations like this. I practically ran home, looking over my shoulder every few paces to make sure I wasn't being followed. When I got home I threw up, lay down on my bed, and watched the ceiling spin until I fell asleep. A few months later my mother and I moved to Pelham.

The summer when I came back, I ran into them again — Anna, Drew and Stan. Anna and Drew weren't dating anymore, and the four of us began spending evenings on the stoop of my mother's brownstone. It was deep summer, too hot to stay inside. My bedroom was on the top floor of the house, and at night I'd put a fan in each window — one facing out, the other facing in, for maximum air flow, and took a quick shower to cool off before trying to sleep through the sticky Brooklyn night. Gradually it became clear that Drew had become interested in me. My years away had given me the advantage of disappearing for most of my awkward phase, and I had returned appearing more comfortable in my own skin. I wore contact lenses, the braces had been removed from my teeth, and I had figured out how to tame my frizzy hair.

One evening someone suggested a game of pool, so we all headed for Brownstone Billiards on the corner of Flatbush and 7th Avenue. Drew was wearing a purple silk shirt that made his plum black skin look iridescent under the streetlamps, and when he looked at me I felt like I'd been hit in the chest with a bb gun.

It was a weeknight, and not many tables were in use. I didn't know how to play, so Drew taught me how to line up a shot, standing close to me and reaching around my waist to adjust the cue stick in my hand.

"You gotta line up the shot," he said, his breath tickling my ear, "and then follow through." I was entranced.

It was still early when we finished playing, so we walked back to my mother's house and sat in the kitchen, sipped ginger ale and traded stories. After a while Anna left, and then Stan, and it was just me and Drew. We talked, leaning forward on our elbows, faces getting ever closer.

"Can I kiss you?" Drew asked, looking right into my eyes. At 19 years old I had kissed exactly four boys: Dan, the Jewish kid from the suburbs of Philadelphia who I met at summer camp; Paul, the boy from Pelham High School who tricked me into kissing him one day when he walked me home — I avoided him for the rest of the school year; Mick, the troubled kid who I met in upstate New York at a Quaker youth retreat; and Mark, my high school sweetheart, who was the most non-threatening boy you could ever hope for. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this moment.

"No," I said, surprising us both. "But ask me again sometime."

After that I got a job, so I couldn't hang out as much. I remained awkward, Drew remained mysterious, and eventually the summer ended. The moment passed.

Back at Marie's, I won a game and lost two. There were cardboard boxes full of t-shirts that had a drawing of a guitar and a banjo leaning against each other, and the word "Volunteer" printed in capital letters underneath; if you won a game, you got to take a t-shirt. My husband didn't want one but I did, so I sifted through the pile until I found one in my size in a mustard orange color. We left the pool hall, walked home in the unseasonably cool weather, and settled in for the evening.


About the Author(s) Palmer is a secret writer who works an office job, and has lived in Chicago since 1992.

Photos by Paul Goyette.

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