“At times funny, occasionally filthy, here and there exaggerated, but it’s an entertaining story of a guy who doesn’t try to pass himself off as any sort of giant at the table: just a fellow who loved the game.” —Willie Mosconi, nineteen-time World Straight Pool champion
McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustlerby Robert Byrne
The Broadway Books Library of Larceny
Luc Sante, General Editor
McGoorty is master billiards writer Robert Byrne’s racy account of the life of Danny McGoorty, a billiards champion of that bygone era when cue artists were often scam artists and pool rooms were held to be dens of iniquity. Hustler and hobo, womanizer and fashion plate,/i>/b>
The Broadway Books Library of Larceny
Luc Sante, General Editor
McGoorty is master billiards writer Robert Byrne’s racy account of the life of Danny McGoorty, a billiards champion of that bygone era when cue artists were often scam artists and pool rooms were held to be dens of iniquity. Hustler and hobo, womanizer and fashion plate, McGoorty was at once eyewitness to Capone’s Chicago and the feats of greats like Willie Hoppe and Willie Mosconi. In an all-American voice at once sarcastic, profane, humorous, and chock full of colorful lingo, he relates his colorful and seedy life and times with a unique style and brio.
Read an Excerpt
Choosing a Career
If you think the Chicago cops are bad now, you should have seen them in the 1920's . . . my God, nobody was safe! They used to follow me all around the Loop, back and forth across the streets, in and out of restaurants. Into pool halls they followed me, right into the toilets. "Let's see your identification. Where do you work? Why not? Where do you live? How much money you got on you?" If I had a five-dollar bill I would have to fork it over to keep from getting thrown in the bucket for vagrancy. Then the next day those red-faced pricks would nail me again.
What bothered them about me was that I had no job and showed no signs of wanting to get one. They just could not stand the idea of a young man like me not having a job, and they weren't the only ones-my aunts were riding me about it, too. I was living with my aunts Margaret and Kate because they didn't charge me any rent and because they were good cover. When I told the cops I lived with two square apples in a nice residential neighborhood they figured I must be at least some kind of half-ass family man.
For a couple of years I had my aunts believing that I was spending all my time looking for work. They even gave me carfare and lunch money to make it easier. But they smartened up finally and told me I had to get a job and quit making excuses. They were not going to keep on supporting me, they said, if I was idling instead of choosing a career.
Pool hustler, that's the career I was choosing, although I didn't think of it that way at the time. All I knew was that playing pool was the only thing I liked to do. Day and night I studied the top Chicago players, watched how they controlled the cueball, how they played defense, how they hustled babies like me. There was money being made, a lot of money, and I was sure I could get good enough to get my share if I worked at it. I kept my eyes and ears wide open and I practiced every day until my arm was like lead. I don't call that idling.
As far back as I can remember I have been fascinated by pool and billiards. As a kid in San Francisco I used to skip school a week at a time and do nothing but stare through the windows of pool halls. What I saw was paradise: guys who didn't have to wear knickers, who played pool all the time, laughing and gambling and bullshitting. There was a Greek joint on Kearny Street that I liked because I could sometimes sneak in and take a few shots-this was in about 1916, when I was only fifteen years old. Usually before I had time to chalk my cue the chief Greek had me by the ass of the pants and was slinging me through the door. I can still feel myself getting hoisted by the crotch and run across the floor on my tiptoes. In a year's time I gave that Greek a hell of a workout. He finally said I could stay, but only if I was with my father. My father had left the picture years before-he just walked out, my mother said-so I had to spend my school lunch money to hire one, which was no problem. Every pool hall had practically a regular staff of old geezers sitting around soaking up the heat, and whenever I showed up with change jingling in my pocket a dozen of them got to their feet and volunteered to be dad.
I lived with my mother in those days, a fine-looking woman with brown hair that hung clear down past her keester. She was on the road a lot, peddling a line of foot powder and stockings, but when she was in town she did her best to raise me right. She took me to the opera about nineteen thousand times on the theory that it would make me more refined. Even when I was real little she dragged me down the aisle of that fucking opera house to hear a bunch of Italians holler stuff neither of us could understand. Afterwards she always took me to a beer garden on Powell Street and made me dance with her. I squawked like hell about learning how to dance. I didn't realize how much help it would be to me later with the broads.
As far as broads were concerned, I was seventeen years old before I was able to get my finger damp enough to turn a page. Once I got started, though, I became quite the little cocksman. It was the pelvis bumping, in fact, and not the pool playing that finished me with my mother. She found a rubber in my pocket one day and that was the end of it. She said she was on the road too much to keep an eye on me and that she was going to have to send me to Chicago to live with my aunts, who could give me a proper home life. Jesus Christ, that was a terrible mistake from her point of view. San Francisco was like kindergarten compared to Chicago. I don't know what my mother should have done, but sending me to Chicago was not it.
When my aunts told me I had to get a job I surprised them by getting a dozen right off the bat, but I didn't last long on any of them because the pay was so lousy. I usually did all right until I saw the first paycheck, then I would tell everybody off. "You mean this is all I get for hanging around here since Tuesday? Why, I can make more than this out picking shit with the chickens." If I didn't get canned then, I would after calling in sick a few times from pool halls.
I have always hated working. A job to me is . . . well, it's an invasion of privacy. Getting blasted out of bed by an alarm clock so you can go somewhere and do things you don't want to do, that's not my idea of living. Assembling parts and selling soda pop and delivering packages made me feel like a goddam dummy.
My aunts got so fed up they called in an expert, a cousin of mine who was a police captain. He considered himself a champion at choosing careers for people, and I have to admit that with him on the scene I got a better class of job. He knew how to pull strings. It was his idea that I would be much steadier if I worked for the city. All he had to do was make one phone call and I was on the payroll. He called somebody in the Traffic Bureau, which ran the streetcars, buses, and elevated trains.
"I'm sending a relative of mine over," he said. "He starts tomorrow."
Before I was through I worked in every department the Traffic Bureau had. I collected nickels on the ass-end of streetcars, I closed air-powered doors on people in train stations, and I drove a bus through every red light between Jackson and State in the Loop and Devon Avenue, which is 6500 north. I needed a chauffeur's license to be a bus driver, but I didn't have to take a test or anything-my cousin just wrote one out for me. I drove that bus for fourteen months, which is the longest I have ever stayed on one job in my entire life. The reason I was such a faithful employee was that I wore a uniform and some broad told me I looked cute in it.
But all those city jobs interfered too much with my billiard playing, so I moved into another area of transportation: cab driving. Whenever I got hard up for money I went to work for one of the cab companies, starting with Red Top and going through Premier, Yellow, and Checker. Shamrock Eakin, one of my pals from those years, got to calling me Transportation Dan, a name that stuck with me for a long time because it took me quite a while to go through all the cab companies in town.
As a cab driver I was a good competitor. I fought hard, crashed fenders to get to the hotel doorman first, and got my nose busted by other cabbies more than once. The main thing I didn't like about it was the worry about getting robbed or mugged. One night at 43rd and Cottage Grove I picked up a guy who gave me an address that as near as I could figure was an empty lot next to a railroad bridge. Well, I thought to myself, it is going to be a heist. I am going to be heisted at last. As we went along I slipped my big bills real slow into my shoes and under the seat, trying not to move my shoulders or my head. With my foot I slid the jack handle across the floor to where I could grab it fast if I had to. For all I knew he had a gun on me all the time. When we got to the address I pulled over to the curb and said, "Will this be good enough, sir?" It was pitch black, but there were some lights about half a block away.
"Yeah," he said, "this is perfect."
I rang the meter and tore off the ticket that showed the fare-eighty-five cents-and handed it back to him. Instead of slipping me some cold steel he gave me a bill and got out of the cab. As he walked away I turned on my spotlight to see what I had in my hand. It was a sawbuck-a ten. How do you like that? I thought it was a heist and I wound up making $9.15 on the deal.
A lot of my customers asked me to find them a girl. When I heard that, I drove out to the Rex, or Capone's joint, the Four Deuces. The cabbie always got forty percent of whatever the guy spent. You took the guy up to the front door as if you had to introduce him to the bouncer. "This is my cousin Joe from Kokomo. Fix him up." The reason you walked to the door was so the bouncer could get the number off your cap. Next time you showed up he paid you off. They were very fair about paying off because they wanted the cabbies bird dogging for them.
The most fantastic thing in the world happened to me one night when I was driving a cab. A very sharp-looking uppercrust broad hailed me on 47th Street. She was wearing a squirrel-skin coat with tassels on the bottom that touched the ground, and under that she had on a shiny evening gown. Strictly class.
"Go over 47th," she said, so I did. At about Wentworth she said, "Turn left here." It was a dark street and I had to cut the speed way down. In the middle of the block, where there was no streetlight, she told me to stop. I was getting a little worried, because some of the broads were heisters, too. Soon as I pulled over she put her hand on my shoulder. "Why don't you come back here and have a smoke with me?" she said.
I left the meter running and got in the back seat. I sat next to her and nobody said a word. Then all of a sudden I'll be a sonofabitch if she didn't go down on me and start blowing my wazzle. She didn't do it to beat the fare, either, because when I let her out on Halsted later she paid me in full. It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. I climbed into the back seat and sat next to her without making any kind of a move. She puffed away on a cigarette for about a minute, then she said, "Well, I might as well try it," and started unbuttoning me. I didn't give her any help at all and she had quite a bit of trouble. There were no zippers in those days. Zippers came in a lot later. People don't realize that. An odd thing about this dame was that she really didn't know how to blow a wazzle. She was no professional at it, that's for sure. She was just getting even with some guy or getting ready for him.
The minute I was free I made a beeline for the nearest cab station. There used to be at least two hundred cab stations in Chicago, little offices with a call box where you could go in and get warm and spit on the stove. When I got there I counted eleven cabs ahead of me, but after the boys heard what had happened to me they moved me to the head of the line. They enjoyed the story so much they made me first out.
If things like that happened every night I would probably still be a cab driver today, but usually the job was pretty boring. You could make good money if you put in the hours, but I took too much time off. The green felt. I would practically double-park my cab on Randolph Street to play billiards. The green felt cost me every job I ever had.
One thing has always puzzled me. Why do people feel so bad when they lose a job? It made me feel happy as hell, and I always celebrated with a few drinks. When you get a job, that's when you should have the long face. You need a few drinks then, too.
My aunts gave up on me finally and kicked me out, just as my mother had before them. I didn't care. I couldn't stay sober and I couldn't keep a job, but I had improved so much as a pool player that I could make almost as much hustling as I could working. I moved into a cheap hotel. I can remember waking up there one afternoon with a terrific hangover. I stared at the ceiling for a long time, and then I said to myself, "McGoorty, what you have turned out to be is a two-bit, drunken pool hustler." That didn't depress me at all. Listen, I was glad to have a profession.
Meet the Author
ROBERT BYRNE is a bestselling author on billiards history, has appeared in countless instructional tapes, and was named best writer by Billiards Digest.
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