It’s been three decades since Waterdog disappeared into the neon wilderness of all-night poolrooms. He was 15 years old, a kid hustler from Connecticut carrying nothing but a cue stick and a bus ticket. In the late 1960s there was action in every town and even a skilled teenager could make money on the road. In Norfolk, Waterdog hustled sailors for $30 a rack. In Albany he shot against men who’d traded their identities for pool-hall handles like Boston Joey, Popcorn, Charlie Mumbles, or the Connecticut Kid.
“Everything was gambling then,” Waterdog says. “If you went into a poolroom and you were looking for action, that meant you were looking for a game with some money. The poolroom was oriented around that type of an atmosphere.”
Tony Annigoni, the west-coast hustler made famous in the 1996 book Playing Off the Rail, first ran into Waterdog out in San Mateo, California. They were both 19 and cocky.
“I’d just finished beating this sucker out of $200,” Annigoni remembers. “Waterdog asked me to play, and the guy never missed a ball. I’d never seen an exhibition of pool like that. He could have been one of the top 30 players in the world.”
That year Waterdog was on the road with a buddy named Billy Teeter. They’d met in LA and decided to head up Highway 5 to the Bay Area, where no one knew the longhaired kid who could sink five straight racks. Living out of Teeter’s trailer, they were scoring $500 a night in the rooms of Alameda, an action town on an island in San Francisco Bay.
“He played a good speed,” says Teeter, who has retired from hustling and owns a sports bar in Vallejo, California. “He played better than I did. He was kind of flamboyant, he was funny, he would laugh. He took pool kind of seriously.”
Teeter still has a portrait he snapped of Waterdog flapping his arms like a chicken. The expression on his face shows “there was something fun in him,” Teeter says. “He was alive.”
That picture was taken in the summer of 1973. By the end of the year, Waterdog was a junkie.
The Lincoln Town Car with the crumpled trunk is parked in a repair-shop lot next to Chris’s Billiards, a Minnesota Fats-era poolroom on Milwaukee near Wilson. It’s a giant step down from the flophouse rooms that Waterdog is used to inhabiting, but it’s been his home since the spring. His day begins in the timeless darkness before sunrise, when he wriggles out of his sleeping bag and limps two blocks up the street to Dunkin’ Donuts, dragging his stiff, arthritic leg along the sidewalk. After coffee and a sinker, he takes the el downtown to a methadone clinic on LaSalle Street, where a nurse melts two wafers in a cup for him. Then he hangs out in the pool hall all afternoon, shooting endless racks of straight pool by himself, sinking 80, 90 balls without missing. When he’s tired he’ll sit in one of the tall chairs by the snooker table and nod to sleep while a cigarette wastes away in his chalk-stained hand. On a decent day, he’ll meet an egg he can play for a few dollars a game at nine ball or three-cushion billiards. That’ll earn him 20 or 30 bucks, just what he needs to stay alive until the next day.
“It’s enough to eat, go to the methadone clinic, go to Dunkin’ Donuts,” he explains. “It all adds up. The other day, I beat a guy out of $24 playing $3 a game. After I beat him out of eight games, he quit. I had to pay $3 for the time, so I ended up clearing $21.”
Chris’s Billiards is Chicago’s last great action spot, a 46-table room at the summit of a tall, dim flight of stairs. Paul Newman and Tom Cruise filmed scenes from The Color of Money here, and stills of the stars form a rising gallery along the stairwell. There are big-money games all the time, with hustlers shooting it out for up to $500 a rack. Some of the regulars remember the night, eight or nine years ago, when Waterdog beat a crew of gypsies out of five grand in one session. The gypsies played him because “quite frankly, he looked homeless,” says Ed Young, a custom cue maker. But Waterdog still had his stroke then.
“First time you hear about Waterdog, he’d walk into the room like a gunslinger,” Young says. “People would point at him and say ‘That’s Waterdog.’ There was a time, years ago, you mentioned the guy’s name, nobody wanted to play him. He’s supposed to beat all these guys playing his best, but a lot of the stakehorses won’t back him because he’s on heroin.”
Eric Rosen bought Chris’s three years ago. Waterdog came with the joint. Out of reverence for the talent that once inhabited Waterdog’s scarred arms, Rosen gives him free food and discounts on cigarettes. Waterdog has been living in poolrooms most of his life, and at 46 there’s nowhere else to go, so Rosen tolerates him and even takes his phone messages.
Rosen has watched Waterdog’s stroke decline. It’s faltered seriously in the last six months, since Waterdog was kicked off a methadone program for missing payments and meetings and returned to heroin. Some days this summer he wandered into Chris’s so high he could barely stand up, says Rosen.
Waterdog gives $30 lessons in the poolroom. In October one of his pupils paid to get him into a new methadone program, and so far he’s stuck with it. But the mark of hard living hasn’t been washed away. Waterdog has the worn, defeated look of a sharecropper in a Walker Evans photograph. The top of his head is broad and bare, with slicked-down wisps of hair that thicken into an old hippie’s hairdo past the crown. The face winnows down to gaunt cheeks covered with bristles, a pointed chin. His mustache looks enormous on such narrow features.
“Just watching him play, he misses shots that he never used to miss,” says Rosen. “He can’t beat anybody anymore. He can’t play against the good players anymore. Life has beaten him up. Right now, he’s resolved himself to beating eggs. Eggs are guys who think they can shoot but can’t. He sees a guy in here, lonely, he’ll play him for five dollars.”
Airport Joe is one of Waterdog’s eggs. Clean-cut and stocky, he plays $10 rounds of nine ball just to watch the remains of a great talent.
“He almost always beats me,” says Joe, a casual player who handles baggage at O’Hare. “I just look upon this as a lesson. I study his moves, his position.”
This Friday night at Chris’s the heavy action is happening at a table near the stairs, where Jamaican Aaron is playing one pocket for $50 a game. Joe and Waterdog are at a table in the back, next to a paneled wall hung with portraits of pool greats. They’re gonna play nine ball, first to seven games takes the round. Waterdog spots his egg two games and lets him break every time. In nine ball the players have to shoot at the lowest-numbered ball left on the table; whoever pots the nine wins. Waterdog takes the first game by using the four ball to knock in the nine. In the second Joe scratches on the break, but Waterdog misses the four ball. He’s distracted by a punk sitting near the action table, screaming that the room is full of “cowards” who refuse to play for $50 a game. Joe runs the rest of the table.
“The motherfucker cost me a game with his big mouth,” Waterdog gripes. “I can’t play pool and listen to the motherfucker talk.”
Tonight Airport Joe is playing more like a hustler than an egg. In one game he sinks the four ball on the break, then “runs out,” pocketing all the balls without a miss. In another, Waterdog misses the three ball, and Joe runs out. Joe closes out the round by running three straight racks without a miss. Waterdog treats it as yet another cosmic injustice.
“Lousy luck, lousy luck,” he shouts. “He plays like this once every eight years, runs three racks in a row. He’s shootin’ two speeds over his head!”
Waterdog has a weak break—”like a 12-year-old girl,” a friend teases—but his game is about precision, not power. He rolls the balls forward as though they’re fragile eggs, the way he was taught as a teenager. Like a chess player, he can see several moves ahead. He can inspect a table cluttered with balls and work out a seven-shot plan to nest them all. The trick is positioning the cue ball. When Waterdog shoots, he bends over the table, his arthritic leg straight, his good leg bent, so he looks like a broken tripod. He pistons the cue through the snug noose of his thumb and forefinger, searching for the perfect point on the cue ball. When he finds it, he taps the ball with just enough force to carom off the object ball, then roll to the right spot for the next shot. Often it looks as though Waterdog has the ball on an elastic string.
“Cue control is his strong point,” says Airport Joe. “He almost always gets the right angle for next ball.”
But Waterdog is down $20 after losing the first two sets. They double the stakes and even the odds. Now the winner gets the break. In the first game the eight gets stuck on the rail, and Joe can’t rescue it. Waterdog can. They’re keeping score by moving dimes up the side of the table, and Waterdog’s dime overtakes Joe’s. By the end of the evening, he’s up ten bucks.
“Now that’s the Joe I remember playing the last eight years,” he says as he collects the sawbuck.
On Monday nights, Waterdog takes two buses to play as a ringer in a suburban pool league. He and a bar owner have a “business arrangement,” which includes bus fare plus free glasses of vodka and cranberry juice. Waterdog got the job through Rocket Man, another down-and-out player.
“He’s excellent,” raves the bar owner. “These other guys don’t know who he is. They might be pissed if they did. The scary thing is, how good could this guy be if he didn’t do this shit?”
In his torn corduroys and cracked white sneakers, Waterdog looks so unlike a flashy hustler that no one suspects a thing. While the teams practice, he nods off on a stool. The bar owner prods him occasionally to make sure his cigarette ash doesn’t flake off and burn a hole in the carpet. When it’s time to play, though, Waterdog’s shooting is decisive. The game is eight ball: you get two points for a win, and a point for each ball your opponent leaves on the table. As Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” blasts out of the classic-rock jukebox, Waterdog scores eight points, more than anyone else tonight.
“Damn,” says an admirer. “If I could shoot like that, I’d quit my job.”
Later on Waterdog runs his first seven balls, then faces a tough shot at the eight ball because he hasn’t set up his cue ball properly—it didn’t roll far enough after the last shot. He blames it on the thick felt, which is a cheaper make than what he plays on at Chris’s.
“This table is slow, slow as molasses,” he complains.
Instead of the straight-on shot he’d wanted, he has to “cut” the cue ball—aim for the edge of the sphere and try to drive it toward the pocket at a five o’clock angle. Waterdog misses the tricky shot. With no obstacles in the way, his rival pockets all seven solids, and then nails the eight.
“By this much, man,” Waterdog says as he walks out the door. He holds his thumb and forefinger apart, squeezing a tiny slice of air to show how much farther the cue ball should have rolled to set him up for victory. “If I had it a hair more, I’m perfect.”
Nickel-and-diming his way through middle age, Waterdog haunts the pool world, living on the margins of a milieu that’s marginal to begin with. Some of his old friends assume he’s dead. Some think he’s living in Los Angeles. But he can turn up in any pool hall, at any time. Teeter ran into him in Milwaukee, and once put him up for a few months when he visited the Bay Area in the mid-90s. Though Chicago is his home base, Waterdog appears twice in Playing Off the Rail, journalist David McCumber’s chronicle of a three-month road trip Annigoni took in 1992. One night Annigoni saw him sleeping in a chair at Manhattan’s Chelsea Billiards.
“My God,” he thought. “That’s Waterdog. . . . Fuck, I haven’t seen him in damn near 20 years. He came through San Mateo when I was 18 or 19, and then he was beatin’ everyone in the world. Jeez, he looks horrible, I heard he’s had some hard times.”
A few nights later Annigoni was trying to hustle a Hispanic guy when Waterdog shows up again. Waterdog sidled up to the table and started talking about great players he’d known over the years: Ronnie Allen, Cole Dickson, Tony Annigoni. McCumber slipped him a “gapper,” a piece of the action, to shut him up.
No pool player wants to live on the charity of players he once could have beaten, but it’s the only pension some hustlers can hope for.
“It is such a tenuous life,” Annigoni says. “It’s not such a stretch to see yourself in that condition. You can look at Waterdog and see a shadow of yourself.”
Before he gave up his old name, Waterdog was Donnie Edwards of Waterbury, Connecticut, a sickly boy with an angry alcoholic father and a mother who bore him while she was hooked on heroin. The family home was a “shambles,” so Waterdog looked all over town for somewhere else to spend his time. When he was 12, he found a place called the Cue and Cushion.
“Really, what happened was I wanted to get out of the house and I wanted to get into something I could do,” Waterdog reminisces over a steak dinner in a Milwaukee Avenue diner. His stiff left leg pokes out from under the table, and he speaks in a loud, almost shouting tone. He wants to be heard. “When I was young, I was anemic, just about. I had asthma, a touch of bronchitis, I caught double pneumonia. I wasn’t good at all at any sports. I wasn’t very coordinated and I just kept praying to God. I said, ‘God, I want to be good at something. Can’t I be good at anything?'”
Pool fascinated Waterdog. The lamps that cast rectangles of light over the table, the multicolored balls, the way a cue rolled through the closely trimmed felt, “it all just had me in a trance.” Every day he went down to the Cue and Cushion with five dollars and a permission note from his mother. The owner saw his fluid stroke and proclaimed him a natural. By the time he was 13, Waterdog was taking a train down to New York City every weekend, sleeping on pool tables or in $7 hotel rooms, learning from hustlers who could help him achieve his new life’s ambition: a world championship. Pool is an urban game, and New York had a room in every neighborhood. At the Golden Cue in Queens, Waterdog found a mentor. Gene Nagy was the New Jersey state champion, but the first time he met Waterdog he tried to bum money for a sandwich.
“I said to myself, ‘This guy can’t be world champion or he wouldn’t be broke.'”
Back in Waterbury, Waterdog was shooting pool five to ten hours a day, winning small bets with road players who thought his greenness made him an easy mark. He was skipping school all the time; since he’d been relegated to the “D” reading group, pool seemed more promising. The truant officers got on his case, so Waterdog decided to go on the road with $350 as his stake. It would only be for a year, he promised his mother, until he turned 16 and the law couldn’t force him to stay in school. Waterdog called up a hustler who’d passed through town and left his phone number behind. They arranged to meet in Virginia. Waterdog never did move back home. He’s never had a permanent home again.
“I flew down to Norfolk with my little bankroll, all set to win some money, and I really didn’t know that much about what I was doing,” he says.
His first day on the road he won $90 playing nine ball. His second day he lost $300.
“That was all I had, so I went almost totally broke. I think I saved about $50.”
He slowly rebuilt his stake. To save money on rent, he moved in with a hooker who was hustling the same clientele he was: sailors. Already he was playing run-out pool, which meant he was always a threat to sink all the balls in succession and win the game. The sailors were willing to bet $20 or $30 a rack against a kid, and there were always new marks, fresh off the ship, who didn’t know Waterdog’s speed.
In the late 1960s pool players still lived and worked like The Hustler‘s Fast Eddie Felson. There were few lucrative tournaments, so the only way to make money was one sucker at a time. Waterdog learned the circuit of action poolrooms as he hopscotched up the eastern seaboard, winning money in all the old redbrick cities—Rockville, Albany, Clifton, Elizabeth.
“There was a lot more illegal money going around back then, ’cause there was a lot of different rackets and racketeers running around,” he says. “There was a lot of pimps out there and prostitutes, and the streets were wide-open. Now there’s not so much illegal money circulating in the pool halls. Most of it is from people who have a job and work and they’re a little more careful about spending their money than the people that were making fast money. Like the saying goes, ‘Easy come, easy go.'”
By the end of his teens he had found his way to California, where he picked up his nickname. You’re not a real pool player until you’ve got a nickname—it’s a title of respect. In an LA pool hall Donnie Edwards was reborn as Waterdog.
“I was losing to people I should have beaten, gettin’ dogged, and I was from Waterbury, Connecticut, so people said, ‘You’re a Waterdog.’ Later on, as I got more seasoned, I started beating people, but the name just stuck. I couldn’t get rid of it.”
Waterdog also met Teeter in LA. Southern Cal was “just a pool player’s paradise,” Teeter says, and “it seemed like Don was a notch above 80 percent or 90 percent of the players.”
Teeter decided to back Waterdog, who quickly let him down by losing $600 to a Mexican. Teeter practically grabbed Waterdog by the ear and took him up to the Bay Area, hoping to win his money back.
“This is where his life turned around,” Teeter says, sounding regretful. “He got hooked in Haight-Ashbury. Back then heroin was very prevalent. It was the drug of choice in San Francisco.”
The poolrooms were full of drugs too, and Waterdog blames that illicit midnight scene for leading him toward his addiction. If he’d been a young man today, he says, he might have honed his skill by playing in tournaments and earned a living through a cue company’s sponsorship. But when he was coming up, “it was all hustlers and staying up all night.” Drug dealers were backing hustlers, and players spiked their coffee with No-Doz to push themselves through 30-hour sessions.
Teeter’s house trailer was parked in Oakland, but Waterdog began slipping across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, where he was dating an ex-junkie. Some of her friends still used, and they turned him on to heroin. Because of his mother’s habit, Waterdog had been born addicted to the drug. When he first used it, “it felt like something that should have been part of my body. It didn’t feel like an illegal substance.”
Within three months of moving to San Francisco, Waterdog had “found new friends” and moved out of the trailer, Teeter says.
Waterdog has been on heroin or methadone ever since. He believes his body will never stop craving drugs—once a junkie’s been hooked for ten years, he’s married for life. In pursuit of his $40-a-day habit, Waterdog has stood on street corners in Detroit and New York’s Alphabet City, waiting to buy glassine-wrapped balls of Terminator. In ’89, the cops showed up during a deal at 51st and Prairie, and Waterdog was wrestled into a pair of handcuffs. During the scuffle, bags of heroin fell to the street and scattered. Waterdog grabbed two and tried to run off. The cops tackled him, breaking his femur. He now has a metal rod in there, which contributes to the cripple’s limp in his arthritic leg.
The things he’s done for heroin: for days, he’s gone without meals to save money for a score, because food’s no good if you’re going through withdrawal. You’ll just puke it up. When he couldn’t get heroin, he felt listless, unmotivated to play pool. When he was trying to hustle up enough money to get high, he felt paralyzed at the table, because he knew the next ball might make the difference between sickness and relief. Sometimes a $3 game was more stressful than a $400 game, because three bucks was all he needed to get a fix.
“Some people say I might have been a world champion,” Waterdog says. “I don’t know. There are a lot of guys who play real good. I know it messed up everything else in my life. Every time I had a relationship with a woman, it made it pretty much a shambles. It’s not something I’d recommend.”
Now that he’s on methadone Waterdog only shoots up once or twice a week, “when I can afford it.” One Sunday he earned $30 peddling papers on the street, then took a bus down to the west side to score. A few days later he borrowed $20 off a friend to buy enough heroin and cocaine for a speedball. In the pockets of his red overcoat, Waterdog carries three sets of needles and syringes and a tiny cooking pan fashioned from the bottom of a beer can. He’s not allowed to use the bathroom at Chris’s, so to get his fix he goes out to a building with a public restroom. Twenty minutes later, he emerges, looking dazed and weary.
“My heart’s racing a little bit, so I want to sit down,” he apologizes as he lowers himself to the cold steps. The hood of his green Dartmouth College sweat jacket is wrapped snugly around his skull. The sharp, spare face protruding from the cowl stares across the street with melancholic eyes. “The methadone keeps you from feeling the heroin, so I put some cocaine in there to get a little high.”
Eventually, Waterdog rises and limps across Milwaukee Avenue, toward the poolroom. He has to pause at the foot of Chris’s clifflike staircase. The climb seems too strenuous for his racing heart.
“Don’t ask me why anybody would want to do this,” he says, sounding irked with himself as he slumps in the doorway. “I couldn’t tell you.”
There are guys who insist that Waterdog is the best nine-ball player they’ve ever seen, then add he was never much of a hustler. In San Francisco, says Teeter, Waterdog had a reputation as “that guy who shot the balls in and didn’t have time to hustle.” You don’t have to be a great player to be a great hustler—a big reputation is a handicap because it scares off opponents. You just have to be better than a guy who’s got money to gamble. And you have to be patient.
“You’ve got to walk in a place, read people’s faces, assess who wants to play,” says John the Greek, who for years teamed up with Waterdog to hustle in bars on Mannheim Road. To the Greek’s frustration, Waterdog was too proud of his skills to “lay down the lemon”—throw a game—and he rarely took the time to string a sucker along for a week, setting him up for a big score.
“He’s a player,” the Greek says. “I would have to sit there and tell him, ‘Come on, Dog, miss the f-in’ ball.’ He’s also too well-known. He was foolish enough to play in tournaments. It’s an ego thing. He’s not a hustler. That’s always been a bone of contention between us.”
Tony Annigoni says ego isn’t the only reason. He once saw Waterdog play a “race to 11” set of nine ball against a pool player named Boy George. Waterdog fell behind ten games to one. A real hustler would have conceded the set, then waited for a bigger payday in the next round. Waterdog won the next ten games.
“He was trying to get enough money for a hot shot,” Annigoni says. “Didn’t have the patience or stamina to work on him. Waterdog beat him out of $1,600. A couple weeks later someone came in and beat the guy out of $50,000.”
Waterdog has made a few big scores, though none big enough to ensure him a stable life. In High Point, North Carolina, he hustled a kid and his backer out of $30,000. The backer was quite drunk, and had just inherited a lot of money, so he didn’t mind getting ripped off.
“We started at $200 a game, and worked up to $600,” Waterdog says. “I was just robbin’ the kid by then. I was running out. I was runnin’ five or six racks at a time. And the old guy that kept losin’ was a perfect gentleman. Every time I’d run out, he’d hand me the $600, and he’d say, ‘You know, it’s a pleasure watching you play, son.’ I was taking Percodan for the pain in my hip. I gave some to the guy and he drank it with a beer. He came over to me and said, ‘You know, those pills make you feel good, son. You want to bet another hundred a game?'”
The money didn’t last long. Waterdog split with his uncle, who’d set up the score, and kicked a $5,000 snap to the bar owner. Within a month, half of Waterdog’s share was gone, most of it spent on “partyin’ and drinkin’.”
Waterdog first appeared in Chicago in 1981, to play in the National Pool Classic, in which he finished second. (He might have won, he says, but he had to play the championship round with a hernia.) Detroit was his home base, but Chicago had cheap hotels and a methadone clinic, and the name ‘Waterdog’ was unknown in its bars. He made the move, and within a few weeks a friend introduced him to John the Greek, who had money and a car. The Greek became Waterdog’s stakehorse: he put up the money, and they split the profits 50-50.
“Chicago used to be one of the best cities,” the Greek says nostalgically. “It was good then. Everywhere you walked in, there was action. You couldn’t miss makin’ $100 or $150 a day.”
Their first big score was in a Mexican bar on the southeast side, against a road player who called himself Moro. Waterdog beat him out of $2,500 playing last-pocket eight ball, in which the eight has to go into the same pocket as your next-to-last shot. After the match, he went out and bought some new clothes. It was the biggest score he ever made with John the Greek. From then on, it was mainly two- and three-figure nights in the bars on Mannheim Road, but they hardly even go there anymore. A few months ago, they were banned from a bar in Stone Park. Officially, it was because they got into a tussle over a pool cue when the Greek caught Waterdog with another stakehorse (“I spent two years buildin’ up that place,” the Greek complains). But Waterdog says they were winning too much, and the owner was looking for an excuse to bounce them. There was hardly any action left there anyway, Waterdog says.
“It’s all different now,” he complains. “It’s all died. It’s all changed. They had the tournaments, and a lot of players got to see how good the good players were, and how little chance they had of beating them. When they seen how good everybody played, they got too scared to gamble.”
As the action in Chicago withered, Waterdog earned a GED and started “thinking of getting another line of work so that I’d have something to fall back on besides pool, but it didn’t work out.”
The hustlers got a little break in 1986, when Martin Scorsese filmed The Color of Money here. Word spread through the poolrooms that the casting director was looking for extras. Waterdog made the call, identified himself by his nickname, and was hired for $50 a day. He’s in the movie’s final scene, the Atlantic City nine-ball tournament, which was filmed at Navy Pier.
“There’s a shot in the movie where Steve Mizerak plays Paul Newman, and after they get done playing Newman walks away from the table and he’s walking in one direction and I walk directly by him,” Waterdog says. “You can see me for a minute, just walking right on camera.”
The Color of Money‘s predecessor, The Hustler, had inspired Waterdog to pursue a life in the poolrooms. So he tried to ingratiate himself with the man playing Fast Eddie Felson.
“Me and Newman got to be good friends, ’cause he’s from Danbury, Connecticut,” Waterdog boasts. “He told me, ‘How’d you get your nickname, Waterdog?’ and I told him I was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, and he said, ‘Man, that’s a boss nickname.’ As soon as he said ‘boss’ I could tell he was from Connecticut, ’cause that’s how we used to talk when we were kids back there. He got to be real friendly and started coming out with beers and drinking with me.”
Like most serious players, Waterdog thought The Color of Money was a letdown. Compared to The Hustler, “it didn’t have no plot,” and it didn’t help the action. Waterdog plugged away at the tournaments that had replaced poolroom gambling. He won the Wisconsin state championship in 1986, the Illinois nine-ball championship in 1988, and the shelves of his hotel rooms filled with cheap trophies from south-side bars. But even the biggest purses didn’t top $1,500. Telemarketing and day labor paid the bills.
On a gloomy Sunday before Thanksgiving, Waterdog signs up for a $10-a-head eight-ball tournament at O’Lanagan’s, a neighborhood tavern near Welles Park. The top prize is $150, and Waterdog needs it more than any of the well-fed workingmen hanging out at the bar, waiting for the action to begin. He’s well-known at O’Lanagan’s, so when he sits down on a stool with his vodka and cranberry a pool-playing buddy greets him.
“What’s up, Dog?” the man joshes. “You’re not playing, are you? I’ll take my money back.”
Minutes later the same man gets into a whispered conversation at the bar, and this word drifts out: “Heroin.”
Waterdog is first in line to fill his plate when the plastic lids come off the deli spread. He sits alone, chewing bite-size turkey sandwiches and carrot sticks, until he’s called to the table.
In his first game, Waterdog wins the coin flip for the break, sinks his first five shots, misses his next two, then finishes off the table after his opponent’s stick slips on the cue ball.
“Made it look tough enough, didn’t I?” he says. “I’m lucky he missed two. He could have run out.”
The breaks go against Waterdog in the next game. Two of his balls are stuck on the rail, and he misses trying to dislodge one. This gives his rival a “ball in hand,” a chance to place the cue ball wherever he wants. Most decent players can convert this into victory, and that’s exactly what happens.
It’s a double-elimination tournament, so Waterdog still has a chance to win the $150. His third game, against Manny, the tavern’s owner, betrays both the brilliance and the tragedy of Waterdog’s life in pool. Manny misses his first shot. Waterdog, exploiting every inch of the tiny bar table, sinks eight straight to win.
“Fuckin’ motherfucker,” Manny howls. “He ran out on me!”
“Hey, Manny, take out the garbage,” one of the customers taunts.
No one else runs out that night. At his best Waterdog is better than any of these bar-league players will ever be. But hard living scrambles your coordination and saps your stamina. Waterdog knows that.
“My living conditions have to get better,” he admits. “It’s hard to maintain anything living like that. I’m trying to come back to the world, find a place of my own, live like a human being.”
Waterdog loses his next game, and his chance at the $150, when the eight ball just misses the pocket. He blames his defeat on the “shitty house cue” he had to play with. All the other players own expensive two-piece cues. An observer mutters, “He should have won.”
It’s eight o’clock. Defeated, Waterdog doesn’t want to stick around to congratulate the winner. He still manages to come away with something, though. On the way out, he borrows a fiver from Manny, enough for a bus ride home and a cup of coffee the next morning.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.