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Gifts Known and Unknown

Paul L. Niebanck
On Knowing (March 2015)
Inward Light

When springtime in Seattle finally comes out from under its winter blanket of fog and drizzle, its smile is bright and its mood is balmy. That’s the kind of day it is – a Sunday in May, shortly after Easter – when Fred comes out of church and finds himself striding down the hill.

Fifth and Marion, Fourth and Columbia, Third and Cherry, Second and James, First and Yesler – the light weekend traffic keeps giving him the right of way. Then three blocks south, past Elliott Bay Books – where Mike will be at the corner selling Real Change – it’ll be a straight shot, and he’s home.

Fred is on the sunny side of Yesler Way when a young man crosses from the shady side and approaches him. “Sir, have you got a minute?”

Living in Pioneer Square has taught Fred to be prepared for such occasions, and he’s ready. He keeps his wad of bills in his left front trousers pocket, the small bills on top, so that if the impulse hits him, he can exchange a greeting, whisk out a dollar or two, hand the money over, and move on.

This time he feels the impulse, but the bill he pulls out is not a one, but a twenty. He must have run out of ones and fives yesterday. OK. Once the bill is out, Fred has no inclination to put it back.

What flashes through Fred’s brain as he transfers the cash – saying, “This oughta help” – is the memory of a similar moment, maybe ten years previous.

He had just arrived at the subway platform underneath Penn Station in New York City when he noticed a group of young people sitting on the platform floor. One of them noticed him, too – an attractive girl – and suddenly she was in his face. He pulled out a bill, and, just as now, it was a twenty! The honey was out of the bottle. The girl threw her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss to last a lifetime, right smack on his smacker.

Back to the present, Fred hopes that this fellow won’t offer him a kiss. He doesn’t. He goes one better. He accepts Fred’s twenty-dollar bill and exclaims, “Great! Now I can go play pool!”

The young man’s frankness and delight bowl Fred over. Hesitantly, he responds, “Do you mean it?”

“Sure!” the man says.

“OK. You know, Temple Billiards is just down the street. It’s a block from where I live.”

“I’ve seen it, but I’ve never been inside.”

“Well, how about this: We go together, and we play three games of eight ball. I pay, and you keep the twenty.”

“It’s a deal!” He sticks out his hand. “I’m Sam.”

They shake. “And I’m Fred.”

Fred gives his wife a heads up on his cellphone, and off they go.

The Temple is already open. On the ground floor is a counter with snacks. Also a few board games. And four pool tables. In the basement there are seven pool tables and a billiards table. It’s usually quiet down there, out of respect for the game.

Two of the tables are active upstairs, and Fred proposes that they go down. They are the only ones there.

They get right to it. They flip for break. Sam breaks. The balls scatter widely, but nothing goes in. Then, for the first time ever, Fred runs seven balls. Sam misses, and Fred sinks the eight ball. Game over.

The second game goes much slower. Fred’s got stripes; Sam’s got solids. Fred is ahead at first, but Sam comes on, and Fred finds himself chasing the eleven ball all around the table. Sam sinks the eight ball, a carom shot into the side pocket. But wait: there goes the cue ball, crawling towards the corner pocket. Plop. Sam has scratched. Fred wins again.

Sam laughs. They both laugh. The two men talk about this and that. Turns out that Sam is from East Tennessee. Fred used to work in that vicinity when he was young and footloose. But they’re there to play pool, and they get back to business.

Loser breaks, and sinks two balls. Fred sinks one, then misses – an “oh, no!” shot. He can feel the curtain coming down. Sam takes over. Fred retires to a high stool and watches as Sam sinks all five of his balls, three of them requiring the kind of expertise that you only get to see on television.

The eight ball is a direct shot, and in it goes.

“You are a hustler,” Fred quips.

“Naw, I was just lucky.” They laugh.

“We were both lucky,” Fred says. They clasp hands. Then Fred picks up the box of balls to take it upstairs to the counter.

He notices, as he ascends, that a middle-aged man has begun playing solo at one of the downstairs tables. Fred wonders if Sam will hang around and play him. Is Sam really a hustler? Or maybe the other man is a hustler.

He turns in the balls, and pays what’s due. As he goes to leave, he sees that Sam has followed him.

Fred winks, “Thanks for the lesson, Sam.”

“Thank you, Fred,” Sam says. “Thanks for the twenty, thanks for the games, and thanks for the competition.”

They hold each other’s gaze.

They share another laugh.

As Fred steps away, Sam calls after him, “And, Sir . . .

“ . . . Thanks for your time.”  ~~~

About twelve years ago, Paul Niebanck experienced an event much like the one he describes above, during a pause he was taking from attending South Seattle Friends Meeting (NPYM). He shares this story as one illustration of his ongoing wonder over the questions, “How do we know?” and “What do we know?” Paul was a regular contributor to Friends Bulletin and Friends Journal in the 1970s and ‘80s. He and several other NYPM Friends live now in a retirement community in downtown Seattle.

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