NO WAITING FOR LEFTY
Albert H. Morehead
My friend Lefty always knew what time it was. I used to tell my lay friends about Lefty, but they were rudely incredulous. A few of my medical friends have nodded and remarked platitudinously that such things are possible, but they didn’t really believe it either. Finally I despaired of getting anyone to believe me, and I haven’t told anyone about Lefty for years.
Lefty’s name was (or is) Carmen Giuseppe CasiIlo. By profession he was a pool hustler. He frequented a slum-located pool room in Cleveland, where he chiseled nickels and dimes from illiterate immigrants who mistakenly thought they could shoot pool better than he could. Being semi-literate, Lefty was a one-eyed king of the blind.
Although Lefty was not a very good pool hustler, and would himself have been a chump (“sucker” Is obsolescent) for any competent amateur, he moved in the higher circles of the pool-hustling hierarchy because of his partners. Most pool hustlers are members of partnerships, but mostly they consort with their peers. Not so Lefty. His partners were three of the best pool hustlers in Cleveland. They loved Lefty because he was unique. He always knew what time it was.
Wherever Lefty was, you didn’t need a clock. If you had a clock, and the clock disagreed with Lefty, the clock was wrong. Lefty didn’t know much, but he knew the time — to the hour, the minute, and the second.
Furthermore, Lefty knew the time whether he was awake or asleep. I know, because I once lived with Lefty over a period of six weeks or so. Unlike my intimates, who were mostly pool hustlers or card sharpers, I was a respectable working man. However, my respectable occupation was the selling of magazine subscriptions, which didn’t pay a living wage; so, consistent with the society in which I moved, I was usually broke, sometimes hungry, and always behind in the room rent. Since Lefty and I shared a meagerly furnished room in the cellar of a slum-area apartment house and were liable for six dollars a week between us, one had to be pretty poor to fall behind in his rent.
But I have wandered off the subject, which was that Lefty knew the time even when he was asleep.
Well, I had to get up at 6 a.m. every day. The magazine-selling crew rendezvous’d at eight and I had a long trolley ride (often I took it clinging to the rear of the one-man car, because, as Lord Lytton wrote — though on a different subject — “I had no single token”). Lefty and I would hang around a pool room or poker game until midnight, join the boys for coffee-and at a convenient lunch counter, and chat until 2 a.m. A few minutes after two Lefty and I would tumble into our respective beds, which were close enough together to resemble a double bed (because, to tell the truth, our room was not very large). We had no alarm clock. My watch was usually in hock and Lefty had never owned one. It didn’t matter. At six on the nose Lefty would wake enough to stretch one leg across the so-called gap between our so-called mattresses and kick me out of bed. Then he would roll over and sleep peacefully till noon.
It was a matter of ritual and proprietary pride for every member of Lefty’s circle to ask him the time immediately on meeting him. This endowed him with unusual distinction, because among pool hustlers the opening conversation always follows a set pattern, at least up to the point at which the purse and stomach have been accounted for.
The first question, for example, is always “Did you eat yet?” (pronounced Jeet?). After information has been exchanged on this subject, the next question is “What are you holding?” or perhaps “Got anything in your kick?” One’s kick is his pocket, but only in the sense of a purse; one does not carry a gun in his kick.
To this latter question there are various possible answers, but to make them intelligible I must digress for a gloss upon pool hustlers’ currency.
Though fin, sawbuck, and double sawbuck, and even buck, check, slug and dollar are recognizable words among pool hustlers and their ilk, conversationally they recognize only two units of currency, the line and the dime.
A line Is fifty cents. A dime is anything smaller.
If an amount of money is worth expressing in any terms at all, it is always expressed in lines. Fin, sawbuck, or even dollar, refers to a specific bill. If one says “I have a fin,” he means he has a five-dollar bill. When his total wealth is five dollars he will say “I have ten lines,” never “a fin” or “five dollars.”
So back to the meeting of two pool hustlers and the customary question, “Holdin’ anything?”
To this question there are the following — and only the following — answers, which range downward in the order in which they denote adversity.
I. “I’m doin’ all right.” Just how much money this reveals depends, of course, on the current prosperity of the partners but generally it means any amount of money from five dollars up.
2. “A few lines.” The next-best answer, showing $2.00 to $4.50.
3. “Couple of lines.” $1.00 to $1.90.
4. “A few dimes.” 50 cents to 90 cents.
5. “Couple of dimes.” 20 cents to 49 cents.
6. “A dime maybe.” Literally 10 cents, up to 19 cents: a sum worth reporting, because it buys coffee and doughnuts.
7 “Nothin’.” Less than 10 cents.
But as I said, the first question to Lefty was always chronometric, thus: “‘Lo, Lefty.” -—“Lo.” — “What time is it?” — “Seven minutes till nine.” — “Jeet yet?” — “Yeh; view?” … and so on.
Either to demonstrate his unusual quality or because he naturally thought in such terms, Lefty tended to be precise in his references to past time:
“Has Slim been in?”
“Yeh, but he left.”
“When’d he leave?”
Though Lefty’s three colleagues were adequately respected for their ability to direct billiard balls into side pockets, they wore Lefty’s afflatus as their proudest garland. I remember an occasion when there drifted into the group a newcomer from New York, by name Bock; a practitioner of all the finer arts from robbery to murder. He struck up an acquaintanceship with Irish, one of Lefty’s foursome, and there ensued introductions all around, with Irish doing the honors. The conversation sticks in my memory because it included Lefty’s own explanation of his weird ability, plus at least one way he had planned to exploit it.
“They call me Irish,” Irish was saying. “This is Boston Slim, and this is Lefty. Lefty always knows what time it is. What time is it, Lefty?”
“Eleven twenty-six,” said Lefty.
“What do you think about that?” Irish asked.
“That’s great stuff, Jack,” Bock acknowledged to Lefty.
“Oh, that ain’t nothing,” said Lefty modestly. “All you got to do is keep your mind on it and it comes easy. Once I thought I could hire out letting jewelers set their clocks by me, but it comes out they got another system.”
Eventually I abandoned the magazine business — the subscription end of it, that is — and so Lefty dropped out of my life, or perhaps I out of his. Fully ten years later I bethought myself to seek him out, and I toured all his former haunts. No trace could I find of either Lefty or his several partners. Only one person that I encountered — the proprietor of a pool room on East Ninth — could even recall Lefty’s existence, and he hadn’t seen him for years. I appreciate now that my search for Lefty was unpardonably belated. He could have represented my one contribution to science, and besides I wouldn’t have been driven by general disbelief to stop telling the story of Lefty.