Friday, August 17, 2007

"Finding the Center"

By Mel Waldman

I never hung out in poolrooms until 1967. In ’67 I landed a job in a senior citizen center in Coney Island working as a Housing Assistant for the Housing Authority. I was sent into the geriatric center to be a recreation worker.

Strange things began to happen in this Coney Island hideaway. And although I had looked forward to a rest and an easy going lifestyle, there was more action there than in Peyton Place or any of the soaps on TV.

The center stands a block from the boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean, but after my first day of work, I wondered if I had landed on Mars. Months later, I realized I was the Christopher Columbus of Coney Island. I hadn’t discovered America. Still, I had found my new home for the next two years. Welcome home, Kotter!


I hid in the poolroom where the old men taught me how to shoot pool and protected me from spirited old ladies in search of a dancing partner. The slick old men taught me how to hold a cue, to chalk up, and to play a smooth game of eight ball. And when lascivious old ladies found my secret hiding place, the wise old men formed an impenetrable fortress: “You can’t have him now! We’re in the midst of a serious game of eight ball. Come back later.”
“I’ll be back!” said one old lady who smiled sardonically at me. “We’ve got a serious fox trot to do!” And she scurried off.

Looking back, I realize there was more life in the center than in most places for younger folks. A few times over the years, I returned. I walked past the familiar oasis, but did not walk in. I suppose I wanted to keep the sacred memories intact. Re-entering the center would have severed my poignant ties and holy images.
In the castle of my mind, I see the little building whose structure is long and low and labyrinthine, flanked by tall buildings. Magically, it empowers me.
But can I walk through Yesterday’s door and share a nostalgic journey with my old buddies? Almost 40 years ago, I said goodbye to the gang. It was my time-a special time for a young man. A time of new beginnings: love, marriage, family, and career.
Yes, four decades and invisible boundaries separate us now. Where are they?


Mr. Murphy, Jimmy, and Mr. Polanski were my mentors in pool. And of course, there was the tall cripple with the twisted torso. I can’t recall his name. The skeletal man frightened me but warmed my heart too. Nameless possessed a demonic laugh, played a wicked game of pool with his trembling hands and a mean game of checkers.

The three wise men and cripple empowered me. How? What was the source and nature of their power? And what did they pass on to me? The gift of the Magi?


“Hello there,” says Mr. Murphy in a lilting voice, as he pirouettes across the room like a young James Cagney.
“Hi, kid,” says little Jimmy, about five feet tall, with the voice of Humphrey Bogart and the lonely eyes of James Dean.
“Get your cue stick! We ain’t got all day!” roars Mr. Polanski, a gentle lion of a man who might be John Garfield in disguise.
In the corner, Nameless grins sardonically. He’s really the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

Mysteriously, they empower me. And the old ladies bewitch and enchant me. They are the white witches of Coney Island. Their power is beautiful and magical.
“It’s time to do the Peabody, young man. Are you ready?”
“Of course, you are!”
“Of course, I am!”

In those antediluvian days, I was endowed with the power of the universe! I miss those early days. Yet they exist even now within the private theater of my mind. And sometimes, when I breathe in the ocean at Coney Island or smell the scents of the passing seasons, gentle memories of that lost era emerge.


I miss the magic. One day, an old sorceress said: “You must get married! I’ll ask the rabbi to bless you.”
I suppose the rabbi blessed me (cursed me?), for I got married a few months later to a woman I hardly knew but loved. Such magic! Such power! (I never found out who the rabbi was.) Such joy! (And such sadness!)


I miss my old friends. Murphy died a few months before I left. I went to his funeral. I’d never been to an Irish wake before. I looked at him in the open coffin. He didn’t look bad. Indeed, he looked majestic.
Now, he’s back in the poolroom. “Hello there,” he says to me.
“Good to see you,” I answer.
“I’m always happy here.”
“I know.”
“Of course, you can’t feel other wise. Not here.”
Stay tuned for Part two of Mel Waldman's piece next week!

Dr. Mel Waldman is a licensed New York State psychologist and a candidate in Psychoanalysis at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies. He is also a poet, writer, artist, and singer/songwriter.

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