I’ve been playing pool off and on (more off these days), since 1992… and played at every single pool hall in my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. And I still can’t play for shit.
I was introduced to the world of pool at age 18, by two brothers, Pete and Dan Backus. Pete was a greaser and punk rocker: oil-slicked hair, cuffed jeans, leather jacket, the whole bit. He was smooth. Dan… also had charisma, but of a totally different kind. He loved to con people. He could talk the shirt off of your back, and make you like him at the same time. The “Backus Boys” and I played pool several nights a week, usually with our friend Chris, who was in awe of the brothers as I was.
One night we decided to go to Hot Shots, a pool hall inside the Dimond Center, a suburban shopping mall in Anchorage. I think Dan was trying to get with some of the high-school honeys that worked there. Although having a pool hall inside a mall is classic Anchorage, the atmosphere was entirely too wholesome. The place was well-lit, neon carpet, filled with nothing but high-school kids. But it was always fun to watch Dan hustle some poor sap in front of the sap’s girlfriend. Dan never bet money. He just loved to win. But the thought of betting for cash must have crossed his mind, once in a while…
We also frequented a place called Northern Lights Billiards, when our favorite pool hall was full. It too was inside a mall, a strip mall, on Northern Lights Boulevard, a stretch of road in Anchorage, known simply as, “The Strip”. Long-haired dudes cruised by in jacked up pickup trucks, painted in purple metal-flake, decked out with hydraulics and tinted windows, checking out the girls in the cars next to them, while idling at stoplights. Every so often, they would pull off the Strip, to shoot a few games.
Northern Lights had a menacing edge and was less clean-cut than Hot Shots. The crowd was a little older, with a little more money, and more to prove. They wore doo rags in the back pockets of their giant gansta jeans. Although it must be said, that the wood paneling and general lack of décor left something to be desired. They did, however, have pin-straight tables. One night we went there with Chris’s cousin, who, at the end of the night, expressed his disapproval with the place by putting in 5 dollars worth of “Revolution #9” by the Beatles in the jukebox before we left, dooming the patrons to hours of unlistenable noise.
Not too soon after that night, Northern Lights Billiards changed its name to Minnesota Billiards, and moved to another strip mall down the street. According to local pool guru Buddah, Minnesota Billiards is a pretty rough spot now. I went in there recently, and there was a sign on the door saying “No Guns”. That’s pretty bad when it needs to be said. Still, the place was pretty cool, with Ping Pong tournaments in the back, and strip-poker video games in the front.
I met Buddah while hanging out at Son of River City Billiards, by far the best pool hall in town, and my all-time favorite. I first went to Son of River City in ’92, with Pete, Dan, and Chris. The owner, Kent Andersson, was sitting behind the counter, chewing on a toothpick, looking like ’77 Elvis, with his bowling shirt, mutton-chop sideburns, and mirrored cop shades. Classic. He gave us our rack of balls, and we picked a table, making sure to roll our cues on it beforehand, to make sure they, and the table, were perfectly straight. Then Dan proceeded to show us the rules to 9-Ball, straight pool, and every other game he knew. Chris stuck his cue in the pocket as Dan shot, which pissed Dan off to no end.
I haven’t played pool with those guys in years, and when I went back to visit my friends and family in Anchorage a few years ago, I drove by Son of River City, just for old times sake, and saw it was shut down. You have to picture a den from the 1950s… walls adorned with old Coca-Cola memorabilia and cigarette and candy ads from the 1940s and 50s. Framed pictures of Marilyn, Elvis, James Dean hung everywhere—even on the ceiling! Old dentists chairs in the corners, with clunky seventies ashtrays sitting on the edge of the pool tables. And all of it is for sale. The jukebox was free, and packed with classic Motown tracks , old Country and Western, and tunes from Roy Orbison, Sinatra, Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs, just to name a few. But the coolest thing by far, about Son of River City, were the quotes, written in chalk, scattered throughout the place (well, that and the “Butts and Shafts” sign over the john). There were even quotes on the ceiling… by Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and even the owner himself. My favorite one was from Lord Chesterfield, to his son:
“A certain skill at billiards is the mark of a gentleman, but to play too well is the sign of a misspent youth.”
Misspent youth? Not me.
(This originally appeared in slightly different form, as “Alaska Pool”, in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, August 2, 2000)