Every college campus should have a game room, and every game room should have at least two pool tables. The reason is simple: playing any game of pool teaches important lessons in physics, geometry, sportsmanship, and how to pick up strangers. It’s good stress relief. The Vanderbilt campus used to have a game room, but, before I get to that, let me say a few words about the pathetic excuse for one they’ve recently installed. Positioned right outside the Overcup Oak restaurant in the Sarratt Student Center are two pool tables with a foosball table in between. Here’s the first problem: the pool tables are in a high-traffic area where someone who’s about to make a shot will inevitably poke someone going into the restaurant. While this will be unpleasant for the person being poked, it could be disastrous for the person making the shot, especially if they’re trying to sink the eight-ball. The foosball table right in between the two pool tables just compounds this problem, since up to twenty-seven thousand people can play foosball at a time.
The second problem is that there’s no control over table access. Sooner or later someone’s going to think they need an eight-ball to decorate their room and that’s going to make the game unplayable. This will probably be even more likely if some bonehead decides to post something to his blog about the new pool tables.
Several years ago Vanderbilt had a real game room in the same Sarratt Student Center. It had pool tables, video games, and pinball machines. Like most campus pool halls you had to hand over your ID to get a set of balls which you could then take to a table. When you were done playing you’d get your ID back and you’d be charged a small fee for the time. Due to poor planning on the part of administrators the game room was closed on the weekends–the time when it was most needed. When the student center was renovated the game room was eliminated. The two pinball machines were briefly moved to the Overcup Oak restaurant where I (being a pinball addict) would go and play them two or three or twelve times a week. Every time I went there’d be the same three guys clustered around one machine, all of them playing so well I’m pretty sure they put in only one quarter and won free games for the rest of the day. One day I went to play pinball and only one of the guys was there. We nodded at each other as I put my quarter in, then, before I pulled the plunger, I asked, “Where are the other Lone Gunmen?” He simply said, “Class.”
The pinball machines disappeared at the end of the semester.
Going even further back, the college I went to had the perfect pool room, in the basement of the student union building. It had industrial green tile floors and white walls. It was called Tom’s Pool Hall, because it was run by a man named Tom, who’d known every pool player who ever lived personally and who I’m pretty sure was old enough to have been around when the game was first invented. Tom really was a great guy who always had a funny story to tell. One day he saw me eating a bacon cheeseburger and he told me about a friend of his who was so unhealthy the doctor gave him only six months to live. The friend turned his diet around completely, ate healthy foods and exercised daily. “Would you believe,” Tom said, looking at me over his half-moon spectacles, “that son of a gun managed to live seven months?” When he learned I was from Nashville he started reserving a particularly nice antique pool table, which he called “the Minnesota Fats special” for me.
I was at work the day an old friend I played pool with sent me a message that said simply, “We have lost Tom.” I’m sorry to say I never knew Tom’s last name, I never knew whether he had any family, or even what his life story was. I joke about his age but the truth is he must have seen some extraordinary changes. He was well past retirement age when I met him, but I get the impression that running a pool hall gave light and joy to what might otherwise have been a very lonely life. And now, seeing that miserable excuse for a game room that’s been installed on the Vanderbilt campus, I think how what this place really needs is its own Tom’s Pool Hall, even though Tom himself was one of a kind.