Billiard Hall had been the edifice of infamous drifters and hustlers since the Black Cabaret burned to the ground back in ‘65. Since then, Sarg’s Billiard Hall had seen it all: Fancy pimps spilling out of custom made cadillacs and boasting stables of up to thirty—five or more; fakes slapping at each other’s palms as they traded different angles to sleightfully relieve marks of their possessions with greater ease; prostitutes fishing from their bosoms wads of dollars bills of various denominations and conspicuously slipping them to their pimps as a display of their ability to produce; solomons parlaying gamblers into wagering high stakes on crap games infested with crooked craps, or a card game where the outcome had been determined long before the first card was dealt. They all came, these hustlers of infamous repute: boosters, pool-sharks, and fakes, redcard mobs, stickup men.
But they were gone now, the hustlers— gone. Some became infected with the ins and outs of penitentiary until a merciful judge sentenced them to a natural life without parole; some gave up the gane for the shiftless existence of hoboism; others wandered about, sounding invisible marks and talking with recent ardor of stings that took place 200 years ago; these had permanent residence at institutions for the occasionally insane; a few wise ones habituate themselves to the norms of the productive citizens before the game gods spewed their wrath upon them and bashed them from their treacherous grace. Dope and whiskey got the most— and the grave— it also claimed its share.
For five years now Sarg’s Billiard Hall had been no more than an ailing monument where Urban Development and narco squads kept constant vigil for just a little more decay, just a little more lead. Nobody of much notoriety happens here anymore. The place had fallen to two bit hoodlums, crackheads, and psuedo—cocaine cowboys who claimed to be affiliated with Colombians. They popped their sixshooters at imaginary adversaries, said “Si Senior” to every spanish remark directed their way, and constantly promised a shipment of cocaine that never came.
No, sir, Sarg’s Billiard Hall had not always known scallywags of this sort. Back in The days of the infamous hustlers there cropped up a fellow named Oggy Swift.
He happened to Sarg’s by way of Yazoo City, Mississippi. Rumor has it that he was on his way to pay tuition and fee at the University of South Florida to expend himself in the world of education. Mama had worked bard in Mr. John’s kitchen, continued the rumors, and Pappa had given up his youth to work the fields— all in a spit of effort to insure that Oggy Swift was given a fair chance at life. But the game gods were not to have it that way. They found place for him, by chance I assume, in front of Sarg’s Billiard Hall wagering tuition and fee in a crap game loaded with crooked craps. It took less than fifteen minutes for tuition, fee and all, to peep from between wrinkled bills trapped in everybody else’ s hands except Oggy Swift’s. Gazing upon empty hands, he walked hung—headed, they said, and droop—shouldered into the night that hid his contingency.
I had dismissed this fellow as another patsy caught up in the snares of the game masters. But, oh, what a faulty dismissal. Six months later, Oggy Swift was back. I could not see him at first, only heard voices on a crowd packed on top of each other in front of Sarg’s. “Open yo’ hand, man,” a voice or two said, “aint nobody this lucky.” Or, “Man, this cat must be rooted in something.” And then came the final, “I quit, man, you’re too lucky for me.”
Oggy Swift, four pockets bulging, strutted over to one of the pooltables and dumped huge chunks of wadded cash. he only had to bend slightly to count this cash, for Oggy Swift was every bit of 5 feet 6”, if that tall. He also had a deep rasping voice and a thick, flaring nose that brings a mushroom to mind. His hair, packed in a hard black mat when he first came, was now cut low, parted in the middle, and brushed into a thousand waves. This hairdo was to become his trademark. This hairdo was the constant hitching of his pants.
Six months later Oggy Swift was coasting a brand new, candy apple red Fleetwood Brougham. In one year he had mastered the Solomon game. And shortly after that, you heard a common chant among patsies as well as players: “no bet, man, you’re too lucky for me.” Can’t beat you, Oggy.” When that happened, gambling houses would not touch you; crap games were beyond your reach. Gamblers knew the odds of percentage. Oggy Swift defied those odds. he who defies the odds knows the secret of the game, and he who knows the secret of the game is marked, feared, respected. But this was not to stop Oggy Swift, for he had tasted the grapes of the game gods, thus, ascended himself to the game of con.
Stuff first, then the bunko, after that the dragg. “Stuff is a game,” he used to say, “the Grandaddy of the con game. Bunko is the Daddy that set you up for the drag. Now the drag,” he would kiss his hand in a salute of excellence when he spoke of the dragg, “The dragg, my man, is a story, the lady of them all, and she possess more angles than a pimp down on his nintieth turnout, and true to her name sake, just as devastating.” And Oggy Swift, true to his reputation, mastered them all.
At Sarg’ s Billiard Hall on Sunday mornings, he would lounge around sipping cognac by Remy Martin and telling tales of marks gone beserk from the influence of the con game.
“Me and Cincinnati Red was coming out of Moultrie Georgia, right, when we sounded this old Dad and played him out of 35 G’s,” I remember him saying one Sunday morning. “During the whole while we were layin’ the game down (I mean we were layin’ it down strong) Dad was messing around with this case knife. This knife was so sharp, right, until it slid through Dad’s fingernails like they were nothing but butter. I knew Dad was leery, see, ‘cause he kept telling us about how much money he saved on razor blades, how fast he could skin the hide off a cow in less than twenty—five strokes, and that kind of stuff.
“Well, anyway, when we finally played Dad for the sting, he grabbed my hand and said, ‘You boys sin’ gonna try no hanky—panky wit’ my money now, is yer?’ Man, let me tell you, he scared the livin; shit out of me. I thought my hand was a goner. I had to think fast and think game, so I gave him the “Sunday go to church” angle, right, and played him slap out of his leeriness.
We finalled Dad outside this pecan stand. We told him that the owner of the stand was the go—between to insure that all played Lair, and that in order for him to receive his 35 G’s and the 15 G’s due him, he had to say ‘cash in the bag won’t sag.’ Now here’s the twist. I had already paid for a bag of pecans, see, and told the pecan man that I was playing a surprise game on a friend of mine who loved pecans, and that he was to give my friend the bag whim he said those words.”
Oggy sipped at his cognac, hitched at his pants, and uttered on. “About three month later, right, I was chilling out in Atlanta on peach Street, understand, when I heard this fake, can’t think of his name off the top of my head, but I heard him talking about his partner getting twenty years in Houltrie, Georgia for the con game. Now the game don’t carry but a five year max, see, so I knew there was some animosity somewhere. Anyway, he said that some fakes had come through Houltrie and took Andrew Whitehead for 35 G’s. Old man Whitehead had gone to a pecan stand to get his money then the man handed him a bag full of pecans. Old Dad had demanded his money, right? But check this out. When the man said that he knew nothing about any money and that something sounded fishy, understand, Dad went off. Cut the man thirty—five times. It so happened that old Dad’s son, Matthew Whitehead, was sheriff of Moultrie. He also said that the sheriff had offered to turn his partner aloose if he told him who robbed his daddy. Of course he had no idea that the great Oggy Swift had stuck Dad up with the con game. So this fake went to get a mouthpiece to raise his partner. When they got there, the sheriff said his partner was in the hospital. ‘The po’ man had slipped in the shower and broke his neck.”
“But how did you get him to pit up the cash,” some wanted to know; or, “how did you know he had that much money?” But nothing about the man’s broken neck.
In response, Oggy Swift would hitch up his pants, run his hand over a thousand waves and utter, “Now you ain’t asking Oggy Swift to expose the game now, is you, slick?” He called everybody slick. “Game’s to be sold, my man, not told. You be true to the game, the game’ll be true to you.” He would then take one more sip of his cognac and offer: “Yall kill that. Gotta go.”
Throughout the years Oggy Swift would leave town and then return; leave, and then return. Before Christmas of each year, he would grace by Berg’s— driving a brand new, candy-apple red, Fleetwood Brougham. And those Sunday mornings that caught him in town would be his ritual for cognac sipping and uttering tales of quintuple digit stings.
There went a couple of years, though, where Oggy was not seen at all. Some of the Sunday morning listeners who looked forward to Oggy’s comings would sit, wonder and worry until finally he graced himself, cadillac gleaming, back to town. Then, gradually, he ceased to come altogether.
Last I heard of his exaltations, by word of hearsay of course, he boasted a stable of promiscuous evening ladies that easily exceeded one hundred, and stretched from the shores of Maine to the Isles of the Florida Keyes.
And then news got back that he had fallen. More news got back that he had raised. And then six month later, fallen. Raised, and then fallen. Hustlers brought messages of his escapades from almost every state in the union. “Qggy Swift took a fall in flew York City. In Los Angeles, California. Oggy Swift took a fall— Chicago; Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan.”
From 72 to’77 two months did not go by without the reporting of his raising and falling in the penal system. Someone said that Oggy refused to get out the gara, while he was ahead, like the smart players, or the lucky ones. For one, Oggy Swift was not one for smarts, bold and daring yes; and two, he did not believe in luck. So he remained true to the game until the great fall of ‘77. Some fancy pimp out of Memphis, Tennessee dropped by Sarg’ s one Sunday morning and spreaded the news:
“Oggy Swift is down in New Jersey State Penitentiary on a twenty—year bit for white slavery and larceny by trickery.” And thus waned the exaltation of Oggy Swift.
From 1977 onward, the populace of Berg’s Billiard Hall took on the impression of nefarious jitterbugs wearing baseball caps turned side ways and pants with one leg rolled higher than the other and hot, golden ropes. Jitterbugs roamed about in bright colored Pro Keds, Adidas, and Chuck Taylor Allstars. They raced about in expensive machines: Jaguars, Mercedes, and BMW’s that should have been no more than a brief adolescent will—o’—the—wisp that should have dissipated with the oncoming of adulthood. But they did not dissipate. And the jitts project parents could not afford them. Nefarious jitterbugs stole expensive machines, robbed for golden ropes, and killed quickly for the cash.
They would park in front of Berg’s Billiard Hall and sit on the hoods of the costly vehicles. When they tired of this, they exploded ghetto—blasters with the hot best new hits of the latest rappers while twisting their bodies in grotesque positions in an effort to add another routine to the ongoing rituals of breakdancing. They would keep this up until night hushed the moaning of the living city, until morning started the route of the paper-machine man, and then they departed.
One Friday evening, when the place was swarming with nefarious jitterbugs and expensive machines, blue and white cruisers closed in from every direction. Helicopters thundered overhead and hovered. Next came a convoy of wreckers The wreckers crept through the boulevard, hoisting every vehicle that looked expensive and new. Moments later, paddy wagons pounced. Uniformed officers fed jitterbugs, ghetto-blasters and all, into the mouths of the wagons’ rear doors. When their bellies were full, paddy wagons screamed and flashed their way down the dishevelled boulevard. Three hours later, Sarg’s Billiard Hall and the surrounding vacinity took on an awkward ambience of calmness.
In less than a month the jitts were back, set scott free because of some Youthful Offenders’ Act. Less than sixty days the expensive machines were back, the hot golden ropes, and the ghetto—blasters too. Police came again. Took the jitts. The jitts returned. This went on for a year or better, until a new breed gradually took precedence.
Along with this breed stalked the cellophane bags of crystal white powder; tradename— cocaine. This brought the return of the posh automobiles— and more and more of them, more golden ropes and thicker, too; more killings. And the jitts kept getting younger and younger.
This new breed did not exist very long, though Narco squads dared not tolerate their existence. The pressure of the citizenry waxed too mighty. Subsequently, this breed underwent abrupt annihilation. But the crystal white refused annihilation. Instead, it became so embedded into the natural order of things until each new breed, thereafter, became contaminated with its vicious euphoria.
Next crept the smokers of crack and the psuedo-cocaine cowboys. They were a mere handful at first, and then slowly infested until a thousand raids could not cure them. They oozed from every sidewalk, every curb, from every, alleyway, doorfronts, Sarg’s Billiarc’ Hall…
I had had my fill and wanted no more of these harried occurances. Had my mind set on giving most fond regards to this ailing edifice when a short fellow of a stocky- disposition bopped through the door. Salt and pepper dusted the close cropped hair that had noticeably receded from a smooth, black forehead. He wore a three—piece, double—breasted suit and stacked—heel shoes that was once the garment of high fashion in the 1970’s.
“Hey, houseman,” a deep, rasping voice. “Let me get a rack.”
The mushroom nose reminded me of someone I used to know, but wasn’t quite this old.
“Hey, what’s going on around here?” The stranger continued. “I asked for a rack.”
“Gotta rack’ em yo’self, sport,” a voice said from somewhere in the room.
“Sport,” the stranger challenged. “Sport! Who in the hell you callin’ sport? You know who I am?”
“Don’t know, don’t care, and don’t give a damn, sport.”
The stranger hitched his pants and stood widelegged. At that moment I saw it, knew it, but didn’t want to concede to my revelation: Oggy Swift. I’ll b damned, Qggy Swift.
“Ha, I see what this is,” Oggy Swift said. “Lameville, U.S.A. Players recognize players, and you chumps wouldn’t know a player if he came before you in 22 carat solid gold.”
I had heard these words of Oggy’s a thousand times, words that used to be powerful enough to ignite high fantasies in me, but for the first time I felt they were just that. Words. Words without substance.
“Yo, slick.” He held his attention in my direction. “I know you?”
“I doubt it,” I replied, “but you’re Oggy Swift, right?”
He hitched his pants and stroked the salt and pepper. In live and living color. Hey, where’s everybody at? When the last time you seen Cincinnati Red?”
“Red’s dead,” I said.
“Dead? How’d he die?”
“A mark took him out back in ‘84.”
“What about Bo Zeke?”
“And Philly Slim? Don’t tell me he’s dead too.”
“Naw, he’s around, but he doesn’t know it. Old Slim bugged out in… ‘81 I think it was”
“And what about…” Oggy swift went on for about an hour rattling off names of persons that seemed to be associated with things that happened day before yesterday but in actuality had occurred at least 10 years ago.
“So where’s the action?” He said, after I had briefed him on what I knew of the names he had rattled.
“Things’ve changed, Ogg. 1987.”
“Don’t tell Oggy Swift ‘bout no 1987. The game is everlasting. You be true to the game, the game 11 be true to you.” He fell silent for a moment before adding, “Gotta go hit a lick, slick. Ain’ got time for no more high jiving.” He then turned briskly and bopped out the door.
Now and then I caught wind of Oggy’s doings: loaded craps falling apart and a mob of rowdy youngsters kicking him to sleep and leaving him in the gulley; young pimps making mockery of the obsolete lines their evening ladies relayed to them of an old Dad in a worn double—breast three—piece. The younger generation of fakes besmerching his great ability to blow easy laid marks.
Four mouths passed before I saw Oggy Swift again. His hair seemed to have accumulated a few more sprinkles of salt, the bop had gone out of his walk, and a brown paper bag with a bottle neck protruding from the opening bulged in his hip pocket. It was a Sunday morning.
Amidst the smokers of crack, the cowboys, and the jitts Oggy Swift wended his way to a bench in the far corner and began telling elaborate tales of the 1960’s and ’70’ s. The cowboys whispered among themselves and laughed audibly as they gazed upon him. The smokers of crack passed the pipe arid gave their undivided attention until the pipe returned, and then they completely forgot Oggy Swift, The jittersbugs pursed their lips and looked out the window while their ghetto—blasters prepared themselves for the next rap. When it thundered, they gave full attention to the rhythm and began to breakdance.
In the passing of a year, Oggy would come, brown bag in pocket, and issue the contents of his woolgathering. When he tired of this, on the bench he slept, double—breasted suit, stacked—heels and all.
Early one Monday morning, about a year after Oggy’s return, a suited man in a white sedan pulled up in front of Sarg’s Billiard Hall. He left his car long enough to hang a poster right inside the door, and then he sped away. After that, narco squads raided every day. Two months later a notice went up all over Sarg’s Billiard Hall: “Due to the progress of Urban Development…”
And still Oggy Swift sits on the bench, issues his tales, and awaits the big chance that would once again soar him to the realm of the Exalted One.