Big John

April’s fool day, 2017, I met James Johnson.  His passion reminded me of this article, so I dug it out and posted it.  Thanks James.

A few weeks ago I read an article about winners and losers.  I have been thinking about this a lot.  A memory came back that illustrates an important example in my life.

I ran this by a few friends to see if it was interesting, they thought it was.  I will try to keep this short and to the point.

In my 20s I lived in Cleveland, Ohio, a place of widespread violence and ghettos.  At the time of this story I lived at the edge of the Case campus.  It is now Case Western Reserve.  This was only a few blocks from the start of a famously low-life area of crime and some violence too.

I mostly rode a motorcycle for transportation.  I also liked to play pool and I was good.  I noticed a pool hall on 105th street between Euclid and Carnegie.  It would be dangerous to park a nice motorcycle without keeping visual contact.  One day I noticed that a car had just pulled out one space from the huge window of the pool hall.  I took it, went in and introduced myself to the owner, Big John.  Big John was probably 40 years old, about 6’ 5” and 260 lbs of muscle.  He was a gentle giant.

This was a black pool hall and being white, I needed to test the water to see how this would go over.  Big John was very friendly and inviting, so I got in a game.  I kept looking out and down the street a bit at my motorcycle.  Big John noticed and asked me of my concern.  I explained and he suggested that I move it up on the sidewalk directly in front of the window and everyone could watch it.  I feared getting a ticket and he assured me that I wouldn’t get a ticket, so I moved it.  I was just learning how things worked in Big John’s world.

I would stop in once or twice a week, during the day, to play a few games.  Over a short period I began to learn what was going on.  It quickly became evident that the place wasn’t profitable enough to keep it open, it was a money loser.  I later learned that Big John had very cheap rent from the landlord.

Soon, Big John told me that I was the first white person to ever enter the place.  He thanked me because all of the players were around my age and most had never had a respectful conversation with a white person.  I was stunned, but began to understand how this worked.  All of the regulars just loved Big John and did all of the maintenance etc.  They even handled the money.  Big John reminded me of a broody hen and her chicks.  I don’t recall seeing him play pool.

From the first, the players always had to play for money and a dollar was normal.  I didn’t need, or want their money, so I had to be careful with how I played.  When I offered to play for fun, they just countered with “This is how we do it.” So it was cultural, OK, I played for money, but made sure that I lost often.

Eventually, I had played all the young men and knew who was the best player was.  When a lesser player wanted to bet me, at first I would say, Jim is the best and I have beaten him, so why would you wish to play me for money.  Again, “This is how we do it.” So I gave up and went with the cultural norm.

One day Big John told me that when I wasn’t there, they would all brag about how many times that each had won a game against me.  It was only eight ball that they played, not my favorite, but I can play it.  The players really liked me.

Big John saw that I “carried concealed” and understood it, but explained that in that neighborhood, I was safe because he had put out the word.  I was still learning how Big John operated and his unusual mission.

One day Big John told me that he was a good pool player, but nothing like me.  He revealed that when it appeared that I missed a shot, he could see that I was just rearranging the table to suit some purpose, often to allow my opponent to win.  I had been “caught” but it was OK because he appreciated what I was doing.  I was careful to never shoot one handed, because that would give away too much.  Nobody, except Big John, noticed that I often switched from right to left for my own practice.

Big John would send a player out on a job for a week or two.  He had employers who needed workers and he selected those that he could trust.  Often they were hired for full time if they performed well.  Big John had more requests for workers than potential employees that were right for a particular job.

I learned that the police would bring him the “bad guys” that they thought had a chance at turning out OK.  Big John was running an under the table, unofficial training center with cooperation with police, the courts and employers.

My friends could hardly believe my stories of how I was treated, so I often took them with me.  I even took my girl friend with me.  My white friends were treated with total respect.  They saw the black ghetto differently, just like the blacks saw us whites differently.  A few times the parents of the players would come in to check on their son and maybe to see the white kid.

Big John always had this smile on his face as the social engineering took place.  I came to really respect his life mission.  He told me that he had gotten in trouble as a teen and someone had saved him.

Big John was a winner and was doing his very best to help those on a losing path.  It didn’t always work out well, but mostly it did.  These youngsters would talk with each other and most of the new guys would learn about the chance to turn their life around and took it.

Today this informal system has been mostly replaced with government programs intended to fix society.  We all know that it rarely works and mostly just addicts the recipients to a life of welfare.

The only place that I imagine a similar program today would be some church supported effort.  I hope that I am wrong; I hope that the world is full of Big Johns.

Here is my question;  Do we have Big Johns today?