Befriending Jim White

Befriending Jim White

 

Camden New Jersey is a city which has changed a lot and like all the other cities, neighborhoods are bounded by streets. Most of the time they are four or five blocks in size, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller, depending upon the city. As with about all neighborhoods, the demographics changed from one neighborhood to the next but in the sixties there weren’t all that many mixed neighborhoods. One is Italian, next might be Polish or Irish or Chinese or African American or some other ethnicity. And there were different kinds of bars within each neighborhood.

 

There were lots of places where a guy would go with a date or his wife or look for some female to meet. Nice places, clean places, places with dart teams and pool teams and shuffle board teams and like that. And there were Bars and Saloons, which also had the same types of games in them, but a guy would never think of taking a “nice” girl or wife into such a place. These were rough and tumble joints, mostly. They were rough and tumble mainly because of one element of society which frequents these places. The street wise types, the muscle beer types and the motor cycle gang types and the just plain gang types. One thing about the kinds of people who hung out in those places: they were gamblers. Not to suggest that there wasn’t gambling in all the other bars and taverns but these folks would bet on anything, anytime, and they had no sense about money. That was the distinguishing feature most of them shared. They would collect their weekly pay from what ever they were doing, mostly payday was Friday but sometimes Saturday, depending on if they worked Saturday, because if it were any other day a number of them wouldn’t show up for work the following day.  In they come with their cash or check and first things first would pay off their bar bill. The owners of the bars knew their clientele and that was a condition of letting a person run a bar bill. By the time they left the bar on payday a goodly percentage of them would have little or no money left. They’d spend it on over drinking and buying others drinks and betting on about every game that was in the bar or on sports pools. If they couldn’t play the game they’d start betting on those who were, if it were a decent match.

 

So, given this information, what’s a simple guy who loves to play the game of darts for fun, and sometimes use money as a way to keep score of who won the most games, to do? Not a lot of the upper level darts guys frequented these rough and tumble places so the poor things in these places were left to pass their money around to each other. Someone had to help with this situation and being the Good Samaritan that I was I accepted that responsibility.

 

So it came to be that I walked into a bar in the Kramer Hill section of Camden New Jersey in 1970. I don’t remember the place’s name. There were two doors, one from the back parking lot and one from the street, on opposite sides of the building. From the back door entrance, as you entered, there was a dart board on the wall to the left, and a bar along the wall on the right. There were rest room entrances at the far end of the bar, booths along a wall that was half the length of the bar and one wall of the restrooms, with not much room between the bar stools and the booths. A pool table was directly ahead just off another wall, which was this side of the rest rooms.

 

Two guys at the bar, one on a stool the other standing and talking to the one seated. The one standing had that look of a wiry, quick and strong guy. His shoulders sloped and his arms were well tuned. He had that demeanor about him that shouted “Street Wise.”

 

Belly up to the bar, draught Bud, I say. This was no place to order a coke if you didn’t want to get noticed. I lit a Chesterfield, leaned on one elbow and turned my attention to the dart set up behind me.

 

“You play,” came from the guy standing? Yea, I like the game, you? “I’m on a team, in the league. I’m not as good as I used to be, I’ve been away from the game for a while.” Wanna play, I say? “Yea, I’m Jim,” he says. George, I say. Something about Jim that strikes me the right way. I like the guy. We play one game of everything counts for six innings and I win by a few points. “Want to play for something, Jim says” Sure, I say. A beer, I ask? “Yea,” Jim says. We play, I win and I see Jim is not very good at this. His stroke is short, his body lunges just a touch and he can’t group his darts worth a hill of beans. Since I’m such a nice guy, and I like this guy, I decide to put my fishing pole away. I back off enough to have the games go back and forth. “You’re good at darts, huh, Jim says?” Since I’m being nice, Yea, I am, I say. Some how, Jim sized the situation up, an instinct from the street I guess. “Looking for a money game, huh?” I nod, not so’s anybody should know, I say and smile. We connected.

 

Anybody come in here that plays for a few bucks that I should know about, I say? “Some, Jim says. Maybe somebody will show up.” We talk about the league, and Len Craig and other people for a while.” Jim looks past my shoulder and says “Here come a couple of guys who play a lot in here.” I cast a casual glimpse and we continue talking while the two guys get into a dart game. Jim tells me he knows them by sight but hasn’t played them. Jim says, “Wanna try ‘em?” Partners, I say.

 

Jim gets us into the game. We play a couple of games for drinks and it looks like we need to call games which favor having one strong partner so I suggest that to Jim, quietly. After a few more games which go back and forth I quietly ask Jim which one will go for a few games single O. Jim tells me. We’re partners all night, right, I say? And we both know how we want this to work. I’ll get to the right guy eventually and we’ll split the winnings.   “How about we play for a buck a game, Jim asks?”

 

I’ve been playing a reserved game, winning when I had to, letting Jim win the game for us when he could, just pacing and sizing things up. Like, which innings does this guy prefer and which games does he rather play. I’m nibbling on my beer, back turned to the board, when I hear voices rise. Jim and the two guys have a disagreement over a shot which was made, or not, and eyes became locked over the exchange. Now I didn’t want to lose a chance at a few bucks and this set up was too good to lose. I could beat this guy without even breaking a sweat so I had to resolve this quickly. Jim had the darts in his hand and I saw him put them down while looking at one of the guys. I knew what was coming. Both those guys were bristled. Not a good thing.

 

I step about half way toward the other team. I got this Jim, don’t worry about it, I say. I turned to the two guys and Jim stalked off to the bar far enough to be out of reach but close enough to where he could get right back if needed. I learned what the disagreement was, understood I could handle the situation and let them have their way. I took my turn, made the shot, a difficult one it was, and that ended the game.

 

We played only a couple of more games before the other’s quit playing and left the bar. Jim and I split the few bucks we had, got a couple of more beers and then I left, saying I had a few more stops to make before I called it a night.

 

Not being one to shirk my responsibilities I returned to that bar again the next week. Jim was there. He greeted me like some long lost brother. There were maybe a dozen people in the place and he told everyone; “this is George and he’s my friend,” he guided me to one of the booths. He instructed the barmaid: “George doesn’t pay for anything tonight.” Wow, because we won a few dollars? This is strange. Great, but strange.

 

We sat and began talking, well, me mostly listening. Jim unloaded. He was the King of Kramer Hill he told me. He owned this place, he said in a matter of fact tone. One of the women at the bar got up and headed toward the rest rooms. The distance from the booth table to the bar was only a couple of feet, and as she got even with us Jim planted his foot against the bar, blocking her way. “You want a girl tonight, he asked me?” I didn’t know what to say. Jim didn’t wait; “How ‘bout her. She looks good, huh?” This woman was with some dude at the bar so I knew this was going to get real bad, real fast. I looked up at the woman. She was standing stark still her hands just above Jim’s leg, but not touching. She had a frightened look on her face. Here comes the guy, and trouble. The guy walked the few feet down the bar, in our direction, but just as he got close to where we were Jim stopped him. And me. All Jim did was look at the guy and say; “Sit your ass back down.” The guy backed to his stool and sat. The woman stood without a movement.

 

In a flash I understood what he’d said. He owned this place – which had nothing to do proprietorship of this bar or Kramer Hill. Jim was a genuine bad ass. And I was his friend. Therefore what ever I wanted to do had his blessing. Oh, my God, how do I get out of this?

 

Thanks Jim, I appreciate this but I’m really not in the mood for it right now. I’m looking for some dart action. His reaction was something else. “Sure. That’s cool.” He dropped his foot, the woman forgot about going to the rest room, turned and walked straight out the back door with her guy right behind her. As if nothing happened Jim took up talking again. We’re low on beer here, he said and two showed up right quick. We visited in Jim’s “place” for an hour or so and I learned what he meant by what he’d said the first time we met. He had been away from darts for a while. Yea, in the slammer for murder was why he’d been away. He’d beaten some poor sap to death. Some how his conviction had been over turned and he was now out. It had been his second conviction. He told me some about his history and wasn’t bragging about it. He showed me his hands as he talked about why he couldn’t play darts all that well. The knuckles were all lumpy and a bit crooked. Got that way from punchin’ guys out, he explained. Seems he picked up money by helping collect over due “loans” once in a while, among other odd jobs kinds of things. He was telling me things which could have been true, but I knew for certain he was the genuine article.

 

As I sat listening I was wondering what had happened that put me on such a high scale with him. A dart game? Doesn’t seem likely. Then it struck me. I had told Jim I’d take care of a problem for him. Not in those exact words, of course, and certainly not with the intent that Jim attached to it. I’d been talking about handling the dart game situation and Jim thought I meant I would handle the two guys for him. I was protecting the King of Kramer Hill? What kind of bad ass did he think I was? And more importantly, how could I get out of there without him finding out what a mistake he’d made?

 

This was one time when being able to hustle really did come in handy. The ability to let someone believe what they wanted to believe, even without facts to support them, can be a blessing. I’ve not been back there.

 

Jim played one game for Apollo, the team which won the championship that year. Team members Bob Thiede, Joe Dick, and Jack Fletcher all averaged over 50 and Len Craig only averaged 49.91. Jim, in his game, shot 40, and nobody died.

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