A Different Kind of Pool Hall: Tan Dai by Big J-Mo

2557 Gessner Dr.
Houston, TX 77043
(713) 462-9240

January 2004–A giant dollar store named King Dollar was the main attraction at the strip center at Gessner and Westray. The strip center included several other rag tag stores including another dollar store, an Asian restaurant whose specialty was a dish called Pho and several other nick-knack stores. It didn’t particularly look nice and didn’t have everything one dreamed of but for some reason was always packed with customers wanting to take home a part of the strip center for themselves. The pothole-infested parking lot let you know how much the owners really cared about the property. The parking lot was littered with cracks making it look like it had been hit with an earthquake. The small ATM machine near the edge of the parking lot was there so you could frantically get more money to go and spend in the luxurious dollar stores. The Hartz Chicken was located conveniently near corner of the parking lot, so that weary shoppers could have a first class meal to go along with the grand merchandise they had bought. Not far from the Hartz there was a nice little place called Donut World where shoppers could get what the name suggests, donuts, they also served kolaches and a wide variety of frothy beverages. There was a computer store that no one ever seemed to go in, but somehow always managed to stay afloat. Along with being packed with stores the strip center was also packed with cultural diversity from the Asian restaurants serving noodles and awkward kinds of meat, to the Mexican restaurant on the opposite edge serving beans, rice and a variety of enchiladas. Everyone, of all shapes and sizes seemed to enjoy the diversity of the delectable diners and the stunning sites of the stores. The endless flow of people into and out of the giant store known as King Dollar made you realize no one could resist the allure of a dollar store. Yes, this strip center was constantly flowing with traffic, oh and there were cars there too.

Despite all these things there was one place that stood out and almost did not seem to belong, a pool hall by the name of Tan Dai. The brawny bulk of a building seemed to invite all kinds of different people into its open arms. Tan Dai claimed a Vietnamese lady named Valerie as its owner, she operated the entire place mostly from behind the counter to take your I.D. or take your money. She seemed always frantic, scampering from one side of the place to the other, cashing this and that serving people their food, her feet pitter-pattering along the floor, always in movement as if she was a worker ant staying loyal to the queen ant known as Tan Dai. The outside of the place wasn’t exactly glamorous it had green trim with the white letters that spelled out the name and windows that ran from the ceiling to the ground that had worn out tint on them and had needed replacing for quite sometime. It was just a pool hall. The inside was nothing more than an open room with gambling machines in the back that were constantly being clicked on and meddled with, Jacks, Kings, and Queens constantly popping up on the television like screens. Near the gambling machines there were vending machines packed with chips, candy, and every other sort of junk food imaginable. Closer to the door than the vending machines the billiards tables sat like a dog waiting to be pet. This game was also known as three-ball. The game is played by making your ball hit the other two balls, doesn’t sound complicated but being a master at it definitely took practice. Asian men predominantly played this game; occasionally there would be a person of another race playing but mostly just Asian men spouting “Du Mah’s” and other various Vietnamese cuss words. There were only three of these kinds of tables in the entire place, so they were always flooded with people watching, yelling, and drinking. There was also 7 quarter sized pool tables in which the price was five dollars an hour to play on, the price may seem a little steep but everyone who played definitely took their 5 dollars of enjoyment with them as they walked out the door. These tables were not always as packed as the three-ball tables because there were more, but definitely had their share of people playing at them. The felt reminded you of a golf course green waiting for the small white ball to land on it but the felt waited for the crack of a break or the roll of the multi-colored balls. The weekends the place was so crowded you could hardly get in and the room was always filled with cigarette smoke that rose to the top and hovered like a radiation cloud. The trashcans scattered throughout the room were constantly filled with beer bottles and the occasional coke can. The tables were full of people hoping to become the next Vivian Villarreal, one of the women’s top players or Mike Massey, the greatest trick shot artist in the game. So many people gathered together just to play a game; no one ever knew what could be running through the player’s minds. Most of them probably had winning on their mind and forgot the true enjoyment of playing pool. Occasionally you would see some of the greatest shots pulled off, but most of the time it was just an array of amateurs trying to become a hustler or a pro. Speaking of hustlers, there would always be some punk kid who thought he could beat the world challenging everyone to a game and then wanting to play for money. I myself was sometimes drawn into these battles for bills, and usually wound up on the losing end. But these kids who thought they were hustlers were usually nothing more than some excuse for a pool player who could make a couple of good shots and would rely on the other person psyching their own selves out. All sorts of different people of all races just gathered in one place to share and enjoy the sport of pool.

Aside from being a pool hall the building also served as a restaurant, that’s right another Asian restaurant. This one was unlike the others; it had a karaoke machine in it. The karaoke machine always seemed to be in use by drunken Asian men that were exactly what the word karaoke means, tone deaf. From my side of the pool hall world I would hear the men singing as loud as they could, and just as out of tune, in Vietnamese while spectators looked on to enjoy their friend or business partner make a total jackass of himself. Aside from the constant caterwauling of the Asian men there was a thriving restaurant business; people paid eight dollars for a bowl of the authentic fried rice, if the rice was worth it I never found out. The menu had all sorts of Vietnamese dishes on it including pho, egg rolls, and sesame chicken. The restaurant was open just as much as the pool hall was, but never seemed to fill up near as much as the pool hall did. Yes, the building served as a place of recreation and a place to stuff your face, but mainly derived its income from the hitting of balls with wooden sticks.

My friends and I usually used this palace of billiards as our weekend hangout. We would stay till the wee hours of the morning until they had to shut the blinds on us, and the owner, Valerie, would come by and politely tell us that this needed to be our last game. We sometimes had up to 15 of our friends crowded in that building and gathered around a one maybe two tables, all playing each other having as much fun as possible, sometimes maybe too much fun with our constant running around and being the loudest group of people into the entire establishment. One particular time my friends and I chased each other around and slapping each other’s butts possibly annoying the other customers but we didn’t care, we had fun. I myself was usually the head stick or the best player out of my friends although I did have my occasional losses. There were times when we wouldn’t even really care about playing pool we would just hang out while a game was going on and watch it, all just to be together. Talking, laughing, and messing around was our main motivation for being in the building. There were also many other groups of friends in the pool hall, all just like us wanting to hang out and talk with companions. Sometimes our groups would merge and we could make new friends and talk with each other. You could look around the entire pool hall and see almost nothing but happiness and who knew it could all be from a game of pool.

This was perhaps the only place in the entire strip center where you could interact with your fellow patrons. You could communicate and enjoy something together instead of trying to wrestle products out of each other’s hands and fight about who was in line first. This was almost a sanctuary from the insane world, and a place where friends could come to relax and meet new friends without worrying about looking stupid or being shy. You didn’t have to communicate through speech you could simply ask someone to play a game of pool and could immediately feel ready to talk to them and sit back and enjoy the game with them. Perhaps this pool hall was much more than that; maybe it was a sort of spa for people who were tired of the stresses of the world. The spa seemed too work quite well too because week after week the same people would poke their heads in the building to see what was going on and then come inside to enjoy the rattling of the pool balls on the table or the sound of a perfect break. The happiness that was in that place could not be mistaken for anything else and people constantly shared it with others. If you saw a person come out of the building without a smile on their face it was no fault of the pool hall because the aura of that place generated at the least a smile. The strip center at Westray and Gessner was nothing more than just that, but was lit up and brought to life by the glowing letters that spelled out the name of the place called Tan Dai.





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