Jeans Pool

Nature vs. nurture, billiards and mixed signals on a dive-bar Monday night

It's a Monday night -- my birthday, in fact -- at Ruthie's (1829 Richmond). I'm there with my buddy, whom we'll call, for child custody reasons, "my buddy," and we're drinking pitchers of beer.

Ruthie's is a dive by just about any definition. I mean that in a good way. It's clean enough, but there's a certain veneer of dissipation to everything. Sort of like Keith Richards fresh from the shower; you could scrub and scrub and never cleanse it of its native unwholesomeness. As best I can tell, it's always populated by the same clutch of old guys bitchin' about their wives, kids, jobs and, in at least one case, a terrifying bowel obstruction. We're not truly "among" them yet, but there is time. Oh, yes, there is time.

My buddy and I are perched at the bar, and for a good while we're the only souls in the place. Ruthie herself has gone to the Rockets game, the very same one playing silently on the bar's big screen. The bartender is a taciturn older fellow with one astonishing, savant-like talent: He knows every damned thing about every Houston sports franchise, with the possible exception of the Aeros, and I say that only because the Aeros never come up. Frankly, talking sports with a guy who really does know it all is a drag; feeling outgunned, we try to move the conversation away from sports. Anything but sports.

So we start discussing evolutionary biology, and somewhere around the third pitcher, we tackle the so-called nature vs. nurture argument. And we conclude -- after lengthy debate -- that we need to get out more.

But I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, an erudite and persuasive argument for the nature side, and the book has convinced me that I can no longer blame my parents for my miserable life. Believe me, sitting in a bar like Ruthie's, drinking pitchers of beer, no matter how cold or affordable, is a particularly ripe time for assessing blame. Especially on the anniversary of my birth. But Pinker has persuaded me that my parents are in no way to blame -- other than genetically. And there's no satisfaction in blaming them for what can't be helped: the fact that I'm sitting in this bar rapidly approaching middle age with about $3 in my pocket and an increasingly cynical, some might say potentially homicidal, outlook on life. I ponder this and sip my beer. Was that a drop of sweat, or a lonely tear?

Which reminds me. The bar is a little warm inside, unseasonably so, as though the conversations that have gone on in here never escaped the building but instead drifted to the rafters and settled into an insulating miasma... hmm, where was I going? Oh, so the place is uncomfortably warm, and my buddy takes off his sweater. Unfortunately, when he dressed for the evening he hadn't anticipated doffing the sweater, and he's now wearing a tucked-in plain white T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. So, what I'm saying is he looks gay. Really gay.

I chide him about this, ha ha, we have a laugh, a little kiss, and we move on. Soon we're shooting pool, and a fellow approaches us to play the winner. No big deal, except that the guy is dressed absolutely identically to my friend -- blue jeans, white T-shirt, sneakers. And he is gay. The other guy, that is. Not that the gay guy introduces himself as "the gay guy" or anything, but when he walked in, my buddy said, "Check out the gay guy."

"What makes you think he's gay?" I asked, though I too suspected as much. I'm no Liza Minnelli, but I've been wrong about these things a time or two.

"Look at what he's wearing, man," my buddy replied.

Checkmate.

This kind of thing does happen to my buddy a lot. He's well scrubbed; his clothes are always clean and pressed; and no matter how drunk he gets, his hair is never out of place. Not for nothing has one of our mutual acquaintances -- this one gay in actual fact -- called him a "fagnet." Nevertheless, my buddy's girlfriend has by now joined us at the bar. And not to put too fine a point on it, but if I had a girlfriend, I'd be with her, too.

Anyway, I lose the pool game and head over to the jukebox, one of the prime attractions at Ruthie's, especially if you're into rootsy, sort-of-country, classic rock music that goes as well with beer as salted peanuts. And talk about value: ten songs for two bucks! You can't beat it. From the jukebox I head to the Megatouch for some video trivia with my buddy's girlfriend while he finishes his game of pool with our new friend.

Who, clearly confused by my friend's uniform, thinks they play for the same team. As my buddy's girlfriend and I hunker down behind the Megatouch machine, we try with all our might not to snicker at the flagrant display of seduction going on behind us. My buddy is fighting off as politely as he can, which, seeing as he was raised in West U and attended St. John's for years, is pretty damned polite. But personally, I think he could be fighting this fella off a little harder. Clearly there's some part of him that's flattered.

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