The first indication that R.A. Dyer can toss off the odd, memorable sentence comes early in "Hustler Days" when he writes: "Elizabeth City, North Carolina, can be crossed easily by bicycle, and often is, with children and old men peddling beneath a lemonade sky."
Dyer, who lives in Austin, Texas, was in Elizabeth City because it is where Wimpy Lassiter was born and lived when he wasn't living on the road. Lassiter, like Jack "Jersey Red" Breit, Greg "The Big Train" Stevens, Don Willis, and the notorious Minnesota Fats, was a pool player. Sometimes Lassiter made a living on tournament money. Sometimes he made a much more handsome living hustling suckers who took him for a fat, loud drunk, failing to understand until far too late that Lassiter was one of the most accomplished pool players ever to have lagged for the break.
Though Dyer now shakes his head in wonder and chagrin at how long it took him to research and write Hustler Days, it's evident that he had a terrific time collecting the tales told by the hustlers and their various companions. They are tales of loneliness, tales of competition, tales of men oddly proud to have survived for decades not only without any visible (or at least reportable) means of support, but without any of the baggage most middle class folks take for granted: mortgages, for example, or spouses, children, insurance, or medical or dental care. Sometimes they are tales of withering defeat, such as the loss "Jersey Red" suffered at the hands of Wimpy Lassiter at the U.S. Open Pocket Championship in Las Vegas in 1969...
"Red could only sit and watch, and that whispered
question became louder, more distinct. 'Are you really
the best?' The whispering turned to fear, and fear never
arrives alone. Always in tow comes her bitch sister, defeat."
Dyer characterizes the players he chronicles as "titans, yes, but titans from a secret realm." Beyond the pursuit of the joy of telling good stories well, he wrote Hustler Days in part to render the realm a little less secret. Readers who'd never have heard of Red and Wimpy and the rest of the departed masters of this "rogue sport" if he hadn't told their tales will be grateful.
This program aired on January 9, 2004. The audio for this program is not available.