Booches Billiards Hall
110 South Ninth Street, Columbia

Apr 2, 2008 at 4:00 am
We're unsure if Booches' walls are yellow by design or are yellowed from decades of smoke that's accumulated here since it opened in 1884. The dank residue lurks between layers of paint, clinging onto Booches long after the smokers themselves sucked in their final drags and Columbia outlawed smoking all together. A hundred or more pool cues line much of the length of the right-side wall, dusty and cobwebbed, their last breaks long broken.

Toward the back of the long, narrow space, beyond the dark wood bar, past the Civil War-era snooker and billiards tables, there's a trap door. During Prohibition, the story goes, clandestine drinking and gaming would carry on within Booches' bowels. The door's been sealed for years.

There are just two toilets, the rolls of toilet paper suspended on stretched-out springs attached to the back of the bathroom door. If the bathrooms were closets, they could hold, at most, a vacuum cleaner and a couple boxes of sweaters. The lone, equal-opportunity sink is located outside of the bathrooms; the wet, gloppy bar of soap is shared by everyone.

To us, it is the most beautiful place in the world.

Booches is perhaps best known for its burgers served on wax paper, but we know it as the place where the words, "OK, really, just one beer," are completely without meaning. Back in college, we'd say them emphatically each time, but another open Budweiser (a "Bud Heavy") would somehow appear behind the one we hadn't even finished. Hours later, after the bartenders allowed us to flip the sign to "Closed," we'd stumble out the front door, mumbling thank-yous to whichever bartender had given us a ride home that night.

Though they're busy, our favorite barstool is miraculously empty when we walk in. We order a Bud Heavy. By way of greeting, Rick, Booches' co-owner asks, "So, you're on the every-year-and-a-half plan?" He's right, almost to the month, but he gives us a hug anyway. Between flipping burgers and catching parts of the game on television, we talk and throw back four Budweisers, almost as though we can't drink them quick enough. There's no place we'd rather be.

When it's time to leave, we slide Rick our business card and hop down from our stool, just as we've done hundreds of times before. But when we push open the door and step outside, we can't help feeling a little forlorn. Everything feels a little heavier once we leave this place. It's like being in a crowd of people, when there's pushing from all sides. The pressure's slight, but noticeable.

And then, days later, this e-mail: "I sent you a note so you would have my new e-mail address. And yet, I still have not heard from you. I guess you don't love me anymore. Rick." We smile: Booches has acquired legions of regulars over the decades — people who disappear only to reappear before they disappear for good. And we know that, one day, our face won't cause a flicker of recognition from anyone behind the bar. But for right now, we're grateful that day hasn't come. Not just yet.

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