The Carrera Septima at the corner of the old theatre Jorge Eliercer Gaitán seems empty for a Saturday night. The heavy rains which have fallen in the afternoon, so typical of Bogotá, have driven people away or dampened the enthusiasm of a stroll downtown.
The stairway shines with the reflected light of small mirrors that decorate the passage leading up to a second floor. I see my face multiplied by the shards of glass and I am taken by surprise at the yellow glow that permeates the venue. I perceive a smell which I don’t immediately recognize. I can only hear the clack of billiard balls and the laughter of the clients of the ‘Club de Billares Londres.’
The roof of the club conserves traces of the Republican, early 19th century-style house that once was inhabited by some Spaniard or Creole, and which has come back to life thanks to the legendary game of billiards. I speak to the manager and he tells me that he doesn’t quite know when billiards first began in Bogotá, but that for more than forty years, ever since the club first opened, the sport has been played here every day.
By a corner table two friends are talking, recounting anecdotes of their youth. When I get out my camera, they look at me. I explain to them that I am only here to do a modest photo story about this unique place. They look at each other, laugh and invite me to join them in their game. It is evident that they are here to have some fun: to get away from the routine of the city and to relax after a week of work while they stand over a wooden table, trade stories, remember former days and listen to songs of salsa, carrilera and vallenato.
I spend about half an hour playing with them and then my attention is caught by the sight of a table on the other side of the room where two women are just beginning their game. The light tends to be flat, giving the place a special atmosphere – private – almost intimate where the only grip on reality is the sound of the music and the laughter of a group of men and women mingling in a corner. Even so, the geometry of the game stands out.
Near them, I see two women who are playing ‘pool’ on a different kind of table. They ask me if the photos will come out in magazines such as People or Semana. No, I reply, but it doesn´t seem to interest them very much and they continue playing. Suddenly, one of them stops and speaks to me. “The good thing about the ‘Club de Billares Londres’ is that people come here from all over the city from every social class, rich or poor, to drink or to play, and no one gives you a dirty look, the kind that asks you what you are doing here. It´s a great place, because it always welcomes everyone”.
I speak to them a bit longer and I remember the smell. It evokes an image, the wood of an old house which has witnessed the passing of history.
I am walking the streets of the club district, the Zona Rosa, and it is 5:00 in the afternoon. I decide to stop for a cup of coffee near the Centro Andino shopping complex, that part of the city which never sleeps with its many fancy restaurants, pubs and bars. As I wander through the “T zone” – which takes its name from a certain intersection – and come out at the Calle 85 with Carrera 15, I see a glowing neon light on one side of the street, and it strikes my attention. Welcome to the ‘Country Club Billar’.
I enter through another small corridor flooded with fluorescent light. As soon as I pass the threshold, a waitress approaches, hands me a menu and asks me whether I am going to play. I inquire about the hourly rate and she tells me that the tables are full at the moment and that I’ll have to wait until someone finishes. I get out my camera once again and begin taking pictures. The clients are so absorbed in the game that no one pays attention to what I am doing. Twenty minutes pass or more when I feel someone approaching. I turn and a slender, dark-faced man offers me his business card. I glance at it, and read ‘Julián Torres. Billiards teacher. Colombian Champion. 2007.’
The surprise on my face must show. He smiles and asks me if I am interested in learning to how play. I am astonished to find myself standing next to a Colombian national billiards champion. My only response is that I would like to watch him play. His eyes glance around the room and stop at a table which is being cleaned. He points to it and wanders over. I follow him unassumingly and at a loss for words. I barely take in how he gets out a shiny wooden stick from a small leather case. It has two parts which he quickly assembles as he approaches the table.
Once he is standing over the table, stick in hand, he says that he will give me a demonstration. During five minutes he shows me why he is a champion. His dexterity at the table attracts a small group of spectators and he then stops because other clients are waiting to use that same table. We begin to talk and he tells me about the difficult life of being a professional billiards player in Colombia. It has to do with the reputation of the game in the country where some seem to associate it with a subculture of booze, women and song. Government support for the sport is meager and paltry prize money is offered at official tournaments.
Julián walks away, skirting the tables amidst the sound of clacking balls. I continue to wander through the place hearing about anecdotes and stories from the players. Some, the veterans of a thousand battles, others just young enthusiasts. I get dizzy from the bright lights, the loud music and chatter of voices. I sit down to rest and take one last good look around. Then a strange sensation takes over me. I realize, as I look around at the glowing worn velvet and the hanging lamps, that I am home.