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A Solitary Man

Sawyer (inset) speaks fondly of her time with Lassiter.

Back in 1965, when Charlotte Sawyer first met Wimpy, the then-divorced mother of three was just 23 years old. Wimpy was 48. Charlotte was working hard as a night-shift nurse. Wimpy played pool and lived out of hotels. But Charlotte says Wimpy was the perfect gentleman, so gracious and shy that it never really occurred to her that he was a professional gambler. Nor did she understand then just how great a pool player he actually was. Charlotte and I spoke for a couple of hours on the phone, and it was clear to me that even now, 50 years later, that she feels very protective of him. "Please be kind to Wimpy," she said.

She still remembers the day she met Lassiter. She had just stepped into a People's Drugstore, on Granby and College Place in Norfolk, when a casual acquaintance approached her. With him was the 9-ball player, then already with gray hair. There was also another friend there. "I remember Wimpy spoke to me for a while, and then he took my number and then he called me later," said Charlotte.

At the time Charlotte was raising her kids from a previous marriage, while also working long hours. Sometimes her nursing shift would go from 3 p.m. till 11. Sometimes she began at 11. Lassiter, by contrast, had never held a straight job, and at the time was mostly living out of suitcases. In Norfolk he stayed at the Howard Johnston's on Military Drive or at the Travelers Inn on Bainbridge. Charlotte said she never really grasped how Lassiter lived then, how he spent years as a professional gambler and sometimes hustled. "This is news to me, even now," she said. "I knew he was good at pool, and that he went to tournaments. I just thought he did very well. But remember: I was very young."

Lassiter was a sweet man, but also eccentric - and sometimes both at once. She said Lassiter, for instance, enjoyed handing out $20 bills to the other nurses where she worked. Or sometimes he'd hand out fifties. The nurses loved it. And then there was the time at the Norfolk Sears when he gave a wad of cash to a family in the toy department. It's unclear what possessed Wimpy, other than it was the Christmas season. "I remember he said 'Those people could use some cash,' and he went and gave this man and woman a bill." On another occasion Wimpy was taken by the sudden urge to drop cash into the mailboxes of random strangers.

All this confirms what I've always heard about Lassiter: He was a modest man of modest tastes - but generous to a fault. Indeed, he seemed incapable of holding onto money, spending it on others with a gambler's confidence. He gave cash to nephews, nurses and strangers. He bought Charlotte a refrigerator, and later offered to buy her a fat diamond ring. And when he was running low, he'd pay a visit to his Norfolk stake horses or call Walter Davis, his rich benefactor from Texas. "I remember he went to a pool parlor once and he came out with a handful of money - he just said 'I was running a little short, so I had to go in and ask for some more,' " recalled Charlotte. There were also stories of how Lassiter would buy a new car, wreck it, and then buy a new one with cash money.

It was all so strange. So exciting. And for a while Wimpy and Charlotte got along famously. He'd call. They'd go get dinner over at Doc's, down on Monticello Avenue, or they'd go driving around Norfolk, listening to Nat King Cole's Love Letters on the AM radio. Wimpy showed Charlotte how to hold a cue and how to aim. He even gave her one. "This is yours to keep," he said. "Forever." The cue had his name imbedded in the butt, next to the words "World Champion." He also gave her an old book, wrote her letters and left her with a few other keepsakes.

Charlotte told me things about Wimpy that have not been widely reported before. For instance: Wimpy loved guns and he competed in target-practice tournaments. Charlotte also provided more details about well-known aspects of Lassiter's personality. He was a quiet man, a man of surprising humility, and also spiritual. "I remember him pointing out many times that a man cannot even make a blade of grass. He'd say 'Only God can do that.' " She said Wimpy had an odd, endearing little laugh, and - as first reported by Minnesota Fats - his lips indeed would swell up when he got nervous. The old hustler also loved talking about his family, about his bachelor brother Charles who shared his home on Pearl Street in Elizabeth City, N.C., and his other brother Clarence - the younger brother with all his kids. And once, Charlotte remembers, the Ed Sullivan people called. They wanted Wimpy to perform trick shots on national TV but he was too shy to accept.

But somewhere in there, Charlotte also began to notice other aspects of Wimpy's character, aspects that were not so endearing. Lassiter, as was well known, was prone to drink. Not Ralph Greenleaf-caliber drinking, but certainly more than Charlotte felt comfortable with. He was on the road a lot, playing tournaments, living out of hotels. His life was so wildly different - and he seemed to be drinking an awful lot. "I remember on one occasion he came to my apartment and he was pretty high. He gave my children $100 bills. I collected them and gave them back. 'They can't have that,' I told him." And it was probably then, after a year or so of courtship, that it dawned on Charlotte that Wimpy was not the man for her.

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