The first pool room I walked into was in Queens Village, New York, across from the LIRR railroad station on Springfield Boulevard, just south of Jamaica Avenue.
It was up a long flight of stairs, and I think the reason I went there in the first place was because I heard they would serve you a beer even if you didn’t have a draft card.
The drinking age was eighteen then and a draft card, issued by selective service on your 18th birthday, was the right of passage. Anyway, I was about sixteen and, sure enough, a beer slid across the bar when I nervously asked.
The room was an old fashioned room… dark, if no one was playing The tiffany type lamps that hung over each table only lit if the table was being paid for, switched on by the houseman at the desk when he punched the clock.
I think I was immediately hooked. There was a sort of mystery, an underlying sense of danger—for I immediately knew not to challenge anyone there, even simply by making eye contact. These were people you didn’t fool around with.
In this darkened smoky room the hushed sounds were interrupted only by the clicking noise of the balls hitting each other. Little dramas were being played out at each island of light. There were the hustlers and their pigeons, sometimes referred to as fish… and if you simply watched for a while, you immediately knew who was who.
I really don’t remember how many times I returned there, but I’ve been a pool room junkie ever since.
I was never to become a good player. More than fifty years ago I ran forty eight balls when I was in the US Army in Germany, and before my game collapsed I ran nine in three cushion billiards—but I never graduated from pigeon to player.
In the nineteen sixties and seventies, there were pool rooms in New York City that attracted the best players and hustlers from all over the country. The most notorious of these was “Ames.” Located on 44th Street just off
Seventh Avenue, it was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was upstairs, and when you got to the top of the stairs you were right in the middle of the room. You walked up and you were enveloped by the sights and sounds of this unique place.
In the classic film “The Hustler,” which was partially filmed there, Paul Newman’s character, “Fast Eddy” Felson, walks up to the houseman and asks if they play straight pool there. The houseman, who was the real houseman in a cameo role, replies flatly: “Mister, this is Ames.”
In the early sixties, when Linda and I were newlyweds, Linda was working as a nurse at what was then Hillcrest General Hospital. When she had an early morning shift on a Sunday, I would drive her to work at about 5:30AM and then continue to Manhattan.
Walking into Ames I would often find big money games in progress—games that had started in the middle of the night and were still going on. I knew enough not to make a sound and simply find myself a seat, or a spot on the wall and silently watch.
It was during these years that I became intrigued with three cushion billiards. Comparing it to pool was like comparing checkers to chess. The author Robert James Waller once wrote:
There is a beauty about billiards that’s hard to explain if you have never played. It’s like watching a ballet, or listening to Bach. It contains within it pure form, point and counterpoint, fugue like movement and a sense of a small universe into which one can plunge forever…It is a different place from the cacophony of the pool tables only a few feet away. A place of silence, of concentration, of men who knew what they were doing…
During those years there were many other “rooms” in NYC:
There was “Julians”—located on 14th Street just West of Third Avenue. Julians was an upstairs room, like Ames in that you walked up into the middle of the room. It was next door to the Academy of Music.
There was “McGirrs”—a downstairs room at 8th Avenue and 45th Street. McGirrs always seemed to me to be the most dangerous. There’s no question the room was filled with gangsters, and you wouldn’t want to cross anyone there.
There was “Executive” billiards on 6th Avenue about 32nd Street. Just a block or so below Gimbels, it was up a double flight of stairs and was frequented mostly by garment center salesman. There were many quality three cushion players there at that time, several of whom I would meet again years later.
In Queens, on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, across from the Pan American Motel, was “The Golden Cue.” Taking over from Ames, which closed in 1966, The Golden Cue became the mecca for pool sharks and hustlers from all over the country.
I would go there to watch, maybe playing a game of billiards if asked, but mainly to take in the spectacle of it all. They were like gladiators come to do battle—the hustlers, always looking to “make a game.” There was Jersey Red, Johnny Ervolino, Boston Shorty, Irving “The Preacher” Crane, Luther “Wimpy” Lassiter and Steve Mizerak, to name a few.
I watched all of them, smooth and balletic, their cue sticks moving with grace and fluidity. They were the descendents of Hoppe, Mosconi and George Hegerman, also known as “Minnesota Fats.”
But the room where I spent the most time during those years was “O’Brien’s”. Located downstairs on 23rd Street just east of Broadway, it was right across the street from Madison Square Park, and only a short walk from my office on 23rd between 6th and 7th.
It was what a pool room should be—with Tiffany type lamps, not fluorescents, hanging over each table. Leo J O’Brien owned the room. He was a tall balding retired cop. Many of the lunchtime crowd worked for Met Life, whose headquarters building was right across the park on Madison Avenue.
There was a short, bald fellow named Sam, and a young intense player named Mel who would hunch low over his cue with his face kept at almost table level. I can envision their faces clearly even after all these years.
My boyhood friend Jerry (I am purposefully not using last names,) was a larger than life character who lived with a fearless exuberance—some would use the word excess. His was a fast burning candle, for he died of a massive heart attack just a few months before his fifty fourth birthday. He was dead in the car by the time his son got him to the hospital. We were the same age. He died in January of 1995. It’s hard to really grasp that that was almost twenty years ago. We had some adventures and good times together, he and I.
He was a good billiard player, far better than I, but occasionally, on a Sunday afternoon, he would call and ask me to join him for a game. We would meet at a room on South Oyster Bay road in Hicksville, “The House Of Lords”. It was a nice room, although it lacked the dark character of the NYC rooms previously described.
It was in those years that some pool rooms tried to go upscale. In an effort to woo a more desirable customer base, they made the rooms brighter, even changing the color of the tables from the acceptable green to pastels. This was seen as a travesty by true pool room aficionados. The House of Lords did not go that way, and was the closest thing to the old pool rooms that one could find.
In the early eighties, I think 1982, I became a “regular” at The House of Lords. That has lasted all these years and now, some 32 years later, I am one of the “old guys” that plays every once in awhile, but mostly sits in the high backed pool room chairs, against the wall, drinking coffee, and watching the better players do battle—even making the occasional wager on the outcome.
Since I stopped working three years ago, I can be found there most every afternoon. It is a haven, an escape from the rest of the world, and all of us there seem to be drawn in by the same force.
To all the regulars like me, dark clouds have been gathering on the horizon. We all knew that, given the extraordinarily high rent, the room was in trouble. The lease was up and the landlord remained firm in his demands. And now the inevitable seems to be becoming a reality. The pool room junkies might be forced to find a new home, leaving a room which houses so many memories.
Dan, the owner, has had a terribly tough winter; the possible loss of the pool room pales in comparison with the loss he suffered a few months ago. His sixteen year old son, a young man with special needs, who brought immeasurable joy to him and his family, passed away. Many of us from the pool room attended the funeral in an effort to give Dan some measure of support. I hope it worked. Even a little.
A few months ago it seemed as if we would be rescued: A promoter and recognized figure around local rooms named “Chicago Larry,” someone I have known for many years, was interested. He and I would often trade bad jokes whenever we ran into each other. He’s been backing one of the top pool players in the country, Earl Strickland, and the idea was to install Strickland as the house pro.
His presence would undoubtedly attract many big time gamblers, and action would return to the House of Lords. Negotiations seemed to be moving in the right direction when Larry suffered a heart attack. The rescue was not to happen. Subsequently, Larry brought Strickland to “Steinway Billiards,” a room in Queens, and if you want to see a big money game, that’s the place to go.
The room seems to be destined to become a Dollar Store! Thousands and thousands of really cheap items filling the place that holds so many memories. Memories of those pool room junkies who will not be moving on to yet another room like many of us will.
Memories of my friend Jerry, who I spoke of previously. Joe the Cab, a pleasant and amiable fellow. CB or Cadillac Bob, who would delight in reciting Casey at The Bat to anyone who would listen. Estranged from his family he would spend some of the last nights of his life sleeping in his car.
Memories of Rocky. Irwin. Nat, the NYC cop who died only a few days before he was to be married. Sy, a small dapper man whose hands would shake with Parkinson-like symptoms but would get solid when he stroked his cue. Danny, big tall Danny who would take off his shoes and play in his socks. Jerry, a retired cop who died of a massive stroke and who would regale me with stories of the busts he made in the Chelsea Hotel.
Memories of Frank, who would intone “Goodbye to Gelt” obviously to the loser of a game. Randy, the houseman who had hair down his back, dirty long fingernails and would refer to himself as ‘The Entity.” Tony, a heavy set man who was in the restaurant supply business. Phil “Carvel” a truly abrasive person.
Memories of “Con Ed Jerry.” Danny, a loudmouth abrasive bully. Teddy, a quality player who told the most outlandish stories one of which being that he had had sex with Marilyn Monroe. Bobby, whose waterfront dream house had been inundated by Hurricane Sandy and who died of cancer only a few weeks ago. Herb, also a quality player with whom I was friendly outside of the room and who left his “Karella” cue to me. Herb owned a room in Queens years ago. Frank “The Teacher”, a retired shop teacher. Joe, a Nassau County cop. Jackie, who along with his sons would install the cloth on pool and billiard tables. Jack, “Brooklyn Jack” whose specialty was the bank shot. Mike, a gun toting tough guy who found religion and turned his whole life around.
There are many others whose names escape me even as their faces remain. But I must sadly say that at the time of this writing my pal Pete, aka “Rabbit” is fighting for his life. A tough as nails guy, battling an unbeatable foe. I fully expect the phone to ring one of these days, or to walk into the room and have someone tell me that his fight was lost. He also leaves an indelible imprint on the room.
A few days ago a sign went up on the wall: “Please empty your lockers”— it said out loud what we all feared. My cues now reside in the trunk of my car rather than locker #9.
And yet another sign appeared: “Pool tables for sale; $1000.00, $750.00 to move and set up with new cloth. See Dan.”
It’s rumored that the four billiard tables will be sold to a room in Bayshore, which is where many of us might wind up if all this does indeed come to pass. And if it does, we pool room junkies will most likely wander around from room to room. When your cue is in your car you can show up anywhere, unless of course you become a regular somewhere, but after so many years it will never be the same.
So… from Fritz’s in 1957, to The House of Lords in 2014, for a span of fifty seven years I have felt the lure of the pool room. I often wonder if my perceptions would have been different had I been a more talented player. Certainly I have often wished that would be the case.
The pool room subculture is a relatively small one. We all recognize each other and I’m sure that the next room I walk into someone will nod—a silent hello, from one junkie to another.
Photo: Provided by author
Editor: Hannah Blue