Julian’s Billiard Academy was over a Horn & Hardart Automat. Photo courtesy of Harmon Rangell
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 when I nervously asked, a beer slid across the bar.
The room was an old-fashioned room, dark if no one was playing. The Tiffany-type lamps that hung over each table lit only 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” — lesser players 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 U.S. Army in Germany, and before my game collapsed I ran nine a few times in three cushion billiards. But I never graduated from pigeon to player.
In the 1960s and 70s 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 Eddie” 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.”
Pool hustlers from all over the country would show up at Ames. It was like a magnet. They were like gladiators coming to do battle, always looking to “make a game.” They included Jersey Red, Johnny Ervolino, Boston Shorty, Irving “The Preacher” Crane and Luther “Wimpy” Lassiter, to name a few. I watched them all, smooth and balletic, their cues moving with grace and fluidity. They were the descendants of Hoppe, Mosconi and Rudolph Wandereone, otherwise known as “Minnesota Fats.”
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 Julian’s, located on 14th Street just West of Third Avenue. Julian’s 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 McGirr’s, a downstairs room at Eighth Avenue and 45th Street. McGirr’s 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 Sixth 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.
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 Sixth and Seventh. 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, balding 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.
It’s been more than sixty years since I first climbed the stairs of that pool room in Queens Village. Sixty years of feeling a sort of comfort when I would walk into one of those darkened rooms. Sixty years of people whose last names I never knew, knowing them only as ”Brooklyn Jack,” “Cadillac Bob,” “Joe the Cab” and “Frank the Plumber.”
None of the NYC poolrooms exist today but I think of them often.
The pool room subculture is a relatively small one. We all recognize each other and when a face appears that seems familiar, a face not necessarily known by name, that face might nod — a silent hello, from one junkie to another.
Harmon Rangell, 77, has been married to the same good woman for 56 years. He is a father, grandfather, retired businessman, writer, part-time musician, collector of Bonsai trees and self described “Pool Room Junkie.” His novel “Jake’s Tale” is available at Amazon.com. He can be reached at email@example.com