Novelist Harmon Rangell shares memories of some of New York’s most famous poolrooms.
By 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 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 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 Notorious Ames
The most notorious of these was “Ames.” Located on 44th Street just off Seventh Avenue it was open twenty four 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…”
Other Rooms …
During those years there were many other “rooms” in NYC:
There was “Julian’s”…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”. They were: 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 descendants of Hoppe, Mosconi and Rudolph Wanderone, also known as “Minnesota Fats”.
O’Brien’s, East of Broadway
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 life 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.
One of the old guys …
In the early eighties, I think 1982; I became a “regular” at The House of Lords. That has lasted all these years and now, in 2014, 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.
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 serious 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.
Signs of the times
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… Here we are in the summer of 2020…most of us waiting for our favorite rooms to reopen after this Coronavirus pandemic. From Fritz’s in 1957, to The House of Lords, to Bayshore Billiards…with visits to many other rooms in between, for a span of sixty-three years I have felt the lure of the pool room. I have often wondered 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.
Harmon Rangell has been married to the same good woman for 58 years. He is a father, grandfather, retired businessman, writer, part time musician, collector of Bonsai trees, and self-described “Pool Room Junkie.”