I still remember the pool room. Guys and Dolls they used to call it. Back in the ‘70’s when my first marriage was falling apart I spent a lot of time in that place. Sometimes now it feels like I’m the only one left who remembers it.
Guys and Dolls was enormous. ‘Must have been thirty tables, six for billiards clustered down away from the door and the others for pool. High ceilings so nobody got bothered by all the smoke—everybody smoked in those days. I was a Camels man—no filters, just like my dad. It was up on the second floor. Beats me what was on the first floor. It might have been a 5 & 10. The place had this wrap-around wall of windows on two sides. You could see the whole intersection of Broadway and 79th Street. There was the old stone church that always had bums sleeping on the steps, the same one that’s still there, and a bank—not the one that’s there now. The subway and the bus stop were right there. You could see who was going in and coming out of the liquor store on 79th. That was a good thing for later. You wanted to know who might have a taste hidden in his jacket pocket.
Abe Rosen used to hang out there. We used to call him Abie. Abie’d been an honest-to-God world champ at three rail billiards. By the time I got there he didn’t play that much. Not like he was totally past his prime, but more because everybody knew how good he was, and nobody was ready to throw away good money shooting against him. Once a hustler gets a reputation, he’s gotta go out of town to make his money.
Abe Rosen, he shot like a text book: he stood close to the ground, if you know what I mean. Feet apart but not too far apart; a strong bridge; he held the back hand right at the balance point, with the cue loose between his thumb and first finger. You’d look at him and there was nothing on his face, just blank. I think more than anything that was what scared the shit outta guys when he was out there. No fear. No joy. Not even confidence. He was nothing but business. His eyes looked like they could burn holes in the table. At Guys and Dolls he’d shoot pool for the hell of it. In the middle of a game he’d always break things up with trick shots. “Here, here,” he’d say. “Lemme just show ya this one.”
I liked Abie. He was short and solid, never bragged. He reminded me of my father except those eyes and, even though he was quiet, he wasn’t as quiet as my dad. Besides the half dozen guys who came in on the way home from office jobs, Abe was the only one in the place to wear a suit. Freddy, the manager, liked having Abie around. Freddy used to work in vaudeville before he took over at Guys and Dolls, and he did have a kind of showbiz thing. His hair was always slicked back, no part. That made his face look thin. He wore Hawaiian shirts, even in the winter. He always called Abie a “draw.” When Abie shot three rail billiards, Freddy would call everybody around to watch. See, you rented the tables. As long as the clock was running on all those tables, Freddy didn’t care if anybody was actually shooting or not. The more time you spent watching the show, the more time you’d need later on to finish up your games.
Billiards wasn’t that much for gamblers, especially three rail. Real gambling, hustler gambling was for the pool shooters. Eight ball, nine ball, short games with lots of room to set things up, to maneuver, lotsa chances to bet. Three rail was a long, slow game. More about a simple, gentleman-style wager on the outcome. Once in a while, maybe, a side bet on a particularly tough shot. Only a fool or what you’d call a newbie nowadays would bet against Abe Rosen.
Rebel was different. He was the opposite of Abe. Rebel. Just thinking about the guy you gotta smile. Poor, sad Rebel. He was short like me, about 5’6”. (I used to say 5’6” and three quarters. I never made it to 5’7”. Now it’s more like 5’5”.) He must have outweighed me by at least fifty pounds. As classy as Abie dressed, Rebel dressed the mess. Always dark, baggy slacks with always some stain somewhere hanging down so low you couldn’t see his shoes. Guys used to joke and call him “Barefoot Billy” behind his back. His shirt was always half out of his pants and you could see the crack of his ass after he’d been shooting for a while. He was that sickly kind of white you see on guys who don’t spend much time out of doors. I’d guess he was in his thirties back then. Whatever, he was nothing but a wannabe hustler. No one knew what he did during the day or how he got the name “Rebel.” Nobody cared. The regulars stayed as far away from him as possible. He always smelled a little funny—like some cheap kind of aftershave he was using to avoid taking a shower.
Every night about seven he’d show up. A little small talk about the Yankees or the Knicks depending on the season, then to work. First he’d walk around the room to see who was playing alone. He’d offer to shoot with them “for the time,” you know, the rent on the table. If they said o.k., he’d grab a stick and they’d play. Don’t get me wrong. He had skills, but he’d lose more than he’d win. After a while he’d suggest they “make it interesting,” you know, a small bet to get things started.
If cruising the room didn’t work out, he had a favorite spot up front by the cash register where he could be the first one to spot suckers. Anyone walking through those swinging double doors—especially if they were carrying their own pool cue in one of those imitation leather cases—got to hear Rebel’s gravel-voice welcome, “Hey! Looking for a game?” If he got a “yes,” he’d call out, “Set us up” to Freddy and walk the new fish over to the rack to pick out cue sticks. If the answer was no, I swear to God—and I seen this a hundred times—Rebel would produce new pairs of socks the stranger might be willing to buy “at a real good price.” Sometimes he had those three-packs of polyester underpants that were poplar back then.
Poor-assed Rebel, the man was lost somewhere between being an extra in that movie with Paul Newman, The Hustler, the one with Jackie Gleason, and that other one where Dustin Hoffman was the bum who dreamed of getting to Florida and eating oranges off the trees and dies in the back of a the Greyhound. When he couldn’t find a sucker, he’d play me at three rail “for the time.” That means the loser would pay the table rent—I think I already explained that. Don’t think this was time off for the fat bastard. He wouldn’t breathe if he didn’t think he could make a buck off it. He knew I wouldn’t play him for cash and I wasn’t going to buy underpants, but that was o.k. He had other games, if you know what I mean. When I miss-played a shot, Rebel would grab up the three balls and put them back in their original positions.
“Try it again,” he’d say. Then he’d say something like, “This time hit above center to the right. You wanna stretch it out way down the table to catch the corner long.” I’d try it. If I missed the shot again, we’d play on. If I made it, Rebel would wait a few turns then hit me up for a five or a ten. A loan to Rebel would always turn out to be a gift. You could count on that!
And there was another thing. Rebel used to talk to me while we played. He hated Abie. “Ya know,” he’d tell me. “Abie’s ascared of me. He wouldn’t play me even for the time. He knows I can outlast him. Maybe I can’t do them fancy trick shots, but that’s not what it takes to win. I got perseverance. That means I got strength. I got a good back and good legs and feet. I can stand at that table for hours—hell, days if I have to.” He’d look around the room. “You just wait,” he’d tell me. “Someday I’m gonna show all these stupid motherfuckers who’s really number one around here.”
Of course they never played, Abie and Rebel. Once Rebel tried to get Freddy to set it up. When Freddy figured out what Rebel was talking about—Rebel never just came out and said anything straight ahead—Freddy just rolled his eyes and walked away. Most of the time Rebel’d scowl at Abie from his spot by the door. I never saw Abie look in Rebel’s direction.
I can remember Rebel like it was yesterday and that it was Abie was the one who finally did move to Florida and that #23 was the best table in the house—the one the serious players would favor. And—I don’t know his name—but I can remember this guy who wrote jingles for commercials. He’d beat me at three rail, then we’d go back to his apartment and smoke reefer and listen to Mingus. This was on records back then, vinyl records!
You know, it’s funny. All this comes back like it was yesterday, but real yesterday or even this morning, more and more they feel like mysteries. Anything I can’t find in my pocket might just as well be in another country. But it’s okay, you know. Time goes by. You get used to it. I used to think this was a problem. Now it’s just whatever.