View Full Version : Missing the (Pool) Cues

03-30-2005, 07:45 AM
Even in a blizzard, the lights would be on at Champion Billiards in Silver Spring. Now, though, the pool tables are gone and the lights are off for good.

Missing the Cues

When a Funky Old Joint Vanishes, Something More Than Pool Is Lost

web page (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A11441-2005Mar29.html)

By Ted Gup
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page C01

I am in mourning. A scribbled note on the door says it all: "Poolroom Closed." I press my face against the glass. The room is dark, the tables gone -- auctioned off a few weeks ago, I am told. In the mailbox are what look to be two old bills. Nothing else remains of 20 years of Friday nights spent here in one of the few real pool halls anywhere near the nation's capital. The operative word is "real." Sure, there are those family-friendly billiard parlors, polished places with red-felt tables and marble floors where up-and-comers sip martinis, dates coo and bar mitzvah parties are welcomed.

Whatever that is, it's not a pool hall. For that you had to go to Silver Spring, to Champion Billiards on Georgia Avenue. Squeezed between Auto City Used Cars and Meineke Discount Mufflers, it was a true throwback, the sort of place the Music Man himself warned about. Across the street was the required pawn shop with its guitars and gold and guns. Next to it, like some wayward guardian angel protecting our blessed pool hall, was the bronze bust of a homeless man, the late Norman Lane, once dubbed the "mayor" of Silver Spring. It was a tribute to citizens for looking after him. In those days, Silver Spring was like that. So too was the pool hall. It was open to anyone, anytime.

For much of its existence, it was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even in a blizzard, its lights glowed warmly and you had a place to go. I don't remember a soul being turned away, though I do remember a few who muttered to themselves or went out back for a fix or a swig. Rogues and scalawags it had, but mostly just hardworking men who long ago chose the pleasure of each other's company and the click of ivory spheres about to fall off an earth of sheer green felt. It was all about the game.

Only some seven miles from Washington's corridors of power, it was incalculably far away, immune to its correctness and self-importance. It was one of the few places I knew in my 21 years in the capital where neither race nor class nor ambition meant a thing.

There were two kinds of rules to the hall: written and unwritten. Gambling was prohibited, which meant bills had to be neatly folded and left in a corner pocket or slipped palm to palm. Cursing was forbidden, and truth be told, was not much tolerated. We'd heard enough cursing outside not to want to track it in. And finally there was "no spitting," a carryover from the days of spittoons and rack boys. A little down in the mouth it might have been, but it was ours, and each of us had an interest in keeping it up. Sit on a rail, drop a live ash on the felt or talk trash and you would draw enough cross looks to know you were in the wrong place. On the outside door was a warning: "No one under the age of 18 permitted on these premises during normal school hours and after 10 P.M. unless accompanied by someone 25 or older." But our skill bore witness to our own misspent youths, and who were we to deny the next generation such pleasures? Besides, a real pool hall caters to the truant in each of us.

But it was the unwritten rules that made the hall a true sanctuary. Nobody talked about work, whether they had a job or not. It was a "No Whining Zone," a given that life was not always kind but that here at least we would not marinate in each other's misfortunes. There were no peacocks or pimps in broad brims. Vanity went elsewhere. Inside, a man's past and future counted for nothing, only the present and the number of balls sunk. It was all about the game. One soft-spoken guy always wore cardigans and reminded me of Mister Rogers. We knew he'd done time, but never dreamt of asking for details. That was the past, his past, not ours. It was all about the game. Even the bookie showed enough respect not to ply his trade inside. In nearly two decades, I never saw a fight, not so much as a scuffle.

Life stories, hard luck or otherwise, were off-limits. You learned enough about a person from his game to know whether his company was desired. Almost nobody had a last name. It wasn't as if any of us were likely to hook up in the world of sunlight. Fat Mike, a chef turned shooter, was almost balletic when he took to the tables. "Goose" and "Tom-Tom" were minor deities. Before them, the rest of us parted and silently took in the majesty of their skill.

First names all, except for Mr. Knox. He was true royalty. I never knew his first name, but he was as honorable a gentleman as I shall know, a man who handled a cue with grace, and lived and died the same way. When cancer was eating him up, he allowed a few tears to run down his cheeks, talking about those he would miss most. He apologized, but for him, the ban on hard-luck talk had been waived. He wasn't looking for pity, just a way to make the best of what we players called "a bad leave." I think he worked as a custodian or in maintenance.

Immigrants, too, found their way here, from Koreans to Salvadorans. Political correctness skipped us by as did all the righteous rectitude of Washington, but we did right by each other. A buddy tells me he thinks Reggie, a black, helped sponsor Lee, a Korean, for citizenship. I don't remember any ramp for the disabled but I remember some killer shots made from wheelchairs. A guy with a shriveled arm managed to persuade me to spot him a couple of balls to even out the odds. He destroyed me. After that I never underestimated him again. The only handicap in the pool room was your own.

Women were few. I once brought my wife, emphasis on "once." But in recent years more spouses showed up and some brought their own cues and solid games and taught the aging bulls about gender and humility. Grizzled old men and kids barely old enough to shave gave the rest of us lessons in the perils of ageism. An open mind often came at the expense of an empty wallet. Fifty bucks was a big loss.

We had our music and we had our food -- a hot dog off the spit, a handful of salty cashews, a Kit-Kat from the machine. It wasn't gourmet but at 2 in the morning it kept you going. It was all about the game. The jukebox favored Meat Loaf's "I'd Do Anything for Love" and Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry."

My game is straight pool, an old man's game, the one they played in the 1961 flick "The Hustler" with upstart Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, not the sequel where a bespectacled Newman tutors a clownish and cue-twirling Tom Cruise. There the game was nine-ball.

My standing game was with Ira. One night when we were playing straight to 50, I broke and left him at the far rail without a prayer of a shot -- except he found one and proceeded to run one rack after another, all the way up to 50 balls. I never even got out of my chair, except to rack the balls for him. On that one night, there was not a player in the cosmos who could have beaten him. That feat alone should have preserved the pool hall forever. I imagined a brass plaque outside speaking to his 50-ball run the night of whenever it was -- time was something we quickly lost track of, but never the number of balls. It was a universe unto itself, a place of blue chalk and white talc, of two-piece ebony and ivory cues and oak racks. No sweeter sound there was than that of the respectful tap-tap-tapping made by the butt of a cue upon the floor as an opponent paid homage to a shot well made. It was all about the game.

The poet W.S. Merwin, writing about a pool hall, said the players were "safe in its ring of dusty light where the real dark can never come." Well, "the real dark" came a few weeks ago. Some blamed Montgomery County's smoking ban. I don't know. Five minutes away, Galaxy Billiards Cafe had opened its doors. Thirty-five big TVs outnumbered the pool tables. Short of a pencil and paper, there's no way even to keep score -- no string of beads, no counters. At the far end of each pool table is a "service button." Press it and a waitress comes running. I kid you not.

Five years ago I moved to Cleveland, but before I did I made a list of what I would miss about Washington. The pool hall was near the top of that list. Funny how little things figure large when saying goodbye. On each of my returns to Washington, Ira and I met at the hall for a night of straight pool. I would come through the door after an absence of months and get the same familiar nod from the guys as if I had been there just the night before. No questions asked. It was all about the game. I wonder now what has become of them. It was a brotherhood that fell to a smoking ban, to gentrification, maybe to time itself.

It's true, the place reeked of cigarettes. Smoke wreathed upward and formed a stationary cloud overhead, and saturated my mustache so that next morning my wife would still recognize the smell of the pool hall. But for me, it was the air of Washington itself that had begun to grow stale and unbreathable, a city of fluted columns and sometimes towering egos, of brass-knuckle arguments and invisible walls that divided one city into many. It was becoming what those who had never set foot in my pool hall doubtless imagined it to be -- vulgar, combative, full of hustlers. I came to the pool hall to escape all that and always I found there a breath of fresh air. Really, it had nothing to do with the game.

Ted Gup, author of "The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA," is a professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University. He can be reached at tedgup@att.net.

03-30-2005, 08:20 AM
What a nicely written article...very rare piece of work...reminds me of the 'old poolhall' of my youth...thanks for posting this...

03-30-2005, 08:25 AM
Looks like this new place right around the corner may have had an influence.

Duncan, Local Officials to Celebrate Grand Opening of Galaxy Billiards Caf****NEW TIME

Thursday, September 16, 2004
6 8 p.m.
*7:00 p.m. -- Remarks by officials, photo op with Jeanette Lee

City Place Mall
Ellsworth Drive entrance
Silver Spring

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan will join County Council member George Leventhal; Tom Collins, president of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce; Jeff Dierman, president of Dierman Realty Group; and Tak Yoon and Young Yoon, co-owners of Galaxy Billiards Caf to mark the grand opening of the entertainment venue.

Special celebrity guest will be Jeanette Lee -- The Black Widow -- world renowned billiards champion.

The caf, which occupies more than 15,000 square feet, features 27 state-of-the-art pool tables, thirty-five 36 and large-screen TVs for sports viewing. The bar area features marble and wood accents, while the center ceiling is highlighted by sparkling, multi-colored lights.

Entertainment will be provided by a Korean Dance Troupe and musical selections will be presented by the Karen Love Quartet.

Photo op: Mr. Duncan and Ms. Lee at the billiards table.

Keith Talent
03-30-2005, 08:27 AM
Enjoyed that, Nick. How do find all this stuff? Not that I really need to know ... simpler just to look for your posts, of course. /ccboard/images/graemlins/grin.gif

03-30-2005, 12:44 PM
Great trivia info Nick. I really enjoyed reading those articles and I too took a little trip down memory lane.
My 1st experience of the pool hall was very similar (1965 & I was 15) to the description of Champion Billiards of Silver Springs. Only mine was a small place in Fort Payne, Alabama which I don't think even had a name other than "The Pool Hall". It too had a reputation which most towns people frowned on. My memory of that place was that it too was "All about the game."
Thanks again for sharing those articles.

04-07-2005, 11:54 PM
I am not a big pool watcher but I caught the semi match With Jeanette Lee and Allison. Lee did very well but her attitude sucks. She is soo conceited. She looks and acts just like my ex-bitch. Any woman who sits and brags about doing charity work is a feminist bitch.

04-08-2005, 12:14 AM
great article...reminds me of the good old days. early 60's here in troy. my first experience in a pool hall was at ue Tyme in south troy that was run by this boards own #### Dick Leonard. It was the first pool hall i had ever been in. Really upscale for that time and day and age. After it closed and i got older i gravitated towards the pool room's uptown in the city. There were 2 of them. ! was Joe Canton's pool room upstairs on 4th street and the other was Whiteys or the troy recreation center. also on the 2nd floor. and run by an older gent caled Eddie White. thus the name whitey's. Ed white was a great older man who always treated everybody with the same dry humor. Always came to work carrying a bag that caried a 6 pack or 2. The name troy recreation which was the original name came from the fact that there was also a ping pong table on the 2nd floor as well as 2 billiard tables. the 3rd floor at 1 time had been a bowling alley. Imagine that. a 3rd floor bowling alley. I would have hated to carry a bowling bag and shoes up those 3 flights of stairs. Anyway, as years went by and i got older business had slowed to a trickle and it eventually had to close. The local colleges both RPI and the local communtiy college, Hudson Valley communtiy college, Put in their own pool tables and RPI even put in bowling lanes. So with them both doing this it had to hurt the local rooms and bowling alleys. But alas those days are long past and can never be regained. but it is also good going down memory lane once in a while. ####leonard, please correct what mistakes i have made and please add some of your own. We all would love to hear some more of your stories..................................mike

04-08-2005, 05:53 AM

Thanks for the post. It made great reading this morning.

The article brought to mind the place where I developed my addiction to pool. Cotton Bowling Palace in Dallas, Texas circa 1961. It was a large bowling alley with 60 lanes of bowling, so you wouldn't label it a "pool hall." But there were 12 pool tables set off in their own area and that's where I lived each night for over a year; the year that should have been my senior year in college. Cotton Palace was its own little world and you could literally live within for days at a time. It was a 24/7 place that was open every day but Christmas. It had a decent restaurant and even a barber shop. Since it was one of the few all-night establishments in Dallas back in the early 1960's, many of the cities "characters" collected there when the bars had all closed for the night. I think the assembled group of Cotton Palace regulars might have had a larger percentage of police characters than the pool hall described in the article, but maybe that made them just that much more interesting to me at the time. Two names from that group whom you might recognize are Billy Stroud who went on to become a "legendary cue maker" and Jack Ruby who went on to become rather famous for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on national TV. Anyway, the year I spent there was surely one of the most memorable of my life. Pool was everything to me in those days and the games I watched and played were what I lived for. Later, after the place closed down, it became, as I recall, a parts distribution center for Chevrolet parts. Still makes me sad sometimes that the place is gone.

04-08-2005, 06:49 AM
Mike, a truly great article I will have to read his book. In your day there was nine poolrooms in Troy. I hope I can remember them. Cantons,Whiteys,Big Charlies,Silver Cue,Cue Tyme,RPI,the shoe shine/poolroom on Federal St. Two missing when the memory kicks in hopefully I'll remember.

A Troy native Steve ----- became a reporter for Sports Illustrated and Covered the Willie Mosconi/Rex Williams match at Jackie Gleasons Inverrary CC in Florida. He started his piece on the first time he walked up the three flights of stairs to Whiteys and turning around to see a Grand Ballroom with an elaborate metal ceiling, 20 plus tables and a balcony overlooking the poolroom. At one time I had the article but my filing system leads a lot to be desired.

Steve eventually became the, Editor, a post he held for many years. I always thought that article stood him out among his SI co-workers.

After 40 years I took out my my Mosconi/Leonard pictures and had them copied and mailed them to the people in the picture. Cueball 1950 got his picture and his little friend Bobby Freemantle who works for the City of Troy. I left his picture at the Public Works Office and the Secretary copied it and hung it on the wall.

That was the greastest time in my pool life. My job was to play pool, the owner was the smartest poolroom owner I ever met. His thinking was how is anyone to get good if they don't see good pool played.####

04-11-2005, 06:14 AM
Mike my memory kicked in the reporter/editor of SI was named Steve Wulf a real hard name to remember.####

04-11-2005, 10:31 AM
Fantastic read that brings memories of the good ole days to many includimg me, I grew up in Amityville Long Island and we ran the gamut in halls from the little one room spot called Brucies run by an older gentleman Mr Brewster who wore a apron and hand racked each older than him classic brunswick table for a dime a rack up to at the time Basils in amityville village run by Basil Minicke a world straight champion and good friend of my uncles who cut hair in front by day and played pool all night with any assortment of hustlers, neighbors and pool makers like Balabushka and Palmer and Roadies like my Uncle Cisero! I watched, listened to the tales both true and exgagerated ! and learned /ccboard/images/graemlins/cool.gif Those days are sadly gone forever ! for better or worse! /ccboard/images/graemlins/frown.gif

04-11-2005, 11:01 AM
That pool room is where I got serious about this game. I bought my first cue (McDermott) from them as well as my Olhausen table.

If you click on the link to the story you will see a sign for Auto City Used Cars.
I used to run that lot and actually had that sign installed back in the day.

On a side note I tried to buy the pool room because being open 24/7 they would trash my lot every night.(they would not sell)

Numerous times I would run the 4 miles from my house at 3am to shoot pool (they had lockers for cues) and then go next door to my office to shower and work. After about a week of running to work and driving home I would need a car full of drivers to get all the cars back to the lot.

I miss those days.

Gayle in MD
04-13-2005, 08:30 AM
Hi Dick,
I don't know if I ever told you about this, but after you were so kind to send me copies of those pictures, which I truly treasure, I took them with me last year to show to a group of old timers, who shoot in a straight pool league at Bill & Billy's Cue Sports in Arnold, Md. They had been there watching a CAT tournament on Saturday, and came back sunday on my promise to bring the photos. They got such a kick out of seeing those old photos. A few of them said they remembered you, they had been road players in those days. The pictures sparked a delightful sharing of stories about famous matches and pool related experiences. One of them had watched your High run match from the news article you had so kindly enclosed with the photos.

I was wishing you were there, you would have enjoyed this group...

Gayle in Md... /ccboard/images/graemlins/grin.gif

04-13-2005, 09:42 AM
Totally nailed it! Great insight. Very true-"It's all about the game"

There's a common bond among us like no other im familiar with.

04-13-2005, 09:51 AM
Gayle I don't think you told me that story, I am having Jim Colberts two part piece that was in the Golf magazine in 1974 copied. I will mail you a copy if I don't make NYC.

I read it and thought it could be used pool. It had mentally playing the shot before and picturing where the ball landed etc. The first time I used it I ran 212 and hadn't played in months.####

Gayle in MD
04-14-2005, 07:45 AM
Thank you Dick,
I sure hope you can get to NY. Don't forget, you owe me a dance! /ccboard/images/graemlins/grin.gif

Gayle in Md.

04-15-2005, 09:36 AM
Gayle I forgot in that article of my winning the high run Joe Newell the editor of the Billiard News also put in my defeating MrLucky"s Uncle Cisero 125 to 58 in 4 innings with a 78 and out. ####