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08-17-2003, 08:04 PM
Poolroom regulars find friendly oasis
By Jeff Kunerth
Sentinel Staff Writer

August 17, 2003

It's early in the afternoon, one of those summer weekdays when you can break a sweat walking across the parking lot.

But inside Pro Billiards of Central Florida on Bennett Road, the blinds are drawn against the glare, the lighting subdued, the air conditioning working overtime. The neon in the windows promises Foster's, Bud, Miller Lite and Boar's Head. A sign on the front door welcomes smokers.

Shelby Lundin is behind the bar. Mike B. is in a corner with a laptop, designing swimming pools. Curly Mike, who works for Lucent, comes in and orders a chef salad. Wally, an eye doctor, is practicing his bank shots on a blue-felt billiards table. Josh Degler, 21, is playing gin rummy with 63-year-old Sergio Scardino, a retired restaurant owner.

The poolroom, once decried as the breeding ground for bad habits, is one of those places like the old-fashioned diner, the beauty parlor and the barbershop,that provide the setting for the creation of community. Men -- and women -- are drawn to Pro Billiards in Orlando by the common denominator of cue sticks, but it's what goes on between shots that makes the poolroom the mix-master of society.

"All pool is," says Lundin, "is a place for guys to talk and gossip like women in a coffee shop."

The regular patrons of Pro Billiards are from all walks of life. There's Pat, the car salesman; Mike, who owns shopping centers; Jeff, the pipe fitter; Bob, the home remodeler; Jersey Joe, the jewelry salesman; Don, a former poolroom owner; Courtney, an insurance-company employee; and Sammy, who owns a ranch in Brazil.

"There are millionaires and people who make minimum wage, and nobody is better than anybody," said Bruce Katz, 56, a former appliance-store owner.

'A social leveler'

The poolroom is what sociologists call a "social leveler," where income, status, education and occupation mean nothing. It's a place of commerce, but the primary activity is socializing.

There are plenty of places to sit, and lots of conversation that has nothing to do with billiards. Loitering isn't a crime.

And for the regulars who hang out in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, the poolroom provides a degree of familiarity they don't find anywhere outside their homes. Not at work. Not in church. Not in their neighborhoods. Many leave their cue sticks in the back room and their coffee mugs behind the bar.

The bartenders know how each likes his coffee, including Picky Pete, who has very precise instructions on how he wants it made.

"I walk in here and feel like I'm home. I really do," said Winston Bartley, 71, who drinks his coffee black. "In my younger days, I traveled around to the poolrooms. This is the easiest poolroom to come in and be accepted."

Its patrons borrow one another's pickup trucks, lend one another money, invite one another over for barbecues, visit one another in the hospital, attend one another's funerals.

When one of the regulars, John John, was injured in a car accident, another of the regulars dutifully picked him up at his home in Daytona Beach and brought him in for a few hours at Pro Billiards, where he watched and kibitzed from his wheelchair.

And when the mother of Kevin Godfrey, one of Pro Billiard's owners, was found murdered last year, the regulars grieved for her son as much as they rejoiced when his baby was born in July.

The day of her death, patrons starting leaving flowers and ceramic angels at the poolroom. After that, they held a candlelight vigil in the parking lot and then a wake in the house of one of the customers. They gave Godfrey their sympathy, their prayers, their encouragement, their money.

"The most touching thing for me was to have all of them show up for her funeral and all the words of encouragement to keep the place open," said Godfrey, 33.

Loyal crowd

As a community, they accept newcomers who conform to their rules of behavior and sportsmanship. They have a low threshold for braggarts, no matter how goodthey are with a stick. They don't like rowdies or drunkards. They have no tolerance for cheats.

When a pool cue came up missing, the regulars determined the likely thief, confronted him and forced the return of the stick, and then ex-communicated him from Pro Billiards.

They are loyal to their place, having tried out other billiard rooms and found the music too loud, the atmosphere too rough, the camaraderie missing. Many have known one another for years from other pool halls, gradually following one another to Pro Billiards.

"Some of these players have been around together for 15, 20 years," said Lundin, 29. "And they squabble like brothers. They get into tiffs."

"I sometimes call them the old maids," Godfrey said. "They'll get mad and not talk to each other for a week or two."

Lee Wortman, 49, who has owned Sportstown Billiards on Robinson Street for 25 years, comes to Pro Billiards for the level of play and the close-knit clientele.

His place is all about loud music, a younger crowd and what pool players call "ball bangers," whose game is as much happenstance as skill.

"This poolroom is a semi-retirement home. It's a social club for semi-retired successful men,"Wortman said. "They come in, and all they buy is a cup of coffee."

They don't really come for the coffee. Or even the billiards.

"The thing about here isn't the poolroom itself; it's the people coming here," said Zavosh "Zack" Hajiabadi, a 49-year-old window-blinds manufacturer.

"I know a lot of people here. I trust them. We talk, we blab, we joke. These are the little things for me that make a difference."

Jeff Kunerth can be reached at jkunerth@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5392.
Copyright 2003, Orlando Sentinel