I see in the papers that pool is now played by college boys and suburban families in wholesome, well-lighted establishments where you couldn't get a bet down if you were shooting with broken fingers. Which makes me sad. Pool halls were perfectly sleazy in my day. The guys were often downright unpleasant, and a lot of them were such creeps you wouldn't introduce them to G. Gordon Liddy, let alone Mom.
My favorite pool hall guy was Tubby Pretaporte, as I shall call him, whose occupation was defrauding loan companies. He owed money to all the major finance companies in eastern Pennsylvania. They had his picture posted on the wall as if he was a bandit, which he was.
His collateral was a damage suit that he said he had pending against the Reading Railroad. While working as a brakeman, he had fallen off his boxcar and broken his leg. Tubby borrowed money off his leg until nobody would lend him any more, and then he stole nickels and dimes from the poker game at the local social club.
Tubby's pal, Andy, once invited me to help him sell a truckload of stolen tires. I declined, not because of any sense of honesty, but because Andy was a truly dumb thief. I figured he stole the tires from the police garage. He went away for a few months to make license plates. We all missed Andy. He was a great fish: He thought his game was about twice as good as it was. If he'd only had some money he'd have been perfect.
Tubby wasn't much of a shooter either, but he had a brother I'll call Jimmy who did wield a pretty good stick and who spent most of his time hustling Tubby. We all shot in a real Main Street poolroom, long, narrow and dark. Somebody long ago had painted the windows the same lizard-green color as the walls, and nobody ever opened them. Nobody wanted to. Sunlight has never been too popular with shooters. Plenty of poolroom guys never saw daylight after they picked up their first stick.
For some time I worked in the poolroom, spending most of my time behind the tobacco counter out front, where we still sold Melachrino cigarettes, and a tiny gas flame burned perpetually for match-less cigar smokers. I also racked balls and cleaned the tables with two big soft brushes, following the nap of the cloth like a groom currying a racehorse. At the end of the day I sprinkled green oiled sawdust on the floor and swept up. And in all the years I did the sweeping, I never found a dime. Poolroom guys had a great and unabashed reverence for money. They hardly ever dropped any. They also had fast hands and quick eyes, and loose money didn't stay on the floor long.
Pool tables in those days didn't look like they were made by a toy company. Ours had a monumental solidity; they were as solemn and sturdy as a Victorian mausoleum. They had heavy slate beds, straight and true, covered with Belgian-made Simonis billiard cloth as fine as Brooks Brothers suiting, with that wonderful green color rivaled only by new money.
When you turned on the two lights above one of the tables, it was like lifting the curtain at Radio City Music Hall. Even the sleaziest guy was bathed in romantic glamour as he shot. No actor ever had more dramatic lighting than a guy leaning in out of the dark, poised over his cue stick, braced and balanced, and as intent on making his shot as a Marine sniper on Saipan.
I shot a fair stick, good enough to shoot for the house occasionally against selected opponents. They let me chip quarters and half-dollars, milk money, off farm boys from out in the Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Oddball, 9-ball, Harrigan, straight pool and one-pocket are the money games I remember. But some guys never came out of the shadows to shoot. Big Jack, the Wrong Bettor, sat on a high stool, watched and made bets, and rarely lost.
You couldn't see his eyes. We always believed they were the snaky color of the walls and windows. But we never saw him in the daytime to find out. You could find him only after the sun went down. He got his name at the regular crap game on the cinders of the railroad yard. He never rolled the dice, and he always bet against the shooter: He was a "wrong" bettor.
At the pool hall Big Jack sat there and bet against the shooter. Inexplicably, he always had the edge and pulled in his steady, if marginal, winnings, and nobody ever saw his eyes.
But we did tolerate-him. We'd have tolerated King Kong or the Elephant Man if they had money and they wanted a game. Hell, we even tolerated Mapes.
Mapes got his name from an obscure outfielder for the Yankees named Cliff Mapes, who hit .250 in 1948. To our Mapes that .250 topped Joe DiMaggio's .320 that year. Mapes ran into Philly every time the Yanks played at Shibe Park. He sat in the bleachers and yelled, "Mapes, Mapes!"
That was about half his repartee. The other half came from the jungle movies he loved. He quoted more or less continually from the great apes. "Ugh" and "Argh" were two of his better lines. In moments of stress, say when the 9-ball hung at the lip of the pocket, he bellowed, "Ooong-gow-waa!"
The best stick on our tables belonged to an old guy who was a model of dissipation and misspent youth. He had frail white arms, a doughy white face, a dapper white mustache and a high white pompadour. Oddly enough, I can't remember his name.
He worked the tobacco counter, too. Once in a while he'd come back to rack balls, and if somebody wanted a game, he'd shoot. Mostly straight pool. He couldn't get action in any other game. He'd give points—50, 75, 100, even—in a game of 125. And he'd win. He shot in runs of 50, 75, 100, 125, which is very good indeed.
But our local champ wasn't good enough when he'd shot against the great Ralph Greenleaf sometime long before I knew him. He got a bad roll, and Greenleaf ran out on him. We heard about that bad roll forever. But losing to Greenleaf was like losing to Sugar Ray Robinson, more honor than disgrace.
My pallid friend sometimes went to Philly to shoot on the open table at Allinger's, a grand old poolroom on Market Street. Going there with him was like going to Paris with the Prince of Wales: Anything seemed possible. Allinger's had 20 pool tables and 10 billiard tables; they were big, old-fashioned tables, 5-by-10 Brunswicks and Balke-Collenders and Rosatta-Berrys, spread out in the smoky light, as suggestive and exciting as black silk sheets.
The open game went on all day and night on the front table. It was a nonstop exhibition of the best shooting in Philadelphia. And Philly was a good pool town in those days. Greenleaf shot his last game there before he died in 1950. Strangers often showed up at Allinger's, like hot young gunmen arriving in Dodge City. After the first shot, after the first rack, everybody knew how good you were.
Any-ball, a local variation of straight pool, was the game on the open table; high score won, low paid and dropped out. And if you ran the rack from the break, everybody got cigars. Once, my guy got pink and full of energy in the open game, stayed all day and almost cleaned the place out of cigars.
I watched, took an occasional stogie and sometimes played on the back tables. But I never shot up front in the open game. And now Allinger's is long gone. And Main Street pool halls are such clean, nice places you could take your mom or your baby sister and nobody would try to hustle a nickel off them.