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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.