a sort of college trip. Students and alumni could take a bus to the
Big Apple for the weekend and stay at the Empire Hotel for around $75.
Not too shabby. Now all of the other students, they all wanted to hit
the shops, visit the Roxy, climb the Statue of Liberty. But not me.
I had one thing in mind: find a Manhattan pool hall. It had been
rumored that there were thousands, but to my dismay, the key word
"were" meant past tense. I hunted down a phone booth that actually
had a phone book. You know the type where you push down where it
says, "push here" and the phone book sort of rotates out to you. Much
more trouble than it's worth: silly engineers. Anyway, I couldn't
figure out why every phone book I found was missing the page with
"Billiards" on it. I pondered this at the fourth or fifth phone book
when finally, a non-missing "Billiards" yellow page was there, left
intact. I promptly ripped the page out still wondering why they were
The page led me to a nearby pool hall. I can't recall the name. The
address was on a main street, but the entance was apparently down a
side street. In fact, the entrance was down an *alley* on that side
street. I climbed what must have been a fire escape of sorts up
several flights of this old brick building. It seemed abandoned.
Maybe this was some wild goose chase of a pool hall that had already
met the "past tense" fate.
I entered the building. There were no windows to speak of. It seemed
like I was in an urban cave. I walked down a hall, up a short flight
of stairs, turned the corner, and bam, a door! The glass on the door
read "BILLIARDS". No name, no neon, no nothing. For all I knew, on
the other side of the door could've been a dentist's receptionist, or
two dead rats. I grabbed the doorknob, took a breath, held it, and
slowly opened the door.
The first sensation was the distinct whiff of stale smoke.
Combination of cigarette, cigar, and felt. Oh yes, felt. It was
definitely a pool hall. And then came the clicks. Like a convention
of finger snappers. Click, click,click, buh-click. Thunderball
breaks and the din of a crowd.
I gazed throughout the room. It was enormous. I was used to our
local 8-table room that couldn't have been much more than 1000 square
feet. This may have been 10,000 square feet with some 40-60 tables.
I looked back into the hallway, a narrow 5-ft hollow. Then back into
the room, a room that now seemed bigger than the building looked from
the street. The 10 or so carom tables were lined neatly near the
left wall, out of the way of the 9-ballers. Pool tables filled the
rest of the expanse. Light came through 4 or 5 huge factory windows
highlighting the dancing smoke and dust in the air. There was no
jukebox, no beer, no snacks (other than pistachios for a quarter).
The balls were dirty; the sticks were warped and split. Each table had
over them wire with markers. Some, if not all, hadn't seen
maintenance in years, if ever. The weight of the markers slowly
stretched the wire, as they sagged like hammocks. Water marks were
present on both the undulating narrow board floors and on the tired
I noticed what looked to be a Western Union teller's window. It had
steel bars with a Plexiglas barrier. Behind the barrier was the
teller, accompanied by a cigar and a leather teller's visor. I
decided to approach him. When he looked up he seemed startled, with
that "what the hell do you want?" look. I asked if I could grab a
table. "Grab a number!" he hoarsed with that oh-so New York accent.
I was surprised to see that he was pointing to one of those number
gizmos usually associated with the grocery deli. It really didn't
dawn on me that in the middle of the day, with around 50 pool tables,
that none would be unoccupied. It also didn't dawn on me that there
was a waiting area filled with...people.
Such was my first experience with a NYC pool hall. I did end up
playing, but it really didn't matter. Just the act of discovering was
an experience I'll cherish. I described the pool hall to a friend,
and he says it sounded like Jillians. Could've been. Who knows. I
hear it's gone now. If that's true, that's too bad. Now, where's
that phone book...