THE POOL HALL
There was a period of time as a teenager when I inhabited a world one would only expect to find described in cheap paperbacks or depicted in film noir. For a while I was a regular at the pool hall above the Allerton Theater. The Allerton, named for the street on which it was located, was our closest local movie house and I had seen countless double features there for as long as I could remember. The big marquee was violet-blue and white neon and its big auditorium was a fixture in the lives of everyone for miles around my northeast Bronx neighborhood.
But the Allerton also housed something that did not share the universal appeal of the movies of the day. From the outside, above the imposing hanging theater marquee, were long, narrow windows with their own neon announcements. POOL. BILLIARDS. OPEN. The message was simple, direct, and easy to disregard. It was more properly called a "billiard parlor," but a pool hall is what it was. Not many activities shared the seedy reputation that the game of pool suffered, and a pool hall by any name was no place for women or children. They attracted the types of characters for whom bright lights were not a draw. The Allerton pool hall was such a place. I had never really taken notice of it at all until one day a friend suggested that we climb the two flights of wooden steps at the right of the theatre entrance to the large loft above the movie house and peek inside and see if we would be welcome to play there. We had no idea what to expect.
A sign at the top of the steps told the cautionary tale. No gambling. No spitting. No foul language. A pull on the simple wooden door at the left of the landing revealed a very large open room, a center row of thin, square columns, and dozens of full-sized pool tables spread everywhere throughout the space. The lighting effect was startling. The general lighting wash came from the windows on the left which were above the big theater marquee. The daylight through the dirty glass cast the entire space in a blue-gray smoky haze. A rather low tin ceiling’s embossed pattern showed exaggerated relief as the sideways light threw shadows upon it. Over each of the many tables hung suspended a wide-brimmed porcelain white fixture with a bare bulb tucked within. The harsh light spilled upon the green felt of each table and seemed to hug the edges tight with little room to spare leaving the uneven wooden plank floor to creak in the shadows.
And there were people. Not a big crowd in the late afternoon of our visit, but the men who were there seemed to be regulars. This was an exclusively male domain and the entrance of two teenaged boys drew a glance from only a few of the patrons closest to the door. The cigarette smoke was thick and seemed to hang unmoved in the still air. There was no real noise, no music playing, no loud sounds at all. The faint clash of men’s voices coming from the edges of the room would often be heard amongst the distinct tapping of pool balls or the sharp snap of a power break. We smelled the occasional whiff of a strong cigar.
After absorbing the scene for a moment or two and realizing that we were not being asked to instantly leave, we approached the long, raised counter by the windows that appeared to be the place we could arrange for a table of our own. The man behind the counter had a non-filtered cigarette stuck to his lips. My friend stated our intentions and asked about time and prices. We could rent a table by the half hour with an hour minimum. I forget how much it was, but it was certainly within our shared budget. He took our names, recorded the time on a slip of paper, and indicated our table with a toss of his head, his cigarette pointing the general direction. We were in!
No one bothered to look our way; we quickly learned to mind our own business as we focused on our own table, our own game. We selected cues from a wall rack, making sure to hold the fat end of each one up to one eye and check it for trueness. We checked that the leather button tip of each was in place and sound. We powdered our hands from a wall dispenser and rubbed the cue stick with the dust so that it would glide smoothly through our fingers. Scattered around the wide, wood grained edge of the heavy slate table were cubes of blue chalk. Wrapped tightly with paper on five sides, the remaining open face of the cube had a slight, round depression when new and a deep hole when well worn. Its job was to make sure that the tip of the stick would not slip off the cue ball when struck. The chalk cube also served as some unofficial hand business when preparing for a shot, and as time filler for the moments spent examining the lay of the balls on the felt. Overhead, a long wire attached to the walls held two sets of sliding number tabs which were used to keep score. They were high out of reach except to the business end of a cue stick after each player’s run.
And we played! The tables were large and professional grade. They were durable enough to withstand our leaning and positioning and, of course, they were perfectly level. It was fun to play in such an official arena while all the while being mindful of the sign warning us that any rips in the table felt resulting from rough shots would be repaired for a charge of $15 per inch. And all around us others played, too. While we didn’t think of it at the time, I now assume that there was, indeed, gambling going on as well as god-knows what else as we played our simple games of rotation or eight ball. No one bothered us and we, of course, didn’t bother anyone. After an hour or so we went back to the man at the counter, paid him for the time, and went on our way.
My friend and I would visit the Allerton pool hall many more times in the months to follow. We had dipped our toes into an unseen world that was a part of our neighborhood all along. It was there, hiding in plain sight, and we had been just brave enough to chance peeking through that simple wooden door to discover it.