The Education of a Poolplayer

I was around 8-years-old when my father first took me along with him to the pool hall. Longo’s Billiards was on the second floor of an old building on South Street in Philadelphia, where Fat Tuesday’s now stands. At the top of a long flight of stairs a city curfew sign spelled out the precise times when minors had to be off the streets.

As soon as you opened the door you could hear the staccato clacking of a hundred ivory balls punctuated by the crash of a break shot. There were two long rows of magnificent 5ft x 10ft tables, 15 in all. The owners, Phil Longo and his wife, Mamie, doted on them, methodically brushing the felt tops, polishing the ornate, exotic wood rails, bodies and legs, and watching like hawks for even a hint of any abuse by the players. It never happened. Just about everybody in place at any given time was a regular, and they treated the tables with reverence, like they were the best tables in the world – and they very well may have been.

Longo’s was a legendary venue on the pro billiards circuit, and hosted tournaments in a section of the room that had grandstand seating and a manual scoreboard. Local legends Jack Dean, Ed “Boomtown” White, and Sonny Butera, among others, ran rack after rack without a miss during games of 125-points before standing room only crowds. The clientele was a racially diverse group of mostly older, and invariably well-dressed, men. Except for Mamie I never saw a woman there.

Phil took an instant liking to me. He and Mamie had no children, and they treated me like an adopted son. After a couple of visits I wanted to play. Phil got a wooden milk crate to get me above the tabletop, and began tutoring me in pool. He was a pretty good player himself. He showed me how to hold the cue, cradled gently in my right hand, and how to make the basic bridges with my left hand.

I took to the game like a duck to water, much to the delight of Phil and my father. Early on, the regulars gathered to watch “the kid” bang the balls around. Soon, I had a dozen tutors working on my stroke, and teaching me the finer points of the game, like bank shots and putting english (spin) on the cue ball. In a couple of years I could beat a lot of them at 50-point games, and 8-ball. The best all-around player at Longo’s was “Boomtown” White, a tall, lean black man with a pencil-thin mustache. “Boomie” was quiet, laidback, cool. Playing for money was against the rules at Longo’s, but as long it was done discreetly and didn’t cause any problems Phil looked the other way. Nobody ever gambled with “Boomie.” Not if they knew him. I jumped at the chance for a quick game with him, just to put my hand on the same table where his was, as if I could magically absorb his skill.

As long as my homework was getting done my father took me to Longo’s a couple of nights a week. It was walking distance from our house. At 12-years-old or so I walked over early on Saturdays, and spent the entire day there. After helping Phil with some odd jobs – cleaning under the tables, polishing the balls, brushing the tabletops – he let me play for free the rest of the day.

The world changed, and so did I, during my years at the pool hall. JFK was assassinated, the Beatles transformed music and fashion, the civil rights movement came to the fore, and the Vietnam war wrought escalating protest and social unrest. High school took me out of the protective, and increasingly stifling, boundaries of my neighborhood. My driver’s license, in 1969, was my ticket to freedom and adventure. I went to the pool hall less and less, until finally I just dropped in occasionally to say hello to Phil and Mamie. They understood, like parents understand when their kids go off on their own to make their way in the world.