They have common names like Ernie, George, Cecil, Dave, Bobby, Edgar, and Reggie. There’s also a “Bull” and a “G-Man” thrown in, but nothing to suggest you’re dealing with an associate of the Wu-Tang Clan.
For an annual fee of $25, these recreational gamers and retired hustlers can relive past triumphs and rivalries without getting stuck. Most are convinced that despite being in their 60s to 85s, they still have their best shots ahead of them.
To someone walking by, these men look and sound like characters from an August Wilson play, especially when they’re punching each other in the face. But if you watch them lean over a pool table and calculate the trajectory of a shot, you realize they all have the speed and cunning of men accustomed to exploiting their opponents’ mistakes.
Lou Rawls’ classic “Love is a Hurtin’ Thing” plays on the sound system that is routed into the billiards room. The room’s soundtrack is mostly jazz and obscure classic soul, complementing the lived-in day-to-day experience of these mature but playful men.
While no one gambles for money, everyone gambles as if nothing matters except winning. These retired city workers, steel refugees, military veterans, preachers, middle managers, karate instructors, and those who made their living “more spontaneously” all agree that on any given day, the least talented among them can beat the most talented , but the most skilled player will always come out on top. So the goal is to become the most consistent player.
Reggie Lee, 73, is by far the most talkative of his pool shooter peers. He describes himself as “over the hill” when asked to rate his skills compared to others. Everyone laughs because he’s someone who wins more than he loses.
The laughter is a tacit admission that Mr. Lee, like everyone else, lies about what they can do. These men are adept at lulling the unsuspecting into a false sense of security. Because they’re all above average players, because they’re challenging each other five days a week, their biggest whoppers are usually lies of omission.
Reggie Lee confesses that in his youth he “played billiards for a living” and “on the street,” he adds vaguely with a laugh. “I had to get a job because it wouldn’t pay my bills, so I stopped playing [pool] for 24 years,” he said.
During this time Reggie Lee worked “among other things” at the VA Hospital to make ends meet, but billiards always remained his first love, even if he didn’t play it. He thinks his skills have diminished because he’s been taking so much time off the game. Part of the reason he’s a regular at Vintage is because he’s getting his game back.
“Believe it or not, a pool table used to be a sign that you’ve just entered a bad environment,” Reggie said. “A pool hall was automatically considered a cesspool.”
Another player confirmed Reggie’s observation, adding that dedicated billiard rooms disappeared in Homewood, East Liberty, and the Hill District as he grew up. Pool tables reappeared in bars years later, but you had to be 21 to enter these establishments, so black youth in Pittsburgh lost easy access to a game that taught valuable mental and social skills.
Reggie Lee now lives in the East Liberty/Friendship area, but recalls a time when he could “walk to a pool room” from anywhere. Now only Pinky’s in Turtle Creek and Breakers in Dormont are left. For someone who has played billiards since he was young, he insists that a pool hall was as important to him as a school room.
After winning two of three hard-fought games against one of the room’s best players, Reggie Lee unscrews his pool cue into pieces and carefully places it in his carrying case. His mind is sharp and his reflexes even sharper. It was a good day for an old hustler.
Tony Norman’s column is supported by the Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its effort to support writers and commentators reporting on communities of color that have historically been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.