The men who play pool in a back room at the Vintage Senior Services Center in East Liberty don’t have colorful nicknames like “Minnesota Fats” or “Cornbread Red” or “Wimpy” Lassiter.
They have ordinary names like Ernie, George, Cecil, Dave, Bobby, Edgar and Reggie. There’s a “Bull” and a “G-Man” sprinkled in there, too, but nothing that might make you think you were dealing with an auxiliary of the Wu-Tang Clan.
For a $25 annual fee, these recreational players and retired hustlers get to relive past glories and rivalries without getting stuck. Most are convinced that their best shots are still ahead of them despite ranging in age from 60 to 85.
To someone passing by, these men look and sound like characters from an August Wilson play, especially when they’re busting each other’s chops. But if you watch them bent over a pool table calculating the trajectory of a shot, you see that all of them possess the speed and cunning of men who are used to exploiting the mistakes of their opponents.
Lou Rawls’ classic “Love is a Hurtin’ Thing” is playing on the sound system piped into the billiards room. The soundtrack of the room is mostly jazz and obscure classic soul which complements the lived daily experience of these mature but playful men.
While no one is playing for money, they all play as if nothing matters but winning. These retired municipal workers, steel industry refugees, military vets, 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 skillful player is always going to have the edge. So the goal is to become that most consistently skillful player.
Reggie Lee, 73, is by far the most talkative of his pool-shooting colleagues. He describes himself as “over the hill” when asked to rank his ability compared to others. Everyone laughs because he is someone who wins more often than he loses.
The laughter is a tacit admission that Mr. Lee, like everyone else, is lying about what they can do. These men are practiced at lulling the unsuspecting into a false sense of security. Because they’re all better-than-average players from challenging each other five days a week, their biggest whoppers are usually lies of omission.
Reggie Lee confesses to “playing pool for a living” when he was younger and “on the street” he adds vaguely with a laugh. “I had to get a job because that wasn’t paying the bills, so I quit playing [pool] for 24 years,” he said.
During that time, Reggie Lee worked at the VA Hospital “among other things” to make ends meet, but pool always remained a first love even when he wasn’t playing it. He believes because he took so much time off from the game, his skills eroded. One reason he’s a regular at Vintage is that he’s recovering his game.
“Believe it or not, a pool table used to be a sign you just entered a bad environment,” Reggie said. “A pool hall was automatically considered a den of iniquity.”
Another player confirmed Reggie’s observation, adding that when he was growing up, dedicated pool rooms started disappearing in Homewood, East Liberty and the Hill District. Pool tables began reappearing years later in bars, but you had to be 21 to go into those 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 remembers a time when he could “walk to a pool room” from anywhere. Now only Pinky’s in Turtle Creek and Breakers in Dormont remain. For someone who has played billiards since he was a teenager, he insists a pool hall was as important as a school room for him.
After winning two of three hard-fought games against one of the room’s best players, Reggie Lee unscrews his pool cue into sections and places it gently in its carrying case. His mind is sharp and his reflexes even sharper. It’s been a good day for an old hustler.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.