The ABC Club - thorn in Gaslamp development

Eight ball in the corner pocket

Mrs. Yamada and her husband on a pool table during a game
  • Mrs. Yamada and her husband on a pool table during a game
  • Image by Craig Carlson

With a few lessons and a lot of practice, I have improved my pool game to the point where occasionally I am bad. I make easy shots, and when I am in stroke I control the cue ball so as to leave myself more easy shots. Preferably I play alone, running the balls off the table quietly and slowly, with music, and with a drink and some Fritos off to the side. The drink may be anything nonalcoholic, but the chips should be Fritos — Regular Size. Midafternoon is a good time to play since I can keep a table for an hour or two without having to defend a challenge, but better is late at night when the gloom around the tables is most relaxing.

Ruby Yamada is seventy-nine years old, and was, I have heard, a good shooter in her day.

Ruby Yamada is seventy-nine years old, and was, I have heard, a good shooter in her day.

One night two weeks ago, I visited the ABC Club on Fifth Avenue south of Market Street, which is said to be the toughest block in the Gaslamp Quarter — tough because the patrons of the redevelopment district’s new restaurants, theater, wine bar, and boutiques feel intimidated by the people who hang out in front of the ABC Club and in front of the City Rescue Mission on the other side of the street. That night by eleven o’clock the ABC was nearly empty. The jukebox was quiet, the street noiseless as snowfall. Ruby Yamada, who operates the pool hall, was rubbing down one of the tables with a rag. She is seventy-nine years old, and was, I have heard, a good shooter in her day, though it’s hard to imagine that someone who is shorter than a cue stick could reach many shots on a regulation table. I sociably asked her if she’d like to play a game of eight ball, but she waved the maroon rag in front of her and said, “Too busy.”

“I’ll play you one.” Someone waved from the far end of the bar. “Sure, come on,” I said.

“I’ll play you one.” Someone waved from the far end of the bar. “Sure, come on,” I said.

“I’ll play you one.” Someone waved from the far end of the bar.

“Sure, come on,” I said. He rose, and as he came into the lighted end of the room I saw a man about my age and a little taller, approaching with a pilsner glass of draft in one hand and the other extended in greeting. He saw a man about his age and a bit shorter, standing rather stiffly and eyeing his hand for some clue as to how the handshake was going to progress. We exchanged an Ivy Leaguer — a brisk squeeze and a mutual look in the eye. His smile showed a broken front tooth. That and his short Afro would have set us apart under any circumstances, but we seemed to be similar in many other ways. His name was Joe; his voice was fast and high. We even had the same kind of light brown corduroy sports coat, with dangly leather buttons. As he set his coat next to mine on the bar I told him I really admired his taste.

To protect his own interest and coincidentally to promote the development of the Gaslamp Quarter he once asked Mrs. Yamada if she were interested in selling.

To protect his own interest and coincidentally to promote the development of the Gaslamp Quarter he once asked Mrs. Yamada if she were interested in selling.

“Yours too,” he said, meeting my irony at precisely the same pitch. And then, in a lower, serious tone, “Yours is about as beat up as mine.”

I said I’d had that coat for twelve years.

“Mine’s about that age,” he said.

“I just bought it.”

“Cap-it-al-izing on the er-rant maneu-ver,” I said in my Cosell voice.

“Cap-it-al-izing on the er-rant maneu-ver,” I said in my Cosell voice.

While Momma — as Mrs. Yamada is called by her patrons — was racking the balls at the foot of the table, Joe selected a cue from the rack on the wall. There were some decent cues to choose from. It’s rare to find a place that stocks decent sticks. Bars are the worst: their sticks are nicked, warped, dirty, sawed off, ridiculous. A trick is to bring a square of rough sandpaper to doctor the beaten leather tip of the cue so at least it will hold chalk. Mrs. Yamada tips her own cues herself, but even so provides a clean square of sandpaper to anyone who asks. Joe didn’t ask for one, but I did.

As near as I could tell patrons preferred the ABC to newer and more comfortable pool halls because at that time it was cheaper (fifteen cents a game, now twenty-five cents).

As near as I could tell patrons preferred the ABC to newer and more comfortable pool halls because at that time it was cheaper (fifteen cents a game, now twenty-five cents).

Joe told me to go ahead and break since he was the challenger. I fired the cue ball into the pack at the end of the table, sending balls careening everywhere while one dropped into a comer pocket with a satisfying thud. It was the fifteen ball with its red stripe. My object was to pocket all the striped balls, then, at last, the all-black eight. I sank an easy shot at the blue-striped ten into the side pocket, which left me with a shot in the near comer. It deserved a moment’s study. Okay — the plan was to hit the cue ball with topspin so that after pocketing the nine ball, it would spin forward, rolling into the end rail and caroming back to break up a cluster of balls that would probably yield me an easy shot on the eleven or possibly on the thirteen. It was gratifying to see that the plan would have worked if only I hadn’t missed the original shot. Yes, planning has its rewards.

I would call the ABC Club the freest pool hall in town — not as comfortable as Chris’s on Kearny Mesa, nor as competitive as the College Billiard Center near San Diego State or the Billiard Tavern at Broadway and Twelfth Avenue — but free, at liberty, if a little scary.

I would call the ABC Club the freest pool hall in town — not as comfortable as Chris’s on Kearny Mesa, nor as competitive as the College Billiard Center near San Diego State or the Billiard Tavern at Broadway and Twelfth Avenue — but free, at liberty, if a little scary.

I sat down to watch Joe at his turn, but instead picked up some snapshots that Mrs. Yamada had laid at my place on the bar. They showed her granddaughter’s wedding in Japan, and the newlyweds’ visit to San Diego. All smiles: Momma and the newlyweds around a kitchen table. “That’s at my son’s house in La Mesa,” said Mrs. Yamada, stooping behind the bar to light a Benson and Hedges. Born in a fishing village in northern Japan, Mrs. Yamada came to the United States at twenty years of age, and married twice: first to a Japanese in Seattle who died shortly after the birth of their son (who, at three years old, went to live with relatives in Japan); second to another Japanese with whom she raised a family in San Diego. She thus has offspring in both nations.

I asked if she had taken a couple of days off for her granddaughter’s visit.

“Not too much time,” she said. “I can’t stop working.”

“Why not?”

She made no reply. She nodded slightly, smiling.

“How about a vacation?” I said.

“Vacation?” She seemed to be remembering the word. “Vacation, vacation. I don’t know. I took a couple of days off when my Japanese son came to visit. He’s fifty-five, fifty-six years old now. We went to Disneyland, I think.” She paused to think. “Yeah, Disneyland, for the day.”

“How did you like it?”

She wrinkled her nose, which made me laugh. Not counting the Second World War years, when the Yamadas were obliged to sell their business (choosing to invest part of their money in U.S. Savings Bonds) and ride a windowless train to an internment camp in Arizona, Mrs. Yamada has spent nearly every day working at the pool hall, at night racking balls and tending bar, in the daytime taking deliveries and keeping books, and often, first thing in the morning, sweeping the sidewalk in front — a practice she now does often while wearing a paper mask over her mouth and nose to keep out the dust. The sidewalk has recently been resurfaced in brick, and street trees have been planted-within trunk-high gratings along the pavement, part of the general improvements in the Gaslamp Quarter which surrounds the ABC. But how unlike Disneyland it is in front of the pool hall, with its litter and loiterers. One would think that a small and elderly woman, whose husband had died five years before, would yearn to move away, and indeed, some merchants in the quarter have wondered among themselves if Mrs. Yamada were a captive of the neighborhood, living in an apartment above the pool hall, guarded in back by a concertina of barbed wire atop her garden wall.

“Shoot away,” said Joe, moving away from the table, a ball still rolling on it. It was a striped ball, a yellow one, the nine.

“Have you been shooting at the striped ones?” I asked.

He put his hand up to his mouth. “Oh, man, I sank one.”

“Then you sank one of mine,” I said, counting the remainders to be sure — he had. He’s probably a little high, I thought.

Joe swung onto a barstool and sat very still while I addressed my next shot and missed it. He then returned to the table, chalked up, and ran off six balls in a row, hitting them firmly into the pockets, finally missing on a ball that would have left him in position to sink the eight and win the game. I pocketed two striped balls before missing. Then Joe came back and with two shots finished it off.

Hmmmm — maybe not so high.

I asked Momma to rack the balls for another game, and when she had finished I put a quarter on the table to pay for it. Meanwhile Joe and I talked about sports — the Angels had lost another that night to the Brewers. I remember noticing a little silver anchor that Joe wore on a short necklace, and thinking, “Oh, he’s in the Navy," and feeling comfortable with that — with placing him somewhere that I knew about.

Apart from the fact that I’d never seen him before in the ABC, he seemed out of place, more of a tourist, so to speak, than I was. I had lived in the neighborhood five, six years before, near the El Cortez Hotel. The ABC was a well-known hangout for hotel residents, but many of the other patrons lived in outlying districts, even in National City or La Mesa, and were not what one would suppose to be downtowners. As near as I could tell they preferred the ABC to newer and more comfortable pool halls because at that time it was cheaper (fifteen cents a game, now twenty-five cents), and because it was eminently casual. You could smoke a joint so long as you kept it at a respectable distance from Mrs. Yamada, who would order a flagrant smoker out of the room. You could dance on the wide brown linoleum between the bar and jukebox, so long as not too many people danced, which would attract attention to the ABC’s lack of a cabaret license. You could do, really, most anything you wanted except fight, which brought an astonishingly swift visit from the police. I would call the ABC Club the freest pool hall in town — not as comfortable as Chris’s on Kearny Mesa, nor as competitive as the College Billiard Center near San Diego State or the Billiard Tavern at Broadway and Twelfth Avenue — but free, at liberty, if a little scary.

What has changed, though, and what made Joe and I seem so much out of place, is that in recent years the ABC seems to have lost some of the customers that live in the suburbs, leaving more and more downtowners who, as the Gaslamp Quarter attracts restaurants and boutiques, have fewer places to hang out. Will Newburn, a young Tennessean I happen to know, owns a half-share in the Stingaree Building next door to the ABC Club. He bought it two years ago with his wife’s uncle George Horn, and restored the building to Victorian nattiness. He said the patrons of the ABC “might wander to a different place outside the Gaslamp if the pool hall weren’t there, but I don’t know of any other place in the Gaslamp where they would feel comfortable.” Newburn was in his cubby at the Tom Hom Real Estate offices in North Park, sipping his morning coffee. In defense of the ABC, he said, “There is definitely a problem on the block, but I don’t think you can point the finger in any one direction” — meaning other businesses attract down-and-outers as well, one of which is the eight-room hotel in his own building, where a room rents for forty dollars a week.

Newburn said he likes Mrs. Yamada, and said the pool hall, like the mission across the street, “serves a purpose,” but still to protect his own interest and coincidentally to promote the development of the Gaslamp Quarter he once asked Mrs. Yamada if she were interested in selling. She replied, he said, with a quiet word about wanting to keep going for a year or two, as long as she enjoyed her work.

“Ready," she said to Joe and me, the balls racked.

Joe broke. It was obvious by now that he was a better shooter than I, but one way to judge a player's quality even before he takes a shot is to note his bridge hand, the one that cradles the stick on the table. It should be firm and utterly stable, like a paperweight, no movement allowed. Joe’s bridge hand showed a good deal of practice. He pocketed a ball on the break, the three, I think, which gave him the solid colors again, then passed up an easy shot in favor of a difficult bank, and missed.

“Cap-it-al-izing on the er-rant maneu-ver,” I said in my Cosell voice, bending for my shot. Joe laughed and said, “Yes, I know I shouldn’t have done that. I should be a lot more careful.”

At end-game I had two balls left on the table, in addition to the eight, and Joe had one. And it was my shot. One of the object balls was in a position where a slow, meticulous shot would put it in the side pocket, leaving the cue ball in place for an easy shot on the last object ball in the opposite side pocket, and a final winning shot on the eight. I went back to the bar for a sip on my drink. (Momma had put out a bag of Fritos for me on a white paper napkin.) Then I returned and addressed the shot.

The ball rolled slowly and straight, hit the point of the cushion that edges the pocket, and bounced away.

Joe said, “Mmmmm. Almost. I can see you really want to win this game.” What he saw was my face screwed up in a ball of scorn for having blown it.

“Me?” I said. “Oh no, I just . . . should have made that shot.” Then I sat at the bar and looked around, waiting for the game to end.

Improvements, I thought. Improvements, improvements — this place could use some. Scrape the paint from the high tin ceiling, reglaze the door in the wooden phone booth, repair the dark, magisterial clock above the back bar. I remembered a few years before having asked Mrs. Yamada if she were going to get it fixed. No, she replied — they wanted too much for it. So she’d had someone tape a paper plate over the face, and had placed a cheap electric clock between the two cash registers on the counter behind the bar. That clock didn’t have nearly the same appeal — it looked common, unofficial. In Japanese, shibui brings together the ideas of age and subdued beauty; a dark, tasteful bowl, or even a stepping stone abraded by time and footfall — these might be called shibui. And so might many of the objects at the ABC: the broken clock, for one, or the Brunswick pool tables which were built as far back as the I930s, when the company called itself Brunswick-Balke-Collender, and which have aged into somber monuments. But the word would not apply, I think, to the pool hall as a whole.

Rich Wise, a publicist who leases the ground floor of Newburn’s building next to the ABC, and who keeps his front door locked during business hours to exclude the uninvited, told me not long ago that when his two-year lease expires in June he will probably move — not out of any animosity for Mrs. Yamada, whom he likes and respects, but because improvements on the block (“upgrading,” he calls them) have been too slow. When he moved in, his office-opening party had taken the theme of the Depression, when nearly everyone was down-and-out. Refreshments were served in a “soup line,” and a poster presented the results of a survey of bottles found on the street the previous week, which showed the preferred wine in the neighborhood to be Night Train Express (eighty-four bottles), over Thunderbird (seventy-one bottles). It was something to joke about then, he said, but not anymore.

“Not to be totally negative,” he said one day before leaving for lunch; “this area has great potential. It’s just that this block in particular is going to take longer — a lot longer — than the rest of the area. And to be honest, when I moved in I wanted to be in on the ground floor of redevelopment, but some day I want to build up to the third floor — you know? And heck, we’re not even near the mezzanine yet.”

Joe called my attention back to the game. He had made his shot but had missed on the eight ball, which rested about two inches off the rail between the side and comer pockets. The cue ball was in a position from which I could pocket my last ball, and possibly leave the cue very close to the eight — which I did, accepting a compliment from Joe. Then I sank the eight and won.

Fireworks: Tourist wins local game! Tries to stay cool!

“Good game,” said Joe lightly. “I liked that last shot.” He meant the one along the rail: it was gratifying to hear because that was the shot I’d improved the most since learning to play — had improved it here at the ABC.

We decided to play one last game. Mrs. Yamada came from her place behind the bar and, dipping her hand like a ladle into each of the table’s six pockets, brought the balls back up to the slate, collected them in a red plastic triangle so that those along the outside edges alternated solids and stripes, moved the triangle to the start line and lifted it to leave the balls in a tight deltoid pack, then she collected her money as she had done perhaps a million times before, and moved off with tiny steps, elbows pumping ever so slightly.

I opened the rubber match by scratching on the break. Joe without comment collected the cue ball from the pocket it had dropped in and placed it behind the headstring for his opening shot, which he missed.

Play soon settled down to a cautious one-shot-at-a-time kind of game that for my part required a number of trips between the bar and the table: at the bar crunching Fritos and at the table studying shots. Joe seemed to be studying his shots more closely as well. Someone put a quarter in the jukebox, which was playing “I’m Gonna Get Next to You,” a slow, choiring tune by Rose Royce. We all fell silent, and for a while seemed restful and mindless of time, like scholars in love.

The street door opened, I could hear it behind me, and in came a ruckus of shouting. The first thing I thought when I turned was, “We’re being robbed.” A man in a rage and wearing a long knife with an antler handle was walking along the bar. He was saying something like “I won’t let them mess with me!” He repeated it while shaking hands with Joe and nodding to me. Oh, of course — I’d seen him earlier in the evening, in fact had watched him play a few games. He was in his late thirties, heavy and tough looking, though courteous with Momma. Joe asked him what was wrong, and he said the police out on the sidewalk had hassled him again about his knife, and that he was going to go to city hall to talk to some kind of citizens’ committee on police actions and get these people to stop hassling him. “They stop me every time. What do they want to do that for?”

I looked at Mrs. Yamada: no reaction — nothing. Just a blank little face behind the bar. I’d seen her once handle a fight in the pool room. Two drunks were going at it, wrestling between the tables and taking windmill swings at each other. One guy’s shoe came off and hit the ceiling, way in the darkness above the lights. “You fight outside! You fight outside!” Mrs. Yamada was yelling. And after a moment they stopped, collected their belongings, went quietly out to the sidewalk, and started fighting again. If they had had knives, of course, it would have been completely different — nothing for a small lone woman to intercede in. But the sight of a knife didn't seem to perturb her, the way it did me.

“That’s been kind of a tough neighborhood for a long, long time,” said John Filipi, whose family has owned the building that houses the ABC Club since 1926. I was talking with him one night on the telephone, asking him what would become of the building if the ABC weren’t there. “Oh, I’ve had a lot of offers,” he said, “but none of them looked any good. Shoestring deals, you know. People want to come in with no down payment, no backing. I don't want to do business like that.” He added that he was entirely satisfied with Mrs. Yamada as a tenant, that his dad used to go down to the pool hall to collect the rent, and although he himself didn’t go to the pool hall as frequently now, he enjoyed his dealings with her.

But about those other offers, I asked, “Would you be willing to lease the space to someone else if the proposition had a lot of money behind it, a big down payment, that sort of thing?” He said carefully, “I wouldn’t say that. Not necessarily. You don’t deal with somebody for forty years without taking them into consideration. I’d say that anything that happens with the property would have to be worked out with Mrs. Yamada.”

Not long after the Gaslamp Quarter became a redevelopment district with the power of eminent domain, by which the city could force an owner to sell his property, I asked a city planner if the ABC Club could ever be condemned under the clause for “nonconforming uses.”

“A pool hall?” he said. “We have a specific definition of nonconforming uses . . . which includes the Rescue Mission and liquor stores,” he said — meaning that these may eventually be removed. “But a pool hall? No — a pool hall is okay.”

I asked him why.

“Our attorneys have informed us that in the case of a pool hall it would be a moral decision to say, ‘You can’t have that activity in the Gaslamp District’ — and we would rather stay out of it.”

Returning to the game, it had come down to another close finish. I had a long shot on the eight ball, which I barely missed — the ball rattling in the mouth of the pocket and stopping to one side. Then Joe cleared his last ball off the table, and pocketed the eight.

“I am in my rights,” the guy with the knife was saying. “I can show them the Constitution and they can’t do nothing about it. I have the right to carry a knife as long as it’s not concealed.”

Momma came and racked the balls again, and out of politeness I asked Joe if he’d care for another game — but he’d had enough. “Got to go,” he said, and shook my hand again. Then he picked up his coat and left. The guy with the knife followed him out, and then I went after them quickly, thinking I might like to buy Joe a drink, find out where he was from. But by the time I got to the sidewalk they had both disappeared, and there was only a crazy old woman, who might have been drunk, standing in the doorway of the ABC. As I passed her she looked up at me and yelled, “What are you doing here?”

I turned and waved to Mrs. Yamada, who waved back.

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