Around noon they steal in from the street brightness and, carrying pool cues in little cases, go past the bar back to yesterday, which is a dim, heatless room that smells of beer and grandfathers and has tables covered with green felt.
This is Joe Jost's, a 64-year-old relic/tavern/pool parlor squeezed between a fishing tackle store and shoe repair shop on Anaheim Street in Long Beach.
The middle-aged men go straight to the first table, an antique much larger than the other pool tables in the room. They take out their sticks and play "golf."
The game has been played at Jost's as long as anyone can remember.
Each of the six leather-webbed pockets on the table represents a hole, and a player must go around the course and be the first to sink his ball in the sixth hole to win. The object is to deny your opponent, the guy behind you, a shot, so the games are often long, defensive struggles.
The men shoot--the soft friction of wood against flesh once again satisfying that lifelong itch--and gulp beer from icy, 20-ounce schooners.
Soft Clicking Sound Mesmerizes Them
And for at least an hour, but usually long into the afternoon, mesmerized by the soft clicking of ball against ball, they forget the job or wife--if they still have a wife.
More than a few neglected women heard too many times the plea, "Just one more game, honey," from the old-fashioned wooden booth that sits next to the golf table and has PHONE stenciled on its frosted glass door.
One exasperated wife once cruised the alley in back of Jost's poolroom yelling for her husband, who merely kept playing and drinking after letting out a heartfelt, "Oh, shut up, get outta here, I'm shootin' pool!"
The men swear by the game--and at it. They say it's a gentlemen's sport but a look at the papier-mache moose head that hangs from the wall reveals that comportment is not always gentlemanly. The moose is missing its horns.
"Most play it for fun, but some guys, if they don't win, they get hot," explained Mike Campbell, 39, known as Iron Mike. Iron Mike, a bearded man with glasses whose 288 pounds threaten a tired wooden chair, is sitting out a game, drinking beer and hoping his beeper doesn't go off. He handles the big glass goblet--it is said he once drank nine of them in an hour--as if it was a plastic champagne glass.
"I had my first beer in here when I was 17," said Iron Mike, who lives in the neighborhood and is in the vending business. "I came in with my dad and his dad. My granddad liked to get his haircut in here. (Jost's originally was a barbershop.)
"I come in around 11, stay a while, go back to work and come back. This is my leisure time away from counting those damned quarters . . . . That's very boring."
Everyone is always coming back here, just like their fathers and grandfathers always did, the nostalgia and seediness magnets.
The room is long. There are four other pool tables. Chains hang from the tall ceiling to support the hooded fluorescent lights that run the length of each table, the white tubes yellowing from cigarette smoke. Framed paintings of landscapes, which have gone unlooked at for years, are on the green walls, along with the moose head and a chalk scoreboard.
Signs read: "Please Don't Set Anything on Pool Tables, including yourself" and "Please Don't Swear Too D----- Loud."
Iron Mike was praising the king of the golfers here, a man named Gus.
"Gus is a little Greek guy who sells vacuum cleaners; a little guy, but boy can he shoot," Iron Mike said. "He was a wrestling champ. I bet Gus could do a hundred push-ups.
"Gus knows he's best. You make one miss and he runs three holes."
The regulars have arrived. They take the fresh cubes of chalk from atop the light hood and grind them on the tips of their sticks.
There is Dave Richardson, 60, a tall, balding man who runs the galley on a fishing boat out of Seal Beach.
And Rex Hein, a wine broker in his late 40s who wears a shirt and tie and chews gum when he shoots. Hein grew up in a small Nebraska town and remembers his grandfather taking him to a pool hall just like this.
'This Game Takes Patience'
"This game (golf) is pretty old," Hein said. "Young kids just don't associate with it. This game takes patience and most young people don't have patience."
The kids are back on the other tables, shooting 8-ball.
"This game is so defensive, it doesn't appeal to youngsters," Richardson said. "They're shooters, they love to slop the ball in the hole."
In golf, players pride themselves on geometrically perfect shots, where the cue ball softly caroms off three rails and lands in the last place the next shooter wants it.
No balls are slopped in. The pockets are much smaller than on regular tables and balls enter with as much difficulty as Iron Mike has getting in the phone booth.