On a hot Wednesday morning, about 30 of the boys, most of them pushing 60, were hanging out at North Hollywood Billiards. The inside of the air-conditioned room was dark except for 18 green-topped tables, which glowed eerily under fluorescent lights. In the shadows, guys with names like Banger Bob and Spinner Sam schmoozed about escrow closings. The TV above the manager's counter displayed the latest action on Wall Street.
Sitting on a cracked-vinyl chair and eating M&Ms for lunch, Walt Ledel, a city worker on his break, wasn't interested in anything but Table 10, where Jose Hernandez was searing the green felt in a game of three-cushion billiards. Ledel was going to school on Hernandez, one of a half-dozen of the country's top-rated players who play regularly at the Magnolia Avenue room.
"I'm sort of a student of the game, and I come here a lot on my lunch hour to watch the best players in the world," Ledel said, never taking his eyes from the table as Hernandez's shot banked off three rails and kissed his opponent's black-spotted ball. Ledel smiled. "Beautiful. I'd give anything to be that good one of these days."
Despite neon beer signs in the windows and tacky paneling on the walls, North Hollywood Billiards is not a joint where a hustler is going to get his thumbs broken. It is more like a back-room social club for guys who have never outgrown their appreciation for a game of skill or an opportunity to goof around with their buddies.
"This is a gentlemen's room," said Oscar Haurat, a contractor wearing a "Bel-Air" T-shirt.
At North Hollywood, wives are welcome but have the good sense to stay home. Rules are enforced. No cigarette butts on the rails. No sitting on the tables. No gambling. No checks. No spitting. The boys are allowed to swear and are discouraged from hustling. Fighting is forbidden, but arguing is an acceptable alternative.
"You're blind!" a dark-haired player named Eddie barked at Haurat as they played a game called "golf" on a snooker table. A few onlookers snickered. Hardly anyone else paid attention.
Earlier, Eddie had walked in with a smile and greeted everybody with "What's happening, babes?" But now he is disagreeing with Haurat over which ball was touched first. Instant replay would have resolved the matter but was not available.
"How can you put them balls back like that?" said Haurat, a burly Argentine. "It's not even close."
"Baloney!" Eddie said.
"Don't tell me baloney! I quit," said Haurat, walking away with the amused look of someone who's been involved in the same scene before.
Taking up residence on a bar stool, Haurat said, "We have arguments all the time, but they're friendly arguments. Things like this happen when two balls are close. But when you get a guy who's halfway nuts, you can't argue with him.
"You know, things get crazy sometimes, but I've never seen a fight here. I've known these people for nine years. Everybody gets along. It's kind of a trippy place when you think about it. The Anglos and the Latins get together so strongly. The Anglos even use some of our terms. They say pico instead of corner. Isn't that trippy?"
Tapping Haurat on a beefy arm was Chuck Aldrich, a part-time carpenter who has been a regular since the parlor was opened 25 years ago by Clarence (Tiff) Payne. Aldrich had taken it on himself to plunk a quarter into a parking meter outside. "I didn't want to see your car towed," he told Haurat.
Haurat smiled and looked around the long, narrow room, enjoying the camaraderie. "We have something else in common besides pool," he said. "You know what makes this room so special? There are a lot of businessmen here, rich guys."
He was overheard by a silver-haired man wearing gold chains. "There's a lot of money in this room," Gold Chains said. "The poorest guy here's worth $300,000. We got millionaires. Guys with Rolls-Royces."
A reporter asked Gold Chains for his name. "You're not getting my name," he snapped. "We're pool players. We don't want our names showing up in the newspaper." He turned to Haurat. "You shouldn't give them your name."
Haurat shrugged. "Why not? I'm clean."
Gold Chains explained: "My kids have decent jobs. You think I want people seeing that their father hangs out at a pool hall? And my son and I have the same name. It could be embarrassing for him. My kids know I come here, but they don't like it--I come home smelling like cigarette and cigar smoke. They can't understand why I have to hang out in a billiard parlor."
For most of the boys, the reason for spending their spare time at the North Hollywood playhouse is the game itself. Three-cushion billiards, played on a table without pockets, requires a deft touch and a scientific mind to calculate angles and English. Fifty years ago, billiards was more popular than pool in the United States. Today, billiards advocates say, it's enjoying a resurgence in this country. But the best players in the world are the Japanese and the Europeans.