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By SEAN STONE
Rocco Spinelli pulls into the Golden Cue billiard lounge parking lot at 2 p.m., unlocks the store, and lets in the patron that parked beside him. Spinelli knows him by name and talks to him while he sets up his table. Spinelli is going to start opening the hall at 4 p.m. instead of 2 starting next month. He doesn’t make any money from just him, Spinelli jokes.
He works almost every day; ringing in customers, restocking vending machines, and taking orders for the kitchen he installed. Spinelli added the kitchen and bar after he mortgaged “everything” to help keep the Albany business profitable. According to Spinelli, the renovations were not quite finished before he ran out of money.
Spinelli moves with the confidence of experience, he’s been working there since 1973 when his father bought the place. That was the year after he graduated from high school, and he started managing the hall in the mid-nineties. He runs around the store to make sure everything is stocked and set throughout the day, and leans over the counter to talk to customers or catches sports on the bar televisions when he has a break.
“This is the kind of place where you have to put in your time because you can’t pay people full time,” Spinelli said.
The patron Spinelli joked about not making money from is Bill Stackhouse, a tall gaunt man with grey hair swished to one side of his head. He’s one of the regulars, and he said he’s been going there since he retired in the mid-nineties. He said he was one of the men that helped build the hall “about a hundred years ago” in the mid-fifties, and sometimes refers to Spinelli as “the kid”. With only a couple others in the hall Stackhouse walks around his table methodically, head hunched over the angles, shots, and green felt of his usual table.
The bar Spinelli put in shines from the lights and televisions long before the billiard area lights are turned on in the evening. Webbed billiard pockets hang and decorate the underside of the wooden countertop, and billiard themed signs hang from the walls. Here Spinelli serves the beer, wine, and pub fare offered at the Golden Cue. He sells onion rings for $2.75, and chicken wings for $9.
The billiards area is light green from the paint on the walls to the leafy design of the grass colored carpet, like the ashy worn felt on the oldest looking tables. In this area sit 20 pool tables for use. Most are nine feet long, compared to the ones seen at bars that are only seven feet long. There are now three bar sized tables, bought for the local pool league that brings in new and younger faces.
Justin Secor-Rubenstein is a young face, but he is not a league member. The 30-year-old bartender comes in on a sleepy, hungover Saturday afternoon. He gets a draft beer and heads to table 12, where he practices by himself and hits shots with one hand while he’s on the phone. He said he’s been playing pool here since he was 4, but he only comes in once in a while nowadays. He said he likes the history of the place and the beer, plus “It’s a great date spot.” He said if you can shoot well, you can teach girls how to play for a cheap night out.
He said that he remember clouds of cigarette smoke filling the air of the hall growing up, but those days are gone. Smoking hasn’t been allowed indoors at businesses in New York since 2002. Spinelli doesn’t allow something else associated with pool halls too; gambling. A couple of players at the bumper pool table may not have heard this though, as they play for a little more than for the love of the game.
Spinelli was born in 1954, and has age-given gray hair. As his day goes on and he stays on his feet, a slight limp appears in his stride. He knows almost all of the patrons by name, and said he ought to after being in business for so long. When his father, Rocco Spinelli Sr., comes in he affectionately calls him “Pops” and drops a K-cup pod in the store’s Keurig for him. He talks with him, sometimes repeating himself and smiles.
On a warm afternoon, Spinelli doesn’t turn on the air conditioning until the evening, when more patrons arrive. He said it’s too costly to put on for three people. Soon the Golden Cue is going to start opening at 4 p.m. on some days instead of 2 p.m. as a cost saving measure. “We got to find ways to make it work, and we’re running out of ways,” he chuckles.
As the day presses on, the billiard lamps above the pool tables start to light up as more people show up to play in the pool league and hang out. The tables are the same ones from when the store opened, re-felted and fixed as the years went by.
On busy nights, the sounds of the games make an ambient noise in the hall sashaying around the conversations. Sticks woodenly knock cue balls into a clack with the object ball, the plastic rumble of it rolling down the ball return or the player’s tsk at a missed shot. When there are many players in the hall, the table’s noises overlap and billiard’s background babble is punctuated by the crack of a new rack’s break.
During his 44 years working the hall, Spinelli has seen many changes to the business. He remembers when Tom Cruise starred in “The Color of Money,” a 1986 billiards drama that he said was good for business after its release. He saw when he said “Pool went from sport to recreation,” something that people did to pass time rather than play seriously. He also saw the other pool halls in Albany close over the years, with the Golden Cue being the last one standing in the city. “I think I survived because a lot of businesses, the business is a side thing… This is my main job,” Spinelli said.
With the heyday of pool gone, many pool halls in New York have closed over the years. According to the Billiards Congress of America, Manhattan alone had thousands of pool halls close between the 1930s and the 1980s, leaving only a few remaining.
Tuesday is league night for straight pool players. This billiards variant operates where players can sink any ball on the table for one point, and the game ends at a set number of points. Players only pass play after they miss a shot, so experienced players can appear to be playing by themselves until a ball slides wide of the pocket.
Straight pool is absent from bars due to the number of racks needed to play, and the table charging by rack. This issue is circumvented when players pay $6.30 an hour to play at the Golden Cue, the same price as the credit card minimum charge. Stackhouse remembers this as the game of choice when he used to play in New York City. This is a game that can be seen in Paul Newman’s “The Hustler,” where his character plays against Minnesota Fats, played by Jackie Gleason.
Spinelli said that Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone once played at the hall, before his father bought the store. Spinelli can name many professional players that have come in over the years, standouts from a crowd where he said many people can consistently pocket 40 shots in a row without missing.
When Spinelli goes home around 8:30 p.m. he leaves employee Michael Smail in charge. He got the job when he was at the store one night and saw Spinelli “running around,” and offered to help. Smail said he first went to the store when he was 9 years old, and met his wife in person there for the first time on a date.
A small collection of pool sticks sit on top of a rack shaped like a cut in half eight ball next to the hall’s juke box. These pool sticks are different than the ones found in the billiards area, as they are made out of fiberglass instead of wood. According to Smail, these are good for teaching children and novice players as they lack the power of a wooden stick, curtailing the chance of a new player knocking a cue ball off of the table by accident.
Both Smail and Spinelli work to make sure the tables and sticks are not damaged from careless or clueless players. On a sleepy Friday afternoon, two college students play on one of the back tables when one lays across the table length wise to take a difficult shot. Smail crosses the billiards area and with few words introduces him to the bridge laying on the rack beneath his table, a supplementary pool stick to take long shots with.
With the rise of computers and the fading popularity of billiards, it can be hard to attract younger patrons to play pool. “There’s so much to do now for kids, it seems like pool isn’t even an option.” Spinelli said. Most of the patrons that come in during the day are middle-aged or older, and only some younger make their way to the hall. Led Zeppelin and The Doors croon from the speakers as patrons play, and the hall’s background music is dominated by classic rock.
Spinelli had cut down his own hours after suffering a mild heart attack four yeras ago. He said the business doesn’t make enough money for him to able to sell the place. His family helps him out at the hall but won’t take over as they have their own careers. “When I’m gone the place goes with me,” Spinelli said.