Old-school pool

Sep 3, 2008 at 12:00 am

It's a hot and sunny recent Friday afternoon, and a few men hide from the heat inside Bill's Recreation, a pool room just south of Wayne State University's campus. They're playing a game called "Bank."

"Go on!" yells Bill King to the ball he just shot at. "Get in there!" It stops at the lip of the pocket. He swings his whole body in consternation, as if to will the ball into the hole. His friends laugh at him.

King, 75, is here with Mel Bridges, 70, who runs the place, and Larry "L.A." Taylor, who, at 50, is the youngest of the group shooting pool today. They are the regulars.

"It's very cohesive, like a family," Taylor says.

Bill's is on a stretch of Third Street near Martin Luther King Boulevard where the homeless wander, in a part of town where new development encroaches upon the city's old skid row. Next door is the Detroit Rescue Mission; up the street is the Neighborhood Service Organization, both catering to the area's indigent and drug-addicted. The two places draw swarms of street people who loiter in a large field of grass on the corner for hours at a stretch, gulping from brown-bagged bottles, waiting for meal time at either place.

"They don't bother nobody," says Bridges. "They're more afraid of you than you are of them." Still, the front door here is always locked. "There was one time when they would break in, 'cause I had cigarettes," Bridges says. "I quit carrying cigarettes. That stopped the break-ins."

"All they do is pass by here and go eat," Taylor adds. "We don't let them come in mainly because they're not going to do nothing but be vagrants."

A knock comes from the door and Bridges unlocks it to let in Wesley "Wes the Best" Hazel, 67, who shoots enough pool to have his own stick in a carrying case. His nickname makes him a marked man. "They try to kill me, they really try," he says confidently of his challengers. "They try everything in the book." He used to own a pool hall at Jefferson and Lillibridge long ago. Now, in his retirement, he comes here to shoot nearly every day. The others grudgingly admit he is the best here.

"Those guys were coming around since I was a young lad," says Tony Bean, 56, the owner of Bill's. "The nucleus of my customers is the older people who come here."

Bean started working around here at 16 years old, under the original owner, Bill Epps, whose name stuck to the place even after he died. The large room was originally three separate businesses when it was built in 1921 — a grocery store, a restaurant and a barber shop. Epps knocked down the walls years ago and made the whole thing a pocket billiards room.

An ancient jukebox sits in the corner under a layer of dust. "That hasn't worked in years," Bridges notes. Years back, he says, "the city put another tax on you for having a jukebox. That was it for the jukebox."

There are nine full-size pool tables here; each costs $6 an hour to use, $4.80 if you're playing alone. They sell snacks like candy bars, cookies, pop, bottled water and fruit juice, up in a nook by an antique cash register that's lined with stacks of quarters and chalk for the cue tips. Ceiling fans swirl the warm air through the room. Thin curtains mute the light from outside.

"We open the door to people we know or potential customers," Bean says. All of the players say they welcome new customers, who occasionally wander in but are, they think, usually too intimidated by the area to check the place out. "A lot of those older guys still patronize the establishment," Bean says, "but in order for me to survive I have to go to a newer crowd, people who are really serious about shooting pool."

Bridges says fewer than two-dozen players form the core of the patrons here.

They switch to playing "one-pocket." King takes a shot. "Oh, no, you didn't!" yells King as the cue ball rolls its way into a scratch. "Oh, yes, you did!" says Bridges with an evil snicker. The ball sinks. King throws his body into a contortion of mock fury. He's known here as "Kill Bill."

The men pick on each other the way longtime friends do, giving each other nicknames and making fun of every missed shot. Next to the hourly pool rate chart on the back wall is a two-year-old funeral announcement for a man named John White, "known as Shity John," the handwritten note says. Even death can't wipe away a rude nickname here.

The street outside remains much the same as ever, trolled by the homeless and the hookers, but things are changing in the blocks nearby, as old buildings become lofts or apartments, and new residents move in. Bean isn't sure what that means for the pool hall. The kind of people gentrification attracts don't patronize places like this, old pool halls frequented by older men from the old neighborhood. New development is often the beginning of the end for places like Bill's.

"I see Wayne State coming down from the north, and I see the Ilitches coming from the south, so I'm in the middle between some changes," Bean says. "They got some housing where there was no housing. I'll give it a shot. If it works, fine, I'll carry on the tradition. If not, then I'll leave."

Bill's Recreation is located at 3525 Third St., Detroit; 313-833-4238.

Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to [email protected]