The Poolhall and the Prizefight
I wrote this in April, 2012 but it was never published.
Dark, dank, dirty inhabited by two-bit hustlers, hangers-on, seedy boys and men of ill repute; the New Ridgewood Grove was a grimy, old-time pool hall located on St. Nicholas Avenue on the Brooklyn – Queens border. It smelled of smoke, old beer and decay. The glaring lights above each table illuminated only the green felt surface and the balls in play giving each table the appearance of being a bright island in a dark sea that consumed the players as they moved about to make their shots. Only their cue sticks and their fingers guiding the motion of the sticks were visible.
The pool room was located on the second floor of what had once been a fight arena, a place like Sunnyside Gardens and St. Nicholas Arena where club fighters, newbie’s and has-beens battled in obscurity. But overexposure to television during the 1950s killed this bottom end of the boxing trade and the arena gave way to a super market. The pool hall remained run by a just plain nasty manager who lived in a caged enclosure, took in the money and ordered the players about. A rummy bartender served up cheap rye whiskey, brands like Philadelphia, Wilson and Imperial or Pabst Blue Ribbon beer in cold, brown, twelve ounce bottles.
Warm, charming, friendly? Hardly! Not this joint. Not a woman in sight and not a good place to find yourself alone or separated from your pack. But it was a thing to do on another dateless Saturday night, an alternative to a movie, bowling or the neighborhood bar. My friends and I, war babies all, were newly minted legal drinkers having reached the age of 18. We proudly carried Selective Service Cards, not to prove that we had registered for the draft, but as our passport to the drinking man’s world, a valid ID that let us in.
We knew our place, avoided the prime tables and accepted the older ones crowded together in the corners of the room, the ones with rough, worn and stained felt surfaces. The closeness of the tables forced us to patiently wait our turn while players at the table jammed next to ours took their shots. When it was your turn to buy four beers for the pack, the other three would keep a watchful eye until the gofer safely retuned.
On that fateful Saturday night, March 24, 1962, one of the guys returned from a beer mission to report on the progress of the third in a series of prizefights between Emile Griffin and Benny “the Kid” Paret for the welterweight title. The fight was broadcast on the black and white TV mounted on a wooden platform over the bar. I don’t remember much of the fight, but as the rounds progressed more and more players put down their cue sticks and made their way toward the bar to watch the fight unfold. We joined the men remaining a respectful distance from the center of attention. I do remember the twelfth and final round when Griffin beat the Kid senseless while the referee, Ruby Goldstein, did nothing to stop it. Trapping his prey in a corner of the ring, Griffin hit the defenseless Kid in the head again and again. Why didn’t the Kid go down? Why didn’t Goldstein stop the fight? Why? By the time the Kid’s manager threw in the towel, it was too late.
All noise in the pool hall ceased as the Kid lay motionless on the canvas. The broadcast didn’t show the attendants sliding a stretcher into the ring or Paret being carried away. The pool hall crowd sort of stood around waiting for something to happen and we felt their mood darken. Without speaking, we knew the night was over and it was time to go. We downed our beers and left. The next day, the papers reported that the Kid was in a coma. He died in the hospital ten days later.