Ruby Yamada was born in Omu, a village of northernmost Japan, in May of 1903, and then came to the United States when she was 20 years old. A short time later she dared to smoke cigarettes. If it hadn’t been for the United States and for the freedom it made her feel, she says she would never have taken a habit so disapproved of by her strict mother. Remembering her mother, Ruby still doesn’t drink, but she continues to smoke, and can be quite daring for a woman who is 74 and no taller than a pool cue.
She runs the ABC Club, a pool hall at Fifth and Market in downtown San Diego, the sort of neighborhood where you can’t always get insurance for a plate-glass window. Tonight is Tuesday; Ruby Yamada will be here until two a.m. as she has been most nights since 1934, managing the bar, racking balls, and mixing herself cups of instant coffee from her bronze teapot.
There was a short time when she didn’t manage the club. During the war she was given a week to sell the business before she and her bewildered family were shipped on a windowless train to Arizona, where they spent four years in a camp with Japanese families like themselves. Having saved her money, part of which was invested in U.S. bonds, Mrs. Yamada repurchased the ABC Club when the family was freed. There were good business years after the war; then slowly the mainstream of the billiard trade moved away. Today the pool hall does as best it can with a clientele not given to rainbow-colored checkbooks, pickup trucks, or country music.
The club itself is nondescript. From the outside it could be a machine shop or a warehouse, so lean and severe is its design. Inside, the bar is on the left, and the linoleum floor in front of it is cigar-colored and bare. There used to be a bowling game against the right-hand wall, but it kept breaking because people would hurl the balls too hard. Mrs. Yamada got rid of it and cleared a space where customers sometimes dance to the jukebox, ignoring the “No Dancing” sign she tacked up rather than pay the city for a dancing permit.
Halfway into the room the floor changes to tan hardwood and the pool tables begin, five of them, 30 years old or better, owned outright by Mrs. Yamada. She charges 15 cents a game and hasn’t raised the price since 1967. In addition to the tables, which are wooden and were built by Brunswick back when the company called itself Brunswick-Balke-Collender, the room has but two objects with nostalgia potential—a wooden telephone booth (equipped with a push-button pay phone), and, high in the half-light above the table lamps, a ceiling of molded, whitewashed tin.
The rest of the room is bland and mildly depressing, like the setting of a stage after the last curtain call. Ruby Yamada’s mark on all of this appears to be negligible, which is surprising because the Japanese can be said to have a flair for billiards. Some 9,000 billiard rooms were built in Japan in a single year, and one of the bright young stars of the international billiard scene is Japanese. He wears a white silk glove on his bridge hand (the hand placed on the table to guide the cue stick), and stalks around the table with abrupt, karate-like movements.
Mrs. Yamada, herself a good pool player, is not so unorthodox in her style, and moreover is very, very tidy. (She will not keep a cat.) If she has made a mark on her pool hall, it is a small one in the form of her neat desk at the end of the bar. Here she sits to read her National Enquirer or perhaps her copy of Rocky Tanka, the Japanese poetry magazine to which she sometimes contributes. On the desktop is a pen, upright for ready use, an eight ball sawed in half, an abacus, and a paper-organizer. Behind is a gas stove, and above it, perched on a campfire toaster, is the round, golden teapot. A cupboard door bears snapshots of her son's house and place of business (he is the district manager of Moskatel’s craft stores), and the desk, again, is skirted with a cloth that hides shelves and drawers below. In one thin drawer she keeps a little notebook wherein is written in her very neat hand the names of many girls who worked at the club in the days when this room was crowded, rumbling with voices, gray with smoke.
She is now at the cushioned chair behind her desk; a customer is at the bar and four men are playing pool. One of them, who might be 70, keeps his back straight when he sits on the stool by the wall, and stands erect when he waits by the table to take his shot. Dignified, pipe-smoking, stiff, he is an irresistible target for his younger opponent who wants to make fun.
“You can make that shot with your eyes closed. Yes you can! That's a straight-in shot. You got a straight-in shot. I wish I had. I wish...”
The gentleman ignores him and looks down the table at the eight ball. The felt on the table is worn, harshly white under the fluorescent bars of the lamp. He can pocket the ball and win the game, saving himself 15 cents (the loser pays the next game). A missed shot, though, gives the winning chance to the irreverent youngster.
“Hoo! I'd bank that shot! Yes I would. I'd hit it—bang— right off the rail, here. See? Right here…"
Ignoring him still, the gentleman bends and makes ready to shoot. His slacks are too short for him. His cap, which is fiat and sporty, sits high on his head and makes his ears look large and lonely. He makes no expression but raises his eyebrows slightly...
...and knocks the eight ball into the corner pocket. “You lucky!" the other man shouts and bumps his stick-end on the floor. Somebody slaps his hands together twice—the man at the bar— and the gentleman accepts this applause in the most modest way. His teeth tighten on the stem of his pipe and he tries very hard not to smile.
“Well, you can rack those up. Momma."
Mrs. Yamada is already on her way. Machine-like, quick and steady, she moves to the table and slides the plastic triangle from pocket to picket, packing billiard balls into the frame. Next she collects a quarter and scoops change from the cloth apron about her waist, then returns to her desk.
She turns. Across the room a young man tips his chin up, beckoning. “How about a glass of water?"
“A glass of water," she says, and goes to the refrigerator where she keeps a pitcher of cold water next to the beer, pours some water in a beer glass, and carries it across the room to the young man, who thanks her.
A moment later: “Say, Momma. You have a toothpick?"
“Toothpick! What you want a toothpick for?”
“My teeth. You got one?"
Again she walks to the end of the bar. She reaches high and on her second try grabs a toothpick from a box on the shelf, then carries it around the bar and across the room to the young man, who sits at a table with his head in his hand, and thanks her.
“You know," Ruby Yamada says, "I never have trouble around here because, you just look here, and I treat you and everybody right. Yes." She wags a short finger. “I treat people right and they treat me right."
Though she works alone, she's never been held up. Robbed, yes. Someone stole money from the register when she was in the back of the poolroom and made off before she knew anything had been taken. It was some time ago, long before the insurance company cancelled the policy on her windows.
And who would want to steal from such a kindly looking woman? Her bits of inexpensive jewelry, a few small brooches, butterfly earrings; her sweater, the sleeves pushed up on her forearms, show her to be no more than a pensioner. (Technically, her son owns the business, Mrs. Yamada having sold it for a dollar 12 years ago to make herself eligible for Social Security. She also gave him her house.) The policing of the neighborhood is good, she says, too good, perhaps, for business. She suspects that many would-be customers- sailors, mostly— go to National City where the police are more lenient. She has “No Gambling" signs posted and says she wouldn't mind a little gambling. The police, though, mind very much.
It may take a little gambling, at any rate, to induce people to play hard at pool; there’s no future in it. A pool-athlete can’t make basketsful of money. The national champion, 28-year-old Jim Rempe of Scranton, Pennsylvania, won $1,200 last April when he beat Lou Butera three out of four sessions at Jack Lamon's Billiard Tavern at 11th and Broadway, but only two sessions drew a sell-out crowd.
Because it is not especially exciting to watch, billiards is a game that many people play but nobody pays attention to. Even Mrs. Yamada notices a lack of serious interest in the game. People don’t play like they used to, she says. People come in to play around, but don’t practice seriously. The ABC Club is not so much a pool hall anymore as a place to play a little, hang out, dance, pass time.
Ten o’clock and only four people are in the club now, including Ruby Yamada. She's already said she might close early tonight and go home (upstairs), but she says in the next breath that she might as well stay open since there is even less for her to do at home.
Chatting with the customer at the bar, she has to speak loudly above the sound of the jukebox’s thump-jazz music. Nobody is at the tables, nobody needs to be served, and there is nothing to do but talk and smoke and drink another cup of coffee. A couple more customers walk in, fingers popping to the tune. Mrs. Yamada stops talking. One of them comes round to the end of the bar and stops in front of her desk. He’s wearing a wig, a short skirt with pantyhose, and is carrying a pair of lady’s shoes in his hand. His friend, too, is dressed like a woman and for a moment Mrs. Yamada looks at one and then at the other and appears not to know what to say. Her look is not disapproving; it couldn’t be. These boys don’t look serious. They’re 18 or 19, and in their awkwardness appear made up for a joke or for something to do as a thrill. More than dresses, they wear looks of self-satisfied naughtiness.
Affecting a high, quavering falsetto, one of them turns to the man at the bar and says, “How you doin' tonight?” The man’s surprised look is just the effect they want.
“Oh, fine, yes. Just having another beer.”
“Well all right, then,” the young man says, warbling.
“You through with shoes?” Ruby Yamada says, motioning to the sandals in his hand.
He gives her a straight look, then smiles and turns away walking big-footed toward the bathroom. Mrs. Yamada’s gaze follows him for a moment, then she turns back to her customer and resumes talking where she left off—something about her last visit to Japan in 1955. Expensive even then, she was saying.
“You make me feel like dancing,” sings the other one in time with the jukebox, humming now and looking at himself in the mirror behind the bar. Mrs. Yamada stops talking and gives him a stare that shows she wants to say something. He’s climbed one of the bar stools and is kneeling atop it, both hands on the small of his back, posing for himself in the mirror. He is somewhat larger than his companion, and has arms which are decidedly unfeminine. Mrs. Yamada says nothing, but keeps him in her view.
When his friend returns from the bathroom, Mrs. Yamada says, “Your partner’s tall enough already. He doesn’t need to do that.” The boy tips his head to indicate that he can't hear, and when she says it again he ignores her. Ruby is standing behind the bar which comes almost to her shoulder. The music stops. The jukebox clicks and grinds while the two boys smile at each other; the customer examines a thread of bubbles clinging to the side of his beer glass, and Mrs. Yamada flutters her fingertips on the bar.
“He’s tall enough already,” she repeats quietly. “He doesn’t have to do that.”
The one with the shoes says nothing, but his friend has heard clearly enough and climbs down from his perch. The music starts again and they dance. Mrs. Yamada was saying that she won’t return again to Japan, never again to chilly Omu. Too cold for her to take.
And then, she says, her husband died in March and the many subsequent arrangements have worn her out. She touches the customer on the forearm. “But you know,” she says, “two months ago, that's a long time, and the people here still remember him and tell me they’re sorry. Isn’t that nice of people? It makes me feel so warm. Here, I feel so good, I buy you a beer. Smoke? No? Maybe I buy you two beers.” She laughs.
Across the room two players have moved to a pool table. They choose cues and a quarter flashes in the fluorescence. “Hey, Momma. Let's rack 'em.”