Shooting Straight

For master craftsman Abe Rich, making world-class pool cues is more than a job -- it's a way of life.

Abe picks up a finished cue and fondles it, one arm outstretched, fingers gliding over the shaft, his right hand clutching the butt. "The balance, the smoothness, the weight," he says, "it's all got to be perfect." Surprisingly, he's never mastered the actual game of pool, he admits, because he's never found time to practice. Until a few years ago, he worked ten- to twelve-hour days.

"If you want to make a good cue, it takes time. You can have the best craftsmanship, but if you don't have a perfectly dry wood, the wood will warp," he says. "[Other cue makers] play games with the wood. They try to save money by saving time. That's the saying in America, 'Time is money.' But I'm not crazy about money, so I make time.

"Patience. Everything I do is like this," he continues as he mixes the secret epoxy glue. "They say wait half a minute and this [glue] is ready. I do two minutes. It can't hurt, it can only help. This is the reason: I don't play games. You cannot be a wise guy in cues."

It's late morning now and the best part of the day is gone. From seven to ten is the prime time for woodturning -- cool, quiet, and with few interruptions from callers or drop-in customers. Abe now sits down at a scarred and cluttered metal desk and spreads a paper towel. One of the shop's two windows, screenless with venetian blinds and vertical iron bars, offers him a westward view of Fifth Street traffic. Abe unfolds his small pocket knife and cuts into lunch, which is always the same: one can of King Oscar sardines, a tomato, two or three hard dinner rolls from the Rascal House Restaurant, an apple or banana, Chips Ahoy cookies, and tea. His diet is strict and light because of gastritis, a consequence of nearly starving to death during World War II.

Cooled by large, square floor fans, Abe talks reverently, and at times passionately, about his craft. His smooth, handsome face contorts expressively when making a point, his eyes flashing behind spectacles. "I don't use fancy machines," he begins. "Everything by hand, with a chisel and lathe. As a baby I was crawling around in sawdust in my father's workshop. It's in my blood." Abe was born Abraham Rutzisky in a village outside Kovno, Lithuania, in 1926, one of four children in a Jewish family that traces its roots to the Ural mountains.

Nazi sympathizers killed his father in the first few days of Germany's invasion of the Baltic countries in 1941, but at least, says Abe, his father never had to suffer the indignity of wearing the yellow star. During the liquidation of the Kovno ghetto in 1944, his mother and six-year-old brother were executed. Abe and his older brother Morris say their lives were spared in the Holocaust because of their woodturning skills. They were labeled useful juden, and worked from 1941 to 1944 in the Kovno ghetto making toys that were shipped to German children, and razor handles and shaving brushes for the soldiers. They then went on to labor in the Dachau concentration camp. When American soldiers literally picked up Abe in May 1945, he was nineteen years old and weighed 82 pounds. He remembers the bread and chocolate the soldiers gave him.

After helping to build a Jewish homeland (he worked in Israel paving the desert road to the Dead Sea), Abe emigrated to New York City in 1962 speaking four languages fluently -- but not a word of English. He learned quickly, though, because of his gratitude to the country that liberated him, he says. He apprenticed in the art of making pool cues under his uncle Isidore Rutzisky, recognized in a 1963 New York Daily Mirror story as "the cue maker to the stars." But it wasn't long before Miami beckoned. In 1949 Morris Rich opened Rich Woodturning, Miami's first woodturning shop, and by 1962 business was piling up. Morris offered Abe a corner in his shop on NW 29th Street. Today both brothers are renowned craftsmen. (Once they became American citizens, they changed their last name to Rich for the sake of simplicity.)

"Abe is the last of a dying breed," says Howard Rich, Abe's 41-year-old nephew who has succeeded his father at Rich Woodturning. Morris Rich is formally retired but still visits the business in the afternoons. The shop's recent contracts include the Texas state capitol building and Gloria and Emilio Estefan's Star Island mansion. "His approach is simple and honest. He loves getting up in the morning," Howard says of Abe. "Minnesota Fats, Willie Mosconi, and Jackie Gleason used to buy his cues, and he's always getting invited to pool tournaments, but he says no. He's very low-key and modest.

"He won't play the corporate game. He was never bought out or expanded because he didn't want anyone telling him to use cheaper materials to save money. He may be the best cue maker in the world. All the big guys use the sponsors' cues when on camera, but off camera they're using my uncle's cues."

A skinny, shirtless man with a tattoo on his chest of a round-faced woman and the inscription, "Chino soy Tuya, Maria," strides through the open doors into Abe's shop. Straggling behind him is a pregnant mutt. "AQue pasa? AMucho trabajo, mucho dinero?" the man jokes with Abe.

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