Shooting Straight

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

"Poco dinero, muchos problemas," sighs Abe.
The skinny man says something in shorthand and then walks over to Abe's workbench. He finds a used piece of sandpaper and waves goodbye. The man, a fisherman, uses the sandpaper to sharpen his knives.

"See how I am?" asks Abe. "He comes in here like I would be his brother. That's the way it goes, you know. Life is based on little things. I give it to him with pleasure; he appreciates it. It's the same way with my cues. You have to feel needed, you know what I mean? I'm not like Charlie Chaplin watching the clock all day, punching the work card. There's no satisfaction there.

"A man like me with a past like mine -- anything makes me happy, you know what I mean? My only dream is for them not to throw me out of the shop. It would be like a bang over the head. I hope I can stay."

For the past two years Abe has lived in fear that he would lose his workshop. He has a month-to-month rental arrangement; a pastel-colored sign faces Fifth Street outside his shop announcing "For Lease." He already relinquished half his space five years ago when his former landlord attempted to double his rent. He now shares the building with a flower shop, but pays the same rent as before. He says he's too old to move his shop and start somewhere new.

The rent in 1973 on the small building in which Abe launched his Star Cue Manufacturing was $125 a month. He told his first landlord he was interested in buying the building, but the landlord sold it in 1988 without telling Abe. Ever since then Abe has been at the mercy of the landlords and what he mockingly calls "prosperity."

"Ahhh, money," he says, clenching his jaw and right fist. "Money is a powerful thing. I don't want to move, you know. I'm a good tenant. I pay the rent on the clock. I'm a good citizen. But I mean nothing. Tenants have no rights, God bless America. Every day I don't have to move, I'm a winner. I don't know for how long, but I'm a survivor."

Abe's yen for permanence and his fear of being displaced is an irony not lost on him or his nephew in light of the family's odyssey after 1941. "It's a shame," says Howard. "He's caught up in the whole SoBe thing, the SoBe boom. He's really stuck. And he and my dad have a big thing with displacement. Their designation after the war was DP, displaced person. Their need to set roots is incredible. Psychologically speaking, to be displaced again is a tremendous burden."

Laz Martinez of Mar Bay Real Estate, Abe's property manager, says he wasn't aware of Abe's reputation as cue-maker extraordinaire, but he does understand that a SoBe-style renovation of the building and a double or triple rent hike would mean the end of Abe Rich's work. "Everything would be great if they just stayed the same, but things change. That's reality," Martinez says. "We're really not pushing the site aggressively to try to lease it. We think that area of Fourth and Fifth Street is still at least two to three years away from commercial developing. We have no plans to put him out."

At 5:15 p.m., as usual, Abe takes his seat at the counter in the big, fluorescent Rascal House restaurant on Collins Avenue at 171st Street. "Good home-cooked meals here," he says. He has showered and changed from his work uniform of dark-green pants and brown T-shirt into a cream-colored guayabera and brown slacks. His appearance is fresh but plain as he sits elbow-to-elbow with bejeweled old women dipping their forkfuls of lamb chop in small dishes of diced-beet dressing. Without looking at the menu, Abe orders lentil soup and a corned-beef sandwich.

"This is my Abe Baby. The best pool-cue maker in the country," enthuses waitress Mary, a Doris Day look-alike.

"I see this lady almost every day steady for the last eleven years. Steady. And I'm still loyal to her," Abe smiles.

"That's right," Mary says. "If my section is full, he'll wait in line for me. He's a special man."

Though he doesn't bring it up -- "I come from a family that doesn't cry about the past" -- he regrets not having a family of his own, and he admits that his perfectionism, stubborn independence, and honest-to-a-fault character have been costly on the home front.

"I'm no Clark Gable. I'm a short little guy, but with an appetite for beautiful women. But the women didn't get excited about me so quickly -- except the waitresses, they all like me," he adds with a laugh. "You cannot be a perfectionist with women like you can in your line of work. It's two different things. You have to look away sometimes."

The lentil soup is thick, the color of tomatoes. He dips his spoon gently but intently, his mouth meeting the spoon halfway. Before moving up to Sunny Isles, he ate nearly every day for years at Wolfie's restaurant at Collins and 21st. He claims he would still be living in his old apartment on Eighth Street and Meridian Avenue in South Beach if four robbers hadn't jostled him from bed one midnight in 1985 and threatened to kill him. But then, maybe not: Since moving to Sunny Isles immediately after that home invasion, his shop has been robbed twice, including one instance in which he wrestled a knife from an attacker by squeezing his wrist. Abe liked South Beach better when it was slumbering.

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