Shooting Straight

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

"When I came in 1962, South Beach was like a paradise -- I'm not exaggerating. It was different. Clean, nice. People used to gather on Tenth Street and sing old songs. In the hotel lobbies, old people used to watch TV a little bit," he says, smiling serenely and folding his hands on his chest in repose.

"Now they've locked up the hotel lobbies and put in bars and dancing -- in the lobbies where people should rest. How come they gave them permits! They call this prosperity, but in my eyes it's not prosperity. It's crowded, there's more crime, the parking -- they're crawling over each other like ants. For what? A lot of drinking and women shaking their asses all night. What good is that?"

Abe swoops a knife outward under a spot of mustard on his plate. He forks a slice of corned beef from the open-face sandwich and follows it with a piece of rye bread. He recalls a proverb from his Lithuanian village. "If you want to grab a lot, you don't grab anything in the end," he recites. "The landlords are like that. Look at all the empty buildings now in South Beach. They raised the rent so much they chased everyone out.

"There are 234 million people in America. Why shouldn't the old people have a nice place to live in their retirement? The old working people in this country -- shoemakers, tailors, little storekeepers, bakers -- deserve to have a little place to come."

After three cups of hot orange tea with squeezed lemon, Abe gets up to leave. He's carrying a thin plastic bag of dinner rolls Mary has tightly knotted for him. Abe side-slips into his gold Chevrolet Celebrity. The car has 53,000 miles on it and things are starting to go already. "What are you going to do?" he shrugs. "There's nothing you can do." This morning he replaced the muffler -- at Midas, he says, because he heard they use the best materials. The drive to Vistaview Apartments takes two minutes.

The rain stops as Abe steers into his apartment parking space. He listens momentarily to the seven-year-old Chevrolet idle and then turns the ignition off. "Now you will see how an old bachelor lives," he says just before opening the door to his one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. The apartment is plainly furnished and smells slightly stale. Sliding glass doors open to a narrow balcony overlooking the parking lot and a patch of thick-bladed grass.

Dozens of empty jars of Sunsweet Ready to Serve Prunes line a corner of the kitchen floor, the refrigerator top, and counters. Envelopes of bills are stacked neatly on the counters next to a pool of coins. Piles of unread newspapers and magazines cover the kitchen table. He doesn't cook except to boil water for tea.

In the living room, a hammer, screwdriver, and pliers lie on a coffee table. Two pastoral oil paintings by his sister serve as the sole decorative items. "Sit down, sit down anyplace," he implores. "Feel at home, not like a stranger."

Abe settles into a Scandinavian hardwood recliner close enough to the television so that he can bend forward and change the channels. Normally at this time, 7:00 p.m., he'll turn on the set and begin nodding off. He'll think about the commitments he has -- the new orders that came in that day. And he'll dream about the past, his mother waking up at 4:00 a.m. on Fridays to bake special breads for the Sabbath, how she enjoyed sewing pants for poor neighbor children, and how she looked at his father, especially on Fridays after he had shaved, with an expression he didn't understand then.

"She loved my father in ways I can't describe," says Abe, his voice fading, his eyes narrowing. "Because he was a decent man. A hard-working man.

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