Shooting Straight

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

A concrete wall separates the four-story Arquitectonica building from a squat white workshop. On the east side of the wall, young architects in glass offices create new designs for international clients. On the west side, 70-year-old Abe Rich works alone in his half of the bunkerlike structure, 800 square feet of heat, dust, and stacked wood. For 34 years -- 23 of them at this alley location on the south side of Fifth Street on South Beach -- Abe Rich has been handmaking some of the finest pool cues in the world. He starts his work day canvassing the arms-width corridor between his workshop and the wall (which Arquitectonica put up a few years ago), cleaning up food wrappers, beer cans, broken bottles, condoms, human feces. "That's the way it goes -- what are you going to do?" Abe muses in one of his favorite refrains, his gray eyebrows arching in sync with his matching mustache. Before leaving work, Abe places a couple of jugs of water along the wall for the night stalkers' avail. It's times like these that he recalls his father's hopes for him: to become an engineer or architect -- a professional man, not a lowly woodturner like his forefathers. Abe, however, does what he says he was born to do: stand for long stretches and shape wood while it rotates on a lathe.

Inside the workshop, wood is a blur as he chisels, then strokes and turns it with his right hand. Abe is a taut five-foot-three, with a hunched back (a legacy of slave labor at Dachau) and arms like a college wrestler. He thrives on making the perfect cue, over and over again. He has neither wife nor children nor hobbies. He doesn't need money, and his health, particularly an arrhythmic heart, could use a rest. But Abe needs the work and the routine. Get up at five, work by seven, close shop at four. Every day except Sunday. It's been Abe's way since he opened Star Cue Manufacturing in 1973. "If I'm not working, there's emptiness," he says, crinkling his eyes, his soft voice coated with a thick Hebraic accent. "I'm afraid if I stop, it will be the end of me." He aspires to work as long as his uncle Isidore, who made custom pool cues and ivory cue balls in New York City till the age of 83.

Champions, big-shot celebrities, hustlers, and rank amateurs alike have bought Abe's cues. And when the industry has come calling for Abe's wisdom, dangling fame and riches, he has coolly declined. His workshop remains an orthodox enclave amidst the sexy swirl of big-time pool and billiards. He's an old-fashioned craftsman with old-fashioned values, as straight and true and everlasting as his cues, a soul stoically at odds with the buoyant, fast-money, image-conscious culture of South Beach.

"I'm the last of the Mohicans," he says without a hint of humor. "I take a piece of square wood and I make a cue from scratch. It gives me a living. A decent, honest living. I'm not exploiting anybody, and nobody helps me. I'm a working man, on my own."

Two guys from the Keys drop in at Abe's shop. Capt. Jeff Balch, a jaunty, broad-shouldered marine salvager with a mirthful voice -- "Riiiich!" -- greets Abe with a peck on the cheek and a bag of Dunkin' Donuts. Balch and his pool partner, a commercial fisherman, have come to stock up.

"This guy is unequalled. He's appreciated by the people who know what craftsmanship is," says Balch, who pivots excitedly, walks to his truck, and returns with a two-piece cue. "See this stick?" he asks while screwing the pieces together. "I bought it from him in 1976, and it's as good as new. And I break with my cue -- nobody breaks with their cue! That's a sin. But I've never busted a joint with this cue."

The men squeeze sideways to the back of the workshop, stuffed with wood and cues in varying stages of completion. Abe opens plywood doors to reveal a floor-to-ceiling closet. Pool cues are wrapped securely in heavy plastic and stacked on shelves according to wood type. He steps on a ladder and pulls out a goncalo, an expensive cue made of very heavy dark wood from Brazil. The men take turns examining the exquisite specimen, raising it like a shotgun to eye its straightness, simulating the stroke of a pool-table shot.

"Perrrfect," Balch croons.
"Of course. They're all perfect," Abe says matter-of-factly. "I will not let go -- how can I sell a cue if it's not perfect?"

The men buy five cues and four cases. Total price: $898.22
"I don't want to be left without one of his cues. I mean, how much longer does he have?" whispers Balch, who then leaves Abe with an order for a cocobolo cue. It's hard to get good-quality cocobolo wood (which comes from the west coast of Central America) these days, Abe says, and he won't buy just any cocobolo. Furthermore, he no longer accepts deposits on cue orders and never promises a completion date because it's too much pressure and too much guilt if he misses a deadline. Custom orders arrive from around the nation and abroad, from tournament pool players and sophisticated amateurs. They always want the cue made pronto, not manana; and Abe always has to break it to them: Manana, friend, and on no special day.

The first order Miami Beach amateur Greg Hark placed with Abe was an eye-opener. He told Abe that he wanted a fancy cue, colorful and decorative. Abe would have none of it. "'If you want exciting, then you have to go somewhere else,'" Hark recalls Abe telling him. Hark was surprised again when he asked Abe how soon he could pick up his cue, fancy or otherwise. "He said, 'I'll get around to it in two to three months.'" But Hark, who had shopped for cues at pool and billiard dealers in Miami, says he was most surprised by Abe's prices. Hark bought Abe's top-of-the-line goncalo cue for $180; it compared favorably to cues that cost $1000 elsewhere.

"It's not like you're a better player using one of his cues, but you feel like you are because of how it feels, how it sounds. The sound his cues make is unique. It has its own personality," explains Hark. "The [expensive cues] feel nice, but they don't have a personality."

Hark had lived in Miami Beach 36 years before he discovered Abe several months ago. He played with a friend's twenty-year-old Abe Rich cue and was awed. He has since ordered another cue from Abe, a so-called hustler's cue called "Sneaky Pete" because it's made to look like a cheap, seamless, one-piece house cue.

"He's the master," Hark says emphatically. "You're buying real handcraftsmanship and a bit of history when you buy one of his sticks. And his prices are just ridiculous. Imagine buying wood that's been aging for 30 years. He's really a Miami Beach treasure."

There are perhaps a dozen handcrafters of cues in the United States, and most, if not all, charge considerably more than Abe. Yet he hasn't raised his prices in ten years; they range from $140 to $190. The Joss Company in Philadelphia, for example, advertises its cues in glossy brochures and charges up to $4000 for a studded-out cue. The low-end Joss maple cue goes for $285, while the basic redwood model sells for $395. Abe's prices for essentially the same two cues are half that. He can charge less because most other cues are made by companies that use expensive machinery and templates to form wood, aluminum, and graphite cues en masse.

"Why shouldn't there be a guy like me on the Beach," Abe asks earnestly, "somebody people can come to to buy a reasonably priced cue? Why should [Hark] have to pay three times more for a cue? I want to work for the public."

Hark interjects that he would be willing to pay much more for an Abe Rich cue. Abe quickly objects: "But that's part of it. I wouldn't sell for more because I enjoy it. This is my satisfaction. I do a good job and charge a reasonable price. Some people don't know a good cue. They say so-and-so charges $400, must be a good cue. The way the public thinks: 'You get what you pay for,' and 'The customer is always right.' A lot of sayings in this country, God bless America, I don't agree with."

To be a good woodturner, Abe explains, one must be mechanically inclined and have a yearning to build. To make it a career, one needs the utmost patience and a precise eye for detail. "And it's not enough to make a beautiful cue," he adds, "you have to have the right materials."

He hasn't bought wood for about seven or eight years, and has an inventory of several hundred "squares," as the raw wood pieces are called. The squares are kiln dried, but Abe has continued to cure them for many years, with the workshop's tarpaper roof creating a broiler effect. "The wood must be perfectly dry," he notes. "The harder the wood, the better the cue."

Miami suppliers never offered top-quality cue material, he says, so he'd order from hardwood dealers in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. The special woods for the butt of the cue come mainly from Africa and Latin America: ziricote, purpleheart, ebony black, bubinga, zebrawood, and rosewood. The shaft of the cue (the portion that narrows to a tip) is made from only one wood: hardrock white Canadian maple. The white maple is least likely to warp or break on the impact of hitting cue balls because it is the densest, least grainy hardwood available.

The first cut in the square is called "roughing a round." Abe takes a square and rotates it on the lathe, chiseling it into a crude-looking butt or shaft. The roughed-out round is then returned to the shelf for more drying. A couple of years later the piece is ready for its second and final turning. Spinning the wood on the lathe, Abe shapes it with a chisel and sandpaper, then rubs a conditioner into the grain until it is straight and smooth.

Into the butt-end of the shaft he hand-drills a threaded hole, then he does the same at the shaft-end of the butt, into which he glues a brass or stainless-steel threaded piece. The glue, a secret epoxy concoction, gives his cues special strength at the joint (where the shaft and butt are screwed together), and keeps his shaft tips from snapping. Attached to the butt-end of the cue is Delrin, an unbreakable plastic into which a rubber bumper is inserted. Abe's decorative work is a simple design consisting of inch-thick ring inlays of exotic wood and mother-of-pearl. To seal the finished product, he dips the cue in a clear lacquer finish.

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.

"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.

"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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