The Bronx I.R.T. subway station at 174th street was on the Lexington Ave. and 7th Ave. lines. Beneath the raised elevator train (not really a subway) two major Bronx streets crossed. The streets were Boston Rd. (which, with some imagination and a lot of time and effort would carry you to Boston, Massachusetts) and Southern Blvd. (which would take you past the Bronx Zoo, the Bronx Botanical Gardens and close to Arthur Ave. for great Italian food).
The elevated trains would go downtown past Freeman St., Simpson St., Intervale Ave. and Jackson Ave. and descend into the tunnel of the subway to 149th St., 125th St., 86th St. and eventually the center of the universe, 42nd St. The train station at 174th St. linked an East Bronx resident to everything important.
Under the elevated structure were rows of stores and businesses. For food there was Messingers All-Night Restaurant, Nat's Diner, The Dover Bar and Pizza Place, and a Chinese Restaurant.
A Cuban cigar-maker rolled tobacco into fine Havanas under the El. An army-navy store supplied clothing for the neighborhood. Physicians, dentists and optometrists were scattered in close proximity to the station. The Dover Theater, which carried the "last chance movies" ( movies which had made their way through the hierarchy of Loews and RKO chains and were about to be relegated to the dustbin of old and barely remembered films) was a landmark which we passed on the way to Herman Ridder Junior High School.
Before the American sons and daughters of immigrants, on Southern Blvd., President Roosevelt passed in a motorcade in 1944, on his way to defeating Thomas E. Dewey for the presidency. "Don't change horses in mid-stream" was the incumbent's slogan, and it was eventually successful.
Also on Southern Blvd. and up 20 or 30 stairs was an oasis called Pop's Pool Room. When you passed your 16th birthday (and could prove it), you could bound up those steps and while away hour after hour doing nothing.
"Pop" Bennett, the owner, was alternately kind and malevolent. His son George Bennett could shoot pool better with one hand than most people could using both. The pool hall was frequented by gamblers and various Damon Runyon characters that would take volumes to describe. Betting on straight pool, 9 Ball, 8 Ball, Chicago and 3 Rail Billiards went on incessantly.
For some infraction which I have tried to remember, but cannot, Pop Bennett banned me from the pool hall for one year. I was a sophomore in college (CCNY) and I received the best grades of my academic career. I credit the suspension for my getting into professional school and becoming a dentist.
Two friends of mine were not so lucky.
They were both enrolled at CCNY downtown. (Baruch College ¬ Business Administration). Every day my pals would pack their college school books and head for the 174th St. station elevated train. I truly believed they wanted to get to CCNY, but they never did.
The clicking of the ivory balls, the easy laughter and conversation, and the betting tension in the air swirled into their brains. Why bother with the 45-minute trip to Baruch College? Life and time passed so much easier at Pop's Pool Room. Their parents would never know. What did immigrant parents know from college anyway?
Just as the Sirens or mermaids of Homer's Iliad had sent out beautiful music to confuse, waylay and capsize Ulysses and his ship's crew on their journey home to Ithaca, the magnetic effect of Pop's Pool Room had intervened and destroyed the educational careers of my two friends. Ulysses stuffed wax in the ears of his sailors so they wouldn't be seduced by songs of the mermaids. He had his men tie him to the mast so he could hear the beautiful music, but not respond.
This whole chain of events, comparing Homer's Iliad and an East Bronx pool room, came rushing back to me in a return to my old neighborhood about three weeks ago. After being destroyed and leveled, the buildings are springing up again and great plans are being made for this neighborhood.
Why? Because the 174th St. subway station is still functioning. You can be downtown to 42nd St. in 45 minutes. A One Fare Zone! Proximity to the El!
The subway trains whiz downtown and life starts all over again.