I’m not a fan of growing up poor, but I’m forced to admit it gave me an eclectic trove of neighbors. Money and prestige, (trust me, I am not opposed to these things) but they can limit our choice of acquaintances. Surgeons seek out other doctors to golf with. Hedge fund geniuses live among other big money makers, but gas station attendants and school aides often have to live cheek to jowl and make the best of it. My family was no exception; there were truck drivers, a failed TV repairman, a luncheonette counterman and a science teacher (the last-thanks to the post-WWII GI Bill). Our neighbors eked by on shoe salesman paychecks, secretary salaries and cab fares.
I was the first born child in a family of gamblers—not the kind where the loan sharks threatened us or Dad had to sell our Chrysler De Soto for debts, but rather the Damon Runyon kind. Cuddly characters that preferred betting on Bocce, baseball and basketball to playing them. On any given weekend, there was a hot gin rummy game after dinner upstairs at grandma’s, mahjong tiles clicking in our living room downstairs and male relatives on the front stoop sharing their can’t lose systems for playing the ponies. Dad’s bookie was called the Venetian—not because he was born between the mouths of the Po and the Piave Rivers. It was code for the blind man who took bets by phone (as in Venetian blinds)—
After the first time Dad called the Venetian from our kitchen phone, he described tiny popping sounds as the bookie poked holes in paper with a pin to record the bets in braille. I like to think my dad was a forerunner in hiring the handicapped.
Once my dad gave $2.00 to a friend who was going to Roosevelt Raceway. His instructions were, “If the three horse wins in the first, bet it all on number one in the second and if that horse wins, put it all on the four horse in the third and if I win again, I’m all in on number five in the fourth race.” Dad’s picks were long shots and even though he bet to win, I’m sure he knew the odds were against him.
That afternoon, our radio was placed at the center of the kitchen table. Dad and his friends surrounded it like Arthurian knights as they listened to the results. Cheers could be heard out to the porch as Dad’s first pick won. Soon after, the men broke into wild applause as Dad’s second pick came in first, followed by the third race winner as well. By then, the women and children crowded through the kitchen door.
In 1950’s America, phone booths were forbidden at racetracks and cell phones weren’t due for public use for another thirty years. My father was now the holder of more money than he made in a year, but rather than being in his pocket, it was riding on a long shot in the fourth at Roosevelt. Packed with three generations of my family and a gaggle of neighbors, our kitchen was eerily quiet as all ears perked up for the next race.
In truth, my dad only lost two dollars that day and the rest of us merely lost a memory that would have been worthy of a scene in Guys and Dolls. What I gained however, was the realization that $2.00 spent on a dozen eggs will definitely get me 12 eggs, but a two-dollar wager could amount to nothing.
While the gamblers among us were benign, the gangsters were not. Always an integral part of the neighborhood, they still stood apart from us. Yes, we bought refrigerators that somehow fell off trucks and kept silent when investigators came to ask about the Lufthansa heist, but it wasn’t out of loyalty or love. As it still does today, fear controls poor neighborhoods. I had never witnessed shoot outs or mob violence but, the stories of the grown-ups who had, made their impact.
As a child, my mother lived down the street from a Murder Incorporated gangster. The well-dressed young man, despite his penchant for killing people, was a good son. Every Friday evening, his limousine would pull in front of his mother’s two story row house. A driver would open the passenger door and hand the local hoodlum his usual gifts of flowers and fancy boxed chocolates. Kids from the block would envy his riches. Their parents were not so impressed. One Friday, the reverberations of bullets bursting through metal and glass shook the neighborhood. “They killed (name withheld) right on his mother’s steps,” a neighbor screamed across the clotheslines. According to family lore, my grandmother simply shook her finger at her children, “If you’re gonna be a gangster, you should be smart enough not to go where your enemies can find you.”
No one shed a tear.
Gamblers and gangsters are still an ever present force in poor neighborhoods. Unfortunately, now they are revered rather than tolerated. Perhaps the best lesson from my past, is that solid families don’t give rise to thuggery. Their children can’t be preyed upon like sheep, because the grown-ups in their lives teach them better. This was true in 1950. This is true today.