He loved horseracing ever since childhood. He remembered going to one of the local bars with his dad on many a Saturday morning. He was perhaps 5 or 6, and his pop would sit him up on one of the bar stools saying ‘ Give the kid a coke , I’ll be back in a few minutes son’ as he pushed the bowl of pretzels over to the boy. He didn’t realize it at the time but his dad was a bookie, and Saturday mornings were ‘ Catch up time’ for he and his customers. Many a Saturday afternoon the old man would take him along to Belmont or Aqueduct racetrack to watch the ponies. He especially loved Belmont, with its huge backyard. He remembered walking along with his dad as they hurried to the grandstand entrance to get a good seat. It was that exotic smell of the mixture of horse manure and disinfectant that always sizzled in his nasal passages, something he still to this day, twenty plus years later, could not forget. This was all part of that wonderful experience of going to the races.
Now he was soon to hit 28 years of age and any free time he got was spent going to the track or the Off Track Betting Parlor a few blocks from his parent’s. He was married, had a young son, but made damn sure he did NOT take the kid with him to either place. No, he realized , somewhere deep inside his psyche, that he did not want his son to follow in his footsteps when it came to gambling. The addiction was going to very soon overwhelm him, forcing him to get professional help. For now, he could still enjoy the ride… however bumpy it would become. Six years ago NYC opened up those off track betting parlors. It was great. You didn’t have to go to the track if that was too inconvenient. You could walk a few blocks down Avenue U and reach Nirvana. You did have to stand at the counters to chart your bets though. There were no chairs or tables inside, just those counters. The only downside was that they didn’t televise or pipe in the actual race calls. No, you had to go outside with your transistor radio to hear Harvey Pack on NBC radio give his recreations of each race from Aqueduct or Belmont. Pack did a great job, really jazzing it up for the listener.
It was when a fellow horseplayer, Melvin, same age as him, started taking bets at the place on the QT. You see, what NYC OTB did was institute a tax of 5% on all winnings. Melvin paid track prices. How did this guy, a highly intelligent college grad, become a bookie? Well, when he won about $18 grand on the previous Kentucky Derby Melvin decided to go into business. He had the perfect set-up as he worked nights in the city as a programmer. So, Melvin had all day to enjoy betting the ponies and making dough taking bets. Well, before not too long the management of the OTB banned him from the place. He stood around the corner taking his action but could not bet inside himself anymore. So, the mob came into the picture quickly. They offered Melvin a deal. They opened up a storefront bookie joint two blocks from the OTB, calling it Meadowlarks Social Club. It had a one way mirror at the door, and you had to ring the bell , announce yourself and be let in… or not. Melvin was given a protector, Fred, who stayed there all day with Melvin. They furnished the place with chairs and couches and of course a crap table. All the horse action was ‘ Pay to play’ with credit only after Melvin asked Fred for the OK on certain good customers. He became one of them. The reason he was able to hang out there at this time was because he got injured playing sandlot football , had surgery and was on disability. This was not government disability, rather private insurance that he was wise enough to pay for when he got married. So, he had a month off from work and spent the afternoons at the bookie joint. The guys at the place all knew his by the nickname they gave him , Ainslie. Tom Ainslie was a horse handicapper who wrote many books on the subject. He liked how Ainslie figured out angles and speed ratings etc. To those who knew little about horseracing this sport could be a highly cerebral one. There were a plethora of men with PhDs in mathematics who made horse playing their vocation.
He would check in at around noon, study the Racing Form while Melvin and Fred continuously played Gin Rummy for money… big money. Fred would use the F bomb as part of his vocabulary anyway, but especially at Melvin. “You F in lucky fuck Melvin! What is it with you Jewish guys? Are you just F in born to gobble up us Wops!?” Melvin never showed any emotion, reminding him of Dr. Alicandra, his family doctor. They both just did their jobs as near perfect as can be. Before he would arrive at the club he usually stopped by Neal’s Farms, the best cheese shop in the neighborhood, for one of Neal’s great hero sandwiches. Neal, too, was a horseplayer, about his father’s age. Many a time he and Neal would converse on the horses, but never when Neal’s wife was in the store. You see, Neal had this limp and once owned a similar store in the busier part of the area years ago. He could surmise that the secrecy of Neal about gambling on horses had much to do with that limp. He found out later from someone who knew Neal from the neighborhood exactly what occurred. He got way over his head with the bookies and they finally broke his kneecap. He also lost his store. The best advice that Neal gave him was to NEVER gamble on credit. ‘ If you can’t lay the money out on a horse then you don’t bet… period!’ Usually around noon, as he arrived, there would be a crap game going on. This one day he noticed the back of a man who wore what looked like a barber’s smock at the crap table. When the game broke up around one o’clock the man turned around. It was his best friend Timmy’s dad, who owned the barber shop across the street. Their eyes locked in and Timmy’s dad approached him. ” If you see my son you did NOT see me here, OK?” He nodded OK and that was that.
You see, the expression ‘ Honor amongst thieves’ also included gamblers. Like when he was back attending Brooklyn College years earlier. His old man was on the Guaranteed income from the Longshoremen’s Union , due to his seniority. So, all he needed to do was get up early each weekday, take a train to the union hall in Manhattan, ‘ Badge in ‘ and be sent home… at full pay. To earn his ‘ Gambling money’ his father got a job driving for a car service in the area. Just about every Monday he would go to a phone booth by the college and call the car service. He got his father on the phone and it went like this each time: ” Hey dad, whatta you doing this afternoon?” His father would laugh and answer ” Why , whatta ya have in mind?” Then a pause and ” Where are you now?” He gave his father the location and the old man would say ” Be there in 30 minutes.” Off they would go to the track. By the end of the racing day, usually around 5 or 5:30 his father would say ” OK let’s hurry up. I gotta get home before your mother does from work.” They rushed to the parking lot, and his old man became A.J. Foyt maneuvering the car through the rush hour traffic on the parkway. He knew, when they got home, to keep this afternoon trip secret from Mom. ‘ Honor amongst gamblers’ usually went a long way.
The bookie joint was doing so well that year that the mob decided to start taking sports action at Meadowlarks. They brought in a guy who owned his own cab, known as ( what else) ‘ Paul Taxi’. He would handle all the sports action with Melvin continuing with the horses. Everything was copacetic for a few months. Then, on a Thursday night, when the only football action was on the Jets vs. Chargers game, the worst thing happened: A robbery… armed robbery! Paul Taxi was driving that night, so Melvin handled things for the office. Fred didn’t bother coming in as there was nothing going on except some regulars betting the one game. There were only 5 or 6 guys hanging out, playing cards. Suddenly, two masked men rushed in, guns waving. They seemed to know the whole set-up and even called Melvin by his first name. As Melvin very calmly was getting the money together, saying things like ” OK, no problem, please just take it easy and I’ll get all we have here ” they had the rest of the place stand up against the rear wall. One of the regulars, a sweetheart of a guy, maybe mid 70s, had a bad heart condition. He must have slipped a bit up against the wall and one of the robbers shot him dead. The word of the tragic event rumbled through the neighborhood, and other bookie joints in other neighborhoods. From that point on Fred not only showed up each day, but he brought along his younger brother Angelo. Angelo never said a word to anyone except his brother and Melvin, just sat there reading magazines. The rumor was that Angelo’s only job for the mob was as collection man, and of course the other thing, meaning that he was a stone cold killer. Fewer and fewer of the regular bettors visited the club. Finally, it closed down. Maybe it was the cops, who obviously allowed the place to stay open because of … Duh, The Pad. When things like the robbery/murder occur in nice neighborhoods, well, the ‘ Powers that be’ adjourn from their corruption and become righteous.
The OTB a few blocks away got lots of new customers… including him.
I used to frequent one of these when I was growing up in my hometown of Erie, Pa. Brought back nostalgic memories.