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BITTERSWEET MEMORIES OF MY FATHER, THE GAMBLER

Feb. 09, 1987
Feb. 09, 1987

Table of Contents
Feb. 9, 1987

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America's Cup
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The Greschners
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Track & Field
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Speed Skating
Point After

BITTERSWEET MEMORIES OF MY FATHER, THE GAMBLER

I am a gambler's son. For as long as I can remember, the life of our house has been touched by my father's gambling. No aspect of that life, not even its daily minutiae, escaped that touch. I can remember one morning when I was seven years old, how my mother's simple request to throw out the garbage produced in my father a terrible anger. He had just walked through the door, red-eyed and stiff-limbed, having spent the night sitting in a parked car alongside a deserted stretch of railroad track in New Canaan, Conn. He had been hunched forward all night, his ear pressed to the car radio, listening to the fading, crackling play-by-play of a Pacific Coast League baseball game on a Salt Lake City station that could only be tuned in after midnight at precisely that spot.

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1987 issue Original Layout

My father was an orphan. He lived in foster homes in the Italian ghetto around Bridgeport, Conn., until he turned 16 and struck out on his own. He supported himself from the very first by gambling. He loved the order of it. The finality. Win or lose, it was the only order in his life at the time. He had no relatives, no one but himself and his gambling, his sole satisfaction.

What he loved about it was that it forced him to live by his wits. It made him feel truly alive to live on the fine edge. He always told me that gambling was no fun if you had enough money to cover your losses. It was the possibility not of victory but of loss that really excited him.

Gambling gave my father an almost sexual pleasure. I say "almost" because like many gamblers my father never could countenance the other vices. He was almost puritanical in his disdain for boozers and womanizers, and, as far as I know, he has been faithful to his wife, my mother, for all of the 50 years of their marriage.

Nor did my father take any real pleasure in the money he won. He treated it, also, with disdain. The one overwhelming image I have of my father and money is his refusal to let anyone pay a tab in his presence. My father, peeling off bills from a thick wad, would insist. It might have seemed like generosity, but it was too obsessive for that.

In his 20's and early 30's, my father supported his young family, my mother and my older brother, by shooting pool. Eight ball, nine ball, straight, Chicago, anything. He had short, fat fingers (like the link sausages she threw in the spaghetti sauce, my mother used to say) that should have been a liability for a pool shooter. But he more than made up for them with his firm bridge and a maddeningly smooth stroke. For years, when I was growing up, my older brother would tell me stories about my father's pool-hustling trips throughout New England and Canada. How my brother, then in his teens, used to go with Dad when he hustled farmers and hardware salesmen and the local hotshots. My brother watched from the shadows, and when the losers tossed their crumpled bills on the table, he would emerge and scoop them off the green felt. How I envied my brother! How I wished I could have gone with my father on those trips! But that was before I was born, and by the time I was old enough to go, my father had given up pool as a means of making a living.

When I was 18 years old I went away to pitch in the Milwaukee Braves farm system, and I picked up pool, too. It was one of the few recreations open to young baseball players in small Midwestern towns. I got pretty good at it, and when I came home I used to challenge my father regularly. But he always beat me. We would play for hours. I would get sweaty and hot-tempered while my father, with that cool-eyed, methodical stroke, would pocket ball after ball to victory. He never let up on me. I was both proud of my father's talent and furious that I could not beat him.

In his late 30's, my father abandoned pool and turned to cards and dice. His smooth pink little hands flashed when dealing cards in his one-handed style, with his thumb on top of the deck. He used to show us how, with a mere flick of the wrist, he could deal from the bottom, the middle or the top of the deck.

I remember when I was 12 how my badgering my father to have a catch with me turned into a financial disaster for us. He was supposed to deal cards that night at one of the Italian athletic clubs in the city, and he would be paid handsomely. He always worried about his hands—his livelihood, he called them. But I insisted on having a catch and he reluctantly gave in. I cut loose with a fastball that split open a finger on his left hand. Blood gushed out and he ran screaming into the house. When I finally got up the courage to go inside, I found him at the kitchen table, his hand wrapped in a blood-soaked handkerchief. He was trying to deal a poker hand to my mother, who sat across from him. The cards slipped in his bleeding hand, scattered on the floor. He glared at them and cursed their ancestry as I turned and ran back outside.

Eventually, in his late 40's, my father gave up his cards and dice and settled, in what was the beginning of his old age, on a more sedentary form of gambling. He bet basketball, baseball, football and, occasionally, hockey games. He seldom bet the ponies, because handicapping was too much like work, and he never gambled in Vegas. There was no percentage in it, he would say. Besides, it was too organized. Nor was my father ever a bookie. Bookies were businessmen, not gamblers. And my father was only a gambler. A free lance, he liked to say.

I remember the day I first became aware of the pervasiveness of my father's gambling in our lives. I was eight years old and just beginning my love affair with baseball, which was encouraged by my parents. We were Italian-Americans and my mother loved the Yankees—DiMaggio, Rizzuto, Crosetti, Lazzeri, Berra, Raschi. She hated only Eddie Lopat and, later, Whitey Ford (my secret idol) with their pink, freckled Irish faces. (Today, approaching 80, my mother has a photograph of Dave Righetti taped to the mirror in her kitchen.)

My father was a Yankee fan, too. Only for him they were less a team he could point to with ethnic pride than one he could confidently lay 9 to 5 on.

One Sunday afternoon in July, my father invited three of my "aunts" and "uncles" to the backyard of our suburban house for a cookout. None of them was, in fact, my real aunt or uncle—they were my father's gambling cronies—and, even more significantly, my father was not a cookout kind of guy. He took no pleasure in neatly mowed suburban lawns, especially if he had to mow them.

Nor was he the kind of father who took his son to the Maine woods to catch trout by a rushing stream and cook them over an open fire underneath a perfect moon. He always refused my request for such a trip with the same cryptic comment: "There are no telephones in the woods." It was years before I deciphered his refusal, before I learned that a gambler can live without women, without liquor, without food even, but never without access to a telephone.

The afternoon of my father's cookout was hot and sunny. My "uncles" stood around the barbecue fireplace under the shade of a maple tree and sipped Scotch. They made nervous small talk while simultaneously listening to a Yankee-Red Sox game coming from a radio propped on the kitchen windowsill. My father was bent over the barbecue, lighting match after match and cursing the briquettes he was unable to ignite. He was a dapper little man who dressed conservatively—gray flannel slacks, navy blazer—and he always wore a tie, even around the house. He was very handsome, too, in spite of his baldness. He had pinkish skin, youthful eyes and a neatly trimmed silver mustache. He truly fit the part, at least in his dress, of a suburbanite entertaining guests. Even if those guests did look as if they had just stepped out of the cast of Guys and Dolls.

My "uncles" began to laugh at his discomfort and then fell uniformly silent as a crucial play was broadcast over the radio. They resumed their small talk. My "uncles" still lived in the Italian ghetto in Bridgeport and hung out at the Venice Athletic Club. They called my father Patsy, much to his annoyance. One was a bookie. Another a card shark.

My "uncles" had no interest in me, their "nephew," except on rare occasions when they showed me how to palm the ace of spades or how to spot shaved dice. They were somber, dark, manicured little men with nicknames like Chickie, Freddie the Welch, and Tommy the Blond, who was not really blond but was just not so dark as the others. On this quiet Sunday afternoon in July, they stood beneath the maple tree in our little suburban backyard looking ill at ease in their sharkskin suits.

My mother, a dark, fierce little birdlike woman, and my "aunts" sat around a circular lawn table that was shaded by a fringed umbrella. They were sipping Scotch, as well, while playing penny-ante poker—deuces and one-eyed jacks wild—and chatting. I stood behind them and followed their play of cards.

Soon I got bored with the adults and I lost myself in the baseball game. When DiMaggio hit a home run for the Yankees, I shouted, "Yaa!" and clapped my hands. Suddenly, I was aware that everyone was looking at me. My father's face was flushed. I caught my mother's eye. Her lips were pursed in a threatening smile. She called out sweetly, "We musn't root for the Yankees today, Sweetheart! Uncle Freddie is down 50 times on the Red Sox."

I was too young then to be embarrassed by the garishness of my "aunts" and "uncles," so out of place in our suburban, WASP neighborhood. Nor was I embarrassed by my father's gambling. To me it was just what he did for a living. But what did bother me about my father's gambling were his strange hours, his constant preoccupation with odds, his anxiety over a game in progress and his bad humor when he lost. It prevented him from being the kind of father my friends had. His mind seemed always to be involved with gambling, with his wins and losses, and he had little time for me. Davey Perkins's father, for instance, was a plumber who came home from work each day and immediately took his sons to the park to play ball. How I wished my father would take me to the park to hit grounders to me. When my father rebuffed my umpteenth request to go to the park with me one day, I said, without thinking, "I wish you were like Davey Perkins's father." I knew I had said something hurtful when I saw that there were tears in his eyes.

Later that year, after my father's cookout, I began to appreciate the seriousness of gambling and along with it the seriousness of baseball. I equated baseball with something important that grown men did, and so I quickly gravitated to the sport. By the time I was 12 I was a star pitcher in Little League. My name was in headlines each week in the local newspaper. More strikeouts. Another no-hitter. A perfect game. I loved baseball from the first moment I played it. It was my distinction. When I got good at it, I loved it because it put me somehow above my suburban friends. People pointed me out. "There he is! Number 16. Jordan!" They followed me with their eyes, old men of distant semipro repute and parents with their young sons, pointing me out as an example. And sometimes their daughters, too. It excited me, all this attention.

I loved the game itself. The order and discipline of it. The finality. Win or lose. I lost myself in that orderliness for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that my life at home had grown increasingly chaotic. We seemed always to be on the brink of financial disaster. It was not until I was graduated from high school in 1959 and signed a $45,000 bonus contract with the Braves that I was able to ease my parents' financial burden by paying off the heavy mortgage on their house. Sometimes I think that is why I was so driven in my baseball career—to rid my parents of the financial worries that had filled my childhood with fear.

A couple of years ago, I sat at the kitchen table in my parents' tiny apartment in Bridgeport, where they had moved after selling me their house in the suburbs. They were in their late 60's then, modestly settled on a fixed income. My father's once debilitating vice had become little idiosyncrasies that we could all laugh at: stopping at the pay telephone by the side of the road, the pocketful of change, the numbers scribbled on odd bits of paper.

As we sat in the kitchen, I recalled the time I started the fire. Like most children, I had experimented with matches. On this occasion I lit an entire matchbook, and, frightened, tossed it into the trash. The garbage can, which was made of plastic, went up in flames. I panicked, but remembering something about using flour to put out a fire, I ran to my mother's spice jars and tossed a jar of flour on the flames. Too late. The can melted into a puddle of plastic, and my parents came home to a kitchen strewn with white flour. I was doubly punished, once for playing with matches and a second time for having incinerated my father's evening betting line, which he had written down on the inside cover of the matchbook.

The kitchen table in their apartment was set for my father's supper. Cheese, Italian bread, a steaming bowl of pasta e fagioli. My mother, washing dishes at the sink, told my father his supper was getting cold. He was standing by the wall telephone, nodding into the receiver at the voice of his bookie, who was quoting him the evening's baseball line. Again, my mother nagged at my father to eat his supper. He glared at her, cursed under his breath, but still she kept it up. He hissed, "Goddam it, shut up!" Suddenly his anger vanished. He signaled her frantically for a pen. She rummaged through a drawer and handed him one. Cradling the receiver between his ear and his shoulder he tried to write on a paper napkin.—New York 4, Boston VA. The napkin began to bunch up and tear. My mother rushed over and stretched the napkin taut with her fingers so my father could continue to write out the evening line.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has been trying to get my father to give up his gambling. She nagged him daily, not so much because gambling forced us to live precariously, which it did, but because, more than anything, she wanted respectability in the suburbs. But now, in her late 60's, her nagging was merely a reflex action. She knew he would never quit, and at times she seemed to be in consort with him. There was the night when I went to their apartment to find my father in bed with the flu, a thermometer stuck in his mouth. My mother was on the telephone in the kitchen. She signaled me to silence with a finger to her lips. Spread out on the kitchen counter was a napkin on which she was writing out the evening line. My father, moaning in bed, calling out to my mother, "Get the line on Frisco!" My mother, scribbling as fast as she could, taking her responsibility so seriously.

My parents and I laughed at such recollections. As they got older they liked to amuse me with such stories. "Patty, you won't remember this, you were only a child...." But I did remember. I remembered a Monday morning after one of my father's disastrous weekends betting football, when I sat wedged between the stove and the kitchen wall, huddled in fear, while a strange couple wandered about our house, peeking behind curtains and questioning my poor mother about heating costs. I remember the terror I felt in bed that night thinking we would be thrown out of the house if my father did not recoup his losses on that evening's basketball game. I prayed to St. Jude that the Knicks would beat the Celtics at least by a point-and-a-half. They did, and that crisis was averted.

There were many such stories, all of which seemed so funny when we retold them years later in my parents' apartment. There were some stories, however, which even in retrospect did not seem so funny. Like the time my father threw the radio down the cellar stairs, smashing it to bits because I wanted to listen to The Shadow and he wanted to listen to Pack at the Track. I was 10 years old.

Whenever I mentioned these moments, my parents would glance at each other in silent recognition and then, half kiddingly, they would chide me for my faulty memory. When I persisted, their faces would get red. "You exaggerate!" my mother would say, with a backward toss of her hand. "That's not the way it was." But it was. I did live in daily fear of financial disaster.

My father's angers were brought on not only by his gambling and its losses but also by my mother's constant quest for respectability. She nagged him day and night to stop his betting. And when he didn't, she demanded at least that he take a respectable job for "appearances' sake." To mollify her for a few months, he would take some menial but legitimate job which still allowed him all the free time he needed to pursue his real vocation.

Of the many jobs my father held when I was growing up—liquor salesman, used car salesman, vacuum cleaner salesman—the one I remember most vividly was the one which required him to wear a uniform. It was a bluish-gray, military-style uniform made of rough flannel, with a peaked military cap, like an admiral's. I was so impressed with that uniform as a boy that I told all my friends about it. I told them also about the white truck my father drove, a panel truck with the larger-than-life painting of a golden-curled young girl with huge blue eyes—the Bambi Bread Girl—painted on each side.

What I did not tell my friends was how much my father hated that garish truck, and the uniform, and the fact that he had to get up every morning at four o'clock to drive down to the bakery to pick up his load. He was always bleary-eyed and miserable after having spent the night listening to the late sports results on the radio and he never left the house without first arguing with my mother for making him hold such a job.

That job and others like it were the cause of many arguments between my parents. Which was another reason that, when I was 12 years old, I began to lose myself in baseball.

I needed that game. Not only did it offer escape from my parents' arguments, but on days I was to pitch, it actually seemed to bring them together. My mother pampered me, something she rarely did otherwise. She never made me do chores around the house on those days, and she always prepared a special supper for me, at three o'clock in the afternoon: eggs and peppers scrambled in olive oil and a dessert of sliced oranges in olive oil. My father would give me money to go to the movies in the afternoon to take my mind off the evening game. He supported my baseball ambitions with money he usually didn't have. He would borrow $50 from one of his cronies just to buy me the latest kangaroo-leather spikes.

My parents went to all my Little League games. They sat high up in the bleachers along the third base line. People deferred to them because of my talent. They were pointed out by other parents, acknowledged by a "Hello" accompanied with a compliment about my latest performance. "A fine boy," those parents would say. "You should be proud." My mother beamed at these compliments, at the respectability my pitching had brought her. Whenever I would get two strikes on a batter, her shrill voice would split the air. "Strike him out, Patty!" From the mound, I glanced over at her and my father. I winked, turned back to the batter, began my windup and delivered. Strike three! As I walked off the mound toward my third base dugout, I could see my mother clapping her hands with glee, nodding gratefully to the other fans' approval, while my father jumped down behind the stands and then—half-walking, half-trotting—headed toward the pay telephone beyond leftfield.

I am in my 40's now, and I never gamble. I never have. And yet I am like my father in many ways. For almost 20 years I have not held a real job. I am a free-lance writer. Every story I write is a gamble. Will it be accepted or rejected? Like Dad, the possibility of loss excites me. Recently he came down to Fort Lauderdale, where I now live, to visit me. He looks the same, except older, but still dapper at 76. He told me he no longer gambles. I laughed, but he said he was serious. I asked him if he ever shot pool anymore. He said he hadn't shot in years. I smiled. "Wanna shoot some stick?" I asked.

We went to a redneck pool hall out on Dixie Highway, pickup trucks in the parking lot, Way Ion Jennings on the jukebox and a barmaid with teased hair and no front teeth. We got a rack of balls and took a corner table. "A game of straight, Pop?" I said. He nodded. I broke and left him long. He had told me years ago, "The eyes always go before the stroke. When you play an old man, always leave him long." He bent over the table, shot and missed, scattering the balls. After only a few racks, I had a big lead, playing hard and ruthlessly, as he had always played me. But I couldn't sustain it. I began to take almost impossible shots, and pretty soon he had beaten me.

I threw my arm over his shoulder and said, "You're still the best, Dad."

"You shoulda beat me," he said. "You got careless."

I learned a lot as a gambler's son. I learned about risk and loss and what it means to live on the edge. I learned also that it comes down to a choice between freedom and security, and you can never have both.

FOUR ILLUSTRATIONSSUSI KILGORE

Pat Jordan, author of "A False Spring "and eight other books, lives in Fort Lauderdale.