An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Life With My Father

My first memory of my Dad was when he took me to his pool hall in the old Jewish neighborhood in St. Paul, where his partner grabbed me and sat me down on a snooker pool table, and all the guys who were hanging out cooed at me and said how cute I was. Well, I was! Now I'm not, but I was then, and I have the pictures to prove it...

Tubby, his partner, seemed immense to me: the kind of guy who looks big even though he's not particularly tall. Big head, thick neck, shoulders that wouldn't quit, muscular stomach covered by hard fat, and a big gap-toothed smile that let you know that you had nothing to fear -- unless... He always wore a long white bib apron over his stiff collar and tie, his shoes were mirrors, and gold and diamonds sparkled from his fingers, shirt cuffs and tie clip. His game was snooker, played on the oversized "ocean" table, and crowds of aficionados came to watch him work.

Dad, who was no slouch himself - he had been the Minnesota state Snooker champion - didn't play much anymore. He was too busy in the back room, where he presided over a round table with a baize top, with a single bulb hanging over the center inside an opaque green shade. Poker, pinochle, gin rummy, you name it and he'd play it, with an elan and an expertise that sent losers home feeling like they'd gotten their money's worth. I once asked him why it was that sometimes he won a little, and sometimes a lot; but that when he lost, he never lost very much. "I paid a lot for lessons", he replied.

When the Second World War came along, Dad took off for Haynes, Alaska, to work as a clerk in a Hudson's Bay store on an air force base: exempted duty. Having been in the First Great War To End All Wars, he figured he had a right...

Around the middle of every month, Mom would receive a substantial money order from Dad: his winnings in the pay-day poker game. When Dad came home, he invested his savings in a small grocery store in Minneapolis, with living quarters upstairs. I was seven when we moved. Tubby had died, the old St. Paul neighborhood was changing from Jewish to Black as the old residents moved to newer, more affluent quarters in suburban Highland Park, and the pool hall had become a storefront Baptist church.

I think that I must have been around nine, the first time my Dad took me to a bookie joint, although I may have been younger and just not remember. Even then, I didn't look at it and say to myself, "oh, a bookie joint"; I just knew it was my Dad's clubhouse, kind of like the big packing crate behind our store where my pals and I hung out. I remember wondering why my mom was so upset that he wanted to take me with him; why they quarreled so much about his going there at all.

Saint Paul has always been smaller and more laid back than Minneapolis. Dad found Minneapolis a much more inviting and exciting place, not least because of "The Paddock Cigar Store". Located on a seedy stretch of Nicollet Avenue south of the department stores and office buildings of downtown Minneapolis, the Paddock shared the block with several empty storefronts, a bottom-of-the-line furniture store, and the last of the big public dance halls (where years later I was to see Bill Haley and the Comets, Ralph Marterie, and other stars of my '50s high school days).

The glass windows were grimy and festooned with cardboard posters advertising Kools, Tareytons, and Hav-a-Tampas, and the sign needed repainting. The front room was wide and shallow, with a bell above the door that rang when you came in. About eight feet in, opposite the door, were glass-faced display cabinets about waist high, going from wall to wall, except for a wooden counter flap in the middle. Behind the counters, there was a floor-to-ceiling wall, with a door in the middle, just behind the counter flap. A four- by six-inch (two way) mirror was mounted in the door, about six feet from the floor.

When the guy behind the counter saw us come in, he reached over and opened the flap. Dad walked up to the door and knocked. The door opened and we went inside.

The first thing I noticed was how noisy it was. Tickertapes, loud conversations, two different radio broadcasts, four guys on telephones alternately talking on the phone and shouting numbers at other guys up on ladders chalking numbers on huge blackboards that filled the back wall. After we left, it would occur to me that with the door closed, it was dead quiet in the cigar store. My first encounter with soundproofing.

The next thing was the guns. There were two guys, each about midway down the two side walls, sitting on tall stools behind high desks, and on each desk was a sawed-off double barreled shotgun. The guy who had opened the door wore a shoulder holster with a revolver in it.

In the far right corner was a cage, just like in a bank. A man sat behind bars inside the cage, and in front of him were stacks and stacks of greenback bills.

Five men were on the telephones that were lined up on a long table against the near right wall, and one man was hopping back and forth between the four ticker tapes that were clacking along the near left side and yelling out what to me were incomprehensible phrases. In the near right and left corners, men with their shirt sleeves rolled up, wearing eyeshades, were writing in big ledger books. Occasionally, a teenage runner would deliver a stack of slips from the cashier to one or another of them.

In the middle of the room, arranged with their backs to the door, were about twenty folding card table chairs. Seated on about twelve of these were the regulars: a cadre of hard-core gambling enthusiasts talking to each other out of the sides of their mouths while their eyes stayed glued to the boards mounted on the far wall.

The boards were black slate slabs with lines painted on them. Two men with pieces of chalk were writing and erasing names and numbers in response to the shouts from the ticker tape guy. Written on the lines were messages in a secret code that made no sense to me at all. "Millers" on one line and "Mud Hens" on the next, each followed by a bunch of numbers. (I later learned that these were baseball teams, and the numbers were runs per inning.) Also, "Hialeah, 1st", with names after it like "King Tut" 14.2/ $28.40/ $16.10 / $9.35

"So, Benny," my Dad said sitting down next to one of the players, "you taking the Lakers on the over, or not?"

Benny's response, even more cryptic than the question to my ears, was "Oh, hiya Shulem (yiddish for Shalom, the Hebrew word meaning "Peace", my father's Jewish name). Wanna shift $20 of my last punt?" I still don't know what that meant.

As I got older, my Dad drew me further into his gambling life. Every Friday afternoon, from 3:00 to 11:00, we watched high school teams play basketball in the Minneapolis auditorium. Every Sunday and Wednesday, we came back to see the Minneapolis Lakers professional team play. Saturday nights were reserved for the Minnesota basketball Gophers. And this was just in the winter. In the summer there was AAA and college baseball.

It wasn't until years later that I finally understood that my Dad was not a sports fan; that he did not care who won, as long as it was the team he had bet on; that he was playing betting systems of his own invention that never worked; that every extra cent he earned as a grocer and as a card player (and I mean extra advisedly: my mom and I never wanted for essentials; nor did we have any luxuries by the standards of the day), he blew with the bookies. In those days, the term "compulsive gambler" was yet to be invented.

When Dad was 90, and he and Mom in an apartment in St. Paul, he announced to her that he was going to cash in his life insurance policies for one last fling in Las Vegas. After an intense bargaining session, he agreed to leave half intact, and they took off for the bright lights. They rented an apartment. By then, Dad was not physically able to spend more than a couple of hours a day at the tables, so his money lasted four months.

Soon after they returned, Dad developed the final stages of the diabetes he had been fighting off all of his adult life, and became bed-ridden. For four years, while living in a small apartment on a tight Social Security budget, she tended him day and night. Toward the end, he lost a leg, went blind, and was in constant pain. I knew nothing of all this, having broken al communication with them eight years earlier over their inability to reconcile with what to them was my aberrant and wasteful life style.

After he died, I had several long talks with my mother. She told me what life had been like for her, living with an obsessed person, and denying her shame and frustration at what she saw as a marriage in which her husband's compulsion left him little time for her. Nobody knew, she told me, not even her own sisters, who saw my Dad and an entertaining, charming, happy go lucky guy; who did not know about the times the bank threatened to prosecute him for writing worthless checks to wholesalers in order to conserve his cash for the "sure fire" winner he had doped out that morning. It was her, working thirteen-hour days in the store while he was off gambling, who had to endure the "sorry, ma'am, cash only" pronouncements from the bread, milk, and beer drivers.

By the time we had these conversations, I had learned something about comulsive, obsessive behavior; I had friends in one or another Anonymous group; addiction was a familiar concept to me. Still, it is strange, how easy it is to see dysfunction in someone else's family, but not in one's own.

My Dad taught me a great deal. Some was what to do, and some was what to not do. His advice was generally practical and came from his life on the edge of society, a place that I would seek in my own way, much to his frustration. "You can trust everyone", he once told me. "The question is, what, exactly, can you trust them to do?"

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All materials copyrighted, 1994-2004 by Stan Gotlieb and Realoaxaca.com