Like most authors, I’m often asked if I always wanted to be a writer. Did I get hooked on mysteries by reading Nancy Drew, or Agatha Christie, or Sherlock Holmes stories?
Not me. As a kid, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as reading outside of schoolwork. My mother was taken out of school at 13; my father claimed he attended for only one day. Ours was not a house with books.
Except for the little black one with a rubber band that the bookie brought every Friday afternoon.
In my neighborhood – 1950’s Revere, Massachusetts – bookies had the best lives. Hair slicked back, they wore cool dress shirts and hung around the corner playing “morte,” the Italian version of “rock, paper, scissors.”
Bookies kept a schedule of house calls to all their clients, picking up and delivering little slips of paper with numbers carefully written on them. Currency would be exchanged. Many clients, like my parents, bet nickels and dimes; others as much as a couple of dollars, so the bookie’s pockets bulged with bills and coins. He was a living, strutting cash box.
Our bookie, Vinnie B., was as regular as the milkman, the iceman, and the insurance man; he was more consistent a presence than the mailman. My mother would pour a cup of coffee for him and set out a shot glass. “Coffee and.”
Vinnie B. would shift his bulk and smile as my mother explained the number she was playing today.
“Josie’s new flat is number 127 and it cost me $1.27 for the bread and mortadella at Rigione’s. Give it to me six ways.”
“Good bet,” Vinnie B. would say.
I’d never seen a female bookie, but that didn’t bother me. I was sure I could do the work. I got As in arithmetic, after all. And at an early age, I’d learned to figure out the winning number for the day. It appeared in the daily newspaper as part of the racetrack returns. I’d pick up the paper at the market and be ready to read the lucky digits to my parents as soon as I entered the kitchen.
I had no desire to follow the path of the grown-up females around me. Their days were filled with nothing but housework, cooking, and grocery shopping, except for boring coffee klatches where they grumbled about housework, cooking, and grocery shopping.
My choices as I saw them: lug fussy kids and bags of produce around the streets of Revere, or whip out a wad of bills and laugh your head off with the cool guys on the corner. I knew those guys could have walked right into Guido’s, slapped him on the back, and ordered the biggest pizza with extra cheese. They could have treated the whole city to the tallest Dairy Queen on the menu and bought shirts in every color if they wanted to.
While my mother and aunts were bent over pushing an old vacuum cleaner across a thin carpet, the bookies stood tall with money and power. And it all stemmed from those rows of numbers.
With some regret, I report that I never did get to be a bookie. But those guys on the corner unwittingly influenced me a great deal. I got into a different numbers racket. I left Revere, went to college and majored in math.
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