By Richard Leck with Karen Lillis
Everyone bet on the numbers in those days. One time, my father was making a bet in the rear of a bar, when the police raided the place. The bar walls were being repainted at that moment, by a crew of house painters. So, my father just put on one of the painter's hats, picked up a bucket and walked out with the crew. He got home in time for supper.
One of our neighbors in Jersey City Heights was an elderly German woman (she was well into her eighties) who was collecting bets for the numbers. My mother used to go to this woman and place bets. Well, this woman had a caged parrot in her home, and the parrot lived in the parlor where the housewives would come in and place their bets. So the parrot got to repeating the conversations. "314 straight! 314 straight!" As the police were driving by, they kept hearing this parrot screaming the numbers, "314 straight! 314 straight!" They finally put two and two together, and nabbed the German woman. They shut down her game, and arrested her for being a bookie.
My mother used to dream the numbers, and then go place her bets. And she'd win! She was up six or seven thousand dollars. My mother was always a bit of a clairvoyant, and her sister, too. One day the phone was ringing. My mother was walking across the room to answer it, and she yelled at the phone, "Hold your horses!" When she picked it up, her sister on the other end said, "What do you mean, hold your horses?" There were all these incidents like this.
Once it was at night, I was a child and I had already gone to bed. My mother had gone to bed; but she was awake waiting for my father to come home. She heard footsteps come all the way up to the door, and then they stopped. Naturally, she thought it was my father. But no one opened the door—their bedroom door was at the top of the stairs. A few minutes later, the telephone rang, and she went downstairs to answer it. It was her family calling to tell her that her elder brother had just passed away at the hospital.
My father used to call her "the witch." My father would bet at the track, but first he would study the racing papers, he'd look at the horse's record, he'd try to figure out who had the best jockey, and this sort of calculation. At the track, he'd have to bet twenty or thirty dollars in order to win two hundred. In reality he'd go to the track and lose a hundred dollars, and my mother would win a thousand, just sitting in the neighborhood and betting illegally on the back stoop. While he was furrowing his brow over the papers, she would dream a door with a number on it, and that would be the day’s number—the last three digits of yesterday's take. It drove my father a little crazy.
You’ve heard of the Pyramid Scheme? I knew a fellow who had a Circle Scheme going. He borrowed money from everyone to pay everyone else back, and he tried to stay a little in the black the whole time. This was Jersey City, a town full of small-time numbers bets, compulsive card players, and minor hustlers.
To be Continued.