Monday, September 27, 2010

SANCTUARY: THE DUFF'S SHED

In the 1950's and 60's, my maternal grandparents spent their summers at a bungalow colony in South Fallsburg, New York. After Labor Day when I was five, my poppa, ala Steve "The Crocodile Hunter" Irwin, went into the wild and wrestled a turtle. In a ten-second feat of strength and wills, the critter finally succumbed to Gramps' superiority.
NEAR MONTICELLO, IN THE HEART OF THE BORSCHT-BELT, THE MEGALOPOLIS OF SOUTH FALLSBURG TODAY HAS A POPULATION AROUND 2,200. ABOVE, IS THE STREAM WHERE MY POPPA CAPTURED THE TURTLE. IT IS ALSO THE PLACE WHERE I DEVELOPED MY LIFELONG DISTASTE FOR FISHING.

The turtle was strapped like a trophy to the hood of my uncle's Rambler and hauled back to Brooklyn. In mid-September, it was presented as a gift to my sister and I. This was not the common half-dollar-sized green beast you bought in pet stores. Therefore we couldn't get away with one of those clear bowl-like cages with the cute little island and plastic palm tree.

Our turtle was a huge, five-by-three inch monster...and mom wasn't going to allow that filthy gargantuan in our house. Instead the poor amphibious bastard was left to languish outside, at our back door...in a wobbly (convex bottom) metal bucket.

Sis would bring daily bits of chopped meat or lettuce and fill a tiny water saucer. And because at age seven, she was infinitely more aware of anatomy than me, she searched (unsuccessfully) for the physical evidence that would identify our "bucketeer's" sex. As soon as she was convinced of this stalemate, she dubbed our box turtle, "Henry-Henrietta." I never bought into this ambiguity. Based solely on gender-bias, I called HIM Morty...and I couldn't have been more prophetic.

My sister allowed Morty exercise time in the backyard. He preferred to roam the lawn and flower beds rather than the long concrete alley that led to the driveway...and eventually the street. She was also sensitive to the elements. Sis would drain rain water and/or place the bucket in a drier spot. On a couple of occasions, the bucket toppled. Morty seized those opportunities to escape but because our hero was a country-bumpkin, he lacked the necessary criminal instinct and was always found, gamboling or lolly-gagging on the grass.

Two months went by. After a frosty, rainy night, the first cold snap of the season enveloped Canarsie. In the morning, we were shocked to see Morty encased in ice. Although our pet's horrible suffocation death rattled us, the wintry weather postponed any ceremony that would have honored him.

A few days later, the temperature rose to the high thirties and our walk home from school was highlighted by warm sunshine. We went to the yard and found that somebody had kicked Morty's bucket. Sis righted his pitiful excuse for a cage and discovered a miracle. The ice had melted and she proclaimed our little friend to no longer be dead! Immediately, he was re-classified as; missing. While sis tried to explain the concept of hibernation, we scavenged our yard. We saw a rut under the fence that divided our property from the Duff's next door.

We ventured into the vast unknown of the Duff's backyard. We searched the narrow strip of land between our common fence and their shed.
IS THAT JEAN-PAUL BELMONDO IN FRONT OF THE DUFF'S SHED? NO, ITS MY DAD IN 1968, WHEN HE AND THE SHED WERE IN THEIR HEY-DAY. THE LAST TIME I SAW THE SHED, MAY 2010, IT WAS SO DILAPIDATED THAT IT WAS BARELY STANDING.
I was looking behind the shed when I noticed that the property around the corner also had a shed that wasn't flush to the fence. I concentrated on that sliver of space and my imagination deemed it a great hiding place...especially when I was old enough to climb over the chain-links.

My daydream was interrupted when my sister said, "Uh-oh, the Duff's are home." I came around to see Mr. Duff pull into the driveway. His kids got out, paid us no mind and ran in the house. Duff summoned us to him. He lectured us about trespassing and staying on our side. This blithering continued as we followed him to the curb. He was retrieving his trash cans when we were mortified to notice in the gutter that Mr. Duff's car had just smooshed our Morty.

We didn't blame our tragedy on the Duff's. Over all, they weren't bad neighbors. But considering that they had a daughter my sister's age and a son my age, it was surprising our families (parents too) never connected. For a short time, years later, our relationship temporarily brightened when they bought a dachshund puppy.
THE DUFF'S NAMED THEIR POOCH, AUGIE. IN THAT ERA, THERE WAS A LAW REQUIRING EVERYONE TO GIVE THEIR MALE WEINER-DOG THAT NAME. THE INSPIRATION CAME FROM, "AUGIE DOGGIE & DOGGIE DADDY," A SECONDARY CARTOON ON THE, "QUICK DRAW McGRAW SHOW," (1959-1961). THE CRUX OF THE SHOW WAS DOGGIE-DADDY INSTRUCTING AUGIE IN A KNOCK-OFF JIMMY DURANTE VOICE. HIS MAIN CATCHPHRASES WERE, "MY SON, MY SON," AND, "DAT'S MY BOY."
I was ten when Augie got lost. He was gone for some time before Mr. Duff figured he had a full-blown crisis on his hands. A reward of a bottle of Coke was offered to us kids and the whole street was mobilized to find the brownish red devil. I was tempted to join in but the sweet six-ounce allure wasn't enough. Instead of searching through other neighbor's shrubberies and gardens, I chose to satisfy my long time fixation.
I took the situation as a green-light to go into the Duff's yard, in the name of hunting for their pup. I went behind their shed. I was shielded by the small wooden building so nobody could see me easily scale the back fence which had become my Everest. Equally important, the shed around the corner blocked my view from their side.
Ironically, after I came back on the street to re-join the Augie search, the bugger was found safe...in the shed. Just think, one little bark or a stinking whimper and I would have scored on both ends...
At night, in the summertime of my adolescence, we played, "Freeze-Tag," our version of, "Man-Hunt." The Duff's had moved away and I made regular use of the space between the back-to-back sheds. My friends never figured out my clever vanishing act and until now, I never shared the genius of my 100% success-rate escape route. Then one day, I made practical use of it...in reverse.
I attended Hebrew School, Monday through Thursday for four years. After a long day at public school and a three city-block walk home, I had the added drudgery of four more short blocks and another long one. During my last year of parochial training, when I was twelve, the ninety-minute session was from 4:30 till 6:PM.
On one snowy day, the class was especially tedious because I anticipated a colossal snowball-fight after school. Although there was a flood light along side the Synagogue, our battleground was mostly in the dark. I was already armed with a stout projectile when I saw my friend with his back turned. I flung my best fastball and WHAM ! It was the shot of the century...a bulls eye to the back of his neck. In the split second that I reveled in it remaining stuck, straddling his shirt collar and dripping down the back, I was horrified to see it WASN'T my friend. My victim was an older bully who was there for Bar Mitzvah lessons.
I could see by his budding anger that he wasn't going to accept this as a simple case of mistaken identity. When he called me a SCHMENDRIK, I ran. He followed. Luckily I was wearing sneakers and was able to use the tire ruts in the slushy street. He was older, more athletic and faster but he was wearing heavy boots. I reached the corner and he was still coming. For the next three blocks, every time I rested and looked back, my dogged pursuer, like Inspector Javert from, "LES MISERABLES," was obsessively on my tail.
On the street before mine, I had an epiphany. If I cut down the wrong block and used my secret escape hatch...in reverse, then maybe, he'd be tricked into thinking I lived on that street. And hopefully, when he couldn't find me, he'd become frustrated and forget the whole mess. For good measure, I ducked into the yard before my jump-off point with the relentless ruffian steadily advancing. I then snuck behind that house into the yard behind the Duff's. Hidden by their shed, I jumped the fence to the sanctuary of the Duff's yard. Cloaked by darkness, I skulked onto my property.
I was home early. Mom always calculated some dawdling time after Hebrew School so dinner wasn't ready. I ran upstairs to sneak a peek at our street to see if he was still after me. Mom noticed my bizarre behavior and called me down. She saw recognized my expression of guilt and asked why I was huffing and puffing. When I hesitated, she accused me of cutting class. I wasn't even lying when I said, "It was cold, so I ran home."

Monday, September 20, 2010

ROBERT E. LEE AND THE $500 BILL.

"THE TONIGHT SHOW," starring Johnny Carson was a hit late night TV talk show from 1962-1992, (4,531 episodes). The format combined guest performances and interviews. To fill in timing gaps, the show produced its own comic segments. My favorite of these routines was, "CARNAC THE MAGNIFICENT."

Johnny portrayed the mystic, Carnac. His sidekick Ed McMahon, would introduce him while holding sealed envelopes for the audience to see. Accompanied by exaggerated applause, Carnac came on stage dressed in a flowing black robe and turban with a rakish plume. McMahon would then hand the envelopes to the clairvoyant and say, "Carnac, these envelopes have been hermetically sealed and left in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls porch since noon today. Nobody knows the contents of these envelopes. But you, in your infinite wisdom will ascertain the answers to these questions without hearing the question first." Johnny's wry response would be something like, "That's right bean-bag breath."
CARNAC WOULD HOLD THE ENVELOPE TO HIS TEMPLE AND CONCENTRATE ON DIVINING AN OUTRAGEOUS PUN FOR AN ANSWER. I THINK THE BEST EXAMPLE WAS, "INFIDEL." ED McMAHON WOULD TYPICALLY REPEAT THE ANSWER AND CAUSE A SARCASTIC REMARK FROM CARNAC. THEN CARNAC WOULD SAY IT AGAIN, "INFIDEL." AFTER HE OPENED THE ENVELOPE, HE'D READ THE NOTE INSIDE AND ANNOUNCE, "WHERE'S CASTRO'S LIVER?"

I can't count how many dozen Carnac skits I saw in my youth but I was in college when finally looked-up; hermetically, in the dictionary. It means; airtight. In practical terms to assure that something is airtight, you might want to use a sealant like hot wax. Other than Carnac, this hermetic sealing concept has only popped-up one other time in my life.

It all came back to me, yesterday, when my wife Sue and I attended a meet-n-greet with my son Andrew's new teachers. Three of them were strictly business. They discussed their personal teaching credentials and bored us (me) with in depth discussions about their grading system. His fourth teacher was the light at the end of the tunnel. He was the one that my boy claimed had a Kermit the Frog voice.

LIFE ISN'T EASY WHEN YOU'RE GREEN AND ITS NO JOYRIDE EITHER WHEN YOU SOUND LIKE KERMIT THE FROG.

Andrew was right ! While the parents were settling in, every time this gentleman spoke, I burst-out laughing. Sue thought it was funny too but she controlled herself. A pattern developed when he listened to someone, I calmed down. Then when he said something, I'd crack-up all over again. My antics were pissing Sue off. I considered walking-out but he began his full-blown teacher spiel. I buried my face in the desk and muffled the giggles enough to avoid being a distraction.

The other stand-out was his Anatomy teacher. She was so cool because she never mentioned her name or grading system...she just listed every class activity and made them sound exciting and fun. She was even cut-off by the bell so she could only point-out, in the farthest corner of the room, the big crescendo, year-end project. While looking back there, I noticed a closet of skeletons.

SKELETONS IN ONE'S CLOSET IS A PHRASE USED TO DESCRIBE; HAVING PAST SECRETS THAT YOU PREFER NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT.

Those skeletons spurred my memory of Robert Edward Lee. He was my friend and fellow craps dealer in my Vegas years. Nobody had more skeletons in their closet than him. But, in my 32 years in the gaming industry--hell, in my entire life--he (Bob) was the most universally beloved person I ever met. Few people can satisfy rabid casino customers, fellow dealers and bi-polar management stooges like Bob.

Bob seemed to always be happy, funny, smart and generous. Because of that greatness, I have dedicated one of my short stories; "A TALE OF THREE CITIES," to him and in another story, "MEN IN WHITE," he was a prominent character.BOB LEE WAS BORN IN RURAL TENNESSEE. HE WASN'T RELATED TO THE FAMOUS CONFEDERATE GENERAL, BUT HE WAS NAMED AFTER HIM. MUCH OF BOB'S RICH PERSONALITY WAS INFLUENCED BY HIS MASTERY OF SOUTHERN CHARM AND HOSPITALITY.

On rare occasions, Bob Lee like all of us, had his less than perky moments. Once I got to know him, it was surprising that he could be such an extreme contradiction. There were times that he was miserable, dead serious, dumb as a sink and selfish. For instance, he was a health food nut but no stranger to barbiturates and so worldly, yet ignorant to the feelings and needs of his wife and son. More importantly, at age forty-eight, despite a smallish frame, graying kinky hair and a wrinkled, leathery face, he was an incredible and successful babe-hound. With that in mind, even the sensitivity for maintaining his most peculiar, carnal skeletons in his closet, he freely made common knowledge.

EDITOR'S NOTE - (None of Bob Lee sex-ploits are in this blog. If that's all your interested in, contact me and I'll send you one of HIS short stories).

I was twenty-five years younger than Bob when we met. He took a liking to me and in a short time, he became my mentor. He was giving with his time and energy and taught me about the stock market, gardening, real estate, do-it-yourself home and auto repairs and so much more. Even though we chummy, I still thought it was strange that he confided in me, a need to hide the bulk of his tip earnings from his wife.

One night at work, Bob tried to turn me onto a penny stock. Lereck Oil was selling at twelve cents a share. On less than five hours sleep later that morning, he was going downtown to see his broker. Based strictly on being somewhere other than in my bed at 9AM, I balked at the opportunity.

A week later, Bob came by my condo to show off the white, 1963, split window coupe Corvette he just bought for cash with the sale of his Lereck Oil stock. We wandered into the backyard that he had helped me cultivate. The former cement-like flower beds were now flourishing as a vegetable garden. I remember the first time he chopped through the crusty earth and how surprised I was to see the moist the soil, inches below the cement-like desert surface.

Bob held up a stout zucchini and made sexual jokes about its length. Suddenly he snapped, "After paying for the car, when I added what was left from my stock money to the stash I was telling you about, I counted $30,000.00 laying around the house...now I really have to hide it from my wife." I said, "How much did you invest?" He ignored me, clawed at my soft, fertile soil and said, "You just gave me a great idea. I gotta go."

Two months went by. While we were at work, I was trying to think of a way to ask Bob if he reached a solution to his hidden money dilemma. Those thoughts were interrupted when a player tried to buy-in on our craps game with a $500.00 dollar bill.THE $500.00 BILL FEATURES THE PORTRAIT OF OUR 25th PRESIDENT, WILLIAM McKINLEY. IN 1934, THE U.S. GOVERNMENT, TO REDUCE THE RISK OF COUNTERFEITING AND SMUGGLING, STOPPED PRODUCING ALL BANKNOTES OVER $100.00. BIG BILLS ARE SO RARE TODAY, THAT THE ONE I SAW THAT NIGHT IS ONLY ONE I EVER SAW IN CIRCULATION.

Before the player was given his chips, my immediate supervisors stopped the game to examine the bill. I don't know what they were looking for, but they resembled a forensic team searching for traces of plague. We were still standing around until the pit-boss came by. He was perplexed too. The casino manager was paged. The big boss took a scant glance and said, "Drop it and get a f*****g roll." Bob called out, "Wait!" The casino manager said, "Now what?" Bob said, "Can I buy the bill off the game right now?" The big boss motioned for the bill to be plunged into the drop box and said, "Yeah but not here." Bob said, "But?" And the manager continued, "If you want it that bad, meet me at the casino cage with the money at 8:AM sharp! If you're ten seconds late, I know plenty of mugs who collect that kind of shit."

The next night when I asked Bob if he got the $500.00 bill he said, "Yeah and its the best thing that ever happened to me." I asked, "Why?" "Because like an idiot, I buried that thirty grand under my rutabaga patch." I said, "So?" "You know when Carson does Carnac, right? Well, I buried the whole business in a mayonnaise jar." I said, "Okay." "Well I decided to dig it up and put the 500 bill in with the other money. To my surprise, a lot of the bills were in real bad shape. They were getting greenish-black from mold and the edges were disintegrating." I said, "Geez." Bob continued, "Remember in the Carnac routine when Ed McMahon said the envelopes have been hermetically sealed...well that's what you have to do when burying paper. If you don't, when moisture seeps in, BAM, in no time, it fritters away to nothing." I said, "You are lucky." He said, "Its a good thing Vegas has a million casinos." I said, "Why?" "Because, I didn't want to explain to a bank why I buried undeclared income in my garden. But money grubbing whore casinos take anything, no questions asked...even if you wiped your butt with every bill you brought in with." I smiled, "You're right." Bob finished by saying, "Now, all I have to do is "launder" at least half of those hundreds...one at a time."

Monday, September 13, 2010

THE NEGATIVE LOTTERY

September 11th has become a day of remembrance, honor and respect. The day encourages us to reflect on the victims as well as the heroes who helped minimize the carnage. Then while appreciating those heroes, just imagine, how does an ordinary person prepares them self for the most abstract and dire possibilities?

I was too young to realize that New York had a state lottery as early as 1967. In fact, I was ignorant of the word until a sophomore year English assignment when it appeared in the title of Shirley Jackson's classic yet controversial 1948 short story, "THE LOTTERY."

Jackson's story was shocking because a small New England town is excited over its upcoming lottery. However, the reader is misdirected...lottery winner wasn't to be showered with money or extravagant prizes, they were to be stoned to death as part of a ritual sacrifice.

The shock value was lost on me because people familiar with lotteries were expecting something wonderful to happen....but not me.

The next time I came in contact with the term was in regard to the Vietnam draft. Luckily, when I became eligible in 1973, it was the first year that there was no draft. But towards the end of the war, the Selective Service Board had set in motion, a lottery by birthday system, to fairly determine who to send. That system remained in place after the draft was abolished, just in case an emergency forced it to be reinstated. Once again the word lottery became negative to me because my birthday was selected sixteenth...and virtually everyone up to number 150 was certain to go.

The third time the negative lottery came up was when I became a cab driver in August 1978. I took this crappy job because I wanted to avoid being a financial burden to my family. So I decided to use those earnings to pay for my own craps dealer training.

Hidden among a collection of ex-convicts, morons, drug fiends and other dregs of society, a group of unmotivated college kids which included several of my friends worked for a local, radio-dispatched taxi service. I was nervous getting ready for my interview. The friend who recommended me told me, "Relax and just be yourself." When I didn't respond in a positive way he added, "You're competing against guys who can't get any other kind of job...you're gonna stand-out. Even the manager (interviewer) owes the bookies big time, the dispatcher after midnight is a junkie and half the drivers have been in jail."

I was hired by a pleasant guy who could barely keep his eyes off the, "DAILY RACING FORM." He told me the basics like where to buy gas, the necessity of fixing my own flats plus the tedium of company policies and procedures. An hour later, in car #16, I was on the road. As a added bonus, I could see the road through a gaping hole in old #16's floorboards. If that wasn't enough, this late-model Plymouth had no defroster or jack. I mentioned that to a friend and he said, "After dark, even if there was a jack, you don't want to be changing tires...even in a good neighborhood. Ride the rim all the way in even if you're coming from Oshkosh. Trust me, no jury would convict you."

I worked from 7PM till 1AM, five nights a week and cleared an average of $40.00/day. That was after getting gouged for the two-way radio rental, some other miscellaneous fees and getting extorted by the overnight junkie dispatcher, (no lay-offs...no calls). I lasted one month.

On that first night, one of my friends was sent to a two-family house a few blocks from the office. A woman holding an infant came running down the steps as he pulled up. She looked disheveled from the distance but up close, she was a bloody mess. An angry man stormed after her as she got into the back seat. She cried, "Go please, just go." The man screamed, "Cabby, if you go, I'll find you and kill you!" The woman begged, "Go, please go." My friend said, "Lady, I took this job because, I hate being pressured into decisions." Amid the woman and baby both hysterical, the man pounced on the locked backdoor. It was only then that my friend peeled-out.

A few days later as the sun was beginning to set, I picked up two girls. In broken English they said, "Madison Square Garden." I asked, "Where are you from?" One of them said, "Czechoslovakia." We were still in my neighborhood, waiting for a red light when a Mercedes-Benz going in the opposite direction also stopped. Suddenly another car zoomed around him...stopped and went in reverse to block his path. Two guys ran out and one of them began pummeling the Benz driver through the car window. To get away, he floored the car backwards, put the car in drive and sped off. Then all three men from the other car pulled out guns and started shooting. It was over in 5 seconds but the girls were screaming until I said, "TV, Kojak." They smiled and both said, "Yeah, yeah Kojak...very nice."

One of the burnt-out college kids that I befriended was called into the office. Five twenties were spread on the desk and the manager said, "You wanna make this 'C' note for one day's work?" "Yeah, what do I have to do?" "We'll drive you to Kennedy (airport) and you'll fly to North Carolina. A man named Tompkins will meet you when you get off and give you the keys to his van. And all you gotta do is, drive it here...I'll even throw-in an extra twenty for food and expenses." The kid said, "Cool. What's in the van?" He was fired on the spot.

In my third week, the midnight dispatcher sent me to a bar on the other side of Brooklyn to pick up a package. I hated being sent on that lowlife's private errands. I knew it was shady because trips like this weren't "logged-in," and drivers were paid the standard rate, under the table. Plus these missions were time consuming and never included a tip.

A few days later that dispatcher and one of the drivers were arrested at the office for, possession of heroine with intent to distribute. Even though he was the manager's nephew, he threatened to kill his uncle on his way out.

The next night, one of the other drivers took a fare to the Kings Plaza Mall. It was one exit away on the Belt Parkway, (a three-lane highway in both directions). The customer asked to sit in the front because its easier to talk to someone that way. On the parkway, the fare slide next to the driver, put his foot on the gas and grappled for control of the wheel. The beat-up taxi was zig-zagging through traffic and veering onto the shoulder at 70MPH. When the customer let go of the steering wheel, he reached across the driver and momentarily opened door. When he failed to push the cabby out, he suddenly relaxed and said, "Pull over. Let me out."

That same driver on the last day in September was stopped at a light at Grand Army Plaza, (a major intersection near downtown Brooklyn). In broad daylight, a man poked his head through the passenger side window and said, "Take me to Hunterfly Street." When the driver explained he wasn't permitted to pick-up fares, a confederate of the first man came up from the driver's blindside and put a knife to his throat.

When he quit that night, he said, "I'm not taking any chances, bad things happen in threes."

On Monday, October 2, 1978, just before midnight, I was sent to Newark New Jersey. Unfortunately, it was a company sanctioned package pick-up. The comedy of errors started at the Wilson Avenue exit of the Pulaski Skyway.
THE SKYWAY IS NAMED AFTER CASIMIR PULASKI, A POLISH GENERAL WHO TAUGHT WARFARE TACTICS TO COLONISTS IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. BUILT IN 1932, THE ROADWAY IS A SERIES OF TALL BRIDGES IN NORTH JERSEY DESIGNED TO ELIMINATE THE NEED FOR DRAWBRIDGES.

My driving directions indicated that I should get off the highway and go straight. When I got to the bottom of the off-ramp, there was an abutment blocking me...I could only go left or right onto Wilson Avenue. I was out of my two-way radio's range and even if I spotted a pay phone, there was no way I was going to let myself become a human target by getting out of my cab.

That part of Newark looked like a nuclear bomb had hit an industrial park. There was no one around to ask for help at that hour...not even a police prowl car. The way it looked, I bet there wouldn't be too many people around even in midday. Alone, I canvassed the area looking for Delancey Street. For an hour, I criss-crossed every street in the area. I was wondering how I would handle a flat tire in that hell-hole when I noticed an all-night gas station. A Latino was caged-up in the tiny kiosk. There were thick, jail cell-like bars over Plexi-glass surrounding the little booth. I pulled up next to the transom and asked, "Can you tell me where Delancey Street is?" In a strong accent he said, "You want gas?" I said, "No. I need to find to Delancey..." He said, "No habla Ingles," as he slam closed the money-entry chute.

I eventually found my way. The building was a warehouse adjacent to the barbed wire fence that separated the neighborhood from the freight-forwarding section of Newark Airport. Like the speakeasy days, I knocked on a door that had a second miniature door at eye-level. Through the boxy hole, a tough man in a suit, puffed on a nauseating cigar and stared me down. After looking past me, he asked inane questions until he was satisfied that I was the authentic courier . When he was certain, he passed me a squarish, fist-sized box. It was wrapped like a gift, in plain, brown paper. He then snarled, "Don't open it, don't shake it and don't smell it. If you know whats good for you, go straight back to base and give it to your boss. You better hurry, I'm calling him now." I did what I was told.

I had seen enough of the seedy part of life. The concept of high-risk, low-reward made my decision easy because I knew it was just a matter of time before my "number" came up. Without getting into specifics, I borrowed my tuition money from my gracious dad.

The next morning before dealer school, I stopped into the office and quit. The manager told me not to, "Burn down my bridges." I lied and said, "I'm not unhappy, just tired...and I don't want the job to interfere with my studies." He was pleasant, "Oh, what are you studying?" I said, "I'm gonna be a Vegas craps dealer." He threw down his, "OFF-TRACK BETTING PROGRAM," and his face contorted, "Don't do it kid, its the friggin' negative lottery. Sure it all looks like fun and games in the beginning but once it gets a little exciting...you're hooked." I checked my watch as his speech accelerated into a rant, "You start chasing that rush, but it never comes. And even if it somehow does...in the end, everyone loses." I was tuning him out. I even injected a fake yawn hoping he would take the hint. Instead he kept yammering, "Maybe after a short time, you come to your senses and try to get out, but by then you get involved with the wrong people...and you never want to owe the wrong people... and BAM! You regret it the rest of your life." I said, "That won't happen to me..." The manager interrupted, "Kid, I got no family any more. No house, no car, no friends, no life. Even now, whatever I get, it ain't mine...you understand...they own me. I used to be a good person, now I gotta do shit for them that I would never have dreamed of." He reacted to a creak in the floor outside the office and whispered, "Don't do what I did or you'll wind up like me."

I just "celebrated" my 32nd anniversary of being the gaming business. I'm pleased to say that the taxi manager was wrong and that my career has been successful. I rarely gamble and when I do its simple, inexpensive entertainment. I guess I'm giving up the infinitesimal possibility of hitting it big, in exchange for it the slight chance that gambling becomes an addiction.

Too bad life isn't that simple...I would image that the victims of the 9-11 terrorist attack in New York City, Washington DC and rural Pennsylvania would have given anything to avoid hitting the negative lottery.

In the long run, the terrorist plot actually backfired because they never counted on our county's resolve, the creation of Patriots Day and a greater, focus, appreciation and protection of the American way of life.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A TRIBUTE TO JOHNNY UNITAS

This, "TRIBUTE TO JOHNNY UNITAS," was written prior to the advent of, "MORE GLIB ThAN PROFOUND." I understand that the original is floating, light years away, in the infinite void of the cyber-universe. Unfortunately, a computer crash robbed me of my copy and I can't find where it is on the Internet, so I'm re-writing it in blog form.
Johnny Unitas died from a heart attack on September 11, 2002. That day was the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. His death was overshadowed by the remembrance.
THREE-TIME NFL MVP AND HALL-OF-FAMER JOHNNY UNITAS WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST QUARTERBACKS IN NFL HISTORY. AFTER BEING DRAFTED BY THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS, HE WAS CUT BEFORE THE 1955 SEASON. THE NEXT YEAR, HE WAS PICKED UP BY THE BALTIMORE COLTS AND BECAME A LEGEND, (1956-1972). HIS LAST YEAR, (1973), WAS WITH THE SAN DIEGO CHARGERS.
To help support the memory of this great man, both on and off the field, I would like to share my 1989 chance meeting with him on the Ocean City, Maryland boardwalk.

First, we must go back to 1974. That summer, RBOY and I enjoyed a working vacation at DISNEYWORLD. It was so great that we didn't want to leave.
RBOY AND I WERE SWEEPERS. MY TURF WAS FANTASYLAND AND AS YOU CAN SEE, MY AREA WAS SPOTLESS.

To prove how good that summer was, we went back the next year in hope of a repeat performance. But due to circumstances beyond our control, we only stayed a week and came back to Brooklyn.

That first year, RBOY and I lived in Kissimmee Florida, at a former Ramada Inn that re-opened under the name, the YOUNG AMERICAN INN. The YAI accommodated only Disney employees. That meant that he and I split $95.00 a month while our hormones exploded with a couple of hundred kids our age.

Kissimmee is a skyrocketing community these days. But 36 years ago, it was a rural cow town with a single, stark roadway (the East Space Coast Highway), running through it. The main business district was at the junction of Robinson Avenue. All I recall being there were; a Zayre's Department Store, a bank, Schultz Brothers Used Furniture and a Waffle House. The streets rolled-up early so that we denizens of the YAI had to make our own fun.

RBOY and I worked at Disney until midnight. So when we got "home" other than watching out for stray alligators or re-routing giant tortoises back into the marsh, our clique hung-out and hobnobbed until the wee hours. On a few of occasions, we piled into a car and had a road trip to civilization...Denny's.

The 15-mile mystery-ride through the swamps of "Gator-Alley" took us to an even smaller hamlet, Taft Florida.
BACK THEN, DENNY'S WAS ALL TAFT HAD TO OFFER. OVER THE YEARS, THEIR IMAGE HASN'T CHANGED. THEREFORE, THIS IS THE BEST PHOTO OF IT THAT THE INTERNET HAS TO OFFER, (in 2000, the population was 1,938).

The restaurant attracted folks from miles around. Most of them were senior citizens and it seemed that where ever they were coming from, they were well-dressed.
AS THE ONLY OPTION WE KNEW IN OSCEOLA COUNTY, DENNY'S WOULD BE HOPPING AT 1:30AM.
RBOY always ordered, "MEAL ITALIANO." I think that translated into industrial meatballs and canned spaghetti. Being a connoisseur of fine dining, I was aware that there were few authentic Italians cooking-up gourmet specialties at a Central Florida Denny's, in the early morning. Therefore, I avoided the risk and ordered the old reliable cheeseburger deluxe with an ice-cream soda.
For these outings, our party was typically six or more. The conversations were loud, obnoxious and punctuated with outbursts of laughter. We got used to the stares, dirty looks and stink eyes...and never relented.
One time, Denny's was so busy that we had to wait ten minutes for a table. When we were seated, I had a clear view of the entrance. Two elderly couples came in after us and approached the hostess. The men were both wearing three-piece suits. One man held his jacket across his left arm. Something about the shade of his blue suit caught my eye. Considering that I am color-blind, it was unusual for me to be distracted to the point of gaping at this man over a color.
When the hostess led them our way, I figured it out. His suit was the distinctive Baltimore Colts "speed" blue. A second later as they passed, I saw on the back of the man's vest, a white, football uniformed-sized, number 19. THAT'S RIGHT, I SAID HE HAD A HUGE, WHITE NUMBER 19, SEWN INTO THE BACK OF HIS SPEED-BLUE VEST!
In an incredible combination of discovery and disbelief I cried out, "That guy thinks he's Johnny Unitas!" The gentleman slowly turned, stepped up to our table and snarled, "I may NOT be Johnny, but I am Mr. Unitas!"
I don't embarrass easily but getting set straight by Johnny Unitas' father did redden my face.
Fifteen years goes by. My wife Sue and I are in Ocean City Maryland.
WE VACATIONED IN OCEAN CITY, 13 CONSECUTIVE JUNES FROM 1988-2001. WE LIKED IT THERE SO MUCH THAT WE WOULD HAVE DONE TESTIMONIALS OR TV COMMERCIALS, FREE!
On this particular cloudy, breezy afternoon, the boardwalk was empty. Sue wandered into her 40th gift shop. I couldn't stand another schlock-store. So I filled-out several "REMAIN OUTSIDE" waiver forms and completed them in triplicate. If Sue denied my application, I was prepared to hammer a Bic pen into my good ear. After citing my many grammatical flaws, the misses opted to overlook (this one time), my ineptitude. And instead, she began to lecture me on the proper protocol for such written requests. Twenty minutes later, I was permitted to stay outside under the condition that I didn't meander too far away...to an eatery, bar or arcade, (of course, I still would've but I didn't want to fill-out more forms).
In a recess of the building, I found a spot sheltered from the wind. I stared out at the crashing surf and became mesmerized by my sudden calm. After being transfixed, I realized that someone was standing beside me...doing the same thing. I looked up at him and recognized that it was Johnny Unitas.
I knew from the feedback that I received from Baltimoreans that Johnny U. was not only approachable but that he was a friendly and warm individual. I stuck up a conversation. Although he continued staring at the ocean, he was cordial and receptive to my compliments without giving me eye-contact. I told him I was a New York Jets fan and reminded him of the Super Bowl and another game that he played great but was out-done by Joe Namath. He remained interested so it was with great confidence, I told him when I met his father in Taft Florida in 1974. Johnny looked at me for the first time. He glared deep into my eyes and with utter sincerity said, "My daddy died when I was five." Like I said, I don't embarrass easily but this was the worst moment of my life. I was unable to mask being mortified and stammered, "S-s-s-sorry." I slunk away. There would be no Kodak moment of us shaking hands, no autograph, no nothing!

Years later, but before I had Internet access, ESPN did a biography on Unitas. In it, the pre-mature death of his father was verified. I guess if that man in Florida WAS Mr. Unitas, he must have been an uncle or something.

All Johnny wanted to do was stare at the ocean and not be bothered...and I burst his bubble. Maybe to get back at me, he put a whammy on my Jets. Or maybe my team stinks on their own and Mr. Johnny Unitas was the heroic gentleman that his legions of fans believe him to be. To prove it, he was willing to spend a little time with an admirer...until I ruined it.