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.