After we all threw in our cards, Joey's face split into a huge grin. And why not? He was the big winner.
"All right," he said, tapping his pencil on the score sheet, "Carl owes me 80, Mike owes me 105, and Bob owes me a cool 256."
The 256 was cents, not dollars. But still, at the tender age of 12, $2.56 was almost all my earthly wealth.
And what I could've bought with it! Five hot fudge sundaes or 25 comic books or even 125 Tootsie Pops. And now it was all gone because I got sucked into playing gin rummy for money!
How did I ever lose so badly? I asked myself. And as soon as I did, the answer came to me - I had no gambling sense whatsoever.
We all reached in our pockets for our money.
"Forget it," said Joey.
Forget what?" asked Carl.
"Forget paying," said Joey.
"But you won," I said.
"I don't care about the money," he said. "Don't care about winning either. I just like to play cards."
That was Joey in a nutshell - a kid with a heart of gold who just liked to have fun. It was something about him I never forgot. I also never forgot that I was a lousy gambler. In fact, I remembered it so well, I haven't gambled in the 50 years since then.
But even though I never gambled, I became fascinated by gamblers. Why was that? Simple: They were my polar opposites and had a worldview I admired but couldn't fathom. While I was a miserly type, pinching every penny till Honest Abe shrieked in pain, they threw money away hand over fist, literallyand philosophically.
To me, their credo was best stated by Ed Keating, who said, "If, after either losing or winning $1000, you can't get up from the table without changing your expression, you should never have sat down in the first place."
In the good old days, My Home Town was an ideal vantage from which to observe gamblers, perhaps because there were so many of them. And while gambling was clearly illegal, most people considered it more a hobby than a crime - just a "boys will be boys" thing.
So if a kid knew how to keep his mouth shut and his ears open in the company of his sporting elders, he could learn a whole lot about games of chance and the men who played them. Suffice it to say, I learned a whole lot.
Club of clubs and hearts, spades and diamonds
The town's "official" illegal gambling den was the Elks Club, where Rite Aid is now. The Elks Club was a huge social center. Membership was limited, and while I can't recall its exact number, I'm sure it was the majority of men in town.
By any measure, the club was a hopping joint. It had two bars, one upstairs and one downstairs, and a kitchen that put out quality meals nonstop. And while the gambling there wasn't perhaps nonstop, it certainly was frequent. Of course, as a service organization the Elks indulged in all sorts of worthwhile community activities, but I didn't give a hoot about them. Nope, it was the hustlers (and the hustled) that intrigued me.
For example, I knew a man who lost $2500 in one hand of five card stud (that was 1967 dollars), and another one who won an apartment house in a game of gin rummy.
Something I liked about the gamblers was their style. Some of them actually dressed the part, my favorite being Harry Dillon, who looked like something out of a George Raft movie. I'll never forget one of his summer outfits a tan, double-breasted sportcoat, mustard slacks with creases that could cut steel, two-tone wing tips, all topped off with a pristine white fedora. Since he always stopped to chat with me, I remember his friendliness at least as well as his threads.
There was another pair of gamblers, friendly guys and fashion plates too, who always hung out together, but their names escape me now. They always wore expensive suits and hats - and underneath them, according to my pal Bob Griffin, shoulder holsters with pistols.
But style goes beyond such externalities as clothes, as demonstrated by one of my old friends. He was in the Elks Club during some big shindig when all the games of chance were going full swing - it was one of those galas the wives went to also. He'd pretty much had his fill for the night but as he was about to leave, just for the heck of it, he went over to the craps table.
He put down a few bucks, rolled the dice, and doubled his stake. He kept his money there, threw again, doubled again, and kept doing it. After a while his wife came over and said she wanted to leave. He told her he would, as soon as he was done at the table. He kept rolling and winning till he was up $1200, then he rolled and lost it all. That done, he got his wife and left. To my way of thinking, he'd lost $1200, but he always thought of it as being out only a few bucks.
The exception that proves the rule
While in the beginning of this account I said I never gambled after The Great Gin Rummy Disaster of 1959, that's not quite true. I have gambled, but only under one condition it has to be at some sort of charity function. That way, I look at it as a contribution to a good cause, and I manage to have a little fun doing it.
My most memorable experience at one of those was at a Knights of Columbus Las Vegas night. I lost all my money at blackjack in almost no time and my ineptness was clearly noticed by Sam Grimone, a man never known to pass up a chance at kibitzing.
"Well," he said, "I see you haven't lost your touch at the pasteboards."
"Not at all," I said, playing along.
"So how long'd it take you to get cleaned out this time?"
I checked my watch.
"Long time," I said. "Fifteen minutes."
"How much you lose?" he said.
"Twenty-five bucks," I said.
"Hmm," he said, "What's that - $1.65 a minute?"
"Something like that," I said.
"A pretty expensive time," he said.
"Not at all," I said. "Matter of fact, I saved money."
"Saved money?" he said, clearly taken aback. "How do you figure that?"
"Simple," I said. "I had a lot of fun for 15 minutes and it cost me 25 bucks."
"So that's saving?" he said.
"Sure," I said. "Because if I hadn't come here, I would've written you a check for 35 bucks."
Then, thinking of Joey, I added, "And I wouldn't have had any fun either."