Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Orangeberry Book of the Day - Honest Sid: Memoir of a Gambling Man by Prof. Ronald Probstein

1 Play Ball

Take me out to the ball game, Take me out with the crowd Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack, I don’t care if I never get back, Let me root, root, root for the home team, If they don’t win it’s a shame

For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out, at the old ball game. Jack Norwich and Albert Von Tilzer (1908)

“Ronald! Ronald! Get up!” The voice was that of my mother trying to awaken me, the place a run down hotel near Times Square at about two or three o’clock in the morning. I was a good-sized five-year-old, so it took a great deal of pulling before she finally managed to get me out of bed. She threw some clothes on me and, with muted cursing, dragged me toward the fire escape with one hand while holding a suitcase in the other.

As it turned out, there was no fire; our unusual exit was the result of being considerably behind in the room rent. In the Depression days of 1933, when residents were in arrears, it was common hotel practice to lock the room door from the outside at night. That way, no one could leave undetected with his or her belongings.

Scrambling through the window onto the fire escape, my mother swore again as she caught her high heels in the grating. She managed to get her shoes off and, holding the shoes and suitcase in one hand and grasping me with the other, she led me down a couple of stories to the lowest level.

By then, I was fully awake. Peering down I saw a dark, menacing chasm. In reality, we were only about ten feet above the sidewalk of a back alley where the most frightening aspect was a jumble of garbage cans, but I was certain that fanged, wolf-like creatures were hiding in the dark shadows below, waiting to jump out and attack us when we reached the bottom.

It was then that I heard my father in a stage whisper calling, “Sally, have you got the kid? You okay?”
“Yes, damn it, but I can’t get the ladder down. The latch is stuck.”
My mother struggled to release the catch that would allow the ladder at the bottom of the fire escape to slide to the ground. My fears heightened as I watched my father scramble around the alley below. He picked up a discarded wooden crate that he carried over and put down underneath the fire escape. Standing on it, he said, “Pass me the kid.”
After pulling me into his arms and setting me down, he helped my mother climb down. For a moment the three of us stood gathered together on the pavement amidst the rubbish and cans, a family portrait of an American scene that Norman Rockwell never captured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
My father possessed an optimistic disposition that no amount of adversity could dampen. What little money he brought in he made by taking bets on the horses. Unfortunately, he was not very successful. Like most bookmakers, he assumed that the customer is usually wrong. Acting on that assumption, he all too frequently took a bet he couldn’t cover. If the horse finished in the money, my father sometimes had to scramble to come up with the payoff.
Known around Times Square as “Honest Sid,” he followed the aphorism, “To live outside the law you must be honest”—since the penalties for dishonesty in the underworld can be far more severe than those meted out by the justice system. Whether or not his nickname was totally accurate, my father had no desire to find himself with broken kneecaps for welshing on a gambling debt. Skipping out on a hotel bill, though, was something else again. He looked upon it as a game of wits in which he was just one of many players.
That night my father was in his usual good humor as we walked hand in hand a few blocks to a rooming house where he had found temporary lodging. He turned to me and, despite my mother’s glare, said, “See kid, I told your mother it would be a cinch.”
My father was born in New York City on November 7, 1894, the next-to-youngest of twelve children. His father, my grandfather Nathan, had emigrated in 1868 from Austria at nineteen to seek his fortune in America, mainly at the card tables, staking himself with the money he made from his occupation as a jeweler. In 1876, Nathan married Rebecca Breiter, an extremely pretty young girl of seventeen who lived with her family on Delancey Street, a Jewish ghetto in New York’s Lower East Side.
The tone of my grandparents’ marriage was set early on when my young grandmother was expecting their first child.
“Becky, pack your bags. We’re leaving New York and going to England in three days. See, I got the tickets!” my grandfather exclaimed, waving them in his hand as he burst into their little flat. “Cousin Morris has that big store in Manchester—he’s written me and they could use a jeweler,” he continued.
“But why now, in such a hurry? And England—when I’m already five months along?” my grandmother blurted out.
“Please, don’t ask questions,” was the imploring reply.
All of the necessary arrangements were made with the help of my grandmother’s family, and within a few days they sailed for Liverpool on the Adriatic, one of the White Star Line’s express steamships that traveled the Great Circle route of the Atlantic from the United States to England. These iron-hulled ships were powered by steam-driven screw propellers but were still rigged with tall masts and canvas sails. On board, the first-class passengers were pampered in plush staterooms and a grand saloon furnished with marble fireplaces and plump velvet chairs and settees.
By contrast, my grandparents’ berth was a bare wooden stall lit by oil lamps with a canvas sleeping cot that folded away so a table with attached seats could be lowered for meals. In “the cellar on the ocean” there were two toilets for every hundred passengers, but my grandparents remembered the worst part of the ten-day voyage in steerage as the foul smell leaking from the engine room. The smell, the incessant noise of the screw, and the roll of the ship in heavy seas combined to make for a difficult journey, especially for a young woman pregnant with her first child.
During their voyage, my grandfather finally told his wife the real reason for their abrupt departure. He had lost heavily at cards and then borrowed money from loan sharks to cover his debt. In short order, he lost the borrowed money and realized that he had no chance of repaying the loan. Fearing for his safety, he decided to flee to England. Not only did a job await him, but most importantly, he would be beyond the reach of the loan sharks.
“Don’t worry, Becky. We’ll go back soon as it’s safe,” was the only consolation he could offer his wife.
They arrived in Manchester where their first son, Jacob, was born. The following year my grandfather felt the heat was off and he kept his promise to his wife. The family returned to New York City, moving into the same tenement on Delancey Street where Rebecca’s family lived. They were extremely fortunate to get a small four-room flat facing the street, although only the front room received direct light. They also had the luxury of a common indoor toilet in the narrow hallway. In case of fire, however, there was little chance of escape because the narrow stairways and fire escapes were crowded with furniture and boxes. In the hot summer months the fire escapes were also overflowing with tenants seeking relief from the fetid air indoors.
At the time, the English novelist Arnold Bennett remarked during a visit to New York that the Lower East Side “seemed to sweat humanity out of every door and window.” Factories, garment shops, laundries, and cigar shops crowded the rows of densely-packed dark tenements. Small shops and pushcarts lined the streets; the teeming throngs and cacophony of vendors hawking their wares gave it the feel of an aviary caged by tenement walls.

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Genre – Biographies & Memoirs

Rating – PG13

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