I am a gambler's son. For as long as I can remember, the life of our house has been touched by my father's gambling. No aspect of that life, not even its daily minutiae, escaped that touch. I can remember one morning when I was seven years old, how my mother's simple request to throw out the garbage produced in my father a terrible anger. He had just walked through the door, red-eyed and stiff-limbed, having spent the night sitting in a parked car alongside a deserted stretch of railroad track in New Canaan, Conn. He had been hunched forward all night, his ear pressed to the car radio, listening to the fading, crackling play-by-play of a Pacific Coast League baseball game on a Salt Lake City station that could only be tuned in after midnight at precisely that spot.
My father was an orphan. He lived in foster homes in the Italian ghetto around Bridgeport, Conn., until he turned 16 and struck out on his own. He supported himself from the very first by gambling. He loved the order of it. The finality. Win or lose, it was the only order in his life at the time. He had no relatives, no one but himself and his gambling, his sole satisfaction.
What he loved about it was that it forced him to live by his wits. It made him feel truly alive to live on the fine edge. He always told me that gambling was no fun if you had enough money to cover your losses. It was the possibility not of victory but of loss that really excited him.
Gambling gave my father an almost sexual pleasure. I say "almost" because like many gamblers my father never could countenance the other vices. He was almost puritanical in his disdain for boozers and womanizers, and, as far as I know, he has been faithful to his wife, my mother, for all of the 50 years of their marriage.
Nor did my father take any real pleasure in the money he won. He treated it, also, with disdain. The one overwhelming image I have of my father and money is his refusal to let anyone pay a tab in his presence. My father, peeling off bills from a thick wad, would insist. It might have seemed like generosity, but it was too obsessive for that.
In his 20's and early 30's, my father supported his young family, my mother and my older brother, by shooting pool. Eight ball, nine ball, straight, Chicago, anything. He had short, fat fingers (like the link sausages she threw in the spaghetti sauce, my mother used to say) that should have been a liability for a pool shooter. But he more than made up for them with his firm bridge and a maddeningly smooth stroke. For years, when I was growing up, my older brother would tell me stories about my father's pool-hustling trips throughout New England and Canada. How my brother, then in his teens, used to go with Dad when he hustled farmers and hardware salesmen and the local hotshots. My brother watched from the shadows, and when the losers tossed their crumpled bills on the table, he would emerge and scoop them off the green felt. How I envied my brother! How I wished I could have gone with my father on those trips! But that was before I was born, and by the time I was old enough to go, my father had given up pool as a means of making a living.
When I was 18 years old I went away to pitch in the Milwaukee Braves farm system, and I picked up pool, too. It was one of the few recreations open to young baseball players in small Midwestern towns. I got pretty good at it, and when I came home I used to challenge my father regularly. But he always beat me. We would play for hours. I would get sweaty and hot-tempered while my father, with that cool-eyed, methodical stroke, would pocket ball after ball to victory. He never let up on me. I was both proud of my father's talent and furious that I could not beat him.
In his late 30's, my father abandoned pool and turned to cards and dice. His smooth pink little hands flashed when dealing cards in his one-handed style, with his thumb on top of the deck. He used to show us how, with a mere flick of the wrist, he could deal from the bottom, the middle or the top of the deck.
I remember when I was 12 how my badgering my father to have a catch with me turned into a financial disaster for us. He was supposed to deal cards that night at one of the Italian athletic clubs in the city, and he would be paid handsomely. He always worried about his hands—his livelihood, he called them. But I insisted on having a catch and he reluctantly gave in. I cut loose with a fastball that split open a finger on his left hand. Blood gushed out and he ran screaming into the house. When I finally got up the courage to go inside, I found him at the kitchen table, his hand wrapped in a blood-soaked handkerchief. He was trying to deal a poker hand to my mother, who sat across from him. The cards slipped in his bleeding hand, scattered on the floor. He glared at them and cursed their ancestry as I turned and ran back outside.
Eventually, in his late 40's, my father gave up his cards and dice and settled, in what was the beginning of his old age, on a more sedentary form of gambling. He bet basketball, baseball, football and, occasionally, hockey games. He seldom bet the ponies, because handicapping was too much like work, and he never gambled in Vegas. There was no percentage in it, he would say. Besides, it was too organized. Nor was my father ever a bookie. Bookies were businessmen, not gamblers. And my father was only a gambler. A free lance, he liked to say.