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The eye, the one they said conveyed the devil's gift, is more bloodshot now than evil. Ben Finkle was 80 years old last month, and the accumulation of years—plus the terrible drain of half a century of casting maleficent spells—has forced the man they call Evil Eye from the ranks of professional hexers and dumped him among Florida's semi-retired. Ben Finkle is a boxing legend, a rascal who mixed two parts voodoo with one part fraud and lurched through life unburdened by honest labor.
"Unless you want to count the time I was in the Army in World War Deuce," Finkle wheezed the other day between screams at the TV set in a Miami saloon called the Dade Athletic Pub. "But that wasn't no work because they never could get me to march. They just shipped me to Paris where I put the evil eye to work long distance on Hitler and two weeks later the bum blew his brains away. I should of got a medal. Instead they give me a partial disability for falling off a ladder while trying to fix a basketball net. But that's getting ahead of my story and we'll get to that later. When I talk about my life I like it in chrontimatic order."
Normally he is a gentle soul, but on this particular day Finkle's ancient blood had been brought to a boil by watching Baltimore defeat New England, which eliminated the Miami Dolphins from the NFL playoffs. Finkle has lived here and there but has called Miami home since 1928. And while normally he wouldn't cheer for his grandmother to escape from quicksand, he does admit to a weakness for the Dolphins. "Rooters is amateurs," he says. Still, what he considered Baltimore's fluke victory angered him. Mumbling dark incantations, he jabbed a hard-boiled egg into a glass of gin, popped it into his mouth and chewed furiously.
"Them Baltimores is crooks," he said, spewing bits of wet egg onto a vest he long ago robbed from Al Weill. "That bum quarterback loses the ball on the square, them New Englands grab it—and that lousy zebra with the whistle must be the governor of Virginia."
"I know where it is," Finkle snapped, his eyes glowing fiercely. "I read the Almanac, don't I?"
Among the debris that decorates Finkle's small boardinghouse room are Almanacs dating back to the 1940s. On page 449 of the 1977 World Almanac it tells that in 1874 a 520-foot steel-arch bridge was built across the Mississippi, with one end in St. Louis, where Finkle was born 23 years after the bridge was erected.
His father Hyman, a hardworking Orthodox Jew, managed a small milk store in Kerry Patch, a tough Irish slum. "I was a kosher punk in the trenches full of tough kids with O's in front of their names," says Finkle. "I could fight but I couldn't spell 'ham' until I was 13. Then one day I walked downtown, ate a hot dog and threw up. It wasn't the food; it was a mental thing. The next day I go back for another one and I ain't been home since. My father laid some dough on a rabbi to teach me to read and write Jewish, but he blew the money. I never studied. All I ever read was them Horatio Alger books. I never could figure who I wanted to be: Ragged Dick or Tattered Tom."
Finkle opted for selling newspapers. With a starting capital of a couple of pennies, he purchased two papers from a man in an alley, went into the nearest saloon and sold his papers for a nickel each. Saloons, he recalls, were his best markets; not only could he unload his papers, but he also always managed to mooch a free lunch. "You get stuck with a paper, all you had to do was holler 'ex-tree' and it was sold. You just had to run like hell before the guy started to read. I sold papers all over the country; there ain't a hallway or an alley anywhere I didn't work in. I got the scars to prove it. You could get killed if them circulation goons caught you peddling the wrong sheet. In Chicago I get lucky. A killer named Dion O'Bannion took a liking to me. He was out on parole for murder. The Chicago Examiner got him out 'cause they needed a tough street guy. He put out the word that the corner of State and Van Buren was mine. He stayed my good friend until Al Capone shot him full of holes." Finkle signaled the bartender for a refill of gin.
Once he was 5'8" and pudgy, but time and thrift have wizened him to a bony 135 pounds. His gait, never quick, has slowed even more; his hands keep endless time to private music. Once bright coals in beds of pure white, the eyes have grown weak and watery—tired dependents of thin silver bifocals that rest on an awesome hook of a nose. His is the look of an owl with an eagle's beak, perched on a coatrack.