Kids Make the Best Bookies


Looking back on it now, I’m surprised how often and in what ways Daddy included us kids in the mafia business of book-making.  I’ve mentioned before his habit of posting us at upstairs windows on the weekends, so we could watch for approaching FBI agents in unmarked cars and provide advanced notice in the event of a raid.  However, Daddy liked to include his kids in as many aspects of the “business” as possible.

My sister reminded me last week that we were often involved in Daddy’s dipping into the coffers of the state lottery.  Pennsylvanians began gambling legally in a government-operated “Daily Number” as early as 1972—an above-board version of illegal rackets that dated back to 16th century Italy and were common in the US by the early 20th.  After the “rackets” were legalized and run by the state in 1972, a governmental effort to cash in on what had been the “mafia’s cash register,” many gamblers preferred to continue betting with their local bookie, as the odds were better and they could gamble on credit.

I remember my dad daily, sitting at his desk or the dining room table—multiple radios and televisions all around.  With a wooden ruler, black magic marker, and 8 ½ x 11 inch pieces of white rice paper, he created multiple columns, in which he recorded the bets he was taking over the phone.  However, in addition to gambling on sporting events, many of his customers also played the state lottery with Daddy—calling each afternoon or early evening with their three-digit number.

Each evening, just before 7 and the beginning of “Bowling for Dollars,” series host Nick Perry oversaw the numbers drawn by a senior citizen on the set of his show.  However, on April 24, 1980, Perry and a number of other conspirators managed to fix the lottery—weighing the ping-pong balls with black latex paint (all except the numbers four and six), so there were only eight possible winning numbers.  (Weighing all but one number was considered too risky.) 

image via onlinelotteryinfo.com

They then played those numbers all over the state, both in the “legal” state lottery and illegally with bookies.  They may have gotten away with the
Triple Six Fix” had the winning number not have been the notorious 666.  Daddy and other bookies were also suspicious because of the huge quantity of 3-digit combinations that included the numbers four and six bet that day.  Daddy never paid on that winning number.

However, Lynn reminded me how often Daddy asked her to “help” him, when, after the daily drawing, he would hand her, freshly bathed and wearing a Holly Hobby nightgown, the rice paper sheets on which the names, numbers, and dollars-bet were recorded, requesting she search for the winning number among the many columns of numbers played.  As she shared last week, Lynn, as a little girl, strawberry blonde curls dangling above the figures, prayed that number would not appear, as, if it did, “Daddy would be in a very bad mood.”  How our dad ever considered this a legitimate bedtime activity for eight-year-olds, I’ll never know.

My favorite way to help Daddy, on the other hand, was going with him to “collect”—collect the money owed in losing bets.  This sometimes involved a delightful day out of school—always guaranteed a lunch eaten out—my favorite, Italian food at the Embers, where spaghetti was the best.  Daddy also ordered me a Shirley Temple to drink, while he had his cocktail, and dessert whenever I wanted—a hugely special treat away from my near-anorexic mother’s, cake-and-cookie-rationing eyes.  It’s no wonder I grew up with such a sweet tooth—one that broadens my dessert-loving waist to this day, thirty or forty years later.

My knowing how and where to collect came in handy after Daddy died in 1981.  Then, 19-years-old and newly home for the summer from college, I took my mother to collect.  She drove.  I rode shotgun in Calvin Klein jeans and Izod sweatshirt—going in and gathering massive amounts of cash at a number of bars and restaurants around the city.  This, so we could carry upwards of $20,000* in dime-sized ($1000), rubber-banded bundles to Kentucky a month later, when my mother bought her home here—largely paid for with the proceeds from illegal gambling I helped her collect.

image via agefotostock.com

So much for my mother’s moral superiority**—her Christian conscience at work in the business of real estate investment—mafia-funded or otherwise.

Clearly, my mom, as well as my dad, believed kids make the best bookies.

image via milkandbookies.org

* I’m not exactly sure how much cash we carried to Lexinton.  I just know it seemed a massive amount.

** I fully believe my mother did the best she knew how at the time.  Perhaps, this was the best option, the only option.  Doing what we did seemed automatic the May that Daddy died.  Please don’t blame my mom for this.  I only mean to point out the irony of it all.

64 thoughts on “Kids Make the Best Bookies

    • You know what, Chip? I hadn’t even thought of it in terms of its effectiveness. But, so, so true. I guess I’m still too close to the subject to realize some of these things (even after all these years). Thanks so much for pointing that out! It’s great having you join the conversation!

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      • It’s almost like the scene in Schindlers List where he saves the little kids lives. He needs their little fingers to shine the inside of the bullet shells. “Where am I going to get fingers that small? You tell me!”

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      • Gosh, Chip, I don’t remember that particular scene–his saying that, I mean. But, yes, good God, that’s it exactly! You have hit the nail on the head, my friend! Can’t tell you how much appreciate your mentioning that!

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  1. Wow Kathy. This whole series of posts has been fascinating. It’s good that you don’t blame your mom … I don’t blame mine either. Some things just “are”, right? Sometimes I marvel at the things we survive and that we come out into adulthood mostly intact. *hugs*

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    • So true. My sister and I marvel to one another at times that we ended up what she calls “walking around kinds of human beings.” Children are amazingly resilient. Glad you don’t blame your mother either. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to believe that people generally do the best they know how. Thanks so much for reading. Great to hear from you!

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  2. It’s funny, I sort of think that more parents should find discreet little parts of their work that they can share with/delegate to their children, for exposure. But maybe not this line of work exactly.

    I imagine that was a really hard thing for your mom to do.

    PS. I’m becoming quite convinced you will never bore me.

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    • Sara said the same thing, sort of, but I don’t understand why. She even sat around the table Sunday evening while my siblings, mom, and I all talked about it. Weird childhood, yes. I know, but I somehow feel insecure when I hear folks don’t have anything to say. Are you just saying it was that bizarre?

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      • Oh okay, I’ll explain why it left me speechless. Despite growing up in a dysfunctional family with my parents making a lot of mistakes with us kids, I can’t imagine them ever trying to involve us in any criminal activities. Or one parent ignoring what the other was doing in that regard. E.g. I think my mother may have stopped my father from involving us in something illegal. That to me is normal. It’s not so much that you story is THAT bizarre, it’s just very unusual. Makes for interesting reading though!

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      • Thanks so much for this additional comment. Actually, I think it was pretty bizarre. In fact, I can’t think of too many ways it could have been any more bizarre. I say this, realizing after reading your second comment, just how unremarkable it all felt at the time. I think that may have been the weirdest part, when I look back on it now–that at 19 it didn’t occur to me to question this. That seems bizarre to me now, 30 years later.

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  3. Your childhood is so unbelievable that it goes completely round the bend and back in to believable. Life is so strange. What were parents thinking when they drag kids into these weird activities? Who knows.

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  4. I’m sure that over time, having his kids involved in the business became less of a conscious act and more just a matter of the routine. After all, as long as things were going well, it was probably easy to dismiss the inappropriateness of it all.

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  5. Amazing story, Kathy, and so well told. I bet this excerpt in particular could be accepted into a journal on its own merit. With a few tweaks it has enough power to stand on its own. Great job!

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  6. There were times when I look back on certain incidents in my life and I ask myself, “What was I thinking?” Some make me shudder which just goes to show me how much I’ve changed.
    Your mother and you had to do what you did to survive.
    I think normal is a relative term. While I was growing up, I thought that my environment was normal. Once I had something else to compare it to, I realized it was far from normal.
    This stuff isn’t our fault and neither is it our parent’s fault or their parent’s fault. It’s just the way it IS.
    Until humanity as a whole wakes up, it will continue to be just the way it IS. At least, that’s the way I see it.
    Interesting story, Kathy.

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    • Exactly, “normal” is a problematic word–one I prefer not to use. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to communicate that feeling of difference any other way. I know we did what seemed the only option. As I recall, we didn’t really even think about it. I volunteered to help my mom and simply did it–didn’t give it a second thought. That feels so alien now, but also so familiar, if that makes sense.

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  7. What an incredible childhood you had. I think I saw the word “bizarre” a few times in the comments, and that seems to sum it up well in some regards. I’m not sure what “normal” might be, however, since my childhood had some oddness to it as well. My family put the “fun” in dysfunction and all that. 😉

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  8. Incredible, Kathy! I think the fact that your dad got your help ‘collecting’ is pretty ingenious, if illegal and a little bit bizarre! People might be more willing to resort to violence if an adult (male) went to collect, but who would beat on a young (female) child? You might not have been tough, but I’m sure you were an effective collector! 🙂

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  9. I remember reading/hearing somewhere “It’s hard to see the picture when you’re inside the frame.” I think that applies to so many situations, including this one. I believe whole heartedly that our childhoods really are a sort of fish bowl we lived in. We didn’t know anything about that little bubble until we were adults and out of it. Then it becomes clear how messed up things were. When that fishbowl is all you know, it becomes your definition of normal. The same can be said for abused chidren. If you are never exposed to an environment that doesn’t include your “normal,” how can you be expected to change? Lovely post, sista. You never fail to deliver.

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    • I love your image of the fish bowl, Sista, as that’s exactly what it’s like. I think that’s why even in adulthood it’s so hard to swim free. The walls are glass and difficult to identify. We become so used to them, they’re invisible to us. Great metaphor! Hugs————

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  10. One person’s bizarre is another’s normal. We got sent to the window constantly too, but it wasn’t for mafia reasons. A grandmother who lived 1/2 mile from us had a tree outside of her house where she hung a white cloth if she needed us. She refused to have a phone installed because she thought it would be uncivilized. Go figure!

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    • Wow, that’s a first. A phone was “uncivilized,” and hanging a white rag in a tree–normal? Bless her heart. I think she might have been confused.

      Thanks so much for reading. I think this is one of the best comments I’ve gotten in response to this post–totally fascinating! I hope you’ll come back again soon!

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  11. This is absolutely fascinating. I’ve always wondered what it must have been like to grow up within this kind of family; it must have all seemed so normal at the time.

    The irony of your mother’s actions is definitely there to spot, but then again, after someone dies, a lot of our convictions seem to go out the window for a while. Everything is in a state of flux, and the easy way is so much, well, easier to take when one’s emotional state is precarious at best.

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    • Excellent point, actually. It was the only life I knew as a kid, so, yes, totally normal–until I got a little better and realized otherwise. Then–YIKES!

      How fun to have you stop by–and subscribe, even. I love your fiction! Thanks for reading my stuff, as well!

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  12. I love this post. Tell me more. Although your family life wasn’t like Leave it to Beaver, you sound like you had a great time. And I think your dad was smart. You bet, kids notice everything, and you felt great by “helping out.”

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    • Oh, Barb, I have a lot of other posts that tell this story, if you scroll back through the fall. I suppose I should find a way to group them all together. Glad you left this comment, as I need to come up with a way to organize them and make them more accessible. Thanks for reading————–

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  13. I was just going to type about the Holly Hobby nightgown, when I noticed Tori wrote the same thing up above. That sentence evoked so much. And taking you out of school to help collect bets… I’ve never known anyone who had a childhood quite like yours, that’s for sure.

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  14. Reading your childhood memories of your parents, I thought of my own mother whom I blamed for many things as I grew up in her house. But we are all a work in progress, and now I see my mother as a tough woman who survived at age 12 the death of her mother, as well as the Great Depression, and lots of other challenges. I love these “memoir” stories as each one of us is a living memoir. Only a memoir is truly original, which may be a kind of irony.

    Thanks for stopping by today and leaving a comment about how much you liked Dancing in Heaven by our friend Christine Grote. It really touched me, too!

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    • I love what you say about each of us being a living memoir and about memoirs being THE most original stories! Your comment offers a brilliant insight into that irony–one I have never thought to consider. Thanks so much for that! It was great having you visit, Ann. I loved your review of Christine’s book. Hope you will come back soon!

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  15. It’s true then: normal is extremely relative! I found your post fascinating especially since you were seeing it in your child’s eyes…!
    Thank you for your honesty in sharing and living it again for all of us to experience…..:o)

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  16. Fascinating and compelling glimpse into the life of a mob daughter. Your father sounds like quite a colorful guy. I don’t quite understand the in’s and out’s of illegal gambling, but I’m not a gambler, by any means, so I don’t know how it works in general. But it’s the essence of your story that is so gripping. Makes me want to read more. Would love the password to your protected area.

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    • So glad to hear you are interested in the protected posts. I just sent you an email(s) with the password, links to protected posts, and links to other of my mafia posts to give you a bit of background–if you are interested.

      Again, thanks so much for your interest!

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  17. I like all the detail in this — I don’t know much about organized crime and I’ve always been curious about it. You explain a complicated system with a lot of clarity given how tricky it can be to translate childhood memories into adult language.

    However, I think “It’s the Forgetting I remember most” would make a better opening of the two.

    Thanks, again, for sharing your life — fascinating!

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    • Thanks so much for taking a look. I appreciate your feedback. I had always thought I’d start with the material contained in “It’s the Forgetting I Remember Most,” that is until so many, including my partner, recommended I begin with the scene of going out to collect with my mom. It’s a tough call. I’m happy to have you weigh in. It’s important to me to get as much informed feedback as possible. Thanks, again.

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  18. I grew up in a neighboring state–close enough that we got Pittsburgh programming. The name Nick Perry and what you described seem so familiar to me, though I was in elementary school about that time. My dad always said they were crooks, but I have no idea what he knew, or had heard. What an interesting life, but I can’t imagine living day after day under the circumstances you describe.

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    • How interesting that you, too, remember Rick Perry. One of my other blogging friends remembers this incident, as well. Yes, it was an interesting life, for sure, and, I suppose, it makes for a good story now, at least. Thanks so much for reading. Great to hear from you today. Hope you’ll come back soon!

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