My father was a bookie for the mob, while my mother, a fundamentalist fashionista who loved leather pants and mink coats, sent her daughters to a Baptist school with an extreme dress code.
So, I was born into a family whose mafia loyalty was matched only by evangelical fervor. Mine was a childhood gambled on God and the mob.
It seems appropriate then, since the WordPress writing challenge this week about the “golden years” welcomes participants to share a memoir piece, that I post what could become the new first chapter of my work in progress, Kids Make the Best Bookies. And since that chapter describes the event that essentially ended my childhood, forcing me to behave as a criminally adult way, it seems a perfect response to the prompt. I hope you enjoy.
Kids Make the Best Bookies: A Childhood Gambled on God and the Mob
We have buried Daddy–the funeral, a few days ago.
It’s Saturday afternoon. The sun shines bright, as a plane banks low and loud overhead, overtaking the roar of traffic below on Evergreen Road. The maple tree in the Martrano’s yard is now beginning to bloom—oblivious to our loss.
In some ways I’m relieved that my dad’s drama has ended—the grand jury indictments, the FBI raids. They’ve exhausted me.
So, at 19, I map my own regrets, even as I descend the steep steps at the front of our house, in Calvin Klein jeans and a yellow Izod sweatshirt, my Tretorns like white lights against the gray concrete. Behind me, my mother’s hair is teased into wings—the flying nun, taking her cause to Pittsburgh streets. I hear her high heels hit each step, a clickety-clack tap dance around the letter of the law.
Surely, there’s some justice in this journey.
Just yesterday, I agreed to take Mommy on this final ride—an effort to cash in on the gambling debts still owed Daddy when he died. She doesn’t know where to go. I do. I’ve done this a number of times with my father, an outing that always involved lunch at a restaurant of my choosing, a Shirley Temple to drink, and any dessert I wanted, a special treat away from my mother’s cake and cookie rationing eyes.
My father liked to involve us kids in other aspects of the book-making business, as well. For example, he posted my sisters and me regularly at upstairs windows during times when FBI raids seemed most likely, especially on weekends, always on Super Bowl Sunday. You see, federal agents have visited our house a number of times, so we’ve lived with the near constant expectation that they might come calling again. Thus, my siblings and I have acted as lookouts. Braided and skinned-kneeed, we’ve been expected to spot government cars as they approach and notify our father. That way he could destroy incriminating documents before FBI agents had a chance to break down our never-secure enough front door.
But, now that Daddy’s died, Mommy and I go to collect. My mother drives. I ride shotgun.
The smell of leather in Daddy’s dark green Sedan d’ Ville mixes well with the music coming soft from the stereo; Son Songs is the name of the show on Christian radio.
Larry Norman’s “I Wish we’d All been Ready” soundtracks our act of revenge on Daddy’s former crime. He was convicted of conspiracy just a few months ago. So, now he’s really doing time. Hard time. Purgatory, the best we can hope for.
“The Lord will understand,” my mother assures me.
She believes that we’re entitled to this money—that there’s some cosmic morality at work—though I don’t see it myself. In fact, I haven’t considered the spiritual, let alone legal, implications of our collecting this cash. It seems the only option—a great big given in light of the mortal back hand we’ve been dealt.
The drive to Shadyside winds along Mount Troy Road, past the turkey farm where my grandmother buys fresh fowl for Thanksgiving every year and past the very cemetery where Daddy is buried. Eventually, we cross the river—Baum Boulevard’s Win, Place and Show our first destination. With the envelope I collect there in hand, we drive further through East Liberty toward Oakland, past Shenley Park to the restaurant named after it and finally track back to Ross Township and Rico’s, the Italian restaurant up on the hill overlooking Babcock Boulevard and what’s become of Pittsburgh as it sprawls to the north.
At Rico’s the real action happens. Mommy pulls into a parking spot near the front door. She stays in the car. I run in to collect. Cheech has left a package behind the bar—five dimes rubber banded in a brown envelope, or so I’ve been told. But when I turn to the left, just inside the front door, there, behind the bar is Rico himself in a white chef’s apron and beyond that at a table near the far window are the “I” brothers, Emilio, Bobby and Joe. Uncle Emil looks up just as I come in.
“Watcha doin’ here, Sweetheart?” he asks.
I walk toward the picture window, my white patent leather purse slung over my right shoulder, twisting the signet ring Daddy gave me the previous Christmas. The “I”s smoke cigars and sip espresso from tiny white cups. Remains of chocolate cheese cake decorate their plates. The coffee aroma is rich, even thick, a syrup of scent that will stay with me for days.
“Someone owed Daddy a few dimes. Mommy’s in the car.”
“She sent you in here?” Bobby asks, up out of his chair. “Gimme that package,” he gestures to the chef, who’s enjoying a stogy of his own. Rico obliges. The sound of baseball blares in the background. “Let’s talk to your mother, Sweetheart.” Bobby leads the way. I follow. Joe and Emil bring up the rear.
This can’t be good. Bobby pushes his way into the parking lot, letting Joe hold the door for the rest of us.
Seeing us coming, my mother lowers the electric driver’s side window.
“What, ya atta your mind, Judy?” Bobby launches into a tirade of bookie etiquette. “You can’t send her in there, this kid.”
“I volunteered,” I offer in my mom’s defense.
“Believe me when I tell ya, Judy. This ain’t your place. And not some kid, neither.”
“But Daddy took me to collect all the time,” I argue. My mother sits, silent, tapping her wedding ring on the steering wheel.
“Listen, Judy,” he continues, ignoring me. “These people, they are NOT normal. No place for you. No place for this kid. Like I said. We gonna take care of yinz. Yinz don’t need worry ‘bout nuttin’, I’m tellin ya, nuttin’. That’s the way Tyce wanted it, I’m tellin’ ya.”
“Thank you, Gentlemen, but we’re fine. Kathy get in the car.” Her works are clipped, each syllable spit in Bobby’s direction. “And don’t tell me what my husband wanted.”
At the end of the day, we’ve collected 10’s of thousands of dollars, enough to finance our move to Lexington, Kentucky, where my mother’s sister and her minister husband live. There in thoroughbred country, Win, Place, and Show become more than the name of a bar where my father used to work. It seems we’ll be jumping from the mafia frying pan into a fire of evangelical fervor, just another number’s game but this one more to my mom’s liking.
Still, now that Mommy, too, has taken me to collect, there seems to be only one thing both parents agree on—the fact that, sometimes, kids make the best bookies.
Although this story describes an event that, essentially, ended my childhood, do you think it would work as a first chapter in a memoir that’s about being a kid? What’s the benefit of starting a book with the ending and then flashing back again to the actual beginning? What event ended your childhood?
To read another interesting post about my childhood and to see pages from my father’s FBI file, click here.