“Hey man, I hate to ruin your vacation, but we got a problem.”
On the phone is my partner in Italy. An FDNY captain, he’s on his first vacation in six years. But a bookmaker is never on holiday.
“Dominick got arrested last night.”
He says, “How bad is it?”
“I can’t talk over the phone. Come back to the states. It’s pretty bad.”
Dominick’s our muscle. When gamblers “lay down,” he changes their minds.
Our office has a 50-50 deal with Dom. We sell him bad debt. How he collects is his business. He makes a buck, and people learn they can’t rob our office.
We’re firemen, not tough guys. We can’t threaten anybody. Dom’s had a casual approach to violence since first grade. He always had a screw loose.
Our first “lay downs” are small. We eat the losses or settle things ourselves. But as the office grows, so do the problems.
Red, my other partner, comes up with a new player: “Karl bets everything — hockey, basketball, football, you name it. Karl sends it in.”
We’re established. We have 300 players. We’ve been in action five years. We welcome high rollers. Our line is sharp and updated frequently. It’s not easy to catch us napping.
The first week, Red’s new player beats us for $32,000. We pay him, no problem.
The second week, he beats us for $18,000. We pay him, no problem.
The third week, we beat him for $40,000.
He says, “Go f*** yourself.”
Someone loses and cries poverty, it’s understandable. Someone’s in over his head, no one wants to get tough. We want our money, and we don’t want to lose a customer. We work out installments. No juice, just a payment plan.
Gambling’s an addiction. Things happen. It’s part of the business. But Karl’s a thief. He beat us for $50,000 in two weeks. Now, Karl loses $40,000, and he’s not even making an excuse.
By telling us to shag off, Karl’s saying you’re not connected. You’re nobody. I ain’t paying.
We have to find out is whether or not Karl’s a gangster. If he’s a made guy, we’re screwed.
Then, we need to know if he’s crazy. If he’s crazy, how crazy? My partners and I don’t do crazy. Dominick takes care of the hard cases. If he’s a tough guy, we have to hope he’s not as crazy as Dominick. This puts the odds back in our favor.
I introduced Dom to my partners two years ago. He was making small talk as we drove across the Bronx in my partner’s Honda Prelude.
“Yeah, you see that tree over there in that park? Whatta beating me, Gobbo and Dodo put on some mook by that tree. We beat this guy for 30 minutes. What a tough prick. He smiled while we beat him. I kicked that prick until my foot hurt. He just kept smiling. When we got done beating him, I couldn’t sleep. His smile haunted me. It’s all I could think about. I knew I had to kill him.
“So, Dodo drove me down here five or six times. Finally, one night we see him alone by that same tree. So, we drive by. I use my uncle’s hunting rifle, and I shoot him in the head. Boom, right over there by that tree.”
My partner shoots me a nervous look. I avoid his staring eyes by looking out the passenger window at the buildings lining the six-lane road we’re cruising. My mind drifts.
Instead of thinking about the sociopath in the back seat, I focus on the architecture.
The Grand Concourse was the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx. The boulevard runs through the center of the West Bronx from 138th Street and Mott Avenue, past Yankee Stadium, all the way up to Moshulu Parkway.
The H-Type apartment buildings enclosing the roadway were designed to resemble the Moorish architecture of Spain. These apartments once housed luminaries such as Babe Ruth and Milton Berle.
The only semblance of celebrity left in these once-fashionable apartment buildings are the neighborhood’s famed drug dealers.
Ethnic minorities, on rent control, now inhabit these fine examples of Art Deco architecture. The Grand Concourse no longer resembles the Champs-Élysées.
The center island of maple trees with grand apartment buildings lining both sides of the boulevard has disappeared. Also gone are the middle class, the neighborhood stores and the architects’ dream.
At the moment, I want to be in Paris — anywhere but inside this car. I’m forced back to the problem at hand.
My intuition warns me that a halo’s only a short distance from a noose. Things have been good. We’re due for a fall.
Dominick is borderline psychotic. I intend to exploit his disorder for my own benefit. No good can come of this.
A Bronx maxim: You’ve got to be a stand-up guy. You can’t screw your friends. Afraid of blowback, I’ve used Dom sparingly.
His sheer workmanlike approach to violence boggles my mind. Dominick emanates perpetual foreshock. His dispassionate, distant, dead eyes never blink.
Although not intimidating in size, you know any confrontation with him will have to be to the finish. He’s telling a story about how he secured work for his cousin.
“I tell my foreman, ‘Put my cousin to work.’ My foreman says, ‘I don’t need anybody right now.’
“I said, ‘My cousin needs a job.’ He said, ‘You deaf? I don’t need anybody.’
“I went up on the roof, maybe 12 floors, see him down below, pick up a cinder block and drop it. I missed his head by two feet. When he looked up at the roof, I saw him shaking. I smiled and wagged my finger at him.
“‘He put my cousin to work.’”
I say, “Holy shit, man, how did you get so close to him without hitting him?”
He shoots me a look like I asked him to split the atom: “What do you mean so close? I tried to kill him.”
His indifference to consequence, moral or otherwise, would stun Attila the Hun.
He shocks me. And I’m not the everyday citizen.
Blinky, my partner, warns me, “I don’t care how long you’ve known him. We can’t use this guy. He’s crazy.”
He’s right, yet our problem cries for Dominick’s expertise.
First, a preliminary question: Who does Karl know? We find out he’s not connected. One last chance to get our money the easy way, I call him at home.
“This problem won’t go away.”
“You’re dealing with serious people.”
“What do you think we’re playing games?”
All fruitless. I send Dominick.
In the nightclub business, when you hire a doorman, you hire a gentle giant. You don’t want problems. In the bookmaking business, illusion is not enough. Threats must be backed up by cold efficiency.
I should have heeded Blinky’s warning.
The last dance approaches. The fiddler will have to be paid.
Bill O’Connor is a Vietnam veteran, former Bronx firefighter and pub and restaurant owner. He is currently a journalism major at UF and a standup comic. The irreverent and acerbic O’Connor performs free standup around Gainesville.