Money is like chalk to a gambler. It’s how we keep score.
Being broke only hurts because it knocks us out of action. Gambling’s not about money. It’s about juice.
The tension we experience when we hear a siren, the flashing lights we see in the rearview mirror, the butterflies before we speak in public — that’s juice.
If penniless, when winning really means life or death, family communions, birthdays and holidays can’t compete with the rush from a big bet.
We’re juice junkies.
Like drug addicts, we don’t worry about 401Ks. We live for the moment.
Once that syringe is loaded, just the press of a thumb whisks a junkie back to the security of the womb. That glassine package means everything.
For a gambler, money is just the price of the rush.
Gamblers are insular, selfish and boring. Normal people can’t deal with us.
* * *
The divorce finalized, self-flagellation synergized with guilt spurs an outburst. Defiantly, I shriek at my ex-wife’s lawyer,
“Yeah, and put in there a clause that I’ll pay for my children’s education too.”
I don’t need a lawyer. I represent myself, and the result’s predictable.
With a fool for a client, my bravado has managed to secure a settlement that will cost $2,500 a month: $1,000 for alimony and $500 for each child.
As a firefighter in 1992, my take-home pay is $1,400 a month. But I’m not worried. I’m a gambler.
I’ll make up the difference with my other assets.
At this juncture, my other “assets” include $40,000 in owed credit card debt, $22,000 I owe to bookies, no apartment and a second-hand Cadillac I bought for $1,000.
But I don’t need intervention. I have it all under control. I’m well qualified to handle this crisis. I’ve got other things going for me.
I’m a functioning alcoholic, a drug user and a diagnosed unipolar manic depressant.
For those unfamiliar with that disease, the runners assembled in my brain are dressed in shorts and sneakers, and they’re not waiting for the starter’s pistol.
Never depressed, always optimistic, I see rainbows when others spy black seas of pain.
Read Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” That’s me. I’m like the Jew in the boxcar on his way to Dachau who keeps muttering before he dies, “You think this is bad? This isn’t so bad.”
* * *
I swagger out of the lawyer’s office, then it dawns on me.
Desperation creates a brainstorm. I sprint to a pay phone.
“Blinky, I’m telling you man we can do this. I know 15 or 20 guys that bet and so do you. Let’s take action. Let’s get on the right side of this shit for a change. We’ll clean up. We’ll still get the rush, but instead of paying out, we’ll collect.”
My affliction gave me one gift: enthusiasm. I can sell the Pope a double bed. Blinky buys in.
We’re on our way.
* * *
Next, I call “Julius,” aka Jimmy Thompson. He’s the most degenerate gambler I know.
Formerly a successful big-time bookmaker on Staten Island, he swapped conveyer belts of cash for the economic treadmill he’s on now.
His passion for action is on par with a politician’s for power. Julius earned Dumpsters full of dollars, then shuffled the cash to other bookies.
I need the expertise that flows from Julius’ disease.
* * *
Julius pauses, turns, wheezes and sputters, “I told you a shit neighborhood. I didn’t tell you a fourth-floor walk-up.”
“It’s the best I could do on short notice,” I say.
“Stop whining, you fat bastard. There’s two apartments. Pick the one you think is best.”
Distracted by the stench of human urine, I round the second-floor landing. Impatiently, I resume the slow ascent behind my lumbering mentor.
From behind one of the apartment doors on the landing, I hear indecipherable streams of Spanish invective. I bark above it.
“Explain to me again, Julius. It’s about the vigorish, right? I mean, I take a $100 bet from Jack and a $100 bet from Jill, lay them off against each other and I make 10 bucks right?”
He stops midway up the steep stairs, supports both hands on the banister, gasps for breath and says, “That’s the principle. But it doesn’t work exactly like that. Don’t worry. If we ever get up these stairs, I’ll show you. Just get the players.
“You can’t lose.”
* * *
My convoluted brain sees alimony and child support as math problems not moral ones.
This day will launch the incubus I think will lead to financial prosperity. Instead, it will plunge me on the path to moral perdition.
Walk along this path with me. Besides “Julius,” you’ll meet a cast of Runyonesque characters: Bobby the “boost,” Joe the “thief,” Mickey the “muscle,” to name a few.
As Bette Davis said in her Academy Award performance as Margo Channing, “Buckle your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
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 highly irreverent and acerbic O’Connor performs free standup comedy in various locations in Gainesville.