LIVING ON THE SELVEDGE: Chas the Bookie

I remember when I started working in the garment center in the 1960’s in New York. I had to walk from 34th & 8th avenue up to 11th avenue. The wind in the winter coming off the Hudson was so strong that I would have to seek shelter inside store fronts till it subsided.  It was a six story factory loft with an elevator that had a pull down wooden gate that rumbled its way to the top floor. This elevator was large enough to transport a buick. The company that I was working for was on the top floor and had a poor man’s view of the Hudson. In the winter months you could see ice floes coming down the river along with cargo freighters navigating through the frigid waters.

At this company I was an apprentice fabric cutter working with Charlie the bookmaker. We called him Chas for short. When I would arrive about eight in the morning he was usually there leaning on the cutting table turning the sports page with one hand and hollering into the wall phone with the other while puffs of steam were coming from his cigar. Saying things like ” Ok,Ok, parlay in the 2nd race. You want the number straight or you wanna do a combo? Yeah, Yeah you’re on the hangar till the end of the week”, stuff like that.  The phone wire would usually be stretched to its limit across a skinny aisle where people passing would be ducking under it. From a distance it looked as though people were genuflecting as they passed him.  As usual when Chas would see me he would pull out a fat roll of money that had a couple of rubber bands around it to hold the wad of dough in place. He would slide the rubber band up to his knuckles and he would peel off a hundred dollar bill and tell me to run down to the deli and pick up bagels, crumb buns and cups of coffee for the guys. One time he told this new guy who didn’t understand much English to go to the deli and pick up a couple of sandwiches and get something for himself. As usual he peeled off a $100 and gave it to him. When the guy came back with the sandwiches, Chas asked  him where the rest of his change was. The guy says, “Well, you said to get something for myself”.  Chas says, “So what the f**k did you get?!”  The guy looked down at his feet. He had on a new pair of shoes.

Chas was one tough guy from the old Italian section of Harlem. I’ve seen him leap over cutting tables and collar guys against the wall that would show any disrespect. Chas would take money on all sporting events, including the numbers racket. This is how the numbers racket worked: at the end of the local horse race day the amount of the mutual handling of the money was tallied. The last three numbers of that tally was what the numbers were for that day. The odds and the payout were 600 to 1. I’ve never seen anyone hit those numbers in my life. One of the guys in the factory comes in yelling one morning that he had a dream about these numbers, and these are the same numbers of his address and something like his mother in law’s birthday.  He goes around the factory telling everyone this story and is collecting nickels, dimes and quarters. He comes to Chas with a small fortune of coins and dollar bills that totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 bucks. Now the hit on this would be about 60,000 dollars. Like I said, this is a 600 to 1 shot but Chas is not taking any chances. Chas makes a few phone calls and pushes off some of this money to other bookies in case this guy delivers a miracle. These were common favors in the bookmaking world. The next morning the number was off by a point or two. Still, it didn’t matter. The next day someone else was collecting nickels and dimes and helping to pay for Chas’ Cuban cigars. Chas has moved on to whatever heaven has to offer bookmakers, which could be a place where nobody wins in the betting world, or maybe Chas is in the eternal hell where the factory guys’ dreams come true everyday.

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2 comments on “LIVING ON THE SELVEDGE: Chas the Bookie

  1. Gennaro says:

    Your recollection of a world long ago, far away and gone forever, will live on vividly in eternity, thanks to your brilliant depiction of it.

  2. Thanks for such a wonderfully vivid story. Very cinematic- it would be fun to cast! I’m loving seeing your stories unfold this way. Cheers- Scott

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