Scattered throughout the endless summers were quaint, eccentric, remarkable, colorful and unforgettable characters whose singular presence on the grounds of the bungalow colony managed to define and delineate that particular colony from countless others throughout the Catskills. Though many decades have passed since I’ve last seen these faces, heard these voices, and though several of these wonderful people have since passed from this world, much of what distinguished them as singular and memorable remains fresh and vivid as this morning’s headlines, and the footsteps they produced while passing through my life have yet to be erased.
My aunt Shirley wasn’t a very tall woman, yet she gave the impression of being large. She had a booming voice and an infectious laugh, a laugh so vigorous and full that her entire body rolled with the laughter, and her massive bosom heaved as she strived to catch her breath between guffaws. Aunt Shirley wasn’t actually my “aunt,” she was my father’s first cousin, her mother and my maternal grandmother having been two of five sisters. Yet my brother and I being the only two of our extended family that were not nieces or nephews of the adults, had designated all adult relations as “aunt” or “uncle,” thus ascending to equal status amongst our many cousins.
Like most bungalow wives and mothers, Shirley joined the vast array of ubiquitous mah-jongg and canasta games, and several nights week indulged in nickel and dime high-low poker. Most colony kids became familiar with her, though, when acceding to her uncontested proficiency of judging just how long one needed to abstain from swimming after having ingested a meal. This was a skill held in the highest regard, lest someone miscalculate the required time, return too quickly to the water, develop a sudden cramp, and drown. Each day, after lunch, kids ages three to fifteen would line up near Shirley’s traditional poolside lounge to announce the contents of their lunch and await her verdict.
“Tuna fish sandwich, chocolate milk, three Oreos,” a kid would recite. “White bread, rye or whole wheat?” Shirley would ask, peering at the child from over the gilded rims of her over-sized sunglasses. “Rye toast,” he’d answer.
She’d scrupulously study her client, carefully allowing for age, height, weight, then finally decree, “Thirty-five minutes. Next.” To the best of my knowledge Shirley had never completed a university curriculum that would have prepared her for her unique poolside responsibilities. In fact, I am quite sure that she herself was incapable of swimming. Still, as my mother was quick to point out, she must have known something about what she was doing, for in the twenty some odd years she served as poolside judge and jury, nary a child, teen or adult was lost as the result of a painful and abrupt muscle cramp.
Tony M. stood just over five feet tall, yet in our bungalow colony concession he was the indisputable master of all he surveyed. Routinely seated in the far right corner of the concession, adjacent to the pool table, a cup of dark coffee at hand, the New York Post spread before him on the Formica table, his half moon reading glasses riding low on his hawk’s nose, he studied the box-scores as a surgeon might a patients vital signs immediately preceding surgery.
Tony was a voracious reader, absorbing the complete contents of the Post, The News, the Times and the Middletown Record on a daily basis. He seemed to especially enjoy The Record, particularly the local Police Blotter.
“Ya see this,” he would rasp, pointing to the paper. “Wouldya believe this? Guy gets hisself arrested for pissin’ on the courthouse lawn, for crissakes! Twenty days. Yeeshh…”
From Labor Day weekend through Memorial Day weekend, Tony, with his wife, Tessie, operated a candy store/luncheonette in the Italian stronghold of Arthur Avenue, in the Bronx. Came Memorial Day, or as we were inclined to refer to it—Decoration Day—they loaded their late model Sedan DeVille and headed northwest to the Jewish Alps, the Hebrew Himalayas—the Catskills.
The widely held, but incorrect impression that Catskill Mountain bungalows were exclusively Jewish enclaves is not always easy to dispel. Yet personal experience and extensive research and interviews have convinced me that the smattering of Italian and Greek families at our Monticello colony—perhaps a dozen families from approximately one hundred—was hardly atypical.
Along with Tony and Tessie, each and every summer came their extended immediate family—three daughters, three son-in-laws, and a cluster of grandkids. The daughters helped in the concession, spelling their parents from arduous duty in the summer heat, their husbands emulated the other colony men, making the dutiful weekly commute to and from their city jobs, and on weekends joined in on sojourns to the track, in poker games, and most other activities, particularly distinguishing themselves on the men’s softball team. The kids, well, they were colony kids, swimming, playing ball, attending camp, and landing in frequent but insignificant mischief.
Tony, as patriarch, was as strong as he was apparently silent. His wife, Tessie, was a large and loud woman whose bark belied the fact that she possessed no bite at all, and, in fact, possessed a loving and nurturing disposition. Tony never raised his voice much above a whisper, but when he did summon his thoughts from the newspapers or the daily Monticello Racing program to utter a few syllables, everyone in immediate range stopped what they were doing, much like the EF Hutton commercial, to pay rapt attention to his words.
Throughout the decade they operated the colony concession, more than a few rumors alluded to Tony’s “connections,” suggesting that he might possess underworld affiliations. I expect the predilection for that type of gossip is not uncommon amongst suburban Jews, when confronted with inner-city Italians who have realized some level of prosperity beyond the traditional Jewish routes of professionalism. Amazingly, these same Jews readily dismiss an urban New York history that includes such prominent Italian mobsters as Arnold Rothstein, Louis “Lepke” Buchwalter, “Gurrah” Shapiro, Arthur “Dutch Shultz” Fleigenheimer, Abner Zwillman, Allie “Tick Tock” Tannenbaum, Harry Greenberg, Mendy Weiss, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, and the grand architect of modern organized crime in America, Meyer Lansky. It is lost on no casual observer of mob history that Murder Incorporated—likely the most notorious, bloodiest and ruthless gang of killers ever assembled—was essentially comprised of tough Jews from the Brownsville and East New York neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
To return, though, to old Tony, or, as many of the colony teens had tagged him, Tough Tony… All that was tough about Tony was a façade. This I well know, because from age fourteen to seventeen, for four fast and furious summers, I was in Tony’s employ, waiting tables immediately following the Saturday night show. After I’d finished serving an incalculable amount of BLTs, roast pork on garlic bread sandwiches, omelets, bagels with a schmeer, and gallons of coffee, Tony would fix a plate for me, and himself, of something extraordinary and unique, food too spectacular and hard won to squander on ordinary customers. Sometimes it was a marvelous seafood salad, fruite de mar, he called it—“fruits of the sea.” Other times it was a remarkable antipasto, crowded with a vast array of exotic meats and cheeses and roasted vegetables, and drizzled with a sweet virgin olive oil. There were fresh oysters and clams, and sensational pastas with home-made gravy—always gravy he said, never sauce—and sausages, and meatballs, and tender eggplant and breaded artichokes that dissolved like ambrosia on the tongue. And always, always there was hot and crusty bread. Not exactly light eating for three or four in the morning. Yet, we would sit, Tony and I, usually joined by one or more of his son-in-laws—eating, drinking sweet wine and ice-tea, and talking baseball. Long into the night, in the gathering darkness, till the sun creased the long, narrow windows of the concession and washed the room with light, we would eat, drink and talk.
I never witnessed Tony drawn to anger, or heard him speak to a child or teen with anything other than tenderness and compassion. He considered all of the colony kids his responsibility. “These kids,” he once observed, while we sat together working the third race triple for that evening’s card at Monticello Raceway. “They’re all like my own, ya know. I mean, for crissakes, they been raised on my food.” On another occasion, when he’d witnessed a colony father harshly and severely admonishing his young son for some minor mischief, Tony took the man aside and quietly suggested there were other ways to discipline and instruct the boy, and certainly it could all be handled privately, sparing father and son undue humiliation. I remember watching this brief counsel, the man, stocky and at least six foot three, bending slightly to better hear Tony’s quiet rasp, and Tony, half the man’s size, imparting what parental wisdom he’d garnered through four decades of raising children, his own and many others, as well.
Once, in the summer of my seventeenth year, while reading a New York Post report of friction between several of the city’s mob families, I clumsily raised the rumor of Tony’s mob affiliations. He looked at me for a while. I was relieved to detect no anger in his eyes. What I saw, instead, was sadness, and suddenly I felt ashamed.
“How long ya know me?” He said. “C’mon. Alla my life I been hearin’ things like that, ya know? Because I got a last name ends in a vowel, and we got a business on Arthur Avenue? Geez, people think I musta be takin’ numbers action, or frontin’ for someone, something…Right?”
He sipped some of that horribly strong coffee. “I’ll tell ya what,” he said. “Not for nothing, but these guys, these wise-guys they call themselves, they think they got it all figured.” Then he uttered words that incredibly I would hear again, practically verbatim, many years later, from Robert DeNiro’s mouth, in his seminal film, A Bronx Tale. “These guys,” he said, looking past me, and fingering the photos of several mobsters in the newspaper, “they all think they’re tough guys, cause they got the angles figured out, ya know? Ah, whatda they know? They ain’t so tough. Not so tough. You know who’s the tough guy? The working man. That’s right—the working guy. Me, your old man, and lotsa other guys here. Guy gets up at five, six in the morning every day and puts in a hard days work, honest work, and comes home for dinner and brings home a paycheck without drinking or gambling or pissing it away. Week after week, year in, year out…Doin’ the right thing. Take care of the family. That’s a tough guy. That’s a man.”
When he looked at me, the sadness had left his eyes.
“You be a man,” he whispered.
I don’t know what ultimately became of Tony. In 1973, the year I was 18, he was well into his sixties, so I assume he is gone now. But I still remember his eyes that day, and his soft, rasping voice.
“You be a man.”
I hope I haven’t let him down.
By all outward appearance Bob Mankowitz marched to music he alone was privileged to hear. Apparently harmless, he was, nonetheless, at least eccentric, at most slightly crazy.
Miriam, Bob’s wife, or, as labeled by the colony women, “Poor Miriam,” was a plain looking woman a few years Bob’s senior, who was either unacquainted or else indifferent to fashion and style in clothing, coiffure and makeup. Miriam’s total existence seemed to rest in her focusing rapt attention on her three children—two boys and a girl, in order—and deciphering, translating and striving to make sense of the incessant stream of verbiage that each day emitted from her husband’s mouth.
Bob Mankowitz took pleasure in talking to himself. Or, more specifically, amongst himself, because there were occasions when I’d pass him, strolling near the pool, or to and from the concession, once along the narrow winding road the bisecting the colony, and from a brief snippet of overheard dialogue I’d have sworn three or four people were engaged in a heated discussion. Of course, I’d have been wrong. It was just Bob.
Aside from talking to himself, Bob dressed against the grain. Not that there was anything particularly shabby or unkempt in his appearance—he was always clean shaven (until, one summer, he resolved to emulate the neighboring Chasidim, but we’ll get to that shortly), his clothing was always clean and wrinkle free, and if not always a dedicated follower of fashion, certainly there were a few dozen men on our colony whose appearance was far shoddier than Bob’s. What distinguished Bob’s choice of attire was his predilection for heavy, oppressive clothing in the very height of summer.
Came a Saturday in July, the Monticello thermometer topping out at 95 degrees, and Bob would emerge from his poolside bungalow resplendent in wool slacks, a bulky sweater, a baseball cap, and, at times, a winter coat as well. After a brief constitutional around the colony grounds, where he’d no doubt conducted a full Talmudic deliberation, settled several issues from the Koran, and sung three complete verses of Rocky Raccoon, Bob joined his neighbors at poolside. There, stretching his six foot frame on a strapped chaise lounge chair, halfway through the New York Times magazine section, he drifted into seamless sleep, nasally snoring in perfect cadence to the tapping of his right foot, which, incredibly, continued to post the beat to his otherwise silent world, even as he slumbered.
One August evening, while my wife and her friends played mah-jongg in an adjacent bungalow, I was delegated baby-sitting duty. As my children dreamt their toddler dreams, I sat on the deck that was a recently erected appendage to our roomy, three bedroom bungalow, listening to the sweet sounds of Van Morrison moving through the tender Catskill night. Then I detected a figure moving near the pool. It was well past eleven o’clock, and the night air held sufficient chill to have twice chased me inside for additional layers of clothing—first a sweatshirt, then a windbreaker. I walked to the chain link fence surrounding the pool area. The few halogens lamps glowed with an eerie pinkish yellow light, but two of the three bulbs needed replacement, and the moonlight was inadequate for discerning just exactly who was the unmistakably male figure now perched at full attention at the edge of the diving board. Worried that it might be one of the colony teens emboldened by too many Heinekens, and apparently about to risk breaking his neck in answer a drunken challenge, I shouted out, “Hey, kid, the pool is closed.”
There was no immediate response. The figure shrugged his shoulders and slightly stretched.
“There’s no lifeguard,” I shouted. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”
By this time several of my neighbors, drawn by my voice, had assembled where I was standing.
“What’s going on?” Betty asked.
“Some kids are in by the pool,” said Marcia.
“Are they crazy? It must be fifty degrees out.”
“Hey,” I shouted again. “How about coming out of there before you get hurt?”
The figure inched closer to the edge of the board and appeared to slightly bend at the knees, as if considering the dark, murky water.
“I regret,” said the man, in a loud, firm voice. “That I have but one life to give for my colony.”
“Omigod!” Screeched Suzanne, as if she’d just confronted the Loch Ness Monster. “It’s that imbecile Bob Mankowitz!”
Suddenly, Bob made an abrupt about face and walked to the rear of the diving board.
“If I don’t survive,” he announced. “Let me just say it’s been real swell sharing the summer with all you fine people.”
Then, just as suddenly, he ran forward and leapt into the night. His body was caught in the beams of a half dozen flashlights as he hit the water in a magnificent belly-flop. Then, after a few long moments, he emerged in the middle of the deepest end of the pool, splashing and flailing like a man fending off a shark attack.
“I made it!” He exclaimed. “I’m alive!”
“Oy,” muttered one of the older women. “Es zey a putz.”
“Poor Miriam,” observed another.
“What’s to eat?”
“Come on to my bungalow,” said the first woman. “A beautiful babka I got.”
At the beginning of his fourth summer at our colony, Bob Mankowitz and family arrived on a Sunday morning, circumventing the traditional Friday evening or Saturday morning arrival. That small variation foreshadowed a greater, more significant change for Bob, his family, and the colony at large. Apparently, at some juncture during his ten month hiatus from the colony, Bob had elected to become a Chasid. Now, its not as if anyone at the colony was dazed by the presence of a Chasid—in the Catskills, in the 1980’s and 1990’s we less observant Jews were virtually surrounded by multitudes of Chasidim. Yet, here, for the first time, was by all appearances a genuine, if recently dedicated Chasid right in our immediate presence. He was there, a heartbeat away…not strolling on a country road, seven across the lane, daring a driver to squeeze by in the small section of blacktop they’d somehow neglected to cover…not in ShopRite, waiting at the register with three cases of seltzer water…not lining the main drag of Woodbourne or South Fallsburg, lingering by Chol Yisroel Pizza and Falafel…not on the Quikway, piloting a dented Buick station wagon crammed full of belongings, strollers and mattresses strapped to the roof…not in Walmart or Jamesway, buying Pampers by the truckload…not in a quaint watercolor depicting Chasidim davening at the Wailing Wall…not on a neighboring colony that had been appropriated by one or another Chasidic sect, who’d immediately erected a fiberglass wall around the pool, hung enough laundry to clothe barren multitudes, and brought along the kinder—approximately 9.7 children per family…..It was one thing for the residents of the colony—predominantly non or semi-observant Jews—to be respectful of the devout Chasidim on occasion and at arms length, but to share a pool, a lawn, a colony? That was another matter.
Early one Saturday evening, I was dutifully grilling steaks, chicken and ribs for my family and several guests. Slathering the meat with a sweet and tangy bar-b-queue sauce I’d first concocted while still in college had created a wide plume of nasty smoke, producing tears sufficient to make seeing clearly an impossibility. I wiped my eyes with an apron, and found I was face to face with Bob Mankowitz.
“Treyfe,” he said.
“Treyfe!!” He bellowed, pointing at my grill. “You’ll pay for this in the olom abah.”
“Oy!” He murmured, swiftly taking leave of my presence. “Es a shotzim, es a goy…”
Incidents such as this were to occur frequently throughout the remainder of the season. One time Bob chastised a group of teen girls for wearing two piece bathing suits, on another occasion he endeavored to convince colony wives to kosher their bungalow kitchens, complete with the use of two sets of dishes.
“I do use two sets,” one of the women said, mocking him. “One for kosher, and one for treyfe.”
There was the time when his wife, needing to open a can of tuna and unable to locate her can opener, borrowed an opener from her neighbor. The magnificence of Bob’s wrath could be heard at all corners of the colony.
“From a treyfe kitchen?” He yelled. “From goyim you take into your kitchen!!”
That summer, as all others, passed too quickly, and after the ensuing ten months fell from the calendar, we returned to the mountains. We’d heard scuttlebutt that the Mankowitz family would not be returning, and when we arrived for the summer we discovered the rumor was true. They’d transferred their allegiance to a colony in Woodbourne, mostly populated by Chasidim of the Bobov sect. The grounds would be quieter, and certainly I was convinced there would not be a repeat scolding for cooking and serving non-kosher flesh. Yet, somehow I privately lamented Bob’s absence. We’d one less curious character, one less topic for discussion in various coffee klatches, one less distraction from all things pedestrian and mundane.
Several years passed, and most traces of Bob Mankowitz had slipped from my memory. Then, one afternoon, as I raced through the Long Island Railroad level at Penn Station in a futile attempt to corral the 4:22 to Bayside, a vaguely familiar voice called my name. Behind me, from where the voice had emanated, was a small cluster of Hari-Krishnas, banging tambourines and hustling spare change.
“Yes?” I said.
“Arthur,” spoke the tallest of the four men, cleanly shaven, face and scalp, and adorned in what appeared to be a smart beige shower liner. He smiled. He was in dire need of a periodontal once-over.
“It’s me,” he said.
“You?” I replied.
“Bob,” he said, giggling. “Bob Mankowitz.”
Now, I’ve spent a good deal of my life on the streets of a city that never sleeps, and I’ve traveled some, and seen a bit, but I assure you that at that very instant I was completely astonished, and likewise speechless. I was, and remain, slightly less conversant with the permissible dietary regiment of a Hari-Krishna than I had been with the rules of Kashruth, as when I’d last seen him Bob was a fervent Jew. I clumsily suggested we sit for a while over a Coke.
“Buy you a Smoothie,” he offered.
We garnered several curious glances from commuters as we strolled through the LIRR concourse, me in a blue Hugo Boss pinstripe and Bally loafers, he in his speckled shower liner and strap sandals, talking and sipping our Smoothies, mine banana, his Berry Blast.
After leaving our bungalow colony years before, Bob and his family spent several years at the colony in Woodbourne, and his wife had become a bal-tshuva—a returnee—adopting the devout and pious ways of an ultra-orthodox Jewish wife. His children had adapted as best they could, with mixed results. The eldest boy, Eric, at 20, had dropped out of college and was, even as we spoke, hitch-hiking somewhere across middle-America, accompanied by his Korean fiancée. Last heard from, Eric was in Wisconsin. Following some preliminary resistance, Bob’s younger son and daughter had conformed to the ways of the tribe, assimilating into the Chasidic life. In fact, despite a late start, his son Michael had emerged as a promising Talmudic scholar, who was no doubt on the fast track to the Rabbinate. For his part, he explained to me as we ambled through Penn Station, aside from Kabbalah he’d grown disillusioned with Orthodox Judaism. He had separated from Miriam, who was either too captivated by her new way of life, or simply too exhausted to follow her odd and unusual partner thorough yet another fresh grappling with life’s metaphysical mysteries. She had been absorbed into the greater community in Boro Park, and he knew that once he granted her a “get,” the Jewish divorce, she had intentions of remarrying, a rabbi ten years her senior who was already seven times a grandfather. His children, as well, had forsaken him, immediately after his infatuation with Eastern religions culminated in his transformation from Bob Mankowitz to Baba Rham Rab.
The next train to Bayside was boarding on track 19. As we parted, I held out my hand and he took it, shaking vigorously. I considered him, and I felt both bemused and amazed at the path this strange man had followed in search of his god. “Each day,” he said. “I am fascinated and enriched by the great wonder and piety of all my new life has to offer—the fabulous mysticism, the astonishing spirituality. And, you know,” he said, as we parted, “On a good day at the airport, I take in five hundred bucks.”
Decades prior to her only son presenting her with grandchildren, Rose Murray was eminently prepared for a grandparent’s duties, having joyously served as surrogate grandma to several generations of bungalow colony kids. Each day, through countless summers, the screen door of her large bungalow would swing open hundreds of times, as every toddler, child and even teen knew they were welcome at Rose’s as they were no place else.
Rose’s Formica kitchen table was crowded with platters of sugar cookies and home baked cakes, and trays of brownies and blondies and rugallach. Every spring Rose visited a Long Island candy distributor to purchase huge quantities of candy necklaces and bracelets, blow pops, ring pops, licorice, and cartons of dots—the sugary candy that was stuck to long strands of paper. Her stock of sweets rivaled what was offered in the colony concession, and, better, at Rose’s everything was free.
But Rose’s bungalow was about more than dubious nutrition. Each year, at an incalculable succession of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Rose was a notorious “favor grabber.” Allow me to elucidate. At Jewish simchas through the 1980’s and 90’s, traditional orchestras had given way to the ubiquitous DJ. These DJs were more than just spinners of records—they came prepackaged with awe-inspiring laser light shows, and professional dancers who undertook four or five costume changes. With them they brought cases of chazerai to distribute to the guests—sunglasses, sombreros and other hats of all shapes, colors and sizes, maracas, tambourines, neon glow necklaces and earrings, inflatable musical instruments, bandanas, tee shirts, vibrant flowing feather boas, flowered leis, clown noses, sequined vests, Hawaiian grass skirts—enough junk to outfit several traveling troupes of gypsies. Rose collected, or hoarded, as much of this stuff as was possible, departing from parties with huge trash bags filled with loot. Rumors that she was conspiring to resell these items to other, less accomplished DJs were totally unfounded. Instead, she crammed her two bedroom bungalow full of her hard-won booty so it might be readily available to any group of colony youngsters desirous of playing “dress up,” or, for that matter, staging an impromptu Bar-Mitzvah.
There were no ulterior motives behind Rose’s largesse; it was simply that she possessed a limitless capacity for being with and gathering joy from children. Few things in her life provided greater pleasure than having a collection of children assembled around her kitchen table, sampling her baked goods, or her other culinary offerings. If ever a child tasted one of her recipes—whether brisket, chicken, chopped liver, gefilte fish, stuffed cabbage, tuna or egg salad, fricassee, matzo ball soup, tsimmes—and indicated a fondness for anything in particular, then that child ran the risk of Rose preparing and delivering that dish to his bungalow on a weekly basis for the duration of the summer.
Rose was a woman who lived for the country. She was much like the wild lilies lining mountain roads each summer; she was a “perennial”—alive, but in hibernation, until the first sun of late June, when she bloomed anew to adorn the fleeting weeks till autumn.
At our bungalow colony she was a whirlwind, a constant source of energy, the essential fulcrum that fashioned much of the summer’s activities. She was relentlessly assembling lists and collecting money—for mah jongg and canasta tournaments, for kiddie bingo, for a Night at The Races at Monticello Raceway for the colony women, for gifts for colony residents on birthdays, anniversaries, births of children and grandchildren, or, unhappily, to send food to a shiva house. Once each summer she arranged to import a cadre of Chippendale style men’s strippers, and on that night the casino was jam-packed not just with the colony women, but with flocks of women from neighboring colonies, as well. This event usually occurred on a Wednesday evening, and a few husbands deemed it advantageous to set off on an early weekend, arriving at the colony just before the conclusion of the festivities, timely enough to reap the rewards to be gathered from spouses who’d been thoroughly prepped and aroused by ample alcohol and the gyrations of buff men fifteen and twenty years their junior. Rose was a trifle absent minded, and at time inclined to overreacting to even the slightest of bumps in her road. One of her friends remarked, that at times, she was “…Like a fart in a blizzard…”
Rose had been long married to a nice enough guy who was involved in the retail trade, and he only managed to visit the colony three or four weekends each summer. When her son had passed the age where the colony held interest, for the most part she was alone. Yet, in a way, she was never alone. Her bungalow was the hub of nonstop activity, especially on a rainy day, when three or four mah-jongg games were in progress. Rose’s coffee pot perked deep into the wee hours of the morning, and women lingered around her kitchen table, sometimes till dawn, speaking of life and love and dreams and children and husbands and saints and sinners, at a time when their men were a hundred miles away and they were less than anxious to spend another lonesome evening in an otherwise empty bed.
Remembering Rose, and all the pleasure she received from the summers, I am reminded of the quote from the late, great baseball Hall of Famer, Rogers Hornsby. “Roger,” a sportswriter once inquired. “What do you do all winter?” “What do I do? I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the goddamned window and wait for spring.”
In my minds eye that is a picture of Rose that remains eternal. She is in her comfortable Long Island home, staring out a window, waiting for summer.
Most men are gifted with one talent at least; some design bridges and cathedrals, others compose music and write fiction, still others can hit a baseball, or a golf ball, or rocket a tennis ball across a net at 100 mph, and some can sing, some can draw, some come with a limitless capacity for compassion and understanding, and yet others possess a command of the language—the gift of gab—that propels them to success as salesmen…Sy Seltzer could pick horses. First, allow some prologue.
I was beyond desperate on that second Sunday in the summer of my 17th year. I’d worked long and hard to develop my handicapping prowess, and through some miracle combination of selling, conning, pleading and crying, I’d convinced my dad to grant me a portion of the summer to test my talents at Monticello Raceway. The drawback was that I had a preset limit—$500 that I’d squirreled away during the winter, and I’d agreed that if I exhausted this bankroll I was to immediately join dad on his regular Monday 5 AM commute to Manhattan, where I’d become onne of his office messenger boys, hustling packages on the sticky city streets. Now, by this Sunday, in less than ten racing cards, I’d managed to squander over $300—more than 60% of my bankroll. A summer in purgatory lay before me like a one lane highway in the desert sun, and I felt the icy stare of my dad’s office manager, a man named Kelso, and shivered at the thought of laboring under his totalitarian rule.
I quickly squandered over fifty dollars in “doubles”—wagering on the outcome of the first and second races, combined. I’d decided to key with a driver of questionable talents and even scanter morals, one who might have had trouble outmaneuvering my eighty-year old Tanta Henya in a stretch drive. He turned for home at the head of the stretch with a three-length lead only to see it evaporate like a snowball in the summer sun. He finished fifth, not a fully dubious achievement for this driver.
“Put a fork in me,” I said, to my friend and fellow race track bum, David. “By tomorrow morning I’m going to be a messenger in Manhattan.”
Then, looking up into the grandstand, to the dining room area, I saw a young married couple from my colony, Joe and Sandy. They were eating, drinking, and conversing with a stout man I’d often seen around this and other harness tracks. I knew his first name, Sy—and that he was reputed to be a handicapper possessed of considerable acumen.
“Let’s go,” I said, and we did.
Joe and Sandy were as open and friendly as we could ever have hoped, and they proceeded to introduce us to their friend Sy, and his wife, Audrey, and another couple whose names have been expunged from memory by time and tide. Sy sipped a Coke, munched peanuts, and studied the program.
“I seen you guys around,” he said, his eyes fixed to the racing card.
“You wanna do me a favor?” He asked.
We quickly volunteered. Sy reached into his lime green slacks and pressed a sizable roll of greenbacks into my palm. “Hold ona this,” he said. “And bet for me.” David and I both considered him a bit quizzically.
“I go to the windows,” Sy lamented. “And I collect a whole band of music following me to get my numbers. I don’t need that. Ya follow?”
And it was just that swiftly, and easily, that David and I found ourselves recruited, inducted and indoctrinated into the elite, the privileged, the very fortunate few, a closed circle to be sure, who were privy to just what and how and why Sy Seltzer was betting any particular race. And don’t think this was any small thing. Through the course of the next few months we would both be offered bribes in cash, credit, goods and services—including an evening with several comely young ladies, no request too outrageous, in return for divulging Sy’s wagering choices.
Looking back now I realize Sy wasn’t as old as he had appeared to us that summer. He might have been, at most, in his early forties, but gave the impression of having been around a lot longer than that. His entire demeanor and bearing was a throwback to another time, so Runyonesque was he that, with appropriate attire, he easily might have stepped from the cast of Guys and Dolls. His speech was littered with colloquialisms born of the Brooklyn streets. His thinning hair was worn slicked back—Vitalis or Brylcream (a little dab’ll do ya)—and he sported a salt and pepper goatee on his fleshy face. In clothing he showed a clear predilection for polyester in all shades of the rainbow—sometimes in leisure suits that were then in vogue, other times in colorful slacks, a stretch shirt, and white shoes, that might have had him mistaken for a golfer awaiting his tee time.
What was most memorable about Sy, though, was his attitude. Within the confines of the racetrack he carried himself as if he were the master of his domain, as if he were born to be doing precisely what he was doing—handicapping races—in exactly the place he was at that instant. He had made much more of his life away from the racetrack—a loving and devoted wife, four adorable and precocious children, a small circle of close friends—but at times it seemed that all was prologue and prequel to the few hours when the horses made their way to the starting gate. So much like a master actor awaiting his moment to be bathed in the footlights, was Sy Seltzer anytime and anywhere beyond a harness racing track.
On that particular Sunday, immediately after entrusting us with a sizable bankroll, he pointed to his racing program.
“In the toid,” he said, indicated the third race. “Make me sixty dollar triples with the five on top, wheeling the two six and seven unnerneath.”
I quickly calculated that was 6 different combinations, each ticket $60, totaling out at a $360 wager. Triples at Monticello were a 3 buck ticket, so Sy was betting each number twenty times. If the five won the race, with any order of the 2, 6 or 7 finishing 2nd and 3rd, he’d have hit the ticket.
“Also,” he said, grasping my forearm in a vise-like grip just as I was about to sprint up the stairs to the clubhouse level windows. “Get me a hunna and a hunna on the 5.”
“What?” I said.
“A hunna and a hunna,” he repeated.
It was my first lesson in Sy-isms. A hunna and a hunna meant a hundred and a hundred—$100 to win, $100 to place.
“You pass,” he said.
“You want to make a punch?” He inquired. A “punch” is race track vernacular for a sizable bet. “Wait till the fifth,” he said. “I got something there.”
David and I sped off for the betting windows, for the first time in our race track lives cognizant and wary of any touts who might be following behind us. We were being paranoid, of course. Nobody paid us a second thought. But, as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you. We may have suspected our lives were changing, even as we hoofed for the triple windows, but we had no way of knowing just how cataclysmic those changes would be.
Sy hit the triple in that third race, and had the exacta in the fourth, as well. Then, as promised, in the fifth race he touted us onto the one horse, Teddy Go Lucky, with a driver change from the stone hands of a guy named De something or other to the very capable, and often cooperative, John Gilmour. The tote board reflected the crowd approval of the improvement in the bike, and the odds hovered at 5 to 2. Looking to make a bigger hit than a $7 win ticket, I wheeled the one on top of the field in exactas—then a $3 bet at Monti—four times each—seven tickets costing me $84, and just about all of what remained of my dwindling bankroll. If I’d ever had a “tap-out bet”, well, this was it. Sy bet Teddy Go Lucky five hundred to win, and made exactas of 1-4, 1-5, 1-6 and 1-8, forty five bucks-fifteen times—each. David and I got back to the dining room just as the horses were filing into their slots behind the moving starting gate. Sy grinned at us, and I noticed he needed new “uppers”—dentures—those he wore were hardly a fit.I saw that the odds on our horse had risen to 9-2.
“Relax,” Sy said, as if reading my trepidation. “You already bet, right? Might as well have the odds go to a hunna to one. Nuthin ya can do now.”
The race was off. Gilmour goosed the one to a fast break, and by the turn he was hugging the rail, a length in front of the four, who had also left hard and slotted in behind the one. The field headed up the back stretch for the first time. I watched this race as I had no other in my life, not just hoping the one would win, but praying for a long shot in the place spot, insuring me a bigger payoff. As they raced by the half mile marker it all looked too easy. Gilmour and Teddy Go Lucky had led every step of the way and had been under little or no pressure. The half posted in 102:4, slow even for this cheap field, and if we didn’t win there would be no legit excuse. Then, in a heartbeat, they were at the top of the stretch. I stood on a dining room chair, rooting Gilmour home at the top of my lungs. It wasn’t necessary. He was in total command and in no need of my encouragement. As they approached the wire I knew we were cashing tickets, the only remaining question was how large the tickets would be. Then, suddenly, as if coming from the distant hill, perhaps as far off as the highway, here came the eight horse, Levi Row Gil, Eldon Harner in the sulky, rushing up five wide on the outside to best the rest of the field and slip in for place, just a half length behind the tiring Teddy Go Lucky. My eyes flashed to the tote board where I saw that Harner had been sent off at 15 to 1. Thank God, I thought. The exacta would have to be at least eighty, maybe ninety bucks.
“You got this?” Sy asked, with a wide and somewhat toothless grin. Gee, I thought, the uppers must’ve been truly uncomfortable, because at some moment before the race began he had managed surreptitiously remove them from his mouth to stash them only God knew where.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “I got it.”
“Good,” he said. “Me too.”
“I know. We bet it for you.”
“Watch this,” Sy said, nodding towards the infield tote board. Then the lights flashed and the exacta—1 and 8, was posted, with the exacta pay off. The combination had returned $204 on each three dollar ticket. I could do the math. I was going to collect over eight hundred dollars. I felt like dancing. I wouldn’t need to join my dad at five the next morning on a long winding drive into Manhattan. I’d been granted a reprieve from the steamy streets and the crowded office and the hot, filthy subways. I’d bought myself some time—a last moment phone call from the governor—an implausible stay of execution, but a stay all the same. My dream summer of handicapping was alive!
Through the remainder of that day’s racing card Sy Seltzer combined what I still believe to be the greatest display of handicapping acumen with a most astonishing run of luck. He wasn’t just hot; he was the surface of the sun. After our exhilarating victory in the fifth race he proceeded to hit exactas in the sixth, eighth and ninth, as well as the two remaining triples, in the seventh and tenth. I, too, caught the triple in the tenth; two tickets on the winning combo returning $400 each. David and I used our new inside information, as well, to cash winning exacta tickets in the ninth race—a smaller ticket, just $30, but we did have it four times each. By day’s end I would leave the track with over two thousand American greenbacks riding heavy in the left front pocket of my cut-off denim shorts. Having handled his bets all day, and cashed the winners, as well, David and I estimated that Sy must have profited somewhere in the neighborhood of forty grand. Not too shabby a neighborhood at all.
Driving home on Route 17 I experienced what I thought might be bliss. In my mind I played out the scenario that would unfold when I arrived at the bungalow and spread over two thousand dollars on the kitchen table top before my wide eyed dad. My singular moment of absolute triumph would redeem me; no asinine plan mine, this intention of playing the horses for a living. Sure, I understood that 98% of all horseplayers were chronic losers, but what of the other 2%? Perhaps I was destined to find my niche within that elite group.
I avoided any mention of Sy’s influence, and portrayed the day’s success as a result of my own designs, but much to my bewilderment my dad was hardly overjoyed with my windfall. He reacted with consternation and apprehension, pacing the long kitchen, and then walking outside to our porch, sitting in his rocker and saying not a word. This was his game face, I knew, and he meant business. It was better to steer clear of him at this moment, permitting him to broach the matter at the time and place of his choosing. Then, in an instant, I knew he’d chosen—that time, that place.
Dad was willing to allow that it appeared I had enjoyed an outstanding day. Perhaps he’d been mistaken and I did actually possess a smattering of handicapping ability. This was a considerable concession from a man who limited his race track wagering choices to horses bearing names of his spouse, his children, and, in a pinch, that of his parents, aunts and uncles. Yet, he insisted, I was a fool to believe that comparable luck could carry past one or two fortuitous days. He fully expected that when he departed the colony the following morning at dawn that I would be packed and ready to join the labor force in Manhattan.
I was crushed. I’d been certain that the display of cash—more than he garnered from a month’s worth of wages—was going to persuade him. But he was adamant and resolute; no son of his was going to be a race track bum, profitable or not. In his mind almost any method employed to earn a living was to be respected, as long as one put forth an honest effort towards that end; betting horses, however, no mind how profitable the pursuit, did not fall within this genre.
I stormed from the bungalow to consider my alternatives. I knew that sooner or later would come the inevitable need to forego summers at the bungalow colony, but later was far preferable to sooner, and, what the hell, I wasn’t yet old enough for the draft, for voting or to legally order a beer. As with all other youthful quandaries, I knew my ultimate fate could be mitigated only by intervention from an absolute and incontestable authority. I immediately sought out my mother.
To say my mom was a soft touch is to critically undervalue the implication of the phrase. Next to my mom, Mother Teresa was a button man for Murder Incorporated. A fifteen minute pleading session with my mom was immediately followed by a summit conference between mom and dad, and, as the US had at Yalta, Dad was cornered, hoodwinked and outmaneuvered. He shrugged his shoulders and resigned himself to having fathered a son who was, in his words, a bum.
The ensuing six weeks were akin to a Damon Runyon fantasy. I was at the track seven days a week—a day/night doubleheader each Saturday and a matinee card on Sunday. This occurred during the waning years of the Catskills’ heyday, and there were still ample numbers of small and medium hotels, large resorts and countless bungalow colonies to insure a packed grandstand almost every summer evening. Monticello Raceway was perhaps the only track in the nation to have a delayed post time—8:30 PM, and that was in effect to allow adequate time for the hotel busboys and waiters, as well as their vacationing clientele, to arrive for the daily double, still stuffed and sated after yet another gluttonous Catskill meal.
We arrived at the track just after eight, the summer sun setting in the western sky, the horizon ablaze withy streaks of pink and crimson. After a few days of being seen in the constant company of Sy Seltzer, most track denizens had come to accept us as quasi-celebrities, to be afforded a certain modicum of respect and favor. We parked valet, but the attendants knew not to bury our cars amongst the tourists, and we knew when departing the track later in the evening we’d find our ride parked immediately next to the exit gate, keys on the visor, ready to go.
When we strolled through the grandstand and the clubhouse, and the restaurant as well, people nodded and smiled and even whispered that we were in “Sy’s crew.” With the attention and recognition came a degree of inconvenience as well. We needed to be guarded when making our bets, for fear of letting our selections slip to the hungry public and seeing the odds clobbered as they piled up their 2, 5, 10 and 20 dollar wages.
Yet any trifling difficulty we encountered was easily offset by our new status. We were living the good life. We’d sit with Sy and company in the clubhouse dining room, welcome at the table, encouraged to order whatever we desired—steaks, shrimp, lobsters, cocktails. We were never expected to go to our own pockets to pay a tab, as Sy always had a loyal follower more than happy to stand the amount of the check in return for access to Sy’s selections. At the start of each racing card Sy would entrust David and me with several thousand dollars each, and then throughout the evening he would stealthily indicate his selections with a carefully pointed finger or a quickly whispered word. We would bet, and collect winnings, and save the losing tickets in a separate pocket to account for our tallies. And, best of all, we were always included in the play—always encouraged to place our own wagers on the best of his selections.
In all gambling there are streaks of luck—both good and bad. From late June through the waning days of July, Sy Seltzer enjoyed what might be the most extended run of astonishing and inconceivable good luck ever witnessed at a racetrack. To say he was hot is to say the Beatles played rock and roll. We never even ventured an estimate of the amounts he took from the pari-mutuel windows, but by extrapolating from what we, ourselves were winning, Sy’s haul could have been nothing short of gargantuan.
When David and I first hooked up with Sy we were small time bettors—a five or ten dollar win bet, maybe a four dollar exacta. Within weeks we’d graduated to wagering several hundreds per race, and if, when returning to the colony we chanced upon a friend who inquired to our evening’s fortunes, we’d won less than three or four hundred we answered that we’d “broke even,” and we meant it, too. There were so many memorable moments through that fleeting stretch of weeks. One Saturday, at a day-night double header, after cashing for eighteen hundred at the matinee, I was tempted to go home and party, only to be convinced by Sy that rich pickings lay ahead in the evening card. His prognostication was on target, and we cashed multiple tickets on a triple-Grundy on top, the Manzis running second and third, and we added another two grand to our booty.
That evening, returning to the colony, we checked in with my parents in the casino just before the Saturday night show. My dad was already three drinks past sobriety, and he asked how we’d done at the races. In response I pulled a fist-sized wad of hundreds from my pocket, tightly wrapped in a rubber band. He stared at the bills for a long moment, nodded, shrugged, and returned to his friends. I wasn’t certain, but I suspected the look that flashed on his face was borne of a vague disappointment. Yet, I was far too egocentric and my world too self contained to be shaken by my fathers’ consternation. I was just having too much fun.
My connection to Sy cemented as the summer advanced, and this closeness began to exert itself in shaping my personal idiosyncrasies beyond what I recognized but to what might have been an alarming degree. A well-chewed toothpick was ubiquitous in Sy’s mouth, so I, too, began carrying an inventory of toothpicks and working well working them in the corner of my mouth. Sy drank bourbon-Jack Daniels with a splash of ginger-ale; I began ordering “Jack and ginger,” and, in fact, continue to favor that particular drink even today. Sy’s idioms included phrases such as “Make me the six and eight,” when indicating he wanted to bet the 6-8 exacta combo. I began speaking the same way. “I’m making the five,” I would say, “with the four and the seven,” if I wished to bet the five-four, five-seven exacta combo.
Sy had about him a certain joie-de-vive, a flamboyance that was as fun as it was contagious. In those days the track sponsored a series of pre-race concerts. In a given summer the schedule included the Temptations, Ike and Tina Turner, The Four Seasons, Natalie Cole, Chuck Berry, Jay and Americans, Dion and the Belmonts, The Shirelles, The Four Tops. One evening, immediately after Jay and the Americans had concluded their performance, Sy instructed David and me to seek out Jay Black, the lead singer, and inform him that his cousin Sy was in the dining room. We thought it was a practical joke, and were slightly dumbfounded to discover Jay Black was delighted to come with us and visit is first cousin, Seymour, and even stay on for dinner.
The following week, after a fabulous performance by the Four Tops, Sy instructed us to get in to see the members of the group and inform them that “Sy” wanted to buy them all a drink in the dining room. We were a bit dubious about the assignment.
“Don’t worry,” Sy assured us. “I know alla dese guys.”
Again we were stunned when the Tops, all four of them, happily accompanied us to the dining room for drinks with Sy and entourage. They even stayed half the race card, betting on everything Sy selected, and leaving with a tidy profit.
After the race card David asked Sy how it was he happened to know the members of the Four Tops.
“Never saw ‘em before in my life,” he said.
“Uh-huh. But, look you invite a guy for a drink, what’s the worse that’s gonna happen? He’s gonna say no? So, I took a shot.”
As my veneration of Sy increased, so did my dad’s misgivings about my new role model. I believe a share of his apprehension was born from his envy of the closeness and intimacy I had so effortlessly developed with Sy. After all, at a time when I was in the very core of adolescent angst and estrangement from my own dad, here was another man, my dad’s contemporary, with whom I shared all I refused to share with my father. Years later, watching DeNiro’s film, “A Bronx Tale,” I would strangely relive the myriad emotions and conflicts of that summer.
George Harrison told us that all things must pass, and so they shall, and eventually, as we turned into August, Sy’s venerable hot streak came to a crashing and most disenchanting halt. As his handicapping cooled, so his temperament moved opposite, and he would frequently bark and snap at David and me, as if tempted to shoot the messenger upon presentation of yet another stack of fresh losing tickets. And, as the winning streak faded, and my fortune reversed, I saw clearly, for the first time perhaps, as does a man waking from a dream, that my idol did indeed have feet of clay. Sy was a resident of Sullivan County as much from necessity as his love of the area. In his native Brooklyn, he’d made some adversaries of people with short fuses and long memories, and Monticello, though not out of mind, was at least out of sight. While Sy had almost always treated me and David with courtesy and respect, as his frustrations mounted we found we were more and more regarded as underlings, employees, go-fers, fully expected to serve his every command while at the track, and, sometimes, off track as well.
By mid-August I’d begun to take a much needed sabbatical from the races. I rediscovered fishing, and swimming, softball, hiking, music, and girls. I realized I’d neglected much in the preceding six weeks, not the least of which was the feelings and sensibilities of my dad. But dad, being a dad, understood. I believe he was satisfied and gratified that I’d learnt some of life’s lessons, lessons of true intrinsic value, and had not been much bruised or badgered in the process.
When something appears too good to be true, then it usually isn’t…true.
In the summers to follow we would see Sy at the track, sometimes with his complete entourage, but more and more often by himself. By the time I was engaged to be married, he had slimmed somewhat, aged some, and almost always traveled alone. There were no longer hanger-ons and crowds following him to the window to clamor for his numbers. He no longer enjoyed the devotion and dedication of impressionable teens, willing to run his bets in exchange for his information. Yet, he was still Sy—like the guy in the Billy Joel song, quick with a joke or to light up your smoke.
Sy passed away somewhere in the middle 1980s. I heard it was a stroke. I took the news not well, walking away from the group I’d been standing with at the track, finding a private and dark corner to quietly cry. Then, after a short while, I went to the betting window, where I instructed the clerk to “Make me the six, with the two, five and eight…”
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