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Know when to hold ’em: Life of a gambler’s son

From big wins to bad bets, being the son of a gambler had its ups and downs. In his memoir, "The Bookmaker," Michael Agovino writes about his Italian-American family's quest to make it in New York City. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

As the son of a bookmaker and gambler in the Bronx, a big win could mean trips to Italy, Morocco or England and extravagant homemade Italian feasts for Michael Agovino and his family. But with the ups came the inevitable downs, and when the bets didn’t go the right way, unpaid bills, shouting matches and eviction notices prevailed. In “The Bookmaker,” Agovino tells the story of his Italian-American family looking to capture a piece of the American dream in New York City. An excerpt. 

The Bronx, 1984
It was Super Bowl Sunday, the only day of the year my mother served dinner in front of the television set. She knew that my father had a vested financial interest in the game and that I was a boy who deeply cared about sports. So she conceded, as she had for many years now: dinner in the living room with the Sony Trinitron. I began to suspect she enjoyed it.

The menu was a concession, too, solely for me this time. Gone was our usual midwinter southern Italian Sunday feast: a homemade ragu over rigatoni, with braciola, sausage, polpette, broccoli rabe on the side or roasted peppers, and a carafe of Valpolicella. No, on this day, my mother, desperate to put meat on my little bones, served up my favorite, determinedly un-Italian: roast beef, roasted potatoes, Boston lettuce, and mountains of green beans sautéed with garlic and olive oil.

My older sister refused to take part. She never would. She always hated two things — red meat and sports. Above all, she hated my father’s gambling, the ebb and flow of anxiety that came with it, the screaming matches it provoked between my parents, the dark silences after a bad day at “the office,” the absurdity of risking our future on Tampa Bay minus the three and a half or TCU or some horse, maybe Foolish Pleasure.

For my father, gambling and bookmaking were a second job, his clandestine second life. He had been gambling in some form or other since FDR’s second term. By the 1980s, it had become his main source of income, his main source of hope and of despair.

On that Super Bowl Sunday in 1984, in our Bronx apartment twenty-two stories above the spindly, Waiting for Godot tree sticks, the three of us — my parents and I — watched the Washington Redskins play the Los Angeles Raiders. The Redskins were the defending title-holders and a three-point favorite. My father had wagered heavily on the Raiders. How heavily, I do not know; I knew not to ask. It was my father’s business.

Besides the Yankees — the Yankees made him an American, he told me this, more than being born in East Harlem did — he never had favorite teams. Gamblers and bookmakers can’t get attached, can’t afford to, but he liked the Raiders. Kenny Stabler might have started it; my father had a thing for lefties. And the Raiders were always the bad guys. That helped.

Washington had the self-aggrandizing quarterback Joe Theismann and the impudent receiving corps known as the Smurfs. The Raiders had the stoic Tom Flores and the unfashionable Jim Plunkett — two scions of industrious Chicano laborers who came up the hard way.

In the third quarter, when the game was still a game, there was a play — a very famous play. You remember. Marcus Allen, bright, young stealthy, took a handoff from Plunkett. He ran to the left side of the line of scrimmage, saw it was clogged, spun 180 degrees to the right, got a feeble but well-intentioned block from Plunkett, and turned upfield. For a few interminable seconds, we didn’t talk, we didn’t chew, we didn’t breathe. Our eyes widened, and we watched Marcus Allen run. He kept on running, a silver-and-black streak, away from the pack for seventy-something yards and a touchdown. Roasted potatoes, sautéed green beans, and shouts of joy flew into the air. My sister, eavesdropping, came out of her room, relieved. It was now apparent that the Raiders would win. Her perpetually in-arrears tuition at Clark University would be paid. Outside, a horn honked, someone howled from a windswept terrace. The howl echoed. The Bronx resonated, at least this multiracial, multiethnic, increasingly tensioned corner of the Bronx, an eyesore of gray schematic towers. It was called Co-op City. I heard it called N----- City, Shvartze City, Jew Town, Throw-up City, depending.

It was a place no one wanted to be, not anymore. The good intentions covered in graffiti, the rest in puddles of urine in our elevators. A socialist experiment in how we would live, in how we would interact, improve, a product of the Great Society, the biggest housing cooperative in America, some said the world, and maybe it was, brought to you by the unholy troika of Governor Nelson Rockefeller; big labor, communists among them; and Robert Moses, his last big mistake. Thirty-five skyscrapers, soaring, identical, some with views of the World Trade Center, the city’s other bookend.

Up here, you could see everything, hear anything, as if you were down there on the street. Sound carried. Especially from boom boxes: At one time it was Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, the O’Jays; later, B.T. Express, the Brothers Johnson; and now Afrika Bambaataa and Mellie Mel.

Our apartment was one of 15,382 units; we were four of sixty thousand people, none of whom were Rockefellers. This was Le Corbusier’s vision, tower in the park, put into practice before our eyes, us in the midst of its maquette. Open space, with plenty of green, for children to play, families to blossom. This was rhetoric come to life.

It was front-page news in The New York Times, above the fold, in November 1968, and it continued, on and on inside: “Co-op City, a Vast Housing Project Rising in the Northeast Bronx, Is Dedicated.” Rockefeller said this: “I think we are on the threshold of a new era in coping with our great urban problems. Today we dedicate a symbol to that era.” Co-op City was “a spectacular and heartwarming answer to the problems of American cities.” Newsweek called it a “Kibbutz in the Bronx.” Time said it was “relentlessly ugly.”

Einstein Loop, Carver Loop, Dreiser Loop, Debs Place, De Kruif Place, Defoe Place, it all looked the same. Was this the ugliest place in America? Or just the weirdest. Or was it ahead of its time, so far ahead, so way, way ahead, that it was backward? It was the biggest; that we knew. That they kept telling us.

“How did we end up here?” my mother said again and again. How did we end up here?

Half of the Bronx was rubble; from that, we were sequestered but we were also sequestered, somehow, from the upper reaches of New York City. We were still the Bronx, we were reminded, in abrupt and subtle ways. But how to get out, how to become more?

The object was to get out of this place. You wouldn’t live with urine puddles in your elevators. So why us? Most of our friends, the young families that made it go, that made it healthy and optimistic, had left. Now it was people with nowhere to go. And old people, waiting to die.

And here we were, sixteen years later, tied to this place, a family matured, in our sanctuary on the twenty-second floor, amid the wind, the unrelenting wind, tonight an arctic one, watching a game, a man run, watching a man we never met, save us, to give us opportunity, a way out, a chance, at least, for another experience, as other athletes, great and insignificant, had before. If they and their actions, or nonactions, on the field didn’t get us to Westchester, the promised land just north, they got us to Italy, Iberia, Morocco, Britain, the Netherlands, Mexico, the Caribbean, to the Prado, the Tate, the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre. Maybe it wasn’t as grand a gesture as Marcus Allen’s just now, maybe it was a broken-bat, opposite-field single by Doug Flynn in the bottom of the ninth, just out of the second baseman’s reach, or a Sly Williams put-back, late in the fourth, David Overstreet going the distance out of the wishbone on a Saturday afternoon, Rick Upchurch bringing one back at Mile High, during the four o’clock game, that must be Curt Goudy’s voice, followed by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Whatever it was.

That night, for us, Marcus Allen saved the world. The absurdity.

Excerpted from “The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family from the Utopian Outskirts of New York City.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Michael Agovino. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishing. To read more from “The Bookmaker,” click .