When Seymour entered my life, he came lugging the baggage of his gambling debts. I was a hopelessly soft and introverted seventh-grader in desperate need of a strong male influence. He was a high-school dropout who owed major money to loan sharks — pockmarked guys practiced in the art of rearranging noses and kneecaps through the creative use of sporting-goods equipment.
My mother, a statuesque blonde in charge of two adolescent boys, met Seymour on a blind date. At first, she rebuffed his subsequent phone calls. Maybe it was his appearance that put her off. My soon-to-be stepfather carried a hefty 260 pounds on a squat five-foot-nine frame. He was not a snappy dresser, but he had a booming voice and an undeniable presence. I was unprepared for such a sudden infusion of maleness into my world. Early on in our relationship, Seymour established that he liked to belt me on the arm for no reason — a “love tap,” he called it. His fist was all knuckles and always left a quarter-sized bruise. He used his pet name for me as he swung: “Hey, Chief, how ya doing?” Bam! “Here’s for all the stuff I don’t know about.” Whap!
We all shared a cramped, two-bedroom apartment in West Roger’s Park, a primarily Jewish Chicago neighborhood with more than a handful of Holocaust survivors. Seymour managed a fast-food chicken joint, and my mom, my brother, and I helped out there on the weekends. One Saturday, I saw Seymour get in a fight with a deliveryman. The two of them rolled around on the greasy mats in the kitchen while the orders kept coming in: “Two full baskets with fries! Steak sandwich to go! Bread and slaw on the side!” My mom threw in some karate punches she’d just learned at the Y. She even let out some type of aggressive Asian shout as she chopped away, but I don’t think the deliveryman even knew Mom had hit him. When it was all over, I’d say the fight was a draw. The deliveryman was fired, and Seymour got to stay on as manager.
Once, Seymour gleefully held my friend Jeff Livovich upside down over the banister of a third-story stair landing. I don’t remember why it happened, but it was probably because of some smart-aleck remark Jeff had made. (His mother, too, was raising him by herself, and he was always making wisecracks.) Our whole family came out of the apartment to watch, and several neighbors cracked their doors to take a peek. Jeff’s ankles disappeared in Seymour’s fists, and I never doubted for a second that, had Jeff made one more inappropriate comment, he would have found himself face down on the tile floor in the lobby.
Another habit of Seymour’s was to straighten and bend his right knee, which made a sound similar to that of a giant stapler. The defect was rumored to be the result of a World War II injury. I’d be sitting in the living room, minding my own business, and Seymour would look over at me and slowly lift his leg and flex it until I fled the room. He never tired of this trick.
I knew Seymour owed money because I’d heard snatches of tense conversations from the bedroom, and I felt the aura of fear about loan sharks that surrounded my stepdad — and now, by association, my family. I kept a sharp eye out for swarthy men in suits and sunglasses carrying Louisville Sluggers.
When I first met Seymour, he was cooking ribs and chicken at another restaurant, Sally’s on Western Avenue, on Chicago’s North Side. Sally’s was renowned for some kind of barbecue sauce that Seymour had invented. To his death, he told only one other person the ingredients — my mom, and she hasn’t passed the recipe on to anyone yet. I believe, but have no proof, that paprika is employed in a liberal manner, along with lots of brown sugar. More than once, Seymour was offered undisclosed amounts of cash for the rights to put the sauce in bottles, but he never sold out, even when he owed money on the ponies.
He claimed to have once served barbecue to various well-known mobsters, including Sam Giancana, who boasted of fixing John F. Kennedy’s Illinois victory in the 1960 presidential election. Cops got their meals free at Sally’s, a perk which insured that, if a robbery took place there, Chicago’s finest would show up on time and with guns drawn. With both the mob and the cops hanging around and eating Seymour’s barbecue chicken, Sally’s must have been the safest place in the city.
Photographs from those years show Seymour at crowded nightclub tables surrounded by laughing pals dressed in suits and loose, thin ties. There were lots of gorgeous women, too — called “dames” back then. Crumpled cigarette packs and half-empty drinks with bent swizzle sticks littered the tables. Everyone smoked and drank without guilt. (Seymour’s drink was VO and soda, straight up, a drink my mom later came to love, too.) They still listened to the big bands of the World War II era: Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, and Benny Goodman.
These were the postwar years, when everyone felt pretty good about themselves. Seymour had served in Europe during the war. He was assigned to an artillery division because his hearing was already damaged. Black-and-white snapshots from those years survive, too, and show a slim Seymour surrounded by GIs and French girls. He is dressed in dusty fatigues, his Jewish last name emblazoned above his left shirt pocket for all of Nazi Germany to see: GOLDBERG. You can’t get much more Jewish than the name Seymour Goldberg.
Marrying my mom was a package deal that included raising me and my older brother, but I oftentimes ended up alone with Seymour at sporting events. At the old Chicago Stadium, we watched Bobby Hull score two goals for the Blackhawks in one period on wicked slap shots from the blue line. I never even saw the puck until it hit the back of the net. (This was before goaltenders wore masks.) Another time, Harmon Killebrew hit a towering home run into Comiskey Park’s upper deck behind right centerfield. The ball rattled around among the vertical steel girders behind which the ushers would seat the blind fans with their transistor radios.
Although Seymour would bring me autographs of my baseball heroes — Gary Peters, “No Neck” Walt Williams, and the irascible White Sox manager Eddie Stanky — the underachieving Chicago teams disgusted him. “Ah, the bums,” he would say, throwing up his hands. Each loss was a confirmation of his lapsed faith. He knew I still believed in an eventual world championship for the White Sox, and he never failed to rub it in by pointing out the team’s dismal standings in the newspapers: “Hey, Chief, look! Twelve games out.”
Seymour and I eventually got used to each other’s company. Every Saturday morning, it was just the two of us mugs striking out for Devon Avenue to do the week’s shopping. We’d begin with a stop at Jewel’s for the coffee and dry goods, then make our way to the deli for Rosen’s rye, New York cheddar, pastrami wrapped in white butcher’s paper, and maybe — no, certainly — a stack of sticky maple bars. Then it was on to the drugstore for the Sun-Times, Parliaments for Mom, and, if the morning was going well, a Sporting News thrown in for me. Finally, there was a certain barbershop where Seymour could purchase two-dollar betting cards for the following Sunday’s football games. This was a small-time racket run by the mob. Seymour would hand me a card, and I’d fill it in — usually picking the Bears — and give it back. Most times I lost, but some weeks I won ten bucks. (Seymour called a ten-dollar bill a “sawbuck,” a five-dollar bill a “fin,” and a quarter “two bits.”) The illegality of the business thrilled me.
The shopping done, Seymour and I would ride around in his rusting Oldsmobile 88, eating the maple bars and talking about everything from the past week, including problems he might be having with Mom. He’d call me Chief the entire time. Those conversations were like our own private family secret.
It was on one such Saturday that I decided I liked having a man around the house. Even when Seymour wasn’t home, just seeing male things on top of Mom’s dresser gave me comfort: Seymour’s sleek pocketknife, his gold Lord Elgin watch, a bottle of Old Spice, a handkerchief, a pile of loose change and stray bills, and his little notebook with the names of horses written in tiny script. I still have that Lord Elgin, and it keeps perfect time, when I remember to wind it.
I suspect it was around this time that, through a series of ultimatums, my mom got Seymour to quit gambling away his paychecks at the track. With their combined incomes, the debts were eventually paid, and I no longer had to worry about hoodlums wielding baseball bats and golf clubs.
Wherever Seymour and I went, even in a city of several million, he ran into friends — mostly bookies, fry cooks, scalpers, barbers, ex-boxers, and cabbies. These were not pretty people, but they weren’t “phonies,” as Seymour labeled the affluent. He didn’t like people who put on airs. “The only perfect people are in the cemetery,” he often said.
Downtown, at the intersection of State and Randolph, we’d always pay a visit to a newsstand vendor with no legs. He and Seymour would point fingers at each other and talk in animated gestures while I scanned the covers of the magazines. (Jet and Playboy were my favorites.) At that time, Seymour’s Chicago was changing from a blue-collar city of ethnic neighborhoods where loyalty, political affiliations, and favors reigned to a metropolitan area of faceless, white-collar suburbs where you were on your own, and who you knew and where you came from didn’t count for anything. One day, when we went to the newsstand, the legless man and his magazines were gone. Just like that.
Before long, everything changed. Comiskey Park and Chicago Stadium turned to dust beneath the pounding of the wrecking ball. Fancy new sports palaces arose, with corporate boxes and ticket prices that were out of our league. Cops started paying for their meals, and gambling shifted to riverboat casinos. Those two-dollar football cards became history, supplanted by the one-dollar Illinois State Lottery. The drug-dealing gangs of the South and West Sides replaced the old-style gangsters.
After my brother and I left home, Seymour and my mom followed the prevailing demographic trend and moved to the suburbs, leaving the city behind for good. The move was the great contradiction of Seymour’s life. In one sense, it confirmed that he’d achieved a measure of success: thirty-five years of toiling in a hot kitchen had earned him something more than a sweltering three-story walk-up. But everything else had changed, too, and not for the better.
At some point in his marriage to my mother, Seymour came to write a short essay on the perils of betting. Perhaps my mom made him write this cautionary tale as penance for his sins. (She denies this, but it wouldn’t have been unlike her; she was always after him about his weight and made him exercise and diet.) Seymour was hardly a writer, or much of a reader either, except for detective page turners with lurid covers. The idea of putting his thoughts down on paper must have been as foreign to him as polishing off a plate of sushi.
Yet here is this document, which I only recently came into, eight years after his death. “The Last Dollar” was written on five-and-a-half-by-nine-inch memo paper that advertised Superior Coffee: “We serve . . . Superior Time Flame Roasted coffee . . . with that EXTRA goodness.” Seymour must have penned the piece during breaks between rib orders at Sally’s. Written in the second person, the story takes the reader through the career of an unsuccessful gambler. You can almost smell the Lucky Strikes, taste the Seagrams, and feel the torn racing tickets fall through your fingers. To my knowledge, this is the only serious work that Seymour ever wrote. I’ve cleaned up the punctuation a bit and added a word or two for clarification, but the message remains Seymour’s:
This is a short story about a man’s failure in the Sport of Kings, horse racing, and a man must be a king to afford it!
The beginning is very easy. Someone gives you a tip on a horse that accidentally wins, giving you the come on. You have won your first bet, and you begin to think, which is dangerous. Your thoughts run to the idea, How long has this been going on, and where has this game been before? (For it is new to you, the first-time bettor.) Now you think again, which is also dangerous, I can make one bet a day and win my expenses.
You try a bet and lose, and you think something must be wrong. You begin begging old-time horse players for tips. “I got a good thing in the so-and-so race at so-and-so track,” a guy says. So you try this “good thing,” but today wasn’t the day. You’re stuck for a few bucks but still figuring to get it back with interest.
Next day you look through the scratch sheet, pick a few yourself, and lose. Now you are on your way to destruction, but still can’t believe it. Next several months see you betting a few each day and getting so-called Hot Tips that turn cold. Now the fever is rising. You get a few winners and figure you’re back on track again. So now you get the Daily Form and start learning to handicap your own selections.
This is the beginning of disaster. You can’t win for losing. From your own original stakes, you are now behind the eight ball. You start going to loan banks and then going to the five-for-six boys, who are poison. [These were loan sharks who would loan you five bucks for six in return.] But, my friend, you can’t stop handicapping, because you’re hooked just like dope. You go from bad to worse until it really hurts. You borrow from Peter to pay Paul, and so on.
The real menace to horse players is the telephone. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Well, let me explain. Before, you were going to a bookie when you made your wager. You placed your money up right away, in person, but when you call on a phone, you can bet whatever you want. You do so without thinking about what you are wagering. You call in the first bet, maybe twenty dollars, or thirty. At night, the bookie comes and collects. Next day you bet, and he comes again at night to collect. This goes on awhile, and he finally says to you, “No sense in me coming every day. I’ll see you once a week, and we will straighten it out.” You agree to this idea without thinking.
Next day you bet your regular twenty-dollar-a-day wager. Later on, you check up and find out the horse has lost. Well, you think, I don’t have to pay today, so I’ll try and get even. So you call in another twenty dollars and lose again. This continues every day. Before, you maybe lost seventy-five per week. That is doubled this week, so you are short, and there begins the process of borrowing from anyone who will stand still for a loan. You continue to play and lose. Occasionally there is a winner, but it is few and far between.
The essay ends there, at the top of page seven. Probably there was no reason to continue. The point had been well made.
When I was a senior in high school, I made two trips to the Maywood harness racetrack. A buddy and I had taken to reading the racing section in the back of the Sun-Times during lunch periods. We knew nothing about horses or odds, but when the name “Afton Lyons” appeared, we took it as a sign. The horse won by five lengths. We split the majestic sum of $160 and fled the scene before anyone realized we were both sixteen years old. The next trip, we split eighty bucks and left before the second race. But, ultimately, I didn’t have the betting bug (or a car of my own to drive all the way out to Maywood), and I never placed another bet. Seymour knew about my trips but never reprimanded me. I think he was secretly cheering for me both to win and to lose.
I like to think Seymour died at just the right time. There wasn’t much future in the suburbs for a seventy-year-old city guy with no high-school diploma. His last job was greeting customers at Wal-Mart for minimum wage. He died of a heart attack in the middle of the night while he was asleep. Really not a bad way to exit. I wouldn’t mind going the same way myself, although a bookmaker would give me long odds against its ever happening. “We should all be so lucky, Chief” is how Seymour would have put it.