The Book...

Davy the Punk will be published by The Porcupine’s Quill in March 2014. Here is an excerpt. If you would like to order a copy please click here.

It is the summer of 1956 and I am sitting with my father, Davy Bossin, in the bleachers above first base in Maple Leaf Stadium, the old ball park on the shore of Lake Ontario. Summer nights in Toronto are as humid as a swamp, and the ball park on the lake has been called the poor man’s air conditioning. Davy is sitting in the comforting breeze off the water, reading the newspaper. I am giving him a fervent play-by-play of the game between the Maple Leafs and the Havana Sugar Kings. I am 10.

Gradually, through the early innings, we are joined by one, then another of my father’s cronies, who gather nightly in the stadium’s fresh evening air to swap stories, argue politics, and only incidentally watch baseball. It is a part of the deal that my commentary stops when the friends show up. This is fine with me; I love hearing the men talk the way they do when they are away from their work and their wives. I make myself as small as I can, hoping that my presence will be forgotten and I can overhear some secret that would otherwise be withheld until I have been dispatched for peanuts or hot dogs. Toronto was known, in those days, as Toronto the Good, but the Toronto these men know is tantalizingly bad.

“Did you see Benny Kaufman died?”

“Benny the Shoykhet? With the butcher shop in the alley off Kensington?”

“Yeah, exactly. Benny the Shoykhet.”

“So Benny’s gone, alev ha-sholem. Did he ever get pinched? I don’t think he ever got pinched. He had a hell of an operation. You could place a bet, have a drink and buy a chicken.”

“Did he actually sell the chickens?”

“Sure he did. They were good kosher chickens. But he always kept a few back in case of a raid. He had one of the kids out at the street, who’d whistle if the cop turned into the alley. Then the bubba would come downstairs and they’d stick the bottles in her apron and throw a couple chickens on top, and she’d shuffle down the alley, smiling and nodding at the cop. Benny stuffed his betting slips up the ass of one of the chickens. They never caught him.”

“Yeah, they did. Herbie Thurston pinched him. Remember, Harry Thurston’s boy who became a cop.”

“Nah, you’re all mixed up. Herbie never pinched Benny; the guy he pinched was Murray the Rug.”

“In the old dry cleaner’s on Dovercourt!”

“Exactly. Back when he was a kid, Herbie used to go in with his father, when the old man placed his bets. Then when he became a cop, he went to Murray, and he told him, ‘Murray, I’m a policeman now and I’ll arrest you if I have to. You’ve done well, it’s time you retire.’ Of course Murray didn’t listen. He looked at Herbie, and saw the little pisher tagging after his old man. And nobody had ever been able to charge him, because they could never find his slips. But Herbie knew from his father that Murray kept them under his toupée. So he nailed him.”

The stories go back and forth, of this bookie who got busted, of that one who never did. My father sits there reading the newspaper. His friends are used to this, used to Davy’s silence, his aloofness. The conversation flows by him, like water around a rock.

“What was the name of the guy… the one they arrested over and over?”

Silence. No one remembers. Then a new voice says, “Shnooky Schneider. It was Shnooky Schneider.”

The voice is my father’s. When Davy speaks, it is as if he were a king. Heads turn. This is because he speaks so rarely. And because, when he does, he is a natural-born story-teller. He folds his paper, none too quickly, and begins to recount how Arnie the Shnook Schneider was busted for book-making 67 times, every one a first offence.

“In those days Arnie was working for Manny Feder,” my father begins quietly, “back when Manny and his brothers had the big horse room on Queen Street, before they opened the Brown Derby. It was a pretty smooth operation, as it oughta be, since Manny had half the cops in town on the pad.

“But every now and then, the heat would be on. Old Reverend Domm would get up in Bathurst Street Church and preach a fire-and-brimstone sermon on the evils of gambling, and then Holy Joe Atkinson at the Star would publish the whole damn thing in the paper: ‘Sunday morning, in Bathurst Street United Church, the Reverend Gordon Domm warned of a wave of corruption loosed on the city by gambling racketeers.’”

My father gives the Star the voice of Walter Winchell. As the plot heats up, so does his delivery.

“Then, they’d send some cub reporter down Queen Street to lay some bets at some of the bookie joints, as if that was news to anybody, and they’d run it on the front page. And that would get the Decent Citizens riled up, and they’d start demanding that the police do something. So the cops would call Manny and say, ‘Sorry, Mr. Feder, but we’re gonna have to raid.’ And they’d tell him when. Then Manny would call Shnooky and tell him to get ready.”

There my father pauses, pretending to some momentary interest in what is happening on the field. The men around me wait for him to go on. It seems to me all Maple Leaf Stadium does.

“Manny’s joint was on the second floor and it would be going full blast with punters betting, smoking their cigars, the phone ringing, odds coming in and getting chalked up, the loudspeaker blaring, ‘They’re at the post. And they’re off…’

“But upstairs, on the third floor, there was another room with just a table, an unconnected phone and a few folding chairs. And that’s where Shnooky would wait for the cops. They’d come charging up the stairs, past the horse room, straight to the third floor. They’d arrest Shnooky and they’d grab the telephone, so they could report that ‘gambling equipment was seized.’ Then they’d go back downstairs, past the horse room again, and take Shnooky to the station, where Manny would be waiting with Shnooky’s bail. Then, when Shnooky was convicted, Manny would pay the fine, which was, by standing agreement, a hundred bucks. It was like a tax.

“Now the law says that, on a third conviction, book-makers go to jail. But the cops would misplace Shnooky’s priors, or the magistrate would be one of Manny’s customers, or both. So every time Shnooky was convicted it went down as a first offence. And the government got its $100, which was good money in those days.”

Sometimes the laughter from our section was so raucous that the pitcher would turn and look up.