A few weeks ago, Leonard Lee Buschel shared the Preface for his upcoming memoir: Betty Ford Died Sober; I Should Be So Lucky. Now, he shares the beginning of Chapter One.
If my story were a film, the camera would descend through the delicious mists above a pot of simmering chicken soup at 4639 N. 10th Street—the house where I grew up.
CUT TO: Beth Judah Hebrew School. There, Mr. Silver is sending me to the principal’s office…again. I was caught taking bets on that Sunday’s Eagles game.
The Philadelphia Eagles were a big underdog. The other boys didn’t know what a point spread was. But I was well versed in both the concept and its profitable application. The birds were a 14-point underdog, but my young classmates didn’t know that. So they were betting the Eagles to win outright (no way that could happen against the NY Giants, not in 1962).
I learned these lessons at Cooper’s Corner—not an ordinary confectionery.
It was the kind of candy store you’d see in an old Bowery Boys film or a Paul Mazursky movie. It’s easy to picture handsome Jacob Garfinkel buying a pack of Chesterfields and telling the guys, “If this horse I have in the 5th at Garden State wins, I’m buying a one-way Greyhound ticket to Hollywood and changing my name to John Garfield.”
Cooper’s was the equivalent of an Irish pub, where neighbors often meet to have a few Guinness’s. But rather than a few pints, the magnet for me and some of these other brazen Jews was eating ice cream, drinking fountain sodas and shooting the shit with the guys. I was never felt alone there, even though I was the youngest patron, a real regular. The guys and I played half-ball and handball out in front on the street, while gamblers and bookmakers used the good old-fashioned telephone to conduct their “business.” By today’s sleek-phone standards, those telephones were definitely goofy-looking. The earpiece was separately tethered by a wire to a big black box, with the protruding part, like an inverted megaphone, to place your mouth against to speak. Very film noir if you ask me.
We played pinochle and rummy in three booths at the back of the store.
Sometimes chess, but always for money. This was the kind of place where if two raindrops hit the front window at the same time, someone would bet you which drop rolled to the bottom first. However, it was the pinball machine that seemed to call my name, especially when there was someone there to play against.
We’d usually bet a quarter per game. If some game is fun to play, it’s always way more intense if you have a bet on the outcome. It cost a nickel. To get those nickels, I would steal bottles off back porches and get the deposit money from the store. On a five- ball machine, I could play for 10 to 15 minutes on one game. That meant for 10 to 15 minutes, I wasn’t thinking about anything else. Homework, chores or getting my next nickel to play another game were not on my mind. Pinball took all the powers of observation I had.
At 12 years old, playing pinball was my first compulsive habit.
I traded that later for gambling on sports, poker, casino games when I was old enough to go the Vegas, and before Atlantic City decided to commit suicide.
You can read Buschel’s full memoir, Betty Ford Died Sober; I Should Be So Lucky, when it publishes this Fall. Stay tuned for updates!