High Society Part I

High Society

My mother called me Princess. She still calls me Princess. My mother wanted to be a Jewish-
American Princess. She was not. She was a Daughter of the American Revolution and a
Protestant tracing her lineage back to the first English boats that landed on the coast of Virginia.
My mother wanted me to be a Jewish-American Princess. I was not. So she sent me to Temple
for preschool and enlisted two radiant and childless Jewish women; one our neighbor, and the
other the wife of a pool hustler, to be my Godmothers. One had a family that escaped the
pogroms of Russia and landed in federal housing on immigrant flooded Taylor Street in Chicago
surrounded by Italians just like my father. My other Godmother hailed from a family in LA that
survived the Holocaust; she lived on the road hustling pool with my father in the 1960s when she
was a rebellious, flower child teenager. The former was a never gonna get married, Mary Tyler
Moore/Cosmo Girl skinny with alabaster white skin and black hair that she wore in pony tails
like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. The latter was a blonde, curvy Stevie Nicks with a penchant
for high heeled boots and suede fringed jackets. It’s fair to say they were both half in love with
my father. Everyone was.
Freddy, or Freddy the Beard, my father, was the forgiver of sins and accepted you as you
are – imperfect. The real you. He knew humans craved acknowledgement. This was one of
the many ‘secrets of the universe’ that he learned from a lifetime spent in the pool room. Like a
King, he could dub you “human.” Like Jesus, he could proclaim you “saved.” Often, the last
resort for many dark and shady, subterranean ne’er do wells. His basement or attic often
functioned as a bare bones rehab clinic. Tony “Passages” in Malibu, this was not. There were no
hot stone massages and fruit smoothies to make your stay pleasant. You got a stolen Holiday Inn
towel, a bucket and a gallon of fresh water. Your pleading screams for help were ignored until
you were clean and my father would reward your sacrifice with a home cooked Italian meal and
some positive motivation. This was one of my father’s many callings
in life - to redeem the unredeemable. He longed to prove that he and others like him, could beat
the odds. Gamblers survived on second chances. There’s even a scientific term called “The
Gamblers fallacy” which is the belief that eventually you’ll win. I’ve grappled with this theory
my entire life.
My Dad required many chances – and he always seemed to get them. He escaped death
nine times like an ambidextrous, acrobatic alley cat. Beginning with a long hospital stay with
Rheumatic Fever as a child, two near death car crashes (one where he was the only survivor),
getting hit by a car, a snowmobiling accident, an earthquake, a hit placed on him from a
Columbian Druglord. Of course, more often, he needed second chances when he lost
money gambling and we couldn’t pay the rent or buy groceries. He believed in the ability to
reinvent oneself and metamorphose. He believed in good magic and had studied eastern
religions and reincarnation, Carlos Casteneda and Shaman, had mediated and done yoga for
hours. His mantra was, “Life Ain’t on the Square” and that he was a magic maker. He was. Good
magic and a belief in The Universe providing for us always was our family religion. When it
comes to The Secret, we’re The OG.
My father had many loyal friends and followers because he was often their
Savior and that added to his power. Often, he was their last stop until they absolutely gave up.
He had learned these rudimentary detox techniques when he was only twenty and went to NYC
for the first time with his backer Sugarshack Johnny. Sugarshack said they had to sober up Port
Chester Mickey and take him on the road with them to make some money. When he was clean,
he made lots of money. No one knew who Mickey was, which meant a lot fifty years ago, as
there weren’t any phone cameras, revealing identity, so hustling was easy.
So, as my Dad told it to me, he and Sugarshack walk into a despicable and downtrodden
shooting gallery out of Taxi Driver somewhere in the Bronx and carry a catatonic Portchester
Mickey into a hotel room and handcuff him to the bed. My father was miserable, listening to
Mickey’s begging and screams, but after a few days of sweats and hallucinations, their prime
pool hustling stake horse, Port Chester Mickey, emerged from the darkness and lowest form of
human existence, a completely different person: Clearheaded, friendly, and focused – an athlete
motivated to make money on the road hustling pool to take home to his mother. He wanted to
buy his mother a Cadillac like Elvis had done before him – and he accomplished that. Port
Chester Mickey transformed from Mr. Hyde back to Dr. Jekyll and this experience taught my father
that humans are capable of anything. You can beat the odds.
Wanting his only daughter to escape our Clark Street castle tower and ascend to the
highest ranks of society was my father’s greatest desire, as it was my mother’s. To laugh in the
faces of those downtown Chicago suits who rejected him as a smart but poor kid, looking for a
“straight” job. I was revenge and hybrid voodoo project. And it worked. My Fairy Godmothers
loved me as if I were their own flesh and blood and they were “in” on the grand social
experiment my parents were hatching. Like Moses, I was the baby in the bulwark basket sent
down the Nile to have a better life and change the world. Or at least, our little, subterranean one.
As I boarded the school bus that took me to nursery school, my mother looked me in the eyes
and said, “Jewish men make the best husbands.” I was only three and couldn’t dress myself yet. I
nodded and climbed the tall stairs up to the bus and had fun that afternoon spinning a dreidel
with my friends. When I came home from school, there would often be hot Challah waiting for
me as a consortium of chain smoking pool hustlers, card mechanics, at least one porn producer
and other ghoulish creatures sat around devilishly devising my future like Macbeth’s witches
circling their cauldron:
Double, double, toil and trouble
Tis time, Tis Time

My father would often time me putting puzzle pieces together beside grown men who,
whether on drugs or drunk, I always seemed to beat. The United States puzzle was
where I shined, and I still love puzzles. My performances, sitting Indian style on our giant, off
the truck Persian rug, in front of an audience of black balled bohemians who chain smoked
filter-less cigarettes and sipped from goblets of Carlo Rossi red wine; clearly proved my community's hypothesis that I was
a superior human and destined for greatness. I submitted to my puppet masters and enjoyed the
warm, braided honey bread that melted the butter and nourished my tummy.
My mother, a swimsuit model and hippie, had an outhouse and a pet goat growing up and
did not attend college. She was on her own starting in high school. My father, a first generation,
Italian-American pool hustler, ate impoverished polenta every day on the south side of Chicago,
and, although he won many contests and Scholarships and graduated two years early with a
free ride to the University of Illinois, he dropped out after a few weeks to return home to his
parents’ tiny apartment with a potbelly stove and baby sisters to devote his life to pool. Although
he still read a book every day and studied vigorously, he never had a job other than playing pool
at the pool room or on the road. If pool wasn’t bring enough money in, there were always card
games to play and pretty and tired horses to bet on at the race track. Hearing “And they’re off!”
filled my heart with both excitement and dread. The only bugler I could actually stand was
Montgomery Clift in From To Here to Eternity, a film based on a book by one my father’s
favorite writers (James Jones). My father loved everything about being a man, and being in the
company of great men, and according to my father, James Jones knew how to write about real
Although my father studied everything from history to science vigorously, and claimed
under six minutes to finishing the New York Times Crosswords, he never held a square job a
day in his illustrious life. He told me he was discouraged from getting a square job due to the
discrimination he faced applying to jobs downtown in the 1950s. On multiple occasions, he’d
receive a perfect score on an evaluation test, show up for the interview and then not be offered
the job. Finally, someone at the Chicago Sun-times newspaper, pulled him aside and informed
him that his strong accent(he was from the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago and it was
filled with d’s instead of t’s and ain’ts instead of isn’ts) as well as his shoes (he wore expensive
leather shoes imported from Italy that his family scraped enough money to provide for him) were
the real reasons he wasn’t getting hired. Needless to say, he never applied for another square job
again. He wouldn’t change himself for anybody and gave square society the old Va fangool and
went back to the pool room. You could be whoever the hell you wanted to be in the pool room. It
was a meritocracy.
My Dad didn’t want to perform manual labor like his relatives. He wanted to earn money
using his smarts. And in the pool room he did use his smarts. To this day, he’s known as the
smartest pool player that ever lived.
When I was a young child, my father told people that I was going to Vassar. I was going
to Vassar for college and then perhaps a “Finishing School” on the continent. You know, like my
fellow blue bloods Jane Adams and Jackie Kennedy. He would tell people this with an East
Coast Lockjaw affectation as if we summered in Watch Hill, Road Island with the Armour
Family. We lived in a mob owned building on Clark Street behind a bus stop, beside an alley,
wedged between 2 methadone clinics. My parents often had to eat beans and rice to survive. We
lived above a formal Japanese restaurant, Kiyo’s, where Geishas with white pancake makeup
served rich business men and where I would play and sometimes hide inside a closet filled with
beautiful silk kimonos. The pool room was only a few feet away, through the alley. That’s why
we lived there! Our neighbors were two other pool hustlers and a Puerto Rican transvestite who
did our hair for cash and called me “Lola Falona.” If my father was flush with cheese from
gambling, he would take me to Kiyo’s for a treat to eat a bowl of exotic Abalone soup which cost
$5 a bowl and was considered a luxury in the 1970s.
My father wanted me to get used to the High Society that was my destiny.
When I asked for a second bowl of the incredibly delicious yet expensive Abalone soup, he
laughed victoriously, loving that I was asking. A Princess, Indeed.

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