What I Learned From My Father, the Grifter
Credit: Roberto Parada

My father didn't believe in "things." There were no mementos in our house. No things from the past that had been passed down from one generation to the next. No grandfather clock from the old country. No steamer trunk in the attic filled with things musty, faded, creased, fragile as dust. No letters written in spidery brown script. No sepia-toned tintypes. No fresher images of a father and son – my father and me. He never took a photograph of me as a baby, a child, a boy, a teenager. He never saved my things. A baby rattle. A lock of hair. The first Father's Day card I ever gave him, I made it myself. A drawing of a stick figure, "Daddy," and a brown cake with flaming candles. He thanked me with a kiss, and the card vanished. It had served its purpose for a brief moment, and then it became only another thing from the past.

My father didn't believe in things that were a reminder of the past because he had never had things in the past, and, more important, he had never had a past – not a past that mattered, that should be passed on to me, his son. My father said that the past was "baggage." Baggage caused you to miss the next train out, although he never said to where. Baggage held you back. Which was why he always traveled light.

My father didn't believe in institutions either, or, more precisely, he hated institutions, which was understandable since he spent the first 15 years of his life in a state orphanage and the last five in an assisted-living facility, which he called an "old people's home." But it was nicer than that, with a fireplace in the lobby and plush carpet and wood paneling. The orphanage, however, was something else. He didn't like to talk about it, except to say, "There was none of that molestation crap you hear about today. They fed you, clothed you, sent you to school." When I told him once that I admired him because he was never bitter about his past, he said, "I had no one to be bitter at."

The last time I saw him, in his old people's home, before he died at 95, he said, "I'm going out the same way I came in." Then he pressed three folded-up $100 bills into my hand, my inheritance. Ten days later he died with $90 in a dresser drawer: "my pin money," he called it. My father never had life insurance, which he called "blackmail, like a protection racket." Insurance companies, like the Mafia, preyed on people's weaknesses, their fears. My father had no fears, not even of death. When he was 88, his doctor told him he needed a triple bypass, or else he'd be dead in six months. If the operation were a success, the doctor said, "you'll live another six years." My father asked, "What are the odds?" The doctor said, "60/40, your favor." My father said, "I'll take that bet." Just before he went under the knife, my father told me, "I have no regrets. I did everything the way I wanted to."

By that he meant that he never worked for a corporation in an airless office for 40 years, never worked for anyone, really, never cashed a salary check, a stock option, a pension check. He never invested money in the stock market, an annuity, a savings account. He never had a credit card. He believed only in the cash in his hand and in his ability, his wits, to make more money out of that cash, or maybe lose it all, he didn't care, as long as he didn't entrust that money to forces and people beyond his control.

His life was always in his own hands, which he thought was his great advantage when trying to con the "suckers" out of their money. My father was a professional gambler, a grifter, and a con man. He began at 15 as a shill in a traveling carnival. He ran the pea-under-the-pod shell game until he graduated to more serious scams. He separated the "suckers" from their money with marked cards, shaved dice, a past-posted betting slip, this scam and that.

As a child of six, I sat at the kitchen table late in the afternoon and watched my father deal cards to my mother, while he sipped from a cup of espresso with a twisted lemon peel in it. My father had short, pudgy fingers, "like sausage links," my mother would say, but when he dealt cards he flicked them out quicker than the eye could see. Which was the point. It was my mother's job to see if she could catch him dealing from the bottom. She never could. Then he'd switch to dice. He'd fling two across the table, pick them up, then palm them in his puffy hands while substituting another pair, which were shaved.

Finally, after an hour, satisfied, my father would go out to the Venice Athletic Club (a misnomer), near our home in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he played cards and shot craps all night. He'd come back at daylight, when we were waking, and pull out bills from his pockets and drop them on the kitchen table while my mother and I counted them.

My father's life was devoted to the pursuit of money, which is an odd thing to say about a man who was so disdainful of it that when he actually had it he couldn't get rid of it fast enough. He never spent it on himself, though, except every 20 years or so to buy a new navy blazer with brass buttons from J. Press Clothiers in New Haven. My father always dressed shabby Ivy League, like an absentminded professor, which was part of his con. His cronies even called him "Ivy League."

Mostly he'd just turn over his money to my mother, or buy her jewelry, a mink coat. Or he'd spend it on his cronies, buying them dinner or bailing them out just before the shylock came to their door with a baseball bat. When I was 12, in 1953, I had a brand-new Herb Score model baseball glove, $29.95, and butter-soft kangaroo-skin baseball spikes, $39.95, while my teammates made do with $3.99 gloves from Kresge. Money had no value to my father. It was just his way to keep score, to prove how smart he was in outwitting "the suckers." Once he had it, he gave it away to make others happy. It was a lesson he had learned in the orphanage: You make people happy by giving them what they want. And if you are lucky, they give you back a crust of affection. For my father, love was to be conned out of people by his wits.

Every Saturday night he'd take my mother and me to the best restaurant in Bridgeport. He'd whisper something to the maître d' in the frilly shirt and tuxedo, and then, like an NBA point guard, he slipped him a furtive pass off his hip, a folded C-note, which the maître d' slid into his pocket, leading us to the best table in the house. We'd sit at a banquette in front of a window that looked out on the street so that everyone, inside and out, could see us, my father in his navy blazer and rep tie, my mother wearing her mauve chiffon dress and floppy brimmed hat, a pearl cigarette holder held limply in her hand, and me, a child in short pants. And while we ate, men and women stopped by to pay their respects with a little bow. Club fighters with broken noses and baggy pants, comics with big, darting eyes and their exotic-dancer girlfriends with peroxide-blond hair. Before the men left, they'd always lean close to my father's ear and whisper, "Patsy, who do you like?" And he'd tell them.

They called him Patsy, but that was not his name. He was born Pasquale Michele Giordano, a first-generation Italian-American. His mother, Rose, had gotten knocked up in Italy and was sent in shame to have her baby in America. The moment her son was born, she gave him up. My father saw her only once more, as a boy, when she was on her deathbed. She asked him for forgiveness in Italian and told him she loved him. That was the only thing he would ever know about his mother: Her name was Rose, and she had loved him.

Shortly before I was born, he changed his name to Patrick Michael Jordan, at my mother's insistence, so that their son would be born with an American name, Patrick Michael Jordan Jr. My mother always had this thing about us being a respectable American family. But how could she be respectable married to a gambler and grifter named Pasquale? She hounded my father to get a real job, at the brass shop, even though she knew it was a waste of time. (When I told my friends once that my father was a gambler, my mother was furious. She warned me never to say that again: "Tell them your father works the night shift at the brass shop.") She knew he would do anything for her, for us, except the one thing she wanted.

Sometimes it caused terrible arguments in our kitchen. I would be sitting on the floor, wedged between the refrigerator and the wall, crying, while they savaged each other, until finally my father stormed out, slamming the door. He'd always come back late at night, but those arguments and my father's lifestyle made me fearful as a child. It could all be lost in a moment, on a whim you could never predict.

I remember being startled one day by a real estate agent wandering around the house, asking about heating costs. Terrified, I went to bed, a child of eight, and prayed to God that the Celtics would beat the Knicks by a point and a half so we wouldn't lose the house. A week earlier my father had handed over his winnings to my mother, but now I could hear him downstairs, screaming at her, "Flo, I need that money!" My mother turned it back over to him, maybe $1,000, but not without keeping some of it on the sly. She put it in a savings account and CDs, so that eventually, when they turned 90, she had enough to ensconce them in that nice old people's home.