What I Learned From My Father, the Grifter
Credit: Roberto Parada
In many ways, I am my father's son. once, in my 60s, I told my father, in his 90s, that I was not much like him. "How so?" he asked. I said, "I never gamble." He laughed, a dismissive laugh, and said, "You? A freelance writer for 40 years?" He was right. He had taught me how to con people early in my life. I used that knowledge in my late 20s to hustle pool like him. I wore construction clothes at lunchtime. I conned my marks into spotting me the eight and nine in nine ball, and if I lost I always went to the men's room, climbed out a window, and left without paying. A lesson from the old man. "Always check the men's-room window before you play," he said. "Because even if you lose, you're not gonna pay." Years later, when I became a writer, I conned editors into giving me assignments. "You got to find out what they want," he said, "then give it to them. Tell them anything they want to hear to get the assignment, then write it the way you want."

He taught me so many things that became a part of my life, that determined how I lived my life. He taught me that only a fool believes in perfect justice. "There's no such thing as an accident," he said. "You're supposed to know the other guy always runs the stop sign." He taught me that a man never quits no matter how defeated he feels, that a man always has to have the courage of his suffering. And most important, he taught me that "there are only three vices in this world, kid: broads, booze, and gambling, and if you're gonna do it right, pick one and stick to it." I was in my 20s, with a wife and three kids, and there wasn't much room in my life for vice. Years later, however, I had more than a passing acquaintance with one of those, and it wasn't booze or gambling.

But in the one way that really mattered, to me anyway, I was not much like Dad at all. I never had his purity of understanding of the true nature of money. That has always shamed me. I have been burdened, conflicted, cursed, you might say, by my own fearful need to hoard money to forestall that looming disaster always around the bend, the foreclosed house from my youth.

When I was eight years old, all my friends had piggy banks, but not me. Their fathers had bought them so their sons could learn the value of money. Whenever my friends did chores around the house, threw out the garbage for their mothers, their fathers would give them a few coins – pennies, nickels, a dime or two. When those piggy banks were full, my friends would turn them over, unscrew the little rubber plug on that pig's stomach, shake out all those coins, and go downtown to Bridgeport to buy ice-cream sodas and go to the movies. I went with them, but only after I ran home and asked my father for money. He never asked, "How much?" He just reached into his pants pocket, produced some crumpled bills dusted with powder-blue chalk from a pool hall, and gave them all to me. "Buy your friends candy," he said.

But those crumpled bills weren't the same as the coins my friends lovingly saved. Those coins were sacred, cherished. My friends had earned those coins and what they bought. In my house, money was always a gift from the one who had it to the one who needed it. There were no strings attached, except one: It must be appreciated as a sign of love.

One day I got up the nerve to ask my father for a piggy bank. I saw a look on his face, as if I'd hurt him. As if I were telling him that I wanted to take away the only way he had to show me his love. "Why?" he asked. I said, "So I can have my own money." He just looked away and left the room. I never asked again.

Today, at 68, I have some things my father might or might not approve of. A house in Florida I bought for $100,000, two cars I bought for less than $20,000 each, a dozen Haitian paintings I bought for $100 each. I think he might approve of those things because they are modest things, although I'm not so sure about the paintings. I think he might approve of my savings account, my checking account, my CD, my annuity, all of which are worth $250,000. He'd approve of the money, just not where I put it – in institutions. I know he would not approve of my mortgage, my car payments, my credit card, my monthly "nut," which I can sometimes cover, but which often overwhelms me. That's a gambler's term – the minimal expense he needs to support his family. My father always kept his "nut" to a minimum – rented apartments, cheap secondhand cars, no frills. No matter what, he always told me, a man has to meet his "nut."

Like my father, I never was employed by anyone, never got a company salary, company stock options, company pension, company health insurance. I know he liked that. My life, like his, was in my own hands.

One afternoon, in his 80s, Dad took me to a gambling casino in Connecticut. He hated casinos because they were institutions, and mostly because "you can't beat the iron," the casino winning percentage. (And, most important, you couldn't cheat a casino.) But he took me because I'd always wanted to see him shoot craps. He gave his hat and coat to the girl at the cloakroom, then shot craps for five hours. The other, younger gamblers around the table called him "the old man" at first – "Let's see what ya got, old man" – and then after he started winning, he wasn't an "old man" anymore; he was a winner. He won $300. When he picked up his coat and hat from the girl, he handed her a folded bill. She unfolded it, looked in disbelief, then called after us, "Thanks, Pop!" I asked him how much he'd tipped her. "A C-note," he said. I said, "Jeez, Dad, couldn't you have just given her a sawbuck?" He glared at me and snapped, "For chrissakes! The girl's stuck in that stuffy room all day. Whatsa matter with you?" Then he gave me the other two C-notes. All my life, I have never seen my father without him slipping me whatever bills he had in his pocket.

I have never been as free and easy doling out bills as my father was, although I tried desperately to emulate him. When I'm flush, I always pay for dinner with my friends. I pay when I'm not flush, too, although it gnaws at me in a way it never did my father. He imposed on me an attitude toward money that was in his nature, not mine. My fear always diminishes my act of giving, which always ruins that act of giving. When friends are coming to dinner and my wife suggests we serve a rib roast, I tell her we can't afford it. Then, ashamed of myself, my father's admonition in my ear – "Whatsa matter with you?" – I tell my wife, "Aw, screw it! Get the rib roast." I am like Pavlov's dog, trapped in a programmed behavior that is not natural to me. My father's inheritance, a curse.

My father never feared the wolf at the door. He always believed that by hook or crook, mostly crook, he could forestall disaster as long as he could get out of bed in the morning. He always found a way. In his early 70s, when he was flat broke, he went back to the only pool hall in town, now frequented by young black men in satin sweatsuits and lots of gold jewelry. He let them hustle him into a game of nine ball, an old man with downcast eyes and a deferential slouch, until he started banging the balls around the table with that maddeningly methodical southpaw stroke of his, dropping in one ball after another, the guys not laughing at the old man now as they kept tossing their C-notes on the table after each game.

By his early 80s his stroke was gone, and his eyes (he had always told me, "You play an old man, leave him long. He can't see the long shots"), so he made "ends meet" – that was the phrase he always used – by transporting gold coins and jewelry for a pawnbroker. Stolen goods, I'm sure, worth 50 large. He'd pick up his "consignment," as he'd call it, as if he were a representative from Sotheby's, toss it in the backseat of his battered Volkswagen Beetle, and drive west on the Connecticut Turnpike, over the George Washington Bridge, into New Jersey and then on to Delaware. It was a long drive for a man his age, so he always stopped at a McDonald's. He left his "consignment" in the Beetle while he ate. I told him once, "Jeez, Dad, somebody can rip you off." He said, "Me? I'm an old man, for chrissakes. Who'd ever think I got two nickels to rub together?" When he made his delivery, he'd be paid a few C-notes, which, I'm sure, he'd find some way to slip into my hand a few days later.