What I Learned From My Father, the Grifter

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.

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.

When I was 18 got $47,000 after I signed with the Milwaukee Braves to pitch in their farm system. The first thing I did with that money was put it in a savings account. The second thing I did was take $5,000 and pay off my parents’ mortgage so they could finally feel secure.

Later, after I was out of baseball, I raised five children in that house and became a writer. I was a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated in the early ’70s, and one day my editor offered me a staff job. It would pay me almost three times what I had been making, along with an expense account, stock options, insurance, and a pension. There was only one drawback. Two, actually. Time Inc. would own all my stories. Which was also part of the second problem: I would be owned by an institution. My work, my life even, would no longer be in my own hands. When I told my father about the offer, and that I was contemplating taking it, he said, “For chrissakes, what’s wrong with you? Didn’t I teach you anything?” So I turned it down.

Ten years later, in my early 40s, I was going through a divorce. I gave my wife everything – the house, car, alimony, child support, everything she needed to meet her nut. It bankrupted me. When I mentioned, offhandedly, to my father one day that maybe I should have taken that Sports Illustrated job, he snapped at me: “Forget it. That’s baggage. You made your choice, now live with it.”

So I fled to Fort Lauderdale, where I could live more cheaply, in a rented apartment for $500 a month, with only my books, my clothes, my typewriter, and a rusted-out Alfa Romeo as possessions. I began using my many credit cards to pay my bills. Then I fell behind on my credit cards and stopped paying them altogether. I had tapped them out to the tune of $40,000. When I told my old man, he liked that – screwing an institution at its own game. “Even shylocks got more heart,” he said of financial institutions. Then he added, “But you never screw a friend.”

I remarried, got back on my feet, began to make enough money to live pleasantly, if frugally at first, in our small apartment. Then we began to accumulate a little money. We bought dogs and went shopping for a new car. We drove north into western North Carolina in 1989 and bought a mountain cabin as a second home. After three more years we began looking to move from our Fort Lauderdale apartment to a house and found an old wood-frame Key West-style bungalow for $100,000. But I’d have to put down one-third, and I only had $15,000 in the bank. When I told my father, he said, “Buy the house,” and he sent me $20,000 in cash in a FedEx envelope. I was afraid to ask him where he got it.

Meeting my “nut” always unnerved me. Five children, five dogs, two cars, two mortgages, alimony, and exorbitant health insurance for my second wife, who had had breast cancer in her late 30s. There were so many living things that depended on me for survival that at times, I’d wake at 2 am in a cold sweat, get out of bed, and pace back and forth. Sometimes, during those early-morning dreads, I cursed my old man for all his cavalier advice. No institutions, no investments, give it all away. Easy for him to say.

My mother died at 97, and then my father died two years later, in 2005. A year after that, my wife and I sold the cabin in North Carolina for $230,000. We were in our mid-60s then, and the 12-hour drive was too much for us. Besides, we had to start thinking about our impending old age. We put $200,000 into a CD at 2 percent interest and the rest into a savings account.

When our CD came due in February 2006, our banker convinced us to invest that money in an annuity based on the stock market. He guaranteed we’d earn at least 5 percent more than we were earning on our CD. So we signed the papers. I put our future, our life, in the hands of someone else for the first time in my life. I heard my old man’s voice, “A fucking scam!” as my wife and I left the bank. I said out loud, “Fuck you! What do you know?” My wife said, “Excuse me?” I said, “Nothing. Just talking to myself.”

My old man believed the stock market relied on a “sucker’s” gullibility. When it went down, he said, all the working stiffs lost their money; when it went up only the guys in the know made anything. Now I was one of those stiffs, a sucker, the lowest form of life for my father.

I decided I’d master the market myself. I’d find a way to regain control. I began quitting work at noon to watch Maria Bartiromo on CNBC. She reminded me of all the women in my Italian family. Tough, like men. And smart. The market would go up, and she’d explain why. Something about housing construction starts. And then it went down, way down, and she began talking about a mortgage crisis. I died a little death with the movement of each point. It was inflation. No, it was the price of oil. No, it was unemployment. No, it was hedge funds. It was all so fucking confusing I couldn’t concentrate on any of it anymore. I stopped watching CNBC. I bid adieu to Maria. I resigned myself to something beyond my control. Not a bad feeling, really. Fuck it. Let it go where it wants to go. It was all baggage anyway.

My experiment in the market taught me something, however. I really was much different than my father in the way that mattered to him most. I rattled the bones and tossed them over the green felt cloth, knowing full well the dice were not shaved. I gambled, always have, because I always wanted to make my life bigger. My father deliberately kept his life small – that rented apartment, that battered Volkswagen – so he could gamble without fear of loss. I always feared loss, which is why I now wonder: Which of us really was the purest gambler?

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