My mother viewed herself as something of a social renegade. Although she stopped short of embracing the lifestyle of her somewhat felonious cousins, she spent her maternal years inhaling unfiltered cigarettes — Lucky Strikes come to mind — and, when the occasion demanded, chugging down bottles of a particularly odious malt liquor named Champale. The elixir, which, between bankruptcies, is sporadically available in select urban markets (but, sadly, not ours), was aimed primarily at African-Americans and marketed as “The poor man’s Champagne.”
When my parents hosted a gathering, my mother would dispatch the old man to the liquor store, where he would acquire adult beverages for the guests. Then, as my dad was about to leave the house, my mother would pretend to have just remembered something. “Oh,” she would say, “and pick up a six-pack of Champale.”
The old man’s face would form a grimace, because he knew that challenges awaited him. By midnight, my mother could be heard to emanate a curious bleat, but I never knew whether she was laughing or crying. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure she didn’t know, either.
Having been born and raised on the North Side in Minneapolis — then a Diaspora consisting mostly of Jews and known simply as The Ghetto — Ravina Gelfand was, quite naturally, somewhat rebellious in her tastes and her disaffection for social norms. She persuaded my buttoned-down old man to take her to see the hilariously vulgar and brilliant satirist Lenny Bruce when he played Minneapolis in the early 60s. I can only imagine my exhilarated mother and appalled father in the audience, surrounded by beatniks and morals squad deputies.
It was around that time that my mom took me on a trip to Las Vegas, where her cousin, a lowly lieutenant of a crime family that I have wisely decided not to name, escorted us to a front-row table at a prominent hotel showroom. The headliner was an on-the-rise comic named Bill Cosby, whose slightly blue humor killed the crowd.
Then it was off to L.A., where we spent a confusing but memorable day at Santa Anita. Neither of us knew anything about horse racing, but I never quite kicked the jones for the magic oval.
By the time we returned home, the boy Gelfand announced to his parents that he no longer aspired to be an attorney but had decided instead to make his living as either a comic or a gambler. Sadly for my parents, those aspirations never faded.
I don’t know if either of them looked back at the trip as the beginning of my descent into reprobation, but I flashed back to that vacation when, in the late 80s, my mother once more beseeched the old man to go where Lou Gelfand had never gone before — namely, the racetrack. In those days, Canterbury Downs, as it was then known, was still a novelty and the place to be. But first a stop at the bar across the street, a not inelegant saloon where I could be found each racing day mixing, not surprisingly, comedy and gambling with my picks for all nine races.
My father watched with a bizarre mix of pride and revulsion — perhaps the ultimate paradoxical ethnic experience — as I explained my selections. Sensing coming disaster, I tried to foam the runway with a show of filial pride as I asked my parents to stand, whereupon the crowd applauded.
As it happened, I managed to pick just one race correctly. Not unheard of, but a one-off didn’t happen to me all that often.
The next day, my phone rang at 11 a.m., which was early for both my mother and me. The voice on the other end was a fatigued wisp which connoted pain and disgrace, although I pretended to detect neither. “Mike…” my mother croaked.
“Hi mom!” I answered (the exclamation point uttered with irony and annoyance).
“How are you?” she barely managed to ask.
Whereupon I dropped the act with a deep and weary sigh. “What’s going on mom?”
“Mom, let’s just cut to the chase.”
“Oh, I’m just a little tired.”
“I just couldn’t sleep. I was so worried that you’d be fired because of your awful picks.”
I must explain that, to the extent she bet on my picks at all, she would have been risking two bucks to show, the ultimate no risk/no reward “gamble.” So this was not exactly a financial setback for my parents. It was, however, a reminder, as if I needed one, of the wisdom expressed so poignantly in a much-covered and soulful 60s ballad written and originally performed by William Bell:
Everybody loves a winner, but when you lose, you lose alone.
If this sounds like I’m pleading for understanding as I confront my failure as a handicapper this year, it’s not quite that bad. I’ve tapped out a couple of times since I started doing my NFL mythical bankroll bit for the KQRS Morning Show in 1987. I hope to be around long enough to tap out again.
And yet, as I learned from all those radio years, people seem much happier when I lose. I could attribute that to my own polarizing and often offensive comments, but I don’t think it’s that. True, Schadenfreude is intrinsic to the human condition, but I think it’s simpler than that.
The point spread is bigger and better than any one person. Anyone who has tried to conquer the line year after year has been humbled on many occasions; the spread is gravity and you can defy it for only so long. Gamblers know this. Because they, too, have been smacked back to Earth, I am not convinced that everybody loves a winner. Perhaps it’s simply comforting to know that there’s no need to suffer alone. Maybe that’s why so many broken hearts keep coming back to those Tuesday night meetings in church basements.
To look at it through a metaphorical lens, ultimately we all lose. Pardon me if I’ve said this before, but if you want a happy ending, turn to either Hollywood or a massage parlor.
Maybe that’s not the New Year’s message of hope and joy that you want to hear, but there’s no point in lying. I’m selling insight, not dreams.
And, on that note…
My contract requires that I make at least one mythical bet each week, so I’m betting a mythical $40 on Seattle at Dallas to go over 43. Seattle’s Pete Carroll, by far the superior coach here, has a history of ratcheting up his offense for the playoffs. My hope is that Dallas head coach Jason Garrett will not be able to prevent Ezekiel Elliott and a resurgent receiving corps from getting into the end zone three times.