GELFAND: The Furniture Man and Week Five Picks

Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Most gamblers I know are thoughtful, literate folks who simply need a daily distraction to cope with the awful cloud of anxiety that shrouds their lives. We like to call ourselves degenerates, but it’s mostly an exercise in irony. We still read newspapers, so we know who the real degenerates are.

On the other hand, there is the story of the Furniture Man, whose dissolute lifestyle and many “co-addictions,” as the therapists like to say, earned him infamy far beyond the cornfields that framed his furniture store in a small Iowa town.

The F Man, as his friends called him, was always an outlier. When his high school classmates were stealing kisses, he was stealing cars. When they were at the drug store sipping cokes, he was snorting coke in the basement of his family’s furniture store. When the principal was passing out diplomas at the high school graduation, the F Man was passing out.

Iowa is a remarkable place. In most small towns, you’ll find a corner bar. In small-town Iowa, you’re just as likely to find a corner college. Blame the Lutherans if you must, but the whole damned state is littered with literacy.

But the F Man’s customers didn’t need higher education to read his mind. His erratic behavior could hardly be ignored as he became increasingly disheveled and his skills as a born salesman were diluted by alcohol, degraded by debt, and, finally, diminished by whatever happened to be his drug of choice. It’s hard enough to break even if you’re abstemious. But if you’re guilty of a WUI — wagering under the influence — you’re going to lose more money faster.

The F Man’s downfall came when his older brother, an accountant who did the books for the furniture store and other local businessmen, discovered that the F Man had been raiding the cash register and tricking out the ledgers.

This should not have come as a surprise. The F Man kept lowering the price on the goods as he tried to come up with the cash to pay off a sprawl of bookmakers from the Great Plains to the Great Desert. And the oak dining room sets advertised as the work of Dutch artisans turned out to be plywood crafted in Taiwan.

But, from my solipsistic perspective, this was hardly the worst part of the story. Somewhere in his descent into furniture hell, the F Man had started to patronize the 900 number through which I was peddling my over-under NFL picks. (This was back in the 80s, so ask your grandparents to tell you about 900 numbers.) Don’t get the wrong idea; my picks were good, and a real bargain for the price of a $10.

But good picks don’t help bad gamblers. Unlike the blind hog that occasionally finds an acorn, besotted and desperate gamblers never get even. But that’s not where the story becomes dystopian for your wagering correspondent.

No, the problem was that one of the F Man’s bookies happened to be an acquaintance of mine. So one day the F Man tells this bookie that he’s been winning with the picks of some guy named Mike Gelfand and…yeah, you get the idea.

Before long, the F Man, never once sober, is calling several times a day for my limited insights into the NFL card. He believes that we are becoming fast friends.

That’s bad enough, but this a story with multiple layers of horror. The F Man’s brother, now hip to the store’s impending bankruptcy, goes through the store’s phone records and discovers that all these calls are going out to a number in Minneapolis.

Whereupon the brother concludes that I must be the F Man’s bookmaker. So…the brother calls me, claiming to be an FBI agent, and says he’s going to have me busted.

Well, first and foremost, I’ve never booked a bet in my life, unless you count the family dead pool that I organized for the entertainment of my kids. (Great way to encourage the little ones to read newspapers.) And FBI agents don’t call to say they’re going to arrest you.

So, on to the next chapter. There aren’t any secrets in a town of 5,000 people, but why should I worry? I don’t know anyone who lives in Iowa, let alone in this tiny, one-Lutheran-college town. Or do I? As it turns out, yes. And not just one person. Oh, no. An entire family of five, all of whom are aunts, uncles and cousins of my wife. Who, by the way, does not approve of gambling.

So that’s how I came to share the F Man’s ignominy.

As you know, I never did stop gambling. As for my wife, she never did forgive me for (a) gambling; and (b) shocking her well-read Iowa relations.

And, because this is real life, there’s no happy ending here.

The furniture store went out of business. The brother dimed out the F Man for embezzling. The F Man did a stint in the county jail and, forced to live off Social Security for the rest of his life (about 10 more years), was never able to make another bet.

He still called me from time to time and when a liver ailment finally killed him in his mid-70s, I made the long drive to central Iowa to pay my respects. The family never knew who the little guy in the back row of the (Lutheran) church was, but I shed a tear as the brother delivered a half-hearted eulogy.

I was one of maybe 20 people who stood as he was taken out of the church in a modest casket. Made of pine.

No one needs to pay respects to my bankroll — at least not yet. I went 0-2 last week, leaving me with an insignificant profit for the year; I now have $1,023 left in my coffers. And I’m going to play small ball this week with two modest wagers.

Atlanta at Houston

Speaking of respect, the Houston offense is getting plenty from the casinos this week, but Deshaun Watson is still having trouble finding time to throw the ball. He’s been sacked a league-worst 20 times, and he’s been hit 30 times — more than all but the Miami quarterbacks. Meanwhile, the Falcons have gone under in eight of their last 12 contests. Too bad I had to lock into these selections on Bob Sansevere’s Wednesday podcast, because the totals line is 50 as of this writing. But at least I can say this is a contrarian selection.

The pick: Houston 23, Atlanta 21 — Under 49 for $40

New Orleans at Tampa

After the Bucs’ 55-40 triumph over the Rams last week, the under is not going to be all that popular, but I think the Saints are going to do everything possible to slow things down. Now — as always — Teddy Bridgewater isn’t going to be comfortable throwing the ball more than seven or eight yards, which is why he stands at 6.1 yards per pass attempt. Also, the Saints will endeavor to keep the total plays to a minimum. With Brees at the helm in Week One, the Saints ran 64 plays; they’ve run an average of 56 under Teddy in the next three games. Throw in 15 or so holding calls, and I might get lucky.

The pick: New Orleans 24, Tampa 17 — Under 46 1/2 for $40.

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