Quarter Hopes & Dollar Dreams

by | Jul 9, 2023

Prelog: Yes, I can spell. In fact I was a perfect 100 percent speller in school. However, I am a smoke signals kind of guy now (think Lonely Are the Brave) caught in the technological age. Add that to LaVecchio (old age) getting to me; my hands don’t work right and a lot of other parts of my body. In football I never dropped a pass and now I am dropping everything I touch. Typos galore and the eyes don’t always catch them. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

So to add to that, I know what a Prolog is and Prologue. I made up my own word: PreLog. I like being different.

Writing is like therapy for me. Always has been, and, I suppose, always will be. The pen IS mightier than the sword, though, I suppose, if I didn’t get things out on the printed page, I might take my frustrations out elsewhere.

I have wanted to write this story for quite some time. It has been stored in my mind and played over and over again, but because of the subject matter, and the people involved, I will once again set the scene in my fictional town of Greenwood Cove, and use my alter ego, Brian McCormack, as setting and storyteller respectively.

I am full-blooded Italian, though my spirit is Indian. Brian is half-Italian on his mother’s side and a mongrel mix of Scots-Irish and Lenape on his father’s side. In his blood courses the regal print of barons and Caesars from the old country, and frontiersmen and native Americans from the new world.

So, having established that bit of info for you, we will begin. The story is True! The names have been changed to protect the innocent, the not-so-innocent; the guilty and those almost so.

Those of us who were here and lived it will recognize all of it with no problems. The rest of you will have to use your imaginations and wonder what could have been.

In old EG we had a town whose richness could not be believed, unless, of course, you lived here. The diversity of people, the characters, the events that happened would have made a good movie. Disney would have loved EG. It was a model for a quirky, interesting small town America. Some things that went on here might leave you scratching your head and doubting, but it is all true, and it happened; right here in this little town, in the center of the smallest state in the greatest country on God’s big, blue marble.

Soooo, here we go again: 

Quarter Hopes and Dollar Dreams

Brian could never watch that scene without being transported back to that time. The scene occurred at the beginning of a movie called Goodfellas.

Ray Liotta is a teenager in New York. He is allowed to drive a Cadillac, and his job is to go around and pick up the “numbers” for his boss, the bookie at the local gathering place. He does odd jobs and hangs around the “fellas” and, in the movie, he becomes one, getting immersed in “the life” as they term it. It becomes a life from which he can not escape.

In Greenwood Cove, things are not so desperate, or serious. But, there was gambling that went on. Still does. In those days it was Brian’s job to go around and pick up the “policy slips” from different people around town. These people all had their own quarter hopes and dollar dreams. Everyone wanted to hit “The Big One.” Get that one way ticket to Easy Street.

They were, for the most part, average people, mostly blue collar. But, there were some upper crust too. They played the numbers, or went to the dog and pony tracks in the area getting their vicarious fixes in vicarious ways.

The ringmaster for this circus was Brian’s uncle on his mother’s side, Tank Rizzo, a local legend. The Tank ran his operation an old days’ SunnyBrook farm, from a grocery store at the bottom of Princess Street at the corner of Drake and Bank Streets. Another Uncle, Vincenzo Rosario, ran his operation from a coffee shop up on Main Street.

Tank had been an outstanding athlete in his younger days. He excelled at football, baseball, track, wrestling and boxing. He was Greenwood Cove’s answer to Jim Thorpe. After brief stints in the NFL and on the local pro wrestling circuit, he had settled down to running the family business, a mom-and-pop grocery store, from which he also ran his side attraction. Like I said, not unlike your modern day SunnyBrook Farms. A place to get your lottery ticket for that chance to be set for life.

At 14 Brian drove his Uncle’s $6,000 pink Cadillac with the power steering, power windows and power brakes. Criminy, he had had two minor accidents with it before he ever got his driver’s license.

The Caddy was a necessity. Brian had to drive around town to pick up the “policy slips,” the little papers that held the numbers of a person’s dream. People would write their number and a nickname, or initials on a piece of paper and wrap it around a quarter, or fifty cents, or a dollar or more and Brian would pick it up and bring it back to the store. On Saturdays, Brian took a large paper bag up to “The City” (called “downtown” in those pre-yuppie days) and dropped the bag off to “Joe” at the Produce Market. Now Joe was a little higher up on the numbers chain, but Brian’s knowledge ended there. He “knew” but didn’t know, if you get my drift.

Once, on a Saturday, Tank was tipped off (by a local cop indeed) of an impending raid by the state police. Brian and his cousin, Dink, walked out of the store with a couple of bags of “groceries,” the bottoms of which would have been very interesting to the Staties, who rushed right by them in an attempt to make a collar. All they got was thin air.

There was another thing that always amazed Brian, and that was how his contemporaries from school, guys who could not pass math in Coach Zaccanazzi’s class, could figure out the day’s number from the race sheet, and also the trifectas and perfectas.

In school numbers were a mystery to them, but on the corner they handled the numbers of card games, bets and money transactions from the “pitch” winnings with ease. It gave Brian ideas that he later put to good use as a teacher, using the lessons of the street to reach his students in the classroom. He used card games, craps and common sense to reach kids who might not have been reached any other way.

Another lesson learned was how to read people. He learned early that people were not always what they seemed. Sunday Best people. Street angels and house devils. All kinds made their way down to the bottom of Princess Street. Gambling was the lure for rich and poor alike. Even the rich harbor Dollar Dreams. Quarters are not enough for them. The rich can never seem to have enough.

Tank ran card games on Friday and Saturday nights in a room behind the store. From Tank’s grocery storage room Brian could look through a peephole and see who was playing in these games.

On any given weekend night Brian would see his teachers, coaches, administrators, police chiefs and an assortment of elite businessmen, movers and shakers sitting down to gamble over cards with quahauggers, truck drivers and other blue collar types.

It always amazed him when he ran into these people from Mondays to Fridays and how they acted so “pure,” not knowing that he had observed them, in essence, breaking the law on Fridays and Saturdays. It gave him a good look at the behavior of people and served him well down through the years. He could always pick out the “holier than thou” types and have a private laugh over their “correct posturing” and “phoniness” especially those who preached to the kids about gambling, and breaking the law.

Another lesson learned centered on a man we will call “Jim Smith.” It was from an incident with this man that gave Brian the lesson to stay away from gambling. And he did, for most of his life anyway.

Everyday, Brian used to drive to Mr. Smith’s house to pick up his “policy slip.”

Everyday, Mr. Smith gave Brian his slip, with his initials and a number wrapped around a dollar bill.

One day Mr. Smith hit the number! He went down to Tank’s store to collect $500. Once there he was congratulated by all “the boys,” who hung around the store. He was congratulated and then walked across the street to Mickey’s Tavern, where he had to buy everyone a drink per tradition.

Brian sat back, kind of detached, and observed this whole scene. Though only 16 at the time, his mind worked differently from many of his pals. Watching this scene caused his mind to shift gears.

“Funny,” he thought to himself. Mr. Smith won $500. But, Brian thought, he really didn’t win $500. He gave me a dollar a day for 365 days. So, in reality, Brian’s thought process continued, “he only won $135. By the time he leaves Mickey’s he will probably have spent another $100 treating everyone. Ergo (means therefore) thought Brian, he really only won $35.

And from that little scenario, Brian came to the conclusion that gambling really wasn’t worth it. He decided he would never gamble.

And for 50 years he never did.

The last scenario in this story deals with Las Vegas. No, not the Sin City in Nevada, but the one that was carved out under that mom-and-pop grocery store at the corner of Princess, Drake and Bank right here in Greenwood Cove.

See, Tank loved to gamble. He was also very lucky. On a couple of occasions he won huge sums at the track. He played the ponies. He played the dogs. He played cards and threw those little cubes loaded with dots.

The thing about Tank though. When he won, everybody won. He was not only lavish with his winnings, he was also good hearted in running his store. He carried people on the tab for years. He wiped out debts. Some people who later became successful in life had their tabs wiped out by Tank. Funny thing, they never paid him back, and they never shopped in his store again after they had “made it.” People are funny like that. It was another lesson Brian learned, and, of course, seeing as he helped with the books, he knew who these people were, and he never forgot. He looked at them later in life through a different prism, as they put on their airs and tried to impress others with their success in life.

Yes, all the lessons one gets and needs are not always learned in school.

Anyway, going on with our story, to further enhance the gambling thrill, Tank and his “boys” dug out a good-sized room underneath the back storage room at the store.

It could only be reached by going down between the boiler and a wall and entering a boarded, braced up area that held roulette wheels, crap tables, card tables and slot machines. It was used by a “chosen few” and Brian only got to go into it a couple of times.

Who would have thought! Little Greenwood Cove! A podunk place in the middle of nowhere (at least according to the city folk) had its own mini Las Vegas! Brian guessed Tank and his boys had more than a few thrills there.

So, who would have thought? All this action and excitement in a little town, that later, in college, many of Brian’s classmates said was “the boondocks” (tho’ many of them live here now).

Tank and most of the people in this story have passed on to that Las Vegas in the Sky. Brian lives on Mystic Island just off the Jersey Shore and just north of that eastern gambling mecca of Atlantic City. He is retired now, has a little more disposable cash than he did back in the ‘50s when he drove that pink Cadillac, and he makes the short trip down the highway to the board walk and drops some of it at the machines. He likes video poker and Wheel of Fortune best, and though not as lucky as one of his buddies, he still manages a nice win every now and then.

The lessons learned back there “on the Corner” don’t seem so important now. He is in the last quarter of his race, or “rounding the far turn” as Tank used to say.

Now, he too has his Quarter Hopes and Dollar Dreams, just like everyone else.

Author’s Note: I hope you like this story. It really happened, though as they say in the disclaimers for “Law & Order” on TV: This story, though fictional, was based on real events. I want to dedicate this story to all those great people who lived down and around that corner. Real Salt of the Earth people, who loved the Tank and knew what “real” was back in the day. I love you all and love bringing your story to life. Until next time, with Much Love and In The Spirit . . .

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Bruce
Bruce
July 10, 2023 6:15 am

When I wrote “The Store ” I tried to conjure up what it meant to so many. I went down to watch them tear it down and shed a tear or two. This story brings out more emotion and solidifies those tears at the demise of that building. If you lived down there and knew “Tank ” and had the experiences of all that being around there entailed, you might shed a tear or two also, over a time that we cherished, but, one that is never coming back.
Brian

robert s butler
robert s butler
July 10, 2023 7:02 am

Brian would not recognize the EG of today…….

George Brennan
George Brennan
July 10, 2023 8:09 am

Great story Bruce.
We all know and proudly remember our East Greenwich happenings and friends.
If you weren’t there, you really don’t know.
However my wife and daughter have experienced it through me, and they see it and feel it.
George Brennan.

Chris
Chris
July 10, 2023 10:31 am

Thank you so much Bruce for bringing back the real times in EG from back in the day. From growing up here in the 1950s much of what you write echos of simpler times in a town where as the Cheers song goes..
…”everybody knows or in this case knew your name. “ A town and neighborhoods where we as families all took care of each other, kids , bikes , and their family dogs all hung out together, played outside from am to as our mothers all said “ you come home when the street lights came on”. If you got in trouble at school that was one thing , but your Mom finding out at Almacs in EG by your local EG teachers..meant you got it again at home , and rightfully so ! Sooo…you thought twice about getting in trouble again ! Many great lessons learned and experiences had , adventures ,and lifelong friendships made. Thank you Bruce for sharing the best of times in a great small town., from “ back in the day”, we did have the best of life growing up in this once small town.

Mark Thompson
July 10, 2023 8:46 pm

Wonderful echoes, Bruce. Thanks for putting it all down.

Joyce
Joyce
July 11, 2023 9:06 pm

I grew up near that grocery store and went there to pick up things for my mother. I was completely oblivious of the happenings going on. All I knew is they had the best pieces of pizza all wrapped and ready to eat.
When you saw them tearing down the “grocery store” did you happen to see the room under the store???
Thanks for the memories.

Fred
Fred
July 12, 2023 10:10 am

Bruce, I was an outsider when I moved to EG as an eighth grader in 1969 – the year of Woodstock. Even though I came to the dance late, I was able to taste the community and warmth and care that existed in our small town. I even remember meeting a young Bruce at a local family hangout on Howland road where a close gang of teens were lucky enough to gather. We were able to share the stories and meet the people who made EG what it was. Many of us continue to be friends for life. I consider myself so fortunate. Thanks for bringing us back to a simpler time.

RAYMOND RICCIO
RAYMOND RICCIO
July 12, 2023 10:13 am

I read this thing and first I thought of parts of it when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. But, aside from your feats, you’re lucky I’m a relative that’s forgot more about gambling.

The people that played under the floor at Tar’s were just people, nothing more nothing less. Their money was as good as anyone’s. I would see some, throughout town, later at the Oaks as well as prior the Italian Club playing cards. At one time the Men’s Club on Post Road in EG had gambling. Rumor has it it was also a bordello. Then as your uncle said, in came a different clientele of people, dues went up and they put in a swimming pool. The roulette wheel and tables of chance went out the door. Prohibition before finally repealed was the illegal the transport, manufacturing and sales of alcohol but not having it. And the latter they did.

Is it all a Disney movie contrived around a Scorsese film? You’d have to think back to the days of the Lufthansa heist late ’70s and what the Daily News & Post were printing at the time. Then in 1974 a book called “Lucky” came out the year that he died. These individuals were no more crooked than what happen during the RJ Nabisco LBO, still legal today. “Barbarians at the Gate” is the name of the book. Millions would have been pocketed. It’s how a presidential candidate this century made his scratch. So what’s organized crime and what’s not?

Your friend didn’t look at winning $500 at a dollar a day over 365 days. Quite different actually. Two months rent, food for a month and knowing a bit about gambling for most people that played the number would play on a hunch, a dream. My father who occasionally would say I dreamt of a number, he’d play it for 3 days win and of course or lose. But not daily. I would tell him Dad, I still dream of girls not numbers yet.

The penny players had their game. Like I mentioned, winning $5-$6 put food on the table for a week. If these people won with that $.25 bet (winnings more than a weeks pay) then you were less likely to see them sitting in the parlor in grandma’s house, waiting for Tar to finish his dinner, make that walk down the hall, reach into his pocket pulling out a wad of cash asking each of them how much do they need after having just paid their rent. Yeah, a lot of people owed Tar money. At his wake and sitting with David I told him the tears we’ll see if people paying “respect” will be tears of joy as their debt would now be buried.

I personally highly doubt anyone could figure out perfectas or trifectas. The daily number easy as the daily scratch sheet which had the daily number (the last 3 numbers of the handle generally a NY Track) could be picked up very early in the morning at Halsband’s where daily racing papers/forms were bought including the “Tele” (Telegraph) for horses and the “Program” for the dogs. With the “Tele”it would list all the horses in about 3-4 races detail the horses last so many past races, if the horse was dropping in class and you’d be able to figure out a horse’s speed rating and track variance in the race/field. Nearly the same with the Program. The Ucci family had relatives from Connecticut who owned dogs and raced them at local tracks of which Tar would follow, an occasional tip. These relatives came to his funeral.

My father taught me many things, how to read a Tote and figure out the speed rating and track variance. Came in handy one Friday night as I hit the daily double, 3rd, 5th and 7th race perfectas at Narragansett with my cousin Dennis. Take it from someone that knew a little bit anyway, there is nothing like seeing your horse at the top of a 1,050 stretch nearly dead last closing only to win the race. As it is said, “the most exiting two minutes in all of sports.”

Tar was busted 3 times. Maybe you were there I don’t recall. But yet you’re older.

The first time he was busted he was banned from having a phone in his name. Most of the action was called in so the phone and the store had been tapped. The second time same scenario but the phone was now in his sister’s name so off they both went. The third time plainclothes men. One of your aunts thought it was this thing called the mafia. He was in his 60s,handcuffed, and she was yelling, “It’s the mafia Tar, run, run,” as she beat on one of them. Maybe like Forest Gump?
But I told her who it was and Tar wasn’t running anywhere. Another aunt working at the then Kent County Court House (on Main) with the same last name was mortified as Tar walked in.

I’m surprised you mentioned nothing about Tar hitting a Twin Double at either Taunton or Raynhem Dog Track for about $13,000+/-, five figures anyway. It was one one the largest hits at the time. His father’s picture was in the Journal, smiling with his one or two teeth holding up the ticket. Tar didn’t consider spending it over the course of time, nope, he would take that money or part of it and travel to Italy for 4-6 weeks to visit family. Parts lived in Fornelli. Some of Tar’s family migrated to West Warwick where a family named Lombardi (née) from Fornelli would migrate. The Lombardi family would have the first Female US Speaker of the House. Some of Tar’s family in West Warwick were very poor and at times were put up by his parents.

My father was fairly good with the horses and also ran numbers as did Tony Carcerri who ran the Bon Vue down in Galilee. Tony was adopted into the Ucci family. Gentine’s adopted brother. How and when not sure.
He was warned about a couple guys from NYC were getting post results early and playing the scam as they made their way north. Among the people waiting for them in the parking lot at the Bon Vue were my father, his brother Morris (another book) Tar, his brother, your uncle Al and others. And given that chance sent them back to NYC with niente just a fair warning.

You’re right you and your buddies could have gotten quite the a lesson in math from anyone of these men. As far as figuring para-mutuals on a single horse, perfecta, or trifecta (which weren’t around until the early 70’s) I don’t think so. Why? There were these things called Tote boards at track for the payouts. If you bet on single horse that was one pool, perfecta in the same race another pool, then a Tri in the same race another pool each combined making up the para-mutual. Take out a little for this and that and don’t forget the “vig.” and you have the odds/payouts. These numbers weren’t in any papers sold that I knew of.

Aside from Tar hitting the “Twin” or as call “pick four” “Dink” was with him. My father hit more than once for $4,000-$$5,000 although it’s not always a win win game. He was able to make a $5,000 down payment on a house that cost $8,000 on Marlborough Street. Lost $1,500 of a $4,000 win to Tar’s brother playing fingers at Pal’s. You see every time my father got a little ubriaco and play “fingers” he would always throw the same fingers.

So when you saw Tar throughout the day studying the “Program” or my father sitting in front of his shop studying the “Tele” it generally meant a night at the track or a bet with a book. Thanksgiving Day was generally a morning matinee at Narragansett which I think ran to the end of November and on that holiday off they went. Only to finish that day off with a dish of spumoni maybe with a little crème de menthe.

These people told me they didn’t think they had money to put into the “Market” or just maybe a bit more, that the action was not as exciting and just too slow.

Movies, funny watching one the other day called “Seabiscut.” It wasn’t mentioned but under a different owner that stallion would break his maiden at a very popular track where Hollywood stars from CA would fall, Narragansett.

Most people on the corner had no more than 5th, 6th grade education but as you imply were the richest in the world.

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