The Shylock Business – My Fallback Position Redux

The Best Of The Zola System

I understand how current college graduates must feel.  Much like 2011, 1991 was not a good year to enter the workforce.  With my newly minted BA from NYU, a few writing credits from SPIN Magazine and an infinite amount of chutzpah, I hit the New York pavement and quickly found out why they were called the mean streets.  I walked in an out of hundreds of magazines, publishers, PR firms, advertising shops, anywhere a writer might be able to find any sort of work.

It was during this time I discovered the concept of the vicious circle: no place would hire me unless I had New York experience.  But unless someone hired me, there was no way I could get any New York experience.  “Why should I give you a gig, because you’re young and hungry,” one HR intake person asked.  “I hire you, train you and give you the tools you need succeed.  15 months later, you’re on to the next job.”

So without I took a job at a B. Dalton Bookseller, then a short time gig at the Tor Books Imprint and finally, two years after I graduated from college, I found work at Jerry Inc., the new boutique advertising firm opened by legendary adman Jerry Della Femina.

Of course, I didn’t know who Jerry was and how large his shadow loomed over the advertising business.  Della Femina is the man who gave us the singing cat, Joe Isuzu and Blue Nun Wines among other classic ad campaigns.  The job was supposed to go on for 2 weeks.  Jerry kept me around for nearly three months, occasionally lecturing me on what it took to be a writer who was coming in ‘off the street.’ Unlike when my father lectured me, pointing his finger right in my eye, this time I tried to remember every word.   Jerry could no longer justify my position to the accountants, I found myself looking for another job in a still not good job market.

This time the application process was quick: Ross Roy Advertising New York called me for a first interview that included the dreaded typing test I somehow passed.  Thus, I found myself in a waiting room looking at a portrait of a past president named John Pingel while waiting for my second interview.  I kept looking at the picture of this man wondering how I knew of him.  The name was familiar but I couldn’t place it.  However, during my interview with a woman named Joan, I discovered Ross Roy Advertising was a company based in my hometown of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. That’s when I realized John Pingel was a cousin on my Mother’s side.  Joan said I would be called for a third interview within three days.

Later that evening after a long discussion over family lines with my grandfather, I learned John Pingel was not only my third cousin and a first round draft choice for the Detroit Lions on 1939 but was the reason his alma mater Michigan State was eager to accept my undergraduate application in 1987.  “He lives in Florida,” my grandfather told me.  “Why don’t you call John and tell him about your interview and see if there is anything he can do.  After all, family is family.”

So I called 411, got John Pingel’s number, called his West Palm Beach number and, much to my surprise, got him on the phone on my first try.  I explained our blood ties: my great-grandfather – his uncle – was Bert Pingel, my grandmother his 1st cousin was Thelma and my mother Judith, thus making him a relative and how I had gotten the interview on my own, my resume and could he be any help at all.

“Uncle Bert’s great-grandson,” he asked.

“Yes Mr. Pingel,” I said.  I knew this man who once ran this ad firm who represented members of the Big Three would look after his own blood.  I’d be working as a junior copywriter in no time, I thought.  The hot looking young blondes working on Wall Street would soon be mine through Mid-western blue blood (or something like it) connections.

My cousin John Pingel hung up on me and refused to return three phone messages.  Ross Roy never called back.

My dreams of advertising glory thwarted, I moved from day job to day job, into real estate, finally becoming a full time bartender (a job I had done part time since 1993) in 1999 as I freelanced.  However, I never doubted my ability to make a hustle up a living while I was working in my chosen career.  Unemployment, underemployment, bad economies et al. have led me to lose a few hours sleep but have never the whole night.  I’d love to blame society for this bit of arrogance but it’s the Old Man’s upbringing in the Zola System and a rather elegantly dressed gentleman nicknamed Chicago who are to blame for my lack of Groucho Marx-esque insomnia.

My father bet on and owned Trotters, the form of horse racing where the driver is seated on a cart latched onto the rear of the horse.  A modern form of chariot racing, Harness Racing is direct descendant of the Roman Coliseum spectacles of yore and is the most corrupt sport known to mankind.  Thoroughbred traces brought out the best in ‘society.’  The races were in the afternoon and the stakes were high – a horse in these races could cost upwards of $1 million to buy and many more millions to train.  If the horse failed to win stud fees could be astronomical.  The Jockey’s were highly paid by their choice of mount and so were weighed in and watched closely by the moderating powers that be so no advantage could be taken.  At these races the ‘people’ wagered and expected to be playing a game of chance.

Trotters on the other hand had ‘standard’ horses.  They only cost the owner’s a few thousand dollars to own and train a year.  The driver’s were paid a small flat rate per appearance and so those entrepreneurs with enough money, in this case a literal few bucks, could determine the outcome of a race.  A successful driver will go to prison for corruption (throwing races for profit) many times during his career.  My Old Man and his business associates were in the know on which horse was due to win, place or show. Hence when they had a ‘tip’ the horse always finished in the appropriate slot.

99% of those who attended the races had no idea who would finish where, they believed these racetracks were social clubs with bars and people and the games of chance were on the up and up. These people were the Blue Collar backbone of Detroit.  They came to relax after a tough day of making Thunderbirds and if they blew a few dollars it was all right.

But the Trotter races were also the haven for degenerate gamblers of every stripe.  These were the people who knew the fix was in but couldn’t resist the temptation of the big win while dropping the mortgage payments and losing the house.  Since degenerate gamblers generally have lousy credit they are forced to find funds to keep the buzz going – and maybe win back the cash for next July’s house payment – on the secondary loan market – from loansharks.

Chicago was a nattily dressed friend of the Old Man.  He could always be found watching the evening’s races from the owner’s boxes.  I’d known “Chi” ever since Dad took me to Hazel Park or DRC for the first time – around 1975.  Chicago was a florist by trade (his shop was on 7 Mile and Livernois).  However, his major source of income was as the principal numbers banker in Detroit.  His secondary income was from his work as a loanshark.

In March of 1987, while my father was at the betting window, Chi sat with me, asking me about my decision to go to NYU.  He wanted to know why Michigan, where one of his children had gone to college, wasn’t good enough.  While explaining to Chicago that 80 some percent of my high schools graduating class was going to U of M and since I didn’t particularly like high school the first time around I didn’t see why I should do it twice, I noticed Chi nod to one of the rather large gentleman behind him.

The large gentleman walked over to a window where a man in a Detroit Tigers warm-up jacket was collecting his winnings.  They had a brief conversation and the man in the Tiger jacket nodded and handed the money to the large gentleman.  He gave a $100 bill back to the guy in the Tiger jacket.  They shook hands, shared a laugh and the large gentleman came over to Chicago and gave him the money, nearly $1,500.

“What was that about,” I asked.

“Oh, that guy owes me money.  Since he’s a degenerate gambler, I know he’ll be here.  When he wins, my guy goes over and reminds him of his debt.  Of course he wants to pay me because no bank is going to give him money but I will.  So he gives me his winnings and I give him $100 so he can lay a few more bets and get home.  If by some miracle one of his long shots wins again then I get paid again and he’ll be current on his payments.  You see Alex, that’s how the shylock business works.”

“How much does he owe you?”

“50% weekly on the amount he borrowed.  Usually I charge 65-70% but he’s a regular customer.”

“Wouldn’t you break his legs or this thumbs or something,” I wondered.

“Why would I do that?  Then he can’t pay me.  You shouldn’t watch so much Hill Street Blues,” Chicago said.

On the drive back to the house in Bloomfield Hills, the Old Man asked me what Chicago and I had talked about.  “Chi showed me how the shylock business worked, Dad.”

“Good.  If you run into problems in New York, you’ll have a profession to fall back on,” he said.

It’s always good to know, 24 years later, if my career as a writer, playwright and part time fine dining bartender falls apart, I have a fall back position.

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