THE BLOG
07/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Daddy's Little Shill: Memories of a Gambler's Daughter

Before I tell you how, as a two-year old, I was my daddy's shill, let me tell you a bit about him. Daddy was a "professional gambler," if betting daily on greyhounds and thoroughbreds could be considered a profession rather than an addiction.

His mornings were spent at the desk in my brother's room, studying in his loose robe -- playing peekaboo with the family jewels as he hunched over The Racing Form. And most of his days and nights would be at a race track doing mysterious things I never saw him do, but which seemed to pass for his life's work.

During summers he left Miami and holed up in a seedy hotel in Boston near the dog track at Revere, but then again we didn't see all that much of him while he was home, and when he left, my brother and sister and I thought it was as natural as the heat and humidity.

Our parents weren't officially separated -- almost no couples were in those days -- and yet a third of the year my parents lived apart. And mommy seemed happier when he left, which confused the hell out of little me, who believed in sitcom family units where daddies wore suits to dinner and mommies served apple pie in gingham aprons.

The only legit thing Daddy ever did to earn money was invest in a plot of land on a nearby island, so when someone asked us what Daddy did for a living we were able to say he was in "real estate." In fact, I was so prepped by mommy to say that, when the teacher asked my name in kindergarten, I blurted with a big smile, "Real Estate."

I noticed a curious thing from an early age: Daddy didn't get excited when he won at the track. No, the adrenaline would be flowing, the monologue would be deafening and he'd come roaring into the house, pacing up and down and yelling -- when he'd almost won. So when he was quiet, I figured he'd won some money.

He wasn't often quiet.

Gambling got in the way of family life not just from the uncertainly of our finances. His friends had names after body parts. He called them "Nose," "The Big Guy," "Warts." I called one "Uncle Jellybelly." I'd hang around them when they'd meet and talk about the horses.

We lived in rented apartments and bungalows until I was 10, when we moved to a half-block-long marble-floored mansion with a buzzer in the dining- room floor to call the help. The following year we were poor again, and Daddy would go into my wallet to borrow my allowance. He always said he'd pay me back, but he never did.

***

When I was two-years-old, my Viennese-born Grandpa, who lived with us along with my Grandmother, taught me to read. His gambler son-in-law was not only proud, he figured out a way to capitalize on his "smartypants daughter." He would use me as a shill.

So we would walk around where people would be hanging out, reading The Racing Form and Daddy would say. "See my two-year old daughter. I'll take out this form and you can point to something and she'll read it."

Then the gamblers would figure he had prepped me to learn from the paper he held. They must have thought that I could memorize, but I was too young to read, and they were on to something, and could make some money

"Ok," some would say, "I'll bet you she won't read -- and I get to choose."

But I usually could read what they put in front of me.

"She's a midget," they'd grumble, forking over a Benjamin or two.

***

Mom divorced Daddy when I was in my 20s, and for awhile he lived in a small apartment by the dog track. A couple of years before his death at the age of 83, we were watching a 60 Minutes segment together about gambling addiction. Daddy was "retired," but still visited the track during the day, and often gambled away his social security check.

After the TV segment on gambling, my Dad turned his glazed eyes toward me. This was his chance to show me, finally, that he had learned something about his lifetime of ruined potential and broken relationships. This was his chance to say he was sorry to the girl whom he had involved in his gambling since she was a toddler.

Daddy looked at me with resignation and shame.

"It's was hard to watch that piece on addicted gamblers," he said. "I know people like that."

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