The Dope and the dark powers

My introduction to illegal activities in Saranac Lake’s happened in the summer of 1955, when I was eight. The agents of my corruption were the Friends of the Library.

Yes, you read that right – the Friends of the Library. Indeed, it was those old babes with the blue hair and cat-eye glasses who led me down the Path to Perdition.

Not only was that my first exposure to My Home Town’s demimonde, it was also the Friends of the Library’s first book sale.

In order to keep the kids amused while the adults shopped, there was a little amusement area behind the library. I can still recall the two activities that led me astray.

One was unlicensed gambling — a penny pitch. There was a kiddy pool filled with water and on its bottom were a bunch of small bowls, and in each bowl was a coin. As you might expect, most of the bowls contained pennies, but five contained nickels, and two contained a dime.

None of them held a quarter, and for good reason. Two bits was big money back in them days, Bunkie. To get some perspective: It could’ve bought a gallon of gas, a pack of cigarettes, or an egg salad sandwich at Meyer’s lunch counter. Or in terms that I would’ve cared about, a quarter was five Sugar Daddies, or admission to the Pontiac Theater’s Saturday matinee, or two Cokes and one doughnut from Deissler’s bakery. Big, big money, just like I said.

A game of no chance

My mother had given me five pennies and with them in my hot little hand, I stood by the pool and sussed out a strategy. It was brilliant, I must say. I was going to drop my first penny in the dime dish. Then I’d change the dime into ten pennies, cop the other dime, then snag the nickels, and quit while I was that far ahead. That plan couldn’t have been better. It also couldn’t have been a better example of a gambler’s deluded thought process.

Not only was I spending money I didn’t have; it was money I’d never have. And the reason is because that “game,” like all gambling games, gave the house all the odds. First, the bowls were very small. Second, they were under maybe 18 inches of water. And third, we had to stand back from the pool and pitch the pennies, rather than stand over the pool and drop them. What this meant, quite simply, is no matter what bowl you aimed for, given the coin’s trajectory and the water’s depth, the odds of your penny falling in any bowl were at least 50-1, against.

I’d have known that if I’d just paid attention to the situation itself, instead of my fantastic projections. For while the bottom of the pool was littered with pennies, and others were being tossed in all the time, none were falling in the bowls. But I was a victim of two things that stopped me from figuring this out. One was money lust. The other was my naive — and blind — trust of adults: I just couldn’t imagine adults puttin’ the screws to kids, let alone the Friends of the Library, those pillars of literacy and service. But of course that’s exactly what happened.

My five pennies were gone in five fast throws, and I asked my mother for another five cents.

“What for?” she asked.

“That penny game,” I said. “I’m all out of money.”

“I’ll say you are,” said my mother.

“But I want to keep playing,” I said, starting to whine.

“You’re not starting to whine, are you?” said my mother.

“No,” I said, sniffing.

“Good,” she said, “because you’re not getting any more money.”

And that was that. If she said I wasn’t getting any more money, then I wasn’t. It was just like if she said I wasn’t getting to stay up late, or wasn’t getting a cat, or wasn’t getting anything, My mother did not negotiate with terrorists.

So with my dreams of Wealth Unlimited dashed by my mother, I had to find something free to amuse myself with. And that’s how I got involved with the FOL’s other illegal activity. This one had a lot more to it than just a jerky little wading pool. In fact, it was so exotic as to be other-worldly. It was a genuine Gypsy fortune teller.

Man(ny) of mystery

Ok, so he wasn’t a real Gypsy, but he sure looked like a Gypsy (or at least what I thought one looked like). He had on a multicolored caftan and a long silk scarf wrapped around his head that hung almost to the ground. He was seated at a covered table, next to which was a sign. At the top of the sign was written, “The Amazing Malabar,” and under that was a drawing of a hand, fingers upward, with an eye in its middle. And under that was written, “The hand reveals all!”

Though he later became a psychologist, at that point he was a palm reader. He was Manny Bernstein.

Manny was a wonderful guy. He was unfailingly kind and gentle, had a first-rate mind, and a delightfully quirky sense of humor. If there was one person in My Home Town who was cut out to be a Gypsy palm reader at a dinky little kiddie carnival, it was Manny.

There was a line of kids waiting to find out their fortunes (probably all of them like me — luckless shmendricks who’d already had their dreams crushed in that verkakte kiddie pool scam). I stood at the back and waited my term, which seemed to take forever.

Finally, I was at the head of the line. Malabar/Manny motioned for me to sit across from him, which I did.

“Your hand, please,” he said gravely.

I held out me hand; he turned it palm up stared at it.

“Hmm,” he said. “Very interesting.”

He looked some more.

“This is amazing,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“See this line here?” he said, tracing one of what I thought was a wrinkle.

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s your life line, and it’s very, very long,” he said. “So you’ll live to a ripe old age.”

I nodded at the good news.

“And this line? It’s very deep,” he said.

“What’s that mean?”

“Well, it’s your prosperity valley,” he said. “You’ll be successful in your job, so you’ll always have enough money.”

My bitterness at being broke abated — at least a little.

He then told me, given the amazing things in my palm, that I’d have many friends.

“Great,” I said.

“One last thing,” he said.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Animals? Do you like animals?”

“I love animals!” I said.

“Well, you’re in luck,” he said, “because all your life you’ll have many pets.”

As it turned out, almost all M/M’s predictions were spot on.

I’ve certainly lived a long life (much longer than it would’ve been without a triple bypass). I had a great job, and by any measure beyond money itself, I’m wealthy beyond my wildest dreams.

But figuring out if peeps are truly my friends is no simple deal. Some have been there for me all the time, others some of the time, and still others are there only when they needed me. Over the years the roster has changed, sometimes for the best, sometimes for the worst.

It’s yet one more thing pets have over people: If you want to know how many pets you have, you only have to count ’em.

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