From the Zola System


New York, New York, USA
January 30
I grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in the Zola System, my father’s philosophy of life. He taught my brothers and me the basic life skills: how to run a street hustle, perpetrate a con or recognize when you were being hustled or conned; information we needed so we could feed our families if another Hitler came to power. My father Aron Zola was a Romanian Jew, a holocaust survivor, a black marketeer, a gun runner, a successful entrepreneur, a true citizen of Detroit. When I was 18, I rebelled against the Zola System and moved to New York City. I was fascinated with cultural heroes – Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson and the aesthetic bohemian artist lifestyle that, in my naivete, I thought they lived. Now I see they were working their own hustles on the public, just like the Old Man. Even the Manhattan dating scene runs on the Zola System. To paraphrase Mark Twain, now that the Old Man is dead, I’m shocked how much he learned. I wrote reviews for SPIN, an unpublished brunch guide for New York City, covered the death penalty, reviewed books for the New York Law Journal and profiled sports stars for the Jewish Forward. I have two crime novels and a bartenders guide to New York City that I am trying to sell. After dabbling in so many genres, I finally realized I’d been running from my subject: my father and the Zola System. The Old Man is gone now and I am his eldest son carrying on as he wanted me to do. This was not supposed to happen.


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SEPTEMBER 19, 2008 12:39AM

Touting For Dinner

Rate: 6 Flag

In your average family, there are a couple of coming of age moments, usually revolving around a bar/bat mitzvah, a confirmation, graduation, sweet sixteen or having your first legal drink with your parents.  In the Zola family, there were three of these moments: your bar mitzvah, the first time you could lay a bet legally at the track and when you could legally gamble with the Old Man at a casino.

My younger brothers and I had been going to the track to with the Old Man ever since we could walk.  He’d come home almost every night with a tip and asked who wanted to go watch the trotters with him.  But before we turned eighteen, what could you do with my brothers and me?  We couldn’t walk up to a window and place a bet, even with the Old Man standing next to us and there were only so many times one of Dad’s friends could teach us the loan sharking business or how to throw barboot.  So, to keep us occupied, he taught us how to tout.

Touting, more an art form than a straight up street hustle relies on the personality as much the actual game.  Here’s how it works: say you have a ten horse race, you tell ten different marks which horse is going to win.  When the race is over, you find the mark you gave the winner to and remind him you gave him the information on the winner.  He throws you a couple of bucks and you start the process over with the next race. 

“The key to this is remembering which guy you told the winner to,” the Old Man told us.  “If you talk to one of the schmucks you gave a loser to, you get no money.  He lets everyone in earshot know what a lousy tout you are and the hustle is shot for a couple of races until the faces change over.”

My father pushed me into touting when I was 12.  At the time I thought these guys were throwing a few bucks my way because I was Aron Zola’s kid and the whole thing was cute; a pudgy, pimply boy telling degenerate gamblers which horse was going to win.  It’s another one of those things that made me embarrassed by my immigrant father.

I forgot all about touting as a concept or practice until one day in the late fall of 1991.  My girlfriend at the time couldn’t seem to pick between me and her college boyfriend.  One day, it was me, the next day him.  I was just out of NYU, just beginning to freelance, chronically broke and subsisting in the joys of the quickly disappearing downtown bohemia.  He was a law student at Penn.  Hillary came back one day and told me how the other guy, Rick, was taking her to fancy dinners and Broadway shows. 

Needless to say, the prospect over losing my girlfriend to a wanna-be member of that venal profession was troubling.  Actually, it over took my mind.  Here she was that one girl that I was so in love with that, to this day, I can still the breakup (we all have one like that) and she’s going to leave me for a shyster at hack?

“Nice thought,” my friend Harry said to me.  “But how are you going to get enough cash to take anywhere but the local McDonald’s?”

That was the very point I had been debating.  I knew I could have called the Old Man and gotten a bit of cash but our relationship at that point was rocky at best.  If Dad said the sky was blue, I told him it was really cerulean.  Plus, Hillary was Jewish and the Old Man had a special dislike of Jewish women.  Mother told me it was due to his lack of education and he felt they would judge him as ignorant.  Of course, I could just hear him scream “What she feels entitled?  She wants a nice Jewish display of affection?  Buy her a cup of coffee and a cheeseburger.  Tell her that’s a good meal in Detroit.”

NBD (The National Bank of Dad) wasn’t going to be a help with this one.

I was in a frenzy of neurotic energy trying to come up with a solution.  Then it occurred to me, as I walked by an OTB on Park Ave. South and East 24th Street, I could tout. 

I took Harry with me, handing him a racing form and told him to act like he’d been there before.  I touted for two races and got lucky.  One of the marks I fed a horse to, a 30-1 shot, won.  His return on his action was nearly $2,500 and he threw me $400.  After an hour and a half, I had a bit over $700.  I grabbed a suitably impressed Harry and we walked down to his Lower East Side apartment.

I gave him $100.  He asked me why.  “For being my shill,” I told him.  He seemed to understand. 

Later that week, I took Hillary to Smith and Wollensky for dinner.  It was all steak and red wine and I was properly thanked for a few days.  I didn’t hear about the newbie shyster until she found out at her Christmas party how I made the money to take her out to dinner.  She was not happy.  As a matter of fact, she was rather shocked by my hustle.  By the spring of 1992, I was out of the picture.

That was the last time I touted for dinner.

Back in July, Harry came over to drink some red wine with me as I recovered from shoulder surgery.  There was a marathon of Hogan’s Heroes on TV Land and there is only so much of the Swans any cognizant human being can listen to before the boom and crunch become a migraine.  In the opening of one episode, Col. Klink explains to Hogan how he once lost money to a lousy tout.  We both laughed.

“Zola, you are many things in this world but you were a very good tout,” he said.

The Old Man would be proud.

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As a former habitue of Hialeah Race Track, I've met my share of touts. Some were cleaver, some were crude, and some were momentarily amusing. But all were transparent.

The things I saw at Hialeah - a man on the inner balcony tossing fistfulls of dollar bills down on the crowd below and shouting "I might as well throw it away!"

Another man, sitting on the steps to that same balcony, head in his hands, softly weeping. No one spoke to him, or even went near him.

The "stoopers", guys who pick up discarded paramutuel tickets after any disqualification, in hopes of find one that some impetuous soul has tossed aside after seeing his Win selection run second. I never observed one whooping and hollering that he'd discovered a winner.

Those were the good old days. It breaks my heart that the place many called the most beautiful track in America is falling apart, and every effort to rescue it falters and sputters like a candle in the wind.
First, two things for Wayne: 1.) I hear the current effor to revive Hialeah is for real this time, and 2.) I once found a $12 voucher on the ground at Los Alamitos. I wasn't scrounging or anything, I just looked down on the ground, it was there face up. I read it. Read it again, I could only think of one way of interpreting the words that made sense, so I took it to the mutuel window and pocketed the $12. Not a huge score, but not bad for the amount of effort that went into. Anyway, as for the article, great read.