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.