The major social issue of my late adolescence was drunk driving. The crack epidemic had yet to push into the suburbs, driven out of the cities by upper middle class cocaine addicts and MTV’s predeliction for violent Gangsta rap. Concerned parents formed Mother’s Against Driving Drunk and had their children sign No Questions Asked pledges promising to call for a ride if they had the car but had too much to drink. One of my classmates was busted for underage DUI and had to spend several weekends in the Oakland County Jail. The Scriptor, our high school newspaper, had him write a series of articles about his experiences. The Wylie E. Groves High School version of scared straight.
The two events that concerned our concerned parents most were Prom Night and the After Graduation parties. Prom parties usually took place in hotel rooms so the fix there was easy enough – Mom and Dad stopped renting the rooms and hosted the parties themselves. Usually there was no beer but hey, when you are an impoverished high school student bent on having the time of your life price point matters.
After graduation parties were a slightly harder fix but in a moment of civic compromise between parents and young adults, the schools held the parties. Once again, the 3.2 beer consumption was kept to nil but the parties were always a bunch of fun, or so came the reports from the classes preceding ours (1987).
My pals Howdy, Sreeny and I sat around the dark oak stained octagonal table across from the bar in my parents occasionally finished basement discussing how the funds for our senior party should be spent. I favored a party at a downtown hotel with Sreeny shooting the idea down. “Think about how many people in Birmingham take pride in not having been in the city of Detroit in 15 years or more,” he said. “Do you think our parents are going to allow Groves to throw us a party near where the riots happened in ’67?”
Just when Howdy began to weigh in with his plan for our senior party, the Old Man came down stairs and joined us at the table. After listening to the conversation for a bit, while playing with the gold pinky ring on his left hand, Dad asked who was in charge of the money for this party. “Jenny Smith. She’s our class president,” Howdy said.
“Why don’t you have Judy go the money from her. Have her tell all the other parents on the PTA I’ll guarantee it. Then the four of us will take the cash and double or triple it. Then your class can have your party at the top of the Renaissance Center in that restaurant that spins around,” the Old Man said in his thickening Romanian accent.
“How are we going to do that Mr. Zola,” Howdy asked.
“We’re going to go fix a horserace,” Dad said.
Sreeny and Howdy roared with laughter. I shook my head and rubbed my temples with my left hand. All I ever wanted from my Old Man was to teach me how to throw a baseball, tell me about his college experiences etc. I wanted Ward Cleaver and I got Meyer Lansky. My friends, however, loved my father’s PhD. in the street.
He laid out the formula for the three of us. Once we had the money, we’d go to the track, where the trotters were running that season either at DRC or the Hazel Park Raceway. It had to be an 8 horse race; he’d choose make sure we had the right one. We’d pay four of the drivers between $100-200 to finish out of the money; that would leave us with 24 Trifecta combinations. Then we’d place 24 bets at the amount we paid off the drivers with an added zero e.g. If we laid out $150 a man then we’d bet $1,500 on each Trifecta ticket. When the proper Trifecta hit, we’d have doubled our money.
“Don’t worry about the money. I’ll guarantee it,” he grabbed my forearm for extra emphasis.
“Dad, what would the rest of the parents think when they found out how we made all this extra money from class dues,” I asked.
“When I guarantee the money, it’s safer than the bank,” he said. “The other parents won’t care. Your party will be the society event of the year. Think about it and let Alex know.” The Old Man got up and took his car keys out of his right front pocket. “I have a tip. I’m going to the Track. I’ll talk to you later.” We had the party at Groves in the cafeteria and gym wing.
It was true the class party fund would have been safe, not only because my father had given his word. The Detroit tracks were (and still are) so crooked Vegas wouldn’t book their action. These days I wonder what certain parents on the WASPy side of town would have said had they known their children’s graduation party, upgraded to the Ren Cen, was paid for by a crime? After all, the crimes that built their family fortunes were at least three generations in the past.