By Michael Calvert
December 3, 2014
Big Joe was less than six feet, but you knew when he was in the room. He didn’t talk a lot, but everyone deferred to him – not just family members, but the steady stream of visitors who passed through his small kitchen to have a cup of coffee, snort a shot of Jim Beam “skullbuster,” or choke down a beer. My sixth grade buddy Joey, his friends and his mom Pauline called his dad Big Joe. To everyone else, he was Joe. He chose to call me Mickey.
Big Joe had a full face and a thickening midsection in his late thirties when I met him. It was the last year he played baseball and basketball for Carfagna’s Grocery at the Linden Park ball field and the Salvation Army gym. Flecks of gray appeared in his hair. His complexion was the color of coffee with a lot of cream like the coffee I drank there.
Sepia-toned pictures on end tables in the living room showed him as a handsome young man with piercing eyes, an aquiline nose and black, wavy hair. One was with a young Pauline, perhaps on their wedding day, and another showed him with his head cocked beneath a fedora.
When I joined the St. Gabriel football team at twelve, I met Joey Weinsteger and began spending a lot of time in his kitchen. Weinsteger sounded German to me. Pauline’s parents were immigrants from Southern Italy. We lived in Amvet Village a subdivision of modest almost alike houses. My house was behind Joey’s and I could get there by vaulting the chain link fence between our back yards. I came in the back door into the kitchen with stove, refrigerator, sink and cabinets lined up on my right and a small table with four chairs on my left. Pauline was usually moving about in the kitchen.
Pauline offered everyone who walked into her kitchen something to eat as soon as she said hello. It was a matter of basic etiquette for her. She seemed hurt if you didn’t accept, so I usually did. Steak and eggs in the morning, stuffed ravioli, spicy meatballs, thick squares of lasagna and buttery garlic bread at any other time. I was accustomed to oatmeal in the morning, sandwiches at lunch, and hamburgers and potatoes for supper; a roast with potatoes and carrots on some Sundays was the high point of my Mom’s offerings at home. In Pauline’s kitchen, our outsized teenage appetites were always satisfied, whatever the time of day. Once Joey and I each ate a dozen scrambled eggs for breakfast. Pauline introduced me to coffee which was considered an adult beverage in my home.
Pauline and her friend Margaret took turns hosting penny ante card games. A rotating cast of characters played. Margaret’s friend Ruby, her son Tony and his buddy Tim were regulars along with Chuck, Dick and Sammie. I was a kibitzer and enjoyed the lively conversation and spirited bluffing. The games often went long after midnight, much to the irritation of Margaret’s husband Joseph. He had to at work early to pile cement blocks on trucks with his huge hands. Later he was laid off when booms lifted pallets onto trucks.
One Saturday morning as I sipped my coffee almost white with milk, Joey’s Grandpa arrived in his two-toned green 1953 Plymouth with the front fender scraped and the bumper askew. He wanted to take Joey to his house because Joey’s grandmother had a birthday gift for him. “Are you all right, old man?”, Joey’s mom asked skeptically as she wrinkled her nose and squinted at him.
“I haven’t had a drink today, I swear. His friend can come, too,” said the short, wiry man with a wrinkled face.
Joey’s grandma was sitting on the steps waiting for us. She was a handsome woman with an unlined face the color of rich mahogany that brightened when she smiled at Joey. As soon as I was identified, she told Joey she had something for him and disappeared into the house and returned with a red and white portable radio. She beamed as Joey found WCOL, our favorite station that featured Dr. Bop’s request show and the Top Forty songs. I never saw Joey’s grandma at his house. His grandpa came around, often talking loudly and clutching a half-empty pint of Old Crow. Pauline shooed him away, and he left grumbling and cursing.
Sports was the primary topic of conversation at Joey’s house. Big Joe’s knowledge of college football and basketball was broad and deep. Like almost everyone else in Columbus, Joey and I were big Ohio State fans and knew the Big Ten standings, but Big Joe knew if Arizona State was likely to beat the University of Wyoming, and by how much. He knew about injuries to starting players and the abilities of their back-ups for the top teams across the country. He also knew the line on each game from Jimmy the Greek in Vegas and bookies in Chicago.
One night Joey, his dad and I were watching Ohio State’s basketball team play Michigan on the walnut-encased, 26-inch Zenith in the living room. OSU had a comfortable lead with two minutes remaining, and the coach put the second string in to give them some game experience. Joey and I were relishing a victory over our arch rival, but Big Joe groaned loudly and called the coach a “sorry son of a bitch.” Michigan began stealing the ball and hitting baskets over the outstretched hands of the subs. When the buzzer sounded, Big Joe slammed his fist on the coffee table, and said “Those rim goofy bums cost me ten thousand God damned dollars!” He stomped out of the room.
“Wow! A big bet! Our houses cost ten thousand dollars,” I whispered to Joey. “Why did your dad bet against OSU?”
“He didn’t, but Ohio State didn’t beat the point spread. Dad will have to pay off all the bets he took that Ohio State would win by 12 points. It’s OK, he laid off most of it with big bookmakers in Chicago. Dad was pissed because he would have cleaned up if OSU had’t put in the second team.”
All our buddies liked to hang out at Joey’s house. His mom’s cooking was a big draw, but Big Joe’s acerbic wit was even better. He called the small White Castle burgers that we ate by the bagful “snot burgers.” He often called from the bedroom as he was getting dressed to tell Pauline to fix him “something to make a turd.” He rolled his eyes when Pauline’s parents, “the geese,” visited and chattered with Pauline in Italian. Visiting kids were “rug rats and ankle biters.” Even his cussing was colorful as he muttered “Jesus H. Christ on a bicycle.” Big Joe often dismissed people he didn’t like as “a bunch of God-damned honyaks.” This charge became our special lingo. We particularly enjoyed calling guys “honyaks.” None of us knew it was an Eastern European slur, but we knew it wasn’t a term of respect.
There were occasional crap games in Joey’s basement where I saw one hundred dollar bills for the first time, Ben Franklin staring from one side and Independance Hall on the other. Big Joe and the players, seated on the edge of folding chairs around an olive drab army blanket spread smoothly on the floor, threw the dice after praying and pleading to the dice in their loosely clasped hands. Shouts and murmurs followed each roll. Moans and complaints from losers competed with shouts of joy and cheers from winners. Everyone had a drink near at hand. Joey and I were sent to the refrigerator for cold beers and were rewarded with dollar bills – real money for us.
On one occasion when Joey was not home, Big Joe sent me to the Super Duper. Pauline was going to cook steaks. “Ask for Billy the Butcher, Mickey.” At the meat case, I was given a package the size of a loaf of bread wrapped in brown paper with “scraps, 79 cents” scrawled on it. I didn’t look up as I paid the woman at the check out counter. When I returned, Joey’s mom unwrapped half a dozen one-inch steaks and put them in two skillets with olive oil.
After I became a fixture at Joey’s, Big Joe didn’t bother to hide from me the black .45 automatic that he slipped into a partially zipped gym bag with stacks of cash bound with rubber bands when he went to Verne’s, a bar on Mount Vernon Avenue in the Negro neighborhood where he had a safe in the basement. Robbery from some street punk or a disgruntled gambler was always a threat. If another bookie’s man grabbed his cash, Big Joe couldn’t pay off bets and he would be through as a bookie. Of course, the police would just laugh.
Big Joe also needed a legitimate job to explain to the IRS how he supported his family. We all knew that Elliot Ness nabbed Al Capone on tax evasion, and Big Joe couldn’t risk putting his book money in a bank and earning taxable interest. He worked a night shift in the yard as an engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad that allowed him to get some sleep at night and and take care of business during the day. He stuffed a pillow into his gym bag when he went to work the graveyard shift.
When we were still in grade school, Big Joe began booking horse bets. A big step up from football and basketball. The horses ran all year. Pauline began taking bets on the ponies over the phone. We would hear her repeating the name of the horse, the track, the bet and the player as she wrote them down in a tablet. Red Feather in the third at Hialeah for $20, Georgie Boy at Hollywood Park for $30, and Go for Gold at Saratoga for $20.
Bud Bond, a beefy six-foot-six guy who might have played tackle for the Cleveland Browns, became Big Joe’s constant companion. I later realized that although he was a buddy, his job was to be Big Joe’s bodyguard.
One day, a “for sale” sign appeared in Joey’s front yard. When i asked about it, Pauline shook her head and said “We ain’t going nowhere, Mickey.” The sign disappeared in a few months. One evening, I heard Big Joe and Bud downing shots of “skullbuster” and chuckling in the dining room with the Racing Form and Sporting News spread out on the table. “Damn. Those Chicago boys bought the story that my house was for sale and they would be paid off as soon as it sold.”
“When they called the number on the sign, I told them the house was priced right, and it would sell any day,” Bud said as he poured another shot for them. They downed the shots and chuckled again.
Big Joe became serious and said, “Damn, It was hard to get those bastards paid. Hell, I know how this shit works and I’d have to be out of my fucking mind to keep betting on sports with what I know. I’m done betting.” Bud nodded and added, “I sure don’t want to see those guys from Chicago again.”
When we were thirteen, Joey and I began scoring “spot cards” for Big Joe. Bettors bought cards and picked the winners of the top twenty college football games with the favored team “spotting” the other team some points. Joey and I followed football closely and thought any fan could pick at least four games and win $20 on a one dollar bet. Big Joe said, “Ties lose – like racing a train at a crossing.” When we looked at the spot cards on Saturday evening, Joey and I were surprised to find very few winners. I later did some arithmetic and realized that the take was big on a couple hundred cards. A lot more than my paper route!
The money flowed freely. Big Joe and his buddies seemed to have a good time. They spent a lot of time at the nearby Knotty Pine sipping drinks, eating steaks, watching ball games and arguing about sports. A pretty good life!
I regaled my parents with stories about plates heaped high with spaghetti and Italian sausage, Big Joe’s milder antics, and his bookmaking. They were worried about me. Dad tried to dissuade me from becoming enamored with Joey’s family. Mom kept encouraging me to get good grades, go to college, and get a good job. I routinely assured Dad and Mom that I would go to college, but I enjoyed being at Joey’s and being a small part of Big Joe’s world.
One afternoon when I came by for Joey, Big Joe was in the darkened living room, his face illuminated by the gray glow coming from the console TV with plastic flowers on top. Joey was taking a shower so I sat down on the couch covered with clear plastic. I had never seen Big Joe watch anything on TV except ball games and boxing matches, but this was a movie. Soon it ended, and Big Joe heaved himself out of the recliner and said, “Mickey it’s just not fair. It’s got to change.” He wiped his cheeks with his fists and lumbered out of the living room. I was surprised that the tough bookie had a soft, sentimental side. After the credits rolled, the movie title filled the screen: “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Big Joe’s great hope was for Joey to become a champion athlete. Pauline said he had shared his crib with footballs, basketballs, and baseballs. On the wall above his bed, there were posters of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson and the Cleveland Browns’ Marion Motley. In his high chair, Joey was encouraged to wield his spoon with both his right and left hands in the hope might become a a switch hitter. Joey played Pop Warner football and Little League baseball as soon as he met the minimum age.
At the age of twelve, Joey looked like a weightlifter. He had abs when none of us knew there were muscles in the stomach. As we weighed in for grade school football at the downtown YMCA, the league official asked Joey if he trained with weights and gave him a skeptical look when Joey denied it. Big Joe made sure Joey had the best cleats and pads. He was a starter in the sixth grade and a league all-star. Big Joe went to all our games, even those an hour’s drive away.
Joey had the body of a very well-tanned Greek god. His eyes were almost black, his nose straight, and his fine, black hair brushed into a flattop. When he smiled, his teeth flashed in his dark, handsome face. He learned to lie on the carpet and ask girls to rub his back, neck and shoulders, and, even in grade school, hugging and kissing usually followed. Girls were not very interested in rubbing my back, and, if they did, they soon announced that their arms were tired. In the ninth grade, Joey fell hard for Linda, a blonde neighborhood girl. He never looked at another girl.
Several of us caddied that summer before our freshman year. Our 300-pound caddy master was Fat Jack to us. As we waited hours for golfers to show up, Jack joshed with us to pass time. Jokes and stories were told and retold. Decisions made by managers of the Indians and Redlegs were second guessed and debated. Everyone got nicknames. A guy with very blond hair that was already thinning was Whitey, Tony Capaccio was the Dago, and Mike Podolski was the Pollack. Joey, who was dark-skinned in the winter, got even darker during the summer. Jack repeatedly addressed him as Black Joe and followed that with a hearty laugh. Joey laughed back and didn’t seem to mind, but I thought it was petty insult from someone with a little power.
My parents were pleased and relieved when I applied to St. Charles Preparatory instead of Aquinas High School. Sister Miriam, the principal at St. Gabriel. had called me in and flattered me by telling me I was St. Charles material. My plan was to go to St. Charles, but be one of the guys in the neighborhood and keep my place at Joey’s side and Pauline’s kitchen table.
The head football coach at Aquinas was glad to have Joey who had continued to grow in size and strength. He was an excellent prospect for power running back. He was a star halfback on the freshman team and was moved to the varsity as a sophomore. Joey was a standout for Aquinas. The Columbus Dispatch featured him in a long article beneath a picture on the sports page. He was also interviewed on a Sunday morning TV sports show on high school football. Joey did not make All-City or attract interest from college recruiters. He was also not much of a student.
Big Joe was undeterred. His dream was to see Joey play college football. Then I assumed it was personal pride, but he probably recognized what success in college football could mean for Joey’s future. Big Joe made contact with an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee who waved off concerns about academics. He was interested, and offered to pay for Joey to visit Knoxville.
Big Joe was elated, but Joey was not. Joey just wanted to be with his girlfriend Linda. In fact, he was eager to get married and settle down. Right after graduation, he got a job on the loading dock with Associated Trucking. As a member of the Teamsters Union, he could afford to get married.
Big Joe told him firmly that he would try out for Tennessee. When Joey declined, he insisted, demanded, cajoled, encouraged, and finally begged him, but Joey just silently shook his head. He told me that he didn’t want to play football, especially in the South. Big Joe was angry and sullen by turns. The coach in Tennessee promise to consider Joey for the next season.
Just before Christmas, Joey called me and said he and Linda were getting married in March. I asked if he was going to be a father, and he ignored the question, but, of course, I knew Linda was pregnant. After offering my congratulations as heartily as I could since I would be losing my buddy, I asked if his folks were excited, and he said, “Mom likes Linda and she’s fine. Dad is just going to have to get used to it.”
Pauline planned a big Italian wedding at St. Augustine’s and Linda’s parents, who were not Catholic, went along with it although they were disappointed that Linda would not be going to college.
After getting fitted for tuxedos one morning, the groomsmen went to Miller’s in Gahanna for lunch. We all knew that Joey and Linda had to get married. I said to no one in particular, “In a year Joey will go from being a star at Aquinas and a college football prospect to a married guy working on a loading dock with a wife and a kid.”
Another groomsman, Ernie, said, “Hell, it’s what he wanted. Joey wanted to get Linda pregnant. I saw him cut off the tips of his rubbers. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that but it’s the God’s honest truth. Don’t ever tell Linda.”
Big Joe made a toast at the wedding with all the right words, but I knew he was disappointed. He wished them well and sat quietly at the family table downing shots of Jim Beam and sipping a beer. He smiled and nodded when people offered their congratulations, but stared into the distance at other times.
A few years later, I worked with Sammie who had been one of the regulars at Pauline’s card games. Over a cup of coffee with him and his mother in their kitchen before going to work, and the topic of food came up. I mentioned that I had a lot of great Italian food at Pauline’s. As she got up to get more coffee for us, she said to Sammie, “Wasn’t she the one that married the nigger that went to East High with my sister?”
“Yeah, the principal called Aunt Billie and the other girls in and said don’t go out with Joe Weinsteger. He’s a Negro.” He glanced at me and immediately saw the shock on my face. He said quietly, “You didn’t know, did you?”
I shook my head slowly, and stammered, “I thought Joey’s grandmother was German.” I realized as I said it that a dark-skinned woman could hardly be German. Sammie’s mother, who didn’t hear the exchange between Sammie and me, continued, “I’m just surprised that Joey ever had any children. Any one of them could be as black as the ace of spades. Pauline made a big mistake.”
I rarely saw Joey, Linda and their girls in those days, but I heard that one lived with Joey’s cousin in Cleveland. Linda said she had a medical condition that required special treatment at the Cleveland Clinic. I wondered about her appearance.
The first time I was in Columbus after Big Joe died of pancreatic cancer, I stopped to see Pauline. Over a cup of coffee, she said, “My Joe’s stomach started bothering him when Joey wouldn’t play football at Tennessee. That’s when it started, Mickey.”