Eldridge Street at the time was a sort of borderland between an Italian neighborhood, known as Little Italy and a Jewish neighborhood known as the Lower East Side, which stretched from Eldridge Street all the way to the Lillian Wald projects on the East River. On my street, Italians and Jews lived in easy acceptance of one another, although at night it wasn’t safe for Jewish kids to wander into FDR Park, located between Forsyth and Christie Streets, or even to walk on those streets. The following day everyone would know about it because you would show up in school with a fresh crew cut. University Settlement House, on the corner of Rivington, was neutral territory, shared by both groups.
Each afternoon between 3 and 4 PM a large crowd, several hundred people, milled about in front of our building. I didn’t quite understand how it worked, but it involved Patsy, who was of the Italian persuasion, and who lived with his family in a third floor apartment, two floors below ours. It seems that Patsy made his living as a gangster who was involved in the local, illegal numbers racket. His informal title was either bookie or numbers runner. His work entailed paying off winners and collecting money for the next day’s wagers. The illegal numbers racket has disappeared, replaced by the legal State lottery, with the only difference being that the gangsters paid out more with a better chance of winning. The crowd gathered each day to find out who had won in the day’s 1-2-3 drawing. Patsy would arrive, announce the day’s winning numbers, take care of the payouts, and begin his collection for the following day. His diligent and honest work on behalf of his employers enabled Patsy to be the first in the building to own a TV set.
Patsy and his wife were really nice people. They invited me to watch TV with them every Saturday night, the night Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca starred in “Your Show of Shows,” and when that was over, we watched virtuous and talented Pat O’Connor and Vern Gagne, between Burma Shave commercials, wrestle huge and evil men who fought dirty and whom they invariably defeated. Saturday nights should and could have been careless evenings. In retrospect, those evenings were fun, and the entertainment was irresistible, except for one little problem.
Patsy had two rather buxom twin, teen-aged daughters who regularly arranged themselves on either side of me on the couch facing the TV, and somehow managed, while reaching for chips, to press their bosoms against me as often and as long as possible without interrupting TV watching. This was neither accidental nor unpleasant, and under other circumstances, I might have been grateful. But their gangster father also sat in the room watching TV, and had he glanced in our direction, I doubt he would have approved. Although the girls seemed cheerful enough, in view of Patsy’s reputation on the street, I was both careful and more than a little worried.