From left to right: Jennie Abuza (42), baby Annie, Sophie (5),
Charles Abuza (37) and Phillip (7) in Boston, 1892. Not pictured: Moe, age 2.
My father, Charles Zachary Kalish Abuza, was as funny and as complicated as his name. Having arrived in America from the Ukraine by way of Italy, Papa embraced both his unlikely Italian moniker and his knack for getting into trouble. It’s a shame he looks like he’s attending a funeral in the one family portrait I have from my childhood. Photographs were an extravagance back then, and I will never forget my mother screaming at her husband to stop making funny faces while the photographer rolled his eyes and prepared another plate. He ended up charging us extra and my father slept in the parlor for a few nights afterward, but Mama got her proof that the Abuza family could be dignified for at least thirty consecutive seconds.
Papa was like a circus bear; a hairy, squat slab of muscle always doing something a little bit ridiculous. He loved to sing even though he had a tin ear. If he had to unload a truck full of turnips for the restaurant, he would hum a Russian marching song. When he counted out the register, he tapped the coins in time with an old Yiddish melody he whistled off-key. Following him around for a day was like listening to a record of Jewish folk songs that someone left out in the sun.
Mama thought my singing was a waste of time right from the beginning, but Papa had other ideas. Shortly after the tips started rolling in from customers who liked my songs, he managed to convince my mother to part with twenty-five hard-earned dollars to buy a secondhand upright piano for the parlor. Papa was convinced that mastering the piano would guarantee me fame and fortune. Sure, that might have worked out for Liberace, but my fingers were so fat and clumsy it was like trying to play a piano with kosher dill pickles. Six months later, the ivories were gone at a five dollar loss. At least Papa had some extra room in the parlor when Mama exiled him there that night.
Papa was about as talented a businessman as he was a musician. Whenever I see a rerun of my old friend Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners, I can't help but think of my father's get rich quick schemes that always, and I mean always, failed.
He idolized Thomas Edison—he kept his framed portrait on his nightstand—and also fancied himself an inventor. How he settled on doorbells as his ticket to the top I’ll never know, but he was convinced he’d make his first million with just the right jingle.
He once spent a month rigging up strings and pulleys that stretched from the three outside doors of our restaurant up to the second floor where we slept. Each would ring a cowbell with a different pitch so you knew which door to answer.
Papa was hell-bent on patenting his invention and installing the “Abuza Announcement Service” in every house in America. He even went so far as to get competing bids from three different cowbell companies around the country, waiting patiently for estimates to arrive in the mail from Amalgamated Bells and Whistles or some other cockamamie company.
My father's plan fell apart when some of the older kids in our neighborhood found out about our special doorbells. After a week of being jolted awake several times a night by clanging cowbells of varying tones, Mama put an end to the Abuza Announcement Service with a pair of sharp sewing scissors.
The thing Papa truly excelled at, though, was getting in trouble around a poker table. We shared a love for gambling of all sorts and, unfortunately, I inherited his piss-poor luck. Over the last sixty years, every time I manage to lose a hand while holding four kings, I look up to the heavens and think of my dearly departed father and fork over my chips with a smile.
My father was so unlucky he must been conceived under a ladder. Even when he won, he lost. He once won a big poker pot that included the deed to a small hotel down the street from our restaurant. Of course, he came to find out that there were back taxes due and the place looked like a two-dollar whorehouse on the inside. But that didn't stop my father! He took the rest of his winnings, squared up with the city of Hartford, and refurbished the old Boston Hotel. Opening day, we put up streamers and flags and it seemed like the whole neighborhood dropped by to celebrate with a cup of punch. Business was good for the first three weeks—right up until the moment he bet the same deed on a longshot hand and lost both the building and his dream of becoming the Jewish Conrad Hilton.
I got hooked on gambling at the age of nine, when I became Papa's lookout. While he bet the take from our lunch service on a card game in a back room above the restaurant, I’d keep an eye out for Mama and belt a chorus of “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” if she was headed his way. If Mama was safely downstairs cooking, Papa would let me sit on his lap while he played.
His poker buddies were a colorful group of ne’er-do-wells who’d earned their crooked noses and limps through a variety of interesting occupations, which was why Mama hated the card game so much. Not only did I learn the different kinds of poker while sitting on Papa’s lap, I got to be pals with every gangster in Hartford. Turns out, the criminals’ code of ethics wasn’t all that different from my mother’s lessons in the sewing parlor. When it came to right and wrong they both subscribed to the same four sacred commandments: never go back on your word; always return a favor; make lots of money; and never screw your friends.
My three favorite regulars were Tommy “T-bone” Palazzo, Sammy “The Socket” Turcott, and “Deaf Davey” D’Angelo, nicknames courtesy of yours truly. T-bone was Hartford's premier bookie and there was nothing he loved more than a juicy T-bone steak. My dad used to bust his chops by serving steaks to everyone at the card table except for T-bone, who got a plate of gefilte fish.
Sammy had a double-jointed arm that he could pop in and out of his shoulder socket. He pretended it hurt and begged us kids to push it back in place, which we did with glee. Sammy, demented as he was, was as close as we came to being entertained by a clown. When he wasn't making us laugh he controlled all of Hartford’s dock workers.
Deaf Davey ran all the prostitutes and liquor in town. I gave Davey his nickname because he wriggled out of answering every question the same way:
"I said how are you, Davey."
"How are you doing?"
"Stop screaming. I can hear you!” Davey would yell.
The only time Deaf Davey’s hearing was perfect was when he was getting a liquor order.
"I want two cases of bourbon, three cases of gin and five cases of vodka."
"That's two burb, three gin, five vod," Davey would repeat.
"Can I get that tomorrow?"
Once, during an intense hand of five-card stud, Papa sent me downstairs to the fetch some beers from the icebox. Ever the little waitress, when I returned to the back room I went around the table and popped open a cold bottle for each player. Aside from the regulars, that particular game included Stanley Walski, an old friend of T-bone's who was new to the table. Stanley had just opened a butcher shop on Front Street.
It was Stanley’s deal, so I waited to hand him his beer and watched while he gave T-bone three cards, but sneakily pulled his own card from the bottom of the deck. I put down the beer, moseyed over to T-bone and whispered what I’d seen into his ear.
T-bone didn't move a muscle. He and Stanley were the only two players left in the pot and T-bone played out the hand and lost, taking it on the chin with no more than the usual grumbling. However, walking home from school later that week, I found Front Street was blocked off by what seemed like every policeman in Hartford. Turned out the new butcher was discovered on the floor of his shop with a meat cleaver in his chest. When word spread about how Stanley was killed, I was less shocked than my schoolmates. They were the kind of kids who didn’t serve beer to gangsters and never heard horrific bedtime stories from a Russian father who grew up under the thumb of the Cossacks.
T-bone returned to the card game as usual that week. When I squeezed past his chair to bring Papa a fresh beer, he grabbed my face in his meaty hand.
"You know the last time I was here you did me a big favor," he said. "I just wanted you to know how much I appreciated it. When someone does Tommy Palazzo a big favor, he always pays it back."
"Wow, kid," said the Socket, whistling through his teeth. "Why don't you ask Tommy to tell us who's gonna win the sixth race at Saratoga this Saturday?”
"Just remember what I said, kiddo,” repeated Tommy. “I owe you one, anytime you need it. Capeesh?”
"Capeesh, Mr. Bone,” I said, and shook his giant mitt.
Stanley Walski’s murder was never solved, but from its brutality the cops knew he wasn't killed by a customer he shorted on a pound of salami. Besides, the butcher's cash register was still full of money and Mr. Walski was still wearing his big diamond pinky ring. Even the shop’s inventory was intact, though it appeared that there had been a run on one particular item. The butcher had been completely cleaned out of T-bone steaks.
Papa found other creative ways to get swindled when he wasn’t playing cards. At the restaurant, my father was the head buyer, the cashier, and perhaps most importantly, the chief kibitzer. He had the gift of gab. Even with his deep Yiddish accent, Papa developed a polished repertoire of American slang. Nothing was funnier than hearing him work “gee villikers” into a conversation. Because he was so friendly, he attracted unsavory characters like flies to Mama’s baked apples and cream.
When I was about twelve, a distinguished elderly gentleman came to the restaurant five nights in a row and ate dinner alone. Papa took pity and chatted with the man while he dined, and by the end of the week they were hunched over cups of coffee, intensely talking business. It seemed Papa's new best friend, Mr. Farnsworth, had a very successful restaurant in the Bronx right next to a stop on the Third Avenue elevated line. Mrs. Farnsworth wanted to retire and move to the country and, though they’d saved for years, they were still about five G’s short.
Enter the enterprising Charles Abuza, already picturing a chain of successful restaurants in New York City and a house on Park Avenue next to J.P. Morgan. Of course, his better half wanted nothing to do with it. Mama was content to slave away on Front Street instead of getting caught up in a pipe dream, but even her most pointed eye rolls in Papa’s direction couldn’t stop him from taking me to visit the Farnworths’ restaurant. I must admit, I had never seen such a commotion. I thought Saturday goulash nights at our restaurant were pretty busy, but this was mayhem and it was only two o'clock in the afternoon. It seemed like Papa had finally stumbled into some luck.
Mr. and Mrs. Farnsworth agreed to come to Hartford in a few weeks to sign over the deed and close the deal. Papa had even managed to talk them down from the original five thousand dollar asking price to just a grand up front, with yearly payments of a thousand dollars sent on to their country home for the next four years. As good a deal as this was for a booming restaurant in the big city, Papa knew it was gonna take more than a couple of “gee villikers” to get Mrs. Abuza to agree. The train ride home to Hartford was very quiet. Even though I was only twelve, I knew my father’s wheels were spinning with ways to come up with a thousand dollars in just fourteen days.
I don't know how Papa came up with the money, but he did. You can’t sell silver you don’t have. I can only guess that Mama believed our over-the-moon descriptions of the restaurant and tapped into her secret savings, the stash she kept away from Papa and his big ideas. The Farnsworths arrived as scheduled, the money was counted, the ink dried and we were on our way to New York. The transfer of ownership would take place in a month.
The following Sunday our whole family headed into the Bronx to check out the restaurant and look for a new place to live. During that train ride, my family was the most excited I had ever seen them, including my mother, who smiled from ear to ear as I pulled her into the magnificent Grand Central Depot.
When we got to our new restaurant, however, there were no tables, no chairs, no counter, or even a kitchen. The windows were dark and the sign above the door was gone. A policeman happened to stroll by and Papa asked what happened to the restaurant. He cocked his head and told us the building had been empty for four years. Mama went pale and silent. It was a rare sight since she was normally such a bulldog, and it scared us kids to the bone.
Once the officer heard our whole story he knew what had happened: we’d been set up by a gang of local con men. Their M.O. was to find an abandoned neighborhood with an empty building and stage a successful business for a few hours to sell it to a wide-eyed patsy like Charles Abuza.
We were back on the train sooner than we had expected, only this time we were dazed by shock. Grand Central didn’t look quite as grand once we knew we weren’t going to be living on Park Avenue, our pockets fat with cash from our booming new business. But once we were on the train and chugging through Connecticut toward home, the strangest thing happened. Mama started singing one of Papa's silly Yiddish songs. At first I thought she had lost her mind. Papa had just blown Mama’s life savings and she was singing about pipiks and pupiks? Then Papa joined in, then Phil. Before you knew it all of us were singing, even shy little Annie.
With our family there wasn't a lot of time for hugs and kisses. We all worked sixteen hours a day just trying to scrape by. When I think back, it seemed like my mother was always mad or yelling at my father. Living with him must have been exhausting. His harebrained schemes forced Mama to be the one always saying no, while doing all the real work to keep us clothed and fed. Her little Yiddish hootenanny on the train may have started to help us forget we were out a thousand dollars, but it let us know that despite everything, she loved us and she loved Papa, and that made us feel like a million bucks.
“Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah” was published as “Old Joe, or Somebody in the House with Dinah” in London in the 1830s or '40s, with music credited to J.H. Cave. "Dinah" was a generic name for an enslaved African woman. The melody for this song may have been adapted from "Goodnight, Ladies", written in 1847 by E. P. Christy.
Truly hooked on cards from childhood, Sophie went on to sing about, lose at, and generally enjoy all forms of gambling for the rest of her life. “Seven or Eleven – My Dixie Pair o’ Dice” by Walter Donaldson and Lew Brown was written for the show Make it Snappy starring Eddie Cantor. Sophie borrowed this gambling song to record in 1923, on Okey Records.
Liberace (born Wladziu Valentino Liberace) was a flamboyant pianist who, from the late 1950s through the 1970s, became the highest-paid entertainer in the world. Known equally for his musical prowess as for his wild costumes covered in sequins and feathers, Liberace was a singular figure in popular entertainment. Though he denied being gay throughout his lifetime, he was sued for palimony by his chauffeur and he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987.
Ralph Kramden—the main character of The Honeymooners, played by Jackie Gleason—was a bus driver with a penchant for get-rich-quick schemes. Well-hidden beneath layers of bluster and a short fuse is a soft-hearted man who loves his wife and is devoted to his best pal.