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Tillie Is Back

Fact or Fiction?

Matilda Jules married Jack Rose when she was still in her early twenties. He was at least thirty years her senior. He was “connected” and his bookie operation must have been sanctioned by some branch of the mob. Tillie did not talk too much about him. When I met Tillie, Jack had been deceased for thirty years or more. I always assumed that the mob just decided to ignore Tillie as some homage to Jack. The only contact she had with Jack’s family was with some brother of his who, I understood, worked at The Stardust in Las Vegas. I do know that she checked some betting lines with him and on occasion laid-off some bets through him.

Tillie Rose shopped all the major department stores. Most of what she purchased, she returned. As I found out, it wasn’t the merchandise Tillie wanted as much as it was the boxes in which the goods were packed. She used a new box almost everyday. You know the boxes I mean. They are about 18” to 24” wide, 12” to 18” high, and usually not more than 6” to 10” deep. Most stores placed some twine around the box and attached to the twine a metal handle that was usually covered in wood that was wrapped around the metal handle. Tillie coveted these boxes. It was on these boxes that Tillie transferred from her scratch pads, the actual dollars she needed to collect or payout on a given day. On the exterior of these boxes she would just scrawl the information she needed and prance around town like a shopper on parade. She converted all her customers’ names to some codes. The only ones I knew were mine, “D16,” and that of a friend of mine named Leo, who was just “9.” She had some lettering system that signified dollar amounts.

Tillie would walk the streets of New York City with some department-store box that probably contained a towel or some old sweater. When she was done with her monetary chores, she returned home, removed whatever was in the box, and tossed the box down the incinerator chute. I assume the handles and twine went down the chute as well. Each week, thousands of dollars went to or from Tillie as she went on her “route,” totting her Bonwit’s or Bergdorf’s box.

Starting in September and running through mid-May, Tillie hosted an action-packed, Seven-Stud, hi-lo, declare, Poker game every Saturday afternoon from 1:00 to around 6:00. Because there was also a replace card after the seventh card was dealt to each player, and then there was a betting round after the declare, the game was slow-paced–nonetheless, action-packed.

Her entry foyer and living room were furnished as though she had a garden in mind, decorated in sunny hues with rose and peach flowers, reminiscent of fields of wild flowers. Each piece of furniture appeared to have not only style, but purpose. In comparison, the room in which we played Poker was sparse. One of her two bedrooms was not a bedroom at all. It had a huge diningroom table against one wall. There were a few chairs at the table. On the table were three telephones and many, many note pads, newspapers, scattered pieces of paper, and a radio that looked to be from the 1940’s. Against another wall was a Victorian couch covered with so many cushions and pillows of all different sizes that there was really no room to sit. There were no mirrors, just a few elaborately framed garden scenes that seemed to be outcasts from the rest of her apartment. The center-piece of the bedroom was the octagonal poker table and eight chairs.

I changed my Saturday work schedule. I would open the store at 7:00 A. M. and work to a little past lunch crush (not so hectic on Saturdays). I would return to work my store from 7:00 at night until closing at 1:00 A. M. She had some simple, triangular tea-sandwiches for us and had non-alcoholic beverages available. There was usually six or seven us, plus Tillie. Occasionally, there was another woman, but usually there were just the same six or seven guys and Tillie.

We played with cash on the table. The stakes were $5-$10, which, in those days, was considered more than just a run-of-the-mill Poker game. The first player, other than the dealer, to be out of the hand was required to count the bills and stack them to simplify the splitting of the pot. We all started with about $400 on the table and added more if we started to take some big hits. Tillie was one of the sharper players at the game. She always bet her hand and occasionally pulled-off a very credible bluff. Tillie had Celia come in to work on Saturday afternoons. If the phone rang, Celia took the call in another room. I assume Celia was able to take any phone action that came in while we were playing.

While we were in the midst of a hand, one Saturday, sometime just after the first of the year, the doorbell rang. We were not expecting another player. The doorman, Dale, had not called-up to announce a visitor. Celia assumed it was a neighbor at the door and opened it.

In walked three men. Two were dressed in street clothes; the third, in a police uniform. In almost a polite tone, we were told to leave our money where it was. It was “suggested” that it would be best if we just left. There were no guns drawn, just badges shown. Celia and Tillie remained.

Celia told one of the other players that she was questioned as a material witness. She never told him what happened to the money we left behind. It appeared that either the mob or the authorities wanted Tillie out of the bookie business. Tillie was taking so much action that she was becoming not only a nuisance to the police, but real competition for the mob. Ironically, it was for running the Poker game for which Tillie was busted. I don’t believe Tillie served any jail time. Soon after the arrest incident, building management requested that she move out of the building. I never saw Tillie again.


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more TILLY

 Fact or Fiction?

In her daily comings-and-goings, Tilly was a fastidious dresser. Socially, she was more flamboyant in her attire. Even when walking her yappy, Mini-Pin (Miniature Pinscher), whose name I believe was Minnie (maybe Mini)–maybe Millie, or something like that. Tilly would strut through John Jay Park as though she was about to leave for lunch with the “girls” at the Oak Room. Tilly wore “yellows” a lot of the time. I remember one outfit especially–a light-yellow suit with black and white piping bordering the collar and pockets. She wore this suit with a silk-like white blouse with huge white ruffles that flowed through the suit collar and lapels. In the winter she would parade around in her Persian lamb coat and matching Cossack-like hat. She never transacted “business” (taking wagers or paying-off winners or collecting payments from losers) on her dog walks. Literally, she did not like to shit where she eats, living about eight blocks away from John Jay Park. She lived at the corner of East End Avenue and 89th Street, opposite Gracie Mansion.

Coincidentally, I lived in the same building. Tilly’s 8th floor, corner-apartment had a view that over-looked Gracie Mansion, the East River, and Manhattan points north. Ironically, I don’t remember on what floor I lived. I know it was not on the same floor as Tilly. I must have lived on a few floors or more below her, because I first met her in the elevator, as she was going down and I was getting-on. Did my one-bedroom apartment over-look the East River too? I know I did not live in a corner apartment. I am just not sure of the view from my bedroom or living room.

I do remember furnishing my apartment with great care, especially the living room. Oriental-style, floor-to-ceiling sliding-panel screens served as curtains. The opaque screens allowed sunlight to reflect throughout the room. In one corner there was a free-standing bar. In another corner there was an over-sized mattress completely encased in fluffy, yet silky-smooth vicuna. On a wall behind the couch was a huge oil painting, painted by a friend of a friend. This huge oil was of heavy white blotches with swathes of pink and was often referred to as my pink vomit painting. The bedroom was huge enough to accommodate two double-beds. Oh yes, the bathroom! I almost forgot about that room. I wall-papered the entire bathroom with pages and pages of A. E. Housman’s poetry.

The building in which we both lived had many amenities–no gym, in those days–including an on-premises Chinese restaurant and bar. Tilly took full advantage of the restaurant. She would call there at least twice a week and have meals delivered upstairs. If her meals were not delivered from there, then they would arrive from a nearby deli. If she was entertaining, she had more elaborate dinners delivered by cab from restaurants like Pen and Pencil and Lindy’s. Tilly made no pretenses. She disliked cooking and hated after-preparation clean-ups. I enjoyed the Chinese restaurant as well. Not only was it convenient, but the food was more than adequate. Best, was having a bar right in the building. I could leave the car in the building’s garage, not worrying if I stumbled out of the bar.

Tilly did not frequent bars. Now and then, on special occasions, she would have a glass of Champagne. She needed to have her wits about her at all times. Skirting the law and being on top of her game were full-time jobs. There were no OTB’s back then. Off-track-betting came to New York in 1971. Up until that time, if you wanted to bet on a horse, you had to travel to Belmont, or Aqueduct, or Mammoth. If you really needed the action, you might be so desperate as to go at night to Yonkers or Roosevelt for harness racing. (We all thought the trotters were fixed. If we went to the trotters it was usually because someone suggested that he had some inside info on one of the races.) In new York City, if you said you were going to the races, certainly, nobody assumed you were going to watch “auto racing.”

Tilly did not take $2 action. To place a bet on the ponies through Tilly, you had to wager a minimum of $20 on either Win, Place, or Show or a minimum of $30 Across-the-Board. If you wanted Daily-Double, or Quinella, or Trifecta action, you would not call Tilly. She did not want to waste her phone time and tie-up her phones with small-time gamblers. She specialized in sports betting.

No ESPN then! If you wanted to watch a game, you usually went to the game or listened on the radio. TV games were getting viewer-ship, but most broadcasts were just of local games. Going back a little bit, I remember listening to New York Giants baseball games on the radio when away games were recreated via ticker-tape to the local announcers who would simulate the games. The game of baseball was so different then. Local stars were guys like Ernie Lombardi who was a catcher for the Giants. Indeed, he was a power hitter. It was seeing him run the bases, though, that was the show. He could smash a ball into far left field at the Polo Grounds and be thrown-out at first base. It was said that he was the slowest man to ever play baseball well.

Since my loveable Giants and detestable Dodgers deserted New York in 1957 and 1958, most of the baseball betting was on the Yankees. The true money-players waited to bet on any team with a streak of five or more wins. The Mets did not play their first season until 1962. I remember their first season, oh so well. I had two season tickets at third base just behind the railing. It was like being part of every infield play (better put, mis-play) at the Polo Grounds. This Mets team set the record for losses with a season record of 40 and 112, finishing over 60 games out of first place. The season was more than exciting though, especially watching the phumphering of the third baseman Felix Mantilla or his occasional back-ups, Don Zimmer or Charlie Neal.

Local football betting was strictly on the NFL’s Giants. The Dodgers did not arrive until 1960. As for basketball, the Nets did not play in the NBA until 1976. Sports betting on college basketball brought lots of action. The success of CCNY, Manhattan College, St. Johns, and LIU lured fans and bettors. The 32-college scandal of 1951 left many scars, but did not hinder college-hoops betting in later years. To get the whole scoop on these scandals, check-out http://espn.go.com/classic/s/basketball_scandals_explosion.html.


The Knicks, the Rangers, and the popularity of boxing combined with all the other teams and sports made for great betting fodder. Tilly was a very busy lady. Action was hard to come by. If you wanted an action Poker game, you had to seek out some clandestine card rooms, most a little sleazy. Poker games flourished after-hours in office buildings and in the backrooms of many stores. Home Poker games abounded. Atlantic City did not become a legalized gambling Mecca until 1976, but Tilly knew where all the action was.

To be continued……………

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Fact or Fiction?

Tilly had clients throughout New York City. Tilly was not your typical bookie.Tilly did not report to the mob; did not appear to have a boss.

Back in the 1940’s and 50’s the numbers racket, also known as a policy-game, was a major source of income for crime syndicates. (The reference to policy was from a similarity to cheap insurance.) People from all walks of life (especially lower-income folks) would select their favorite three-digit numbers and place their bets with their bookie, also known as a numbers-runner. The winning numbers would be selected in some random manner; like the last three digits of the total wagered that day at a given track, and published in the daily newspaper along with the daily horse-race results. The following day, those who correctly selected the winning numbers would receive their winnings from the numbers runner. Of course, all this was quite illegal at the time; nonetheless, widespread. The policy racket or playing-the-numbers was really just an illegal version of today’s state lotteries currently played legally throughout the nation. Numbers players placed their bets with their local bookie, usually a tavern or candy store that served as a betting parlor. A runner would then ferry the money and betting slips between the betting parlor and the syndicate’s headquarters, also referred to then as numbers banks or policy banks.

For the record, the candy store of that era was not the boutique-like candy store we know today. These candy stores did not sell fancy Gummy Bears and Godiva Chocolates and over-priced fudge. These candy stores were neighborhood Meccas. The kids all hung-out around these stores, many kids occupying the few seats at the soda fountains. In addition to some candy and pretzels; cigars, cigarettes, and tobacco products dominated the inventory. Many of these candy stores rented books for pennies a day. They all sold comic books, magazines, and newspapers. It was the newspapers that drew many adults to the candy stores. Customers would come late in the day to purchase the “evening” edition to see how their stocks had performed that day, or they would show up first thing in the morning to see if they hit yesterday’s number. (Some numbers players couldn’t wait for the morning and would rush to buy the next-day’s early edition newspaper, on the newsstands sometime after eight or nine o’clock the night before.) Ah, the advantages, in those days, of living in a big city with many newspapers!

I digressed. As for bookmaking, remember Dutch Schultz (a real-life criminal figure featured in so many bad-guy movies). Back in the 1920’s, his policy operation was extremely profitable. With actual odds of winning at almost 1,000 to 1, his pay-off was based at 600 to 1. It was rumored that his daily take was in excess of $30,000. Usually no more than 25 percent was distributed to winners. Schultz needed the huge vig to cover protection payoffs to both law enforcement and politicians. With betting at pennies per wager, the betting action was pervasive. Betting was truly considered penny-ante during prohibition years, but with the demise of Prohibition in the early 1930’s, organized crime depended more and more on the lucrative income from playing-the-numbers.

Some of the heaviest numbers-action during the 1920’s came from Harlem. There, one of the major bookies was Stephanie St. Clair, a black woman known as the “Policy Queen of Harlem.” Stephanie St. Clair booked all her own action and answered to no one.

Tilly was not black, nor did she deal in petty, numbers betting. The major action Tilly booked in the 1950’s and 1960’s made Stephanie’s take miniscule in comparison. Like Stephanie, Tilly was way ahead of her time. A bookie not controlled by some crime syndicate was a rare commodity. A bookie who was a woman was even rarer. To be both was almost inconceivable.

Tilly’s bookmaking was transacted strictly on the telephone. She took most of the calls herself. Now and again she would trust her phone line to Celia, who was both her house-cleaner and confidante. On a shiny, long mahogany dining room table, Tilly had three separate telephones with three different phone numbers. There were no hold buttons on her phones. Sometimes, she would ask you to hold-on while she took another call. One caller could hear her chit-chatting with another caller on the other phone–sometimes with another bettor; sometimes with her hairdresser calling her back to confirm an appointment.

It was Tilly’s personal touch that made her so successful. Her clientele loved her. Her customer base expanded by word-of-mouth. She did not use heavy-handed collection tactics. If you were late in paying, she accepted your excuse and waited for you to have the funds. She was well aware that cutting-off one’s betting action would only cause her loyal customer to go elsewhere. If, after a reasonable period of time–“reasonable” was what Tilly deemed to be reasonable–the stiff made no attempt to decrease the debt, the client would be unduly harassed. Tilly would show up at the customer’s workplace and start loud conversations drawing unwanted attention and definite embarrassment. Sometimes Tilly showed up at a guy’s house, even before he arrived home from work. There she would be, sipping tea with the wife. Stories of Tilly’s unorthodox collection methods were legendary. Trust me. You did not want to stiff Tilly Rose.

……………To be continued.

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