It's funny how they climb into your head when you least expect it.
Recently I went to an advertising meeting on Long Island. Driving back to the city, I looked up and saw a sign in Elmont, Long Island: "Belmont Racetrack."
That's when this sweet memory crept into my head.
All of a sudden it was May in the 1950s. And I was broke as can be.
I was totally broke throughout the 1950s. First I was single and broke. Then at age 20 I was married, a father and broke.
I did not hold a single job that paid more than $28 a week. And now that I think back, I was probably overpaid at $28 a week.
I blamed no one for my condition. There weren't any hustling politicians around to tell me I should blame anyone else for my being broke and telling me I should hate anyone for having money when I didn't.
There was always the track.
Belmont, Aqueduct and Jamaica for the flats. Yonkers and Roosevelt for the trotters.
Riding on the "losers" bus from the flats track to the trotters on a bad day.
I was always gambling for milk money.
That's when I thought of Father Cafero and the miracle.
Father Cafero was the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church on Avenue W in Brooklyn, who one day performed a miracle and gave the entire neighborhood religion.
Father Cafero was a regular at the old Jamaica, Aqueduct and Belmont racetracks. My friends and I would spot him at the $10 window, sans collar, with a De Nobili cigar hanging from his lips. Naturally his gambling addiction had us all wondering when they passed the collection plate on Sunday morning whether our dimes and quarters were going into the pockets of the poor or onto the nose of some nag.
Let me make it clear, Father Cafero was no Bing Crosby playing a priest singing "Tura Lura Lura (That's an Irish Lullaby)" to another priest, Barry Fitzgerald, in a movie called Going My Way. Father Cafero was an old-world Italian who only spoke English when he had to. He was very big with the wise guys in my neighborhood because they benefited first-hand from the great miracle.
I remember the day because it was the day of the running of the Wood Memorial, a big race in my neighborhood. I was there when the miracle happened. I was on the fringe of the crowd, listening, always listening.
Around 11 AM Father Cafero came sauntering around the corner. Out of respect for the clergy, the craps game was held up until the priest passed. "Hello Fodda," the wise guys said respectfully. "Hello boys," said Father Cafero, the sound of Sicily in his gravelly voice. "What do you know, Fodda?" said Albee, the local loan shark, who met with an untimely end as a result of riding in the back of two cars: the first being the trunk of his own Cadillac, where he was found one day. The other being in the back of a hearse.
Father Cafero looked Albee in the eye, smiled and shyly whispered, "Today – Manassa Mauler."
Albee, shocked, said, "Fodda, he's 60-to-1. He doesn't have a chance."
Father Cafero, in a very Italian gesture, rolled his eyes and turned down his palms and said, "Ehhhh . . . the trainer, Dolci . . . Italian. . . ehhh."
"So?" said Albee.
"So, aah, Manassa Mauler," said Father Cafero, turning around to leave. Then he swung around again and said, "Albee?"
"Yes, Fodda?" said the local gangster.
"Across-the-board. God bless." And with a little smile and a soft shrug he pushed himself past the crowd of respectful ne'er-do-wells.
Manassa Mauler won by 10 lengths. He paid $126 on a $2 bet. Make no mistake, in my old neighborhood, changing water into wine was given its proper respect. But in my old neighborhood turning $2 into $126 was seen as a Super Miracle.
Father Cafero gambled, he smoked cigars, he probably wasn't a great priest. But he was there every Sunday morning and answered the very real, though somewhat dubious, needs of the community.
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