Chapter Eleven: Craps

Black held the dice in his hand by way of a lock-grip.
“This method allows you to click the dice together in a most satisfying manner, as if you are shaking them in your hand.”
Black spoke mainly to Chretian, because Holstein had seen it done a thousand times before. Black rolled the dice on the coffee table which had been covered with a blanket. A seven came up.
“It’s called the blanket roll. In my time, every player that knew his way around a set of dice had heard of it, but curiously enough, very few players ever recognised it. I presume you know a bit about craps, Paul.”
“I know that rolling two ones or two sixes loses you the bet,” Chretian said.
“Very good, now watch again,” Black said, and he threw the dice again. An eleven came up.
“You flubbed it,” Chretian said.
“Wrong. The blanket roll is not suppose to show seven one hundred percent of the time. Under the rules, I get to roll again until I make my “natural,” or point. But with this roll, I will never throw a two or twelve.”
“I think I see why now.”
“Good eyes. Now look one more time,” Black said, and he threw again. The dice fell out of his hand and rolled end over end over one axis only. The one and six spots made up the hub of the wheels.
“The blanket roll is the reason why in any casino you have to throw the dice against the wall in order for the roll to count,” Black said.
“And where pray tell, did you learn such marvelous sleight of hand?” Chretain asked.
“The world is full of marvelous tricks and illusions, and one can find teachers in the strangest places,” Black replied.

He paused and spoke again more carefully. “Arnold and I go back further than you might have guessed, Paul. We were in the same battalion in Korea.”
“But I made sergeant while the now-beloved principal of Laurentian rose no higher than the rank of corporal,” Holstein said with a smile.
“We ran a floating crap game on the days when we were not fighting for Queen, country, and the UN,” Black said.
“A crooked crap game. I am surprised,” Chretian said.
“Wrong,” Holstein said, “we ran the straightest game of dice south of the 49th parallel, because we knew how to spot the cheats. The Yanks loved us because we offered the correct odds as well. There is no bigger gambler in the world than an American G.I., eh Ben?”
“So you were honest out of the goodness of your hearts,” Chretian said.
“Wrong again,” Black said. “We made sure to have the house percentage on our side – by betting always against the dice thrower and never throwing the dice ourselves. The `wrong’ bettor always has an advantage of exactly one point four one percent against the dice-thrower.”
“Well, it doesn’t sound like much of an advantage,” Chretian said.

Black and Holstein looked at each other, exchanged smiles, and let the matter drop. The tiny advantage of one and a half percent had made them a profit of over three thousand dollars each back in the early nineteen fifties, a tremendous sum for that period. In the long run, the tinest advantage could grind out a fortune, but it was amazing how many people could not or would not grasp that crucial concept. In the long run, Old Man percentage beat out Lady Luck every time. “I learned the blanket roll from a barber back in York. It was a reward for being the best runner in my neigbourhood,” Black said.
“I didn’t know you ran track in your youth,” Chretian said.
Holstein leaned back and roared with laughter at the statement. Black just smiled that small smile of his that had mystified countless students and teachers. It was a knowing, guilty smile. “Sorry Paul, us fogies forget how the old way of doing things has been completely eradicated.” “Sanitized and cleaned up by the politicians. They weren’t happy enough with the ice so they took over the whole operation,” Holstein said cynically.
“Once again gentlemen, you have left me far behind,” Chretian said.
“Once again, we ask forgiveness Paul. Arnold and I are referring to the Numbers game. The dear old barber who was my mentor in dice also held the post of agent for the Numbers bank in my neigbourhood. I worked for them in my teens, until my youthful idealism overwhelmed my common sense and I signed up to go to war. Drunk as a skunk when I signed the enrollment papers at the recruiting office, but that’s another story.

“I presume you only have a faint idea of how the numbers racket worked Paul, so I’ll explain briefly. You could bet anywhere from a nickel to a dollar on a three digit number. If a player won, he or she was paid off at 500 to one, minus a ten percent tip for the runner, who is responsible for pay-offs and collecting the slips from various agents around the neighbourhood. An agent was somebody who solicited bets for the Numbers game. The daily winning number was usually made up of the last three digits of the betting handle at the local racetrack, which was about as random as you could get back in those days.”
“Let me interrupt you with yet another stupid question. All of this was illegal, I presume?” Chretian said.
“Sadly enough, it is true. Not a fine example to held up to the various inhabitants of Laurentian eh? But I humbly plead that poverty led to a way of crime, although I was a fine runner and never did get caught. Oh, the `ice’ that Arnold was mentioning… can you guess what that refers to?”
“Protection money?”
“Splendid! My goodness, hearing all this lingo of my youth is certainly making me nostalgic. It was refered as such because it meant to cool off the local heat. As well, the politicians weren’t the only ones who had to be paid off. The local beat cops as well as various community leaders all demanded a cut. Oh, and let’s not forget every charity from Etobicoke to China. The hypocrisy was the worst part of it.”
“But the Numbers racket is dead and gone,” Chretian said.
“No, it has just mutated. Lotteries, my dear fellow! What was once illegal has now been taken over by the government because it proved to be too lucrative for the Numbers businessmen,” Holstein said.
“You mean the Mafia,” Chretian said.
It was Black’s turn to snort and laugh. “The only Italian involved in the numbers racket was Nick the Spaghetti Man – I never knew his last name. He ran the only Italian food restaurant in my neighbourhood. And he played the numbers, he didn’t run them. No Paul, the numbers “bank” or the people who collected the money and made the payoffs, they were some of the most respected businessmen in York. I do believe one or two of them were wardens at my local church.”
“Whose coffers were undoubtably enriched by the proceeds of that particular form of gambling,” Hostein said cynically.
“Not that I will ever state this in a letter to the editor of the Vancouver Sun, but the numbers racket benefited the community far more then these damn government lotteries. Us-the runners-wouldn’t take bets from people on relief, for example. And the money stayed in the local community, more or less.”

“There’s no relief anymore. It’s called social assistance nowadays,” Chretian said.
“So if you change the wording, you change the stigma? Orwell thought as much and said so: in my later years I have begun to wonder,” Holstein said.

He paused to think and then continued. “I remember reading a case study of a remedial program that was run in one of Ottawa’s technical schools a few years back. It was for the `disadvantaged,’ meaning the students who would not or could not learn at the same rate as the others. It was called ‘basic instruction’ or ‘basic rudiments’-something that some of the parents objected to anyways. So guess what happened.”
“They changed the name; probably to something like ‘fast-track learning.’ ”
“Very funny, no, they weren’t that Orwellian. They changed the title of the program from ‘basic instruction’ to ‘learning 233.’ Note the genius of the title. How could anyone quibble with an innoculous number?”
“Wait, let me guess, someone did.”
“The other schoolchildren weren’t fooled at all. They still taunted the schoolchildren in the remedial program, only they would tease them by calling them 233s. To them, it meant the same as calling them dummies. Soon enough, the parents wanted to withdraw their children from the 233 program because of the stigma attached.”
“It was the little boy who cried out that the emperor had no clothes.”
“That’s one allusion. Another could be that the intellectuals delude only themselves when they think they can control the proles. The proles do whatever they damn well please, and their street smarts keep them one step ahead of the bureaucrats.” Holstein said.
“And so what are we,” Black nearly cried out, breaking into the conversation. “Bureaucrats or proles?”
“God, hopefully neither,” Holstein said. “But it does make one think. Where do our loyalties lie? With the students, the parents, or the bureaucrats?”
“Our duty is to the community in which we serve,” Black said.
“I can poke holes into that statement. Do the students know what’s best for themselves? No. Do their parents know what’s best for their children. Not in the school in which we find ourselves. Oh yes, some are model citizens of Vancouver and of Canada. But some cash their welfare cheques and spend it on cigarettes, beer, and lottery tickets all on the very same day. But it this a community or a collection of peoples pretty well thrown together at random? Do the people living in the school jurisdiction of Laurentian High know the name of their next door neighbour? I think not.”
“Nevertheless Ben, we serve the community,” Black said, his voice no longer questioning. “Just as we served as country so many years ago even though Korea is a long, long way from Toronto, or Vancouver for that matter. We are raising the future citizens of our country. We are here to serve the community, and if you don’t like that word, then we serve the collective.”
Holstein leaned back in his chair and roared with laughter. “God yes, the collective. Yes, there’s a word that appeals to a leftist like me.”

Chretian excused himself to pour another round of drinks. They were at Holstein’s comfy bungalow at the north end of Burnaby, near Simon Fraser University. Woods on a near-mountain surrounded the campus and partially obscured the northern slopes. Holstein had arisen early that morning, before the start of the East-West traffic, and had actually smelled pine in the air this close to the city, indeed in the very city itself. The only thing wrong with the location was that at night he could not see the stars. Too much light pollution. Holstein and his wife had moved to this house ten years ago, after the last of their three children had moved out. He was four years a grandfather and enjoyed the role immensely. After retirement, which was not too far off, he and his wife wanted to move to Vancouver Island, somewhere between Victoria and Nanaimo, where there were still trees that had stood since the beginning of the century. And one could see all the heavens on a moonless night. Chretian returned with the drinks, two alcoholic, one that was not. Black never lectured on the evils of alcoholism, he just gave a small smile if Paul or Ben started to slur words or waver in dealing the cards. He also would offer to raise the stakes to a nickel a point. The trickster persona concealed itself under the layers of advancing years, but Black had never discarded it. It served him too well for too long.

“And so what were talking about that was so fascinating?” Chretian broke the silence.
“We were talking about the community, or the collective if you prefer. Intellectuals and proles. Gambling.” Holstein said.
“We were circling around a topic that has been on the periphery of my thoughts all evening, but I have just waiting for a right time to bring it up,” Black said.
“No time like the present,” Chretian said.
“Despite the best efforts of authorities since the beginning of time to regulate the common man, or the proles if you prefer that term, crime and illegal activity have never been successful eradicated from any community. Gambling for example, was never seriously close to extinction despite the best efforts of the Puritans in power. Prostitution is another good example. Vice is so difficult to eradicate, don’t you gentlemen agree?” Black said.
“Ah, I do believe we are going to move from a philosophical generality to specific example,” Chretian said.
“Mmm, I’m getting transparent in my old age, losing my touch. Yes, to be specific what the devil are we to do about the dope that’s flooding our high school?”
Holstein let out a long whistle. “Find the source and eliminate it?”
“Frisk everyone at the door everyday?” Chretian said.
“Yes I suppose if it were that easy, something would have done a long time ago,” Black said, “but a bad situation is getting worse. Gretchen -you know her, she teaches grade 10 Geography- sent me two boys last week who were obviously high. In class!”
“We could start from there. Did the two have anything to say for themselves?” Holstein said. “Arnold, I thought you knew better than that. The boys weren’t dealers, obviously. Stoned in class? I pray for dealers that foolish. No, they came back to earth and clammed up pretty quick. Maybe too quick. There was fear behind their silence, not just the teen version of don’t-tell-the-adults-anything.”
“Perhaps even their silence offers us a clue,” Chretian said, “That, and Mr. Black’s boyhood memories of the numbers racket.”
“We are listening.”
“It was the community leaders of Mr. Black’s neighbourhood who offered protection and even ran the operation itself. It is not the rejects, the cast-offs, that are given the plum proceeds from the organization of vice. Who are the most prestigous members of our school? What is the most prestigous organization of Laurention High?”
There was silence for a moment, and then Black answered in a low groan. “The city champions of football. The Laurentian Tigers. But can you be sure?”
“No, of course not. There’s a good chance none of the players may be dealing. But they know about it. Where else can a dealer secure enough prestige to ensure accounts are always paid in full? Or to make sure the code of omerta is honoured? Whoever associates with the players but stays in the shadows, yes, perhaps we should look out for such a person. And conduct a midnight search of his locker.”

* * *

Black stared up at the ceiling while his wife quietly breathed beside him. He couldn’t remember the last time that she had fallen asleep before him. That had been his one major weapon against stress in all the years of being a high school principal: An astounding ability to sleep exactly seven hours out of twenty-four, no matter what the circumstances. He supposed the lack of alcohol in his life helped the regularity. But tonight, for some reason, he could not sleep. Paul had made some good sense in pointing out where the cancer lay, or at least where it took refuge. Black had been blind to the possibility that his beloved Tigers would betray him. No, he was being too harsh on himself. Chretain played the fool a little too much for his career prospects to be unaffected, but he was a sharpster, like himself and Arnold. Paul could make a good principal one day, if he could overcome that hidden weakness that Black sensed nonetheless. A lack of faith in himself or the system? Cynicism killed a man as sure as cynanide.

Black turned his thoughts back to question of dope-dealing and the football team. It seemed everybody over the age of twenty soon forgot what a Darwinian place high school could be, a witches’ brew of glandular testosterone and estrogen. The population of Laurentian high school consisted mainly of the offspring of the working-class poor and welfare types. As such, the numbers had seemed to point to Black doing a remarkable job in keeping the peace. No muggings, no stabbings, rarely more than a schoolyard squabble from time-to-time. Schools in south Vancouver, Kitslano, and Surrey all had higher rates of violence and incidents of drug use than Laurentian, which had among its boundaries the most vicious city blocks in all of Canada. There had been thirty homicides withing a square mile of Laurentian just last year. Judged within the proper context, the high school was a miracle of sorts, a peaceful oasis in an angry desert. Why?

The question presently haunted Black because in the last couple of weeks, there had been signs that the long peace was ending. There had been the two boys who had come to class stoned. Another boy had shown up to afternoon class with bruises on his face. He had not talked either, and his face had been unmarked during morning homeroom. There were small incidents to be sure, but Black’s grapevine had been utterly silent on the perpetrators, or even the circumstance that had surrounded the incidents. Silence suggested conspiracy. An incident from a couple of years back broke from the waters of his unconscious memories. During a physical education class, someone had ripped up the street clothes of three freshmen boys, undoubtably to send some sort of message. One week later, one of the very same boys had ended up in the hospital with a broken arm. But the boys had not talked. No one had talked. Black remembered doing the interrogation of everyone who had belonged in that phys. ed class. He remembered one student in particular, a certain Robert Gates. Unlike all the others, he had been neither nervous nor defiant, but calm, sympathetic even, like one captain talking to another.

So this whole thing is upsetting everybody and everything, the boy had actually said to him.Yes, Black had answered back, we would certainly like to get to the bottom of whatever is happening. Who, for example, would what to harrass a couple of innocent freshmen? That’s what I would like to know, Robert. I have no idea, the boy had answered back, those three boys kept to themselves. But whoever did what they did were real chicken about it, weren’t they? They certainly were, Black had answered back, infuriated that he could not squeeze this boy any further, even though he all but knew everything and anything. Ever since then, Black had kept a careful eye on Robert Gates. But the boy had been good as gold, considering the circumstances. Perhaps too good. Black closed his eyes. Yes, maybe it would be a good idea to call Robert Gates into his office for a chat. A good principal always tries to keep in touch with his students. A wise prince always seeks intelligence about other princes.

Copyright 2008 by DJ Dunkerley. All Rights Reserved

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