The year was 1937. It began one evening in a smoke-filled room in back of the local barber shop. The ceiling fan swirled the cigar smoke around the bright light dangling over the round, green felt table. Drinks were poured, the players were ready and seated for their monthly high-stakes poker game. It was a select group of men. They all worked for Frank Hague, mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey.
Hague was the mayor from 1917 until 1947. He was the symbol of bossism, political favoritism, graft and corruption. He made a fortune taking paybacks from real estate deals, percentages of the city’s illegal gaming operations, numbers and off-track betting. He also collected a 3 percent kickback on salaries of city employees known as “rice pudding” and collected mandatory 30 percent kickbacks from all raises received by municipal employees. No wonder he traveled in chauffeured bulletproof cars and was surrounded by armed bodyguards.
The names of the players were familiar to most of gangland. John “Needle Nose” Malone and Jack Demarco were there, as well as Elmer Henry and Spats Morgan. Ten years later, Needle Nose would become the vice-mayor of Jersey City. Henry had the largest off-track betting take in central New Jersey. Moran’s claim to fame was his black suits, well-blocked white fedoras, shiny patent-leather shoes half-covered with gray spats and, of course, brass knuckles.
Demarco ran the numbers racket from Poughkeepsie, New York, to the pristine sands of Miami Beach, Florida. He later moved to Miamiand and bought a nightclub on 7th Street that was used as a front for laundering money and importing prostitutes from Cuba to house gangland’s brothels on the East Coast. It was also a meeting place for U.S. diplomats and others interested in replacing Batiste with another U.S.-appointed dictator, Fidel Castro.
The last man to enter the room was “Bike.” He was a well-built, soft-spoken man who was one of Hague’s chauffeurs and the poker dealer. This was Bike’s last night dealing the game and his last day working for the “boss.” Bike was about to become a father.
In 1926, Bike started chauffeuring members of the political machine to and from overnight “guest houses” neatly tucked away in the farm country of northern New Jersey. Large farmhouses were converted to bordellos and the barns were remodeled to house the chauffeurs, bodyguards and hit men working for the privileged guests. On one of these trips he met and fell in love with Ruth, one of the girls working as a seamstress, maid and cook at the guest house. They married and never had any children. After 10 years went by they decided to adopt a child.
Bike was a well-known and respected poker dealer. After the cards were shuffled, he always placed the deck flat on the card table and carefully dealt each card from the top. He never held the cards and always dealt an honest hand.
In the middle of the game the room had some unexpected company. Three armed men crashed through the back door and yelled, “The game is over.” They made everyone place their hands against the wall and spread eagle. One of them picked up the money from the table while the other two emptied the pockets of the gamblers. in less than two minutes they were gone.
Bike was heartbroken. He had a large sum of money in his pocket that he would need in the morning to cover the expenses of a new child. He reached deep into his pocket and felt for his money clip. Instead of an empty pocket, he had a pocket full of wads of paper. He went to the men’s room to empty his pockets. His money clip was still there and the wads of paper were hundred-dollar bills.
At first he thought it was a setup. If the others knew he had money they would think he was the tip-off man and responsible for the hijack.
After the grumbling, angry gamblers left, Bike couldn’t believe what happened. How could three armed men get around the bodyguards waiting outside the barber shop? And, why would someone put money in his pocket instead of stealing what he had? Of course, he later realized — it was a ‘setup.’
Bike was a proud man. He was leaving the easy money in the rackets to support his wife and new child with “honest money.” Hague and everyone else knew he wouldn’t accept help from anyone, They knew he couldn’t say anything to anyone about having money put in his pocket.
The next morning, Bike and Ruth drove to Hopewell, New Jersey, parked in front of St. Michael’s orphanage and left with a 9-month-old baby boy.
Thanks to the honor among thieves, an honest poker dealer and his wife who chose me to be their son, I had the best mother and father any son could ask for. I hope all adopted and foster children can say the same thing about their parents who welcomed them into their family by choice, not circumstance.