Scott Saalman: There are more jackasses than jackpots

Herald Column, March 5, 2014


I find an old coffee cup in mom’s cabinet to pour coffee in, but then notice folded strips of paper inside. The pieces of paper have yellowed with time, torn at the edges from countless touches.

“You still do this?” I ask incredulously, suddenly remembering the real role this coffee cup has played in her life.

Each strip has a room’s name written on it: living room; kitchen; family room; big bathroom; little bathroom; parents’ room; laundry room; guest bedroom; office.

Nine strips of paper. Nine rooms.

Each day, mom blindly draws a strip from the cup. Whatever room is written on the strip is the one she cleans. If she draws “kitchen,” she cleans the kitchen. You get the idea.

“I made a game out of it,” she explains. “It’s the only way I could do housework, to make it less boring.”

Like me, she lacks patience for housework. Cleaning all nine rooms back-to-back is time-consuming, mind-numbing. But there’s more to the coffee cup process than making housework more bearable.

She likes the element of surprise, that thrill of seeing which room will be pulled from the cup. She prefers certain rooms over others (bathrooms are at the bottom of the list), so there’s that whole luck-of-the-draw dynamic. Leave it to mom to turn housecleaning into a game of chance.

My childhood was filled with gamblers. My favorite priest practiced a side religion at the track. Even my barber was in on the action. It was whispered that he was a bookie. Men would come in, pay, but leave the shop with their hair no shorter than when they’d entered. I thought being a bookie meant he liked reading books, but I never ever saw him in the public library. All those “Field and Stream” magazines in his shop must have been part of the cover-up.

During the World Series, my dad always brought home a Xerox copy of a 100 square grid from work, the kind used on sports betting. Sometimes he would scribble my name in a square. I felt so grown up seeing my name on that sheet with all the names of his co-workers, even though I was sent to bed in my footed pajamas before a game ended.

My relatives went at each other’s throats over the wager of the almighty dollar during euchre. They would shout victoriously when a loaner made it through (cuss words came from the other team). If you got euchred, the razzing was relentless. Accusations of reneging — a card-table mortal sin — could turn ugly, causing fists and elbows of cousins’ to fly.

A poker mat became more common than a tablecloth. The rattle of dice became a Saturday night soundtrack. A horseshoe couldn’t be tossed without money on the line. There was a short-lived dalliance with darts, until it became pointless.

Mom taught me to gamble at 500 rummy, back when I was too young to play euchre. We played for a penny a point. It’s how I earned bubble gum money. We likely played rummy thousands of times. I am still fond of those afternoons with her, especially those when I won.

I thought I was a good euchre player until I ended up owing my Uncle Dave $75. I wrote him a check, which was almost a week’s pay at that time. He stashed the check in his shirt. A bet’s a bet. That was a lot of bubble gum money.

The one time I was lucky at gambling left me with mixed feelings. In 1987, I drew IU during a March Madness pool at college. The winner was supposed to receive the whole $500 pot. Unfortunately, the guy who drew Syracuse was a big fella — his nickname was “Box,” that’s how big he was. Box convinced the squirrely frat guy running the campus pool that second place deserved half the pot, so I won only $250. It’s not like I could call the campus cops, nor did I want to box Box.

My parents took me to Ellis Park a few times, but the ponies lost their allure when Casino Aztar made Evansville its home port. Dad once told me it’s the damndest thing to stand around a casino ATM and hear husbands and wives debate a withdrawal, especially with a truck payment due. I’m assured neither parent possesses an ATM card. I admire their old-school distrust of them, especially for the sake of my inheritance.

They stuff their grandkids’ Christmas stockings — and mine — with lottery scratch-off tickets. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without lottery ticket shavings turning our fingers grey. We’ll all probably die from Grey Lung.

I have mentioned Gamblers Anonymous to them. It’s always good for a laugh. Joking aside, mom gets philosophical about gambling. “The biggest gamble a person makes is whom they marry,” she says. “There are a lot of losers and winners out there. There are more jackasses than jackpots. Over 50 years ago, I hit one of the largest JACKPOTS of all—your dad.”

I return the coffee cup with the slips of paper to the cabinet shelf. I look for another cup. One advertises their favorite Biloxi casino hotel. It’s their holy grail of cups.

I notice how clean mom’s kitchen is. She likely drew its name that morning. Mom might not clean house at the casino, but at least her gambling habit does help keep her own house clean. So, who am I to judge?

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