The proprietor’s son, Mo (short for Mohammed) was behind the counter at the bodega downstairs, working the morning shift. A fresh pot of coffee was brewing near the window, and we chatted about technology while waiting for it to finish. We had both agreed that the iPad was a turd not worth half its price when an old man tottered into the store. He looked every bit like the retired men who live in the apartment house across the street, limping from one social security check to the next wearing the same worn clothes and grizzled visages.
The old fellow approached the counter and greeted Mo familiarly. Then he started briskly calling out numbers, which Mo pounded into the Lotto computer. After a minute of this, the old timer called for scratch-offs and sang out some more numbers: “gimme 17, 31, uh, 23, 8, 14, 44…” Mo pulled at rolls hanging from a huge bank of tickets, yanking and tearing brightly colored cards covered with hopes and lies. After another minute, he stacked these onto the counter and added the paper strips spat out by the Lotto register.
The entire pile came to ninety-some dollars. The old man paid, scooped all the paper and cards together, promised to be back to collect his winnings, and left.
“Mo,” I said, aghast, “that guy must have shot half a week’s social security on that shit — can’t you at least ask him to seek some help for that addiction?” One of the reasons I’d gotten friendly with Mo was because he had been a psych student at CUNY and so we’d bonded over that shared history.
Mo laughed loudly and said, “Brian, that guy is filthy rich — I mean millionaire rich. Owns four or five houses over on East 3rd St. And today’s play is fairly light for him — I’ve seen him drop close to $200 on this shit in a day. It’s nothing to him, just entertainment. But when he wins, he tips big — he once hit the scratch-off for $500 and tipped me a hundred.”
“Jesus, Mo, I haven’t paid a nickel of March’s rent yet and this guy’s pissing away enough every week to pay at least half of it?”
Mo poured me my coffee. “Strange world, ain’t it Brian?”
“Damned skippy it is, Mo. See ya around.”
By the time I got back upstairs, I was laughing at myself. Here I was, the Tao-psychotherapist with the graduate degree in psych, who couldn’t see through the surface of a rich old man. But I had just been introduced to a New York City phenomenon that I had long thought was a mere popular fiction.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the bag ladies who roam the streets like homeless people while they have hundreds of thousands or even millions stuffed into a mattress in a rent-controlled one-bedroom on the upper East side. This old guy at the bodega, wearing worn green slacks and a coat that looked as if it had been slept in, fit the part perfectly. If he owned four houses on E. 3rd, which are worth at least $800K each, he was indeed a millionaire. And if he rented them all, as most of the owners do around here, he probably brings in at least $50K per month from rent alone, and probably much more. Gambling away a thousand a week on Lotto would be like shaking lint out of his coat pockets.
So if anyone ever tells you that those stories of uber-wealthy street trash are the stuff of New York Post and National Enquirer tabloid fairy tales, tell them you know a guy who’s met the real deal.