Some people thought Julius Fradin
was good at cards, but foolish. Others just thought he was foolish, his card-playing aside. Why were these games always played at his house? Why did his rules govern the games? Why was everyone he knew welcome to come and play? And why, for the love of everything economical, did Julius insist upon running not only a card parlor in his copious apartment that overlooked upper Manhattan
, but also an impromptu hotel and restaurant?
Perhaps those who wondered such things were the real fools, for anyone could see that the answer to one of these questions helped to answer all the others. Card games were always played at Julius’ house because he had the nicest and largest accommodations, everyone knew exactly where he lived, and Julius, the patriarch, would not have it any other way. Since the games were at his house, he controlled both the guest list (not always to the liking of certain guests) and the rules of play. It was true that Julius knew how to be economical, but that was not a lifetime aim of his. He preferred to have a good time, and in order for him to do that, he had to show others a good time. For this, and for other reasons, some dared to call him “Jules the Meshuggah.”
His house was big enough for all comers, and there was a piece of furniture that could become a bed or two in every room save the large kitchen. Julius, or his wife, Gertrude, called “Gertie” or “Mama” by everyone, could produce from that kitchen a hot meal to anyone’s specifications and liking at any time. There was a standard menu, featuring corned beef and pastrami from Julius’ provisions house, or from its heir; or blintzes, knishes, and matzah ball soup from Gertie’s recipes. There was borscht and its soupy, green-onion cousin, schav, and home-cured pickles. There was pumpernickel and seeded sour rye bread. And there were drinks: schnapps of every variety, whiskey, and old-fashioned homemade Italian wine, and the necessary mainstay, seltzer, which was delivered by the caseful in schpritz bottles. A samovar and rugelach or cookies sat at the ready.
A guest at Julius Fradin’s card game was presumed hungry and thirsty; a laden dish and full glass came unbidden unless preferences were made known first. There was no right of refusal. Everyone ate and ate, drank and drank some more, and smoked. Everyone, that is, except Julius. He’d eaten earlier, he said. Or he wasn’t hungry that night: “Nu, maybe we’ll have ein bischen tea. But later, with the rugelach.” All present figured he’d be dozing before teatime, and they were usually right. Except for Gertie, and maybe his social worker daughter, Phyllis, who’d had her second child not so long ago, no one saw Julius eat. And no one ever saw him drink schnapps or whiskey or wine; he stuck strictly to seltzer. And he smoked; like most of the men, he preferred Camels or Lucky Strikes. Sometimes he rolled his own. Always, he lit them one right after another, sometimes the new cigarette from the butt of the old one.
The guests, almost all of them married men who brought their non-card-playing wives, came empty-handed but for taxi or subway fare and their wagers. Most of these men had been known to Julius practically since he arrived in America, circa 1915, or since they were born. One exception to this rule was Morty, Phyllis’ husband. Julius met Morty just prior to his daughter’s engagement less than five years earlier. Julius had set Morty up in the food business, with a luncheonette in lower Manhattan. By playing cards with him each week as the work week ended, these dozen or more of Julius’ extended family and close friends paid homage to their benefactor, the one who was responsible for their educations, their livelihoods, the roofs over their families’ heads. He knew it, and they knew it -- all of them except one, a newcomer who was neither male nor married.
The other card players included Julius’ two sons, Mickey and Seymour. Mickey, the older, stouter one, looked like his father. Mickey had, like his father, seen action in a world war (Julius was an ambulance driver in WWI; his son was a soldier in WWII). Father and son rarely agreed on anything, and Julius thought Mickey was wasting his time teaching school. If he didn’t seek out Mickey’s company, he wanted even less to do with Seymour. Julius called him the “schlemiel.” Seymour was like a happy idiot, he thought, one who didn’t take advantage of his G.I. benefits to go to college. Then there were his foster children, Irving and Sol. Both of them had been orphaned, and Julius had taken them in. They left only to serve in the military, return to get married, and then depend upon Julius. There was Art Taback, whom Julius knew through an older brother, and with whom Julius sometimes did business. The Tabacks lived on Staten Island, so they would almost always stay the night. Sam Slotnick put on airs because his wife, a sister of Irving and Sol, wore diamonds. Sam liked to say he was a liquor wholesaler, but he was just a salesman who drove all over New York City supplying corner stores from the trunk of his Buick.
Julius, who had memorized the Rules of Hoyle in at least two languages, nevertheless chose to play a simplified, freewheeling sort of poker at which even the wage-earners at his enormous, dark maple-veneer table could feel like high rollers. The games were played for either a nickel or a penny apiece, and the house made no-interest loans. Many thought Julius decided before the evening was through who would be the big winner. Sometimes this was true, though Julius would never admit it. All suspected that otherwise the host would win nine hands of ten. Julius was a known card counter and minor sleight-of-hand artist, but he rarely employed these questionable talents except for their entertainment value.
The newcomer was interested in the tricks and the food almost as much as she was interested in the card games. Julius indulged her, and so abolished the rule that banned food from the card games. After only a couple of weeks, the regulars thought they noticed the gustatory fare becoming even more abundant, the liquor flowing more freely, their pants becoming tighter in the waist. The newcomer was holding her own, drinking and eating and drinking with the best of them (she especially liked the wine with seltzer). And they couldn’t help but notice a certain amount of kibitzing directed her way, from Morty and Julius.
Yet, they thought she was picking up the game pretty well. And if she sometimes sat in their host’s lap, or laughed at his bad jokes, what could they do about it? After all, it was his house they occupied, his booze they drank, his food they ate.
The newcomer was Julius’ granddaughter, age 3.