A few days ago I left my apartment to take part in a criminal activity. It was premeditated but hopefully not worse than a misdemeanor: illegal gambling, which also qualifies as tax evasion. I’ve been watching this underground activity for the past six years. Every day, rain or shine, snow or sleet, I could see from my window how my neighbors lined up next to a blue van and handed over money to the two occupants inside. From my point of view, the money only seemed to go in. I never saw any dollar bills come out.
This is bolita, the illegal lottery, popular in New York City only in poor, mostly Hispanic neighborhoods. The reason I decided to partake is not so much the hope of winning, but because the two occupants of the mobile gambling den, Maria and Louis (not their real names), are a neighborhood fixture and wonderful friendly people who I came to know over the years. My other excuse is that I’m German, and in Germany you do not pay taxes on your gambling winnings. Therefore, this kind of tax evasion might be illegal in New York, but in my worldview, it’s morally right.
Maria and Louis took great pains to explain the bolita system to me. And it’s complicated. First of all, Maria tells me, “This is almost the same as, like, legal—but much better odds.” You can bet one single-digit number, or two, or three, with payoffs ranging, respectively, from $8 to $300 to $1,000 per dollar bet. The most Maria and Louis ever paid out was $6,000. In Manhattan the numbers are determined by the Aqueduct daytime horse races. (In Brooklyn they use the nighttime races.) The three winning numbers are, respectively, the last digits of the total amounts bet on the 3rd, 5th, and 7th races.
Louis tells me he has done the calculation several times himself and “it’s really honest.” A fit 77-year-old Hispanic man, Louis has been married to Maria for 30 years, and he’s been selling bolita tickets for the last 50 years. It’s his life, his career. There’s a history of longevity in his family, and he says he expects to keep working for many more years. He’s honest enough to tell me that he himself never plays the numbers because it’s just “dumb luck and you only win once in a blue moon.”
Until a few years ago, Louis had a severe gambling problem and lost all his money at the Meadowlands and Yonkers racetracks. “I didn’t use my head,” he says. “I went crazy.” When he talks about his gambling years it’s like reading Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, in which the urge to gamble overpowered all rational thought. And Louis lost everything, even his shop, a small botanica that doubled as an illegal gambling den.
It was a great disappointment to learn that Maria and Louis and their van are not a charming mom-and-pop operation. I liked the romantic idea that New York had not been scrubbed completely clean, that there are still some pockets of resistance, leftovers from the long-gone era of squeegee men and crazy people talking to themselves. Louis is employed by what he calls “the big guys” or “the big people.” “They” call to give him the winning numbers, “they” rake in millions of dollars, “they” have the money handy when somebody miraculously wins big. And it’s “they” who operate about 200 such gambling dens in the city. Louis speaks of “them” with great respect and even a hint of fear. When I ask him about those “big people,” he tells me in a conspiratorial voice, “It’s the Italian Mafia. They’re all Italians.”
Bolita is Spanish for “little ball.” There was a major bolita bust in New York in 2004, when the former “big people,” all of them Hispanic, were indicted and the organization was dismantled. According to Louis, this is when the Mob stepped in.
If our bolita should ever get busted, the absence of Louis and Maria would be a loss for my street. Those two know all the gossip, most of it grim, some of it juicy. They know who got shot or stabbed, who died. Through them I learned the delicious tidbit that the young dude with the watered hair and mirror shades who spends long hours hanging out on the street, makes his living as a gigolo. Their blue van also provides parking services: Should a neighbor need a parking spot, the blue van will vacate its slot and altruistically give it away, then double park until another spot becomes available.
While I was wondering how Maria and Louis avoided police detection over so many years, I’m now marveling at how an organized crime empire can exist without running afoul of the law. In our neighborhood, which is poor and crime-ridden, the police presence is strong. Surveillance towers are a common sight. Police cruisers glide by constantly. Policemen in and out of uniform patrol the streets, routinely bursting in doors of subsidized housing. There is still stop and frisk going on, despite what officials will tell you.
How does Louis avoid the police? Maria tells me that as soon they see a police officer they pretend to do something to their van, like washing the windshield or checking imaginary defects under the hood. Are the cops really so dense that they don’t notice the same car on the same street having car problems day in and day out? Louis suspects they don’t bother with such small fish like him anymore, that the police know what’s going on but don’t care. Over the years Louis has been arrested more than a dozen times, usually held in jail for 24 hours, then fined between $300 and $500 and let go to resume his business. Nowadays the police let him be. One day a couple of months ago, he tells me, a police officer walked up to his van just to tell him, “I know what you’re doing, and we are not behind that.”
Louis’s theory of police tolerance seems unlikely considering that Eric Garner got killed during an arrest over selling illegal cigarettes, a much smaller case of tax evasion. The center of the social life on my street is a hired hand for organized crime. It’s anybody’s guess how they get away with doing business under the watchful eyes of so many police.