Relay: Making Book

Burnsie’s credo

“Ya never know.” 
That was Burnsie’s credo.

Johnny Burns was a bookmaker on the West Side of Manhattan. He looked like a frail, little old man. But I remember once tapping him on the back, feeling his body stiffen as he turned, relaxing when he saw it was me.

He went bar to bar, booking bets, collecting and paying out, until he got to Jimmy Day’s on West Fourth Street, the popular neighborhood saloon I worked in. He would go to the back bar, have a beer, and talk.

He told me about a day in the Bronx, many years ago, a doubleheader between the Yanks and the Indians. All the action was coming in on the home team. They lost the early game, and the Yankee starting pitcher couldn’t make it out of the first in the nightcap.

The Indians were up by seven or eight. Burnsie was looking at a big score. But, the Yankees kept chipping away, chipping away, winning in extra innings.

The thought of the big one that got away was a life lesson for Burnsie. “Ya never know,” he repeated ruefully.

Back then, I bet on pro football every week — $10, $20 a game, two or three games a week. I can’t imagine doing that now: 32 teams, 17 weeks, my God, it would all quickly become one big blur.

But my mind was less addled then, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.

I made most of my bets on the phone on Sunday morning. I would call Tommy Butler, the consummate bartender from the Lion’s Head around the corner from Jimmy Day’s.

The Lion’s Head was a writers’ bar. The walls were covered with dust jackets from books by the regulars, names like Pete Hamill and Norman Mailer. Tommy was the resident expert on jazz. The jukebox at the Lion’s Head was proof of that expertise.

Tommy was a big man. People listened when he spoke, a good thing if you are tending bar in New York City. Yet he had a certain tranquillity about him.

Tommy also loved football. He would razz me about my Jets (has anything changed?), and lay off my Sunday morning bets with his bookie.

For about 15 years, he and I would talk a few minutes every Sunday during the football season.

In 1995, I got off to a bad start with my bets, losing the first two weeks of the season. I was out in Montauk with Carole. If I lost money in week three, I’d have to get together with Tommy and settle up.

I called him that Sunday. No answer. I dialed several times. The phone rang, endlessly.

I knew something was wrong. I was right. That big man was dead, a stroke.

The wake was held in Washington Heights. I met, as I recall, Tommy’s daughter there. I handed her a check, around $85. “He loaned it to me,” I told her.

I took the long subway ride back to our Chelsea apartment.

Burnsie was right. Ya never know.

T.E. McMorrow is a reporter at The Star.