Three thousand miles from here, Dean Martin breathes his last and the newspapers are filled with obituaries, many of which are almost accurate. Everybody mentions the boozy persona and the Rat Pack and the early days with Jerry Lewis. Nobody, as near as can be determined, mentions the $60 that Dino goes to his grave owing my friend Nick since about 1947.
A slight game of craps at Broadway and Thames, Nick was
explaining yesterday afternoon. From such a thing, Dean Martin loses all the money in his pocket one night and borrows a few dollars and forgets to pay anything back over the course of the next 48 years.
So yesterday, we were sitting in Nick's car in East Baltimore, with a neighborhood guy in the back seat and Nick figuring he's getting to be a long shot to collect his $60 since Martin, at 78, after a whole history of raising a toast to the good life, dies of what is described as respiratory failure.
"Sue the estate," suggests the neighborhood guy.
The $60, Nick says, goes back to the time Martin and Lewis were playing the Club Charles, or maybe the Chanticleer, and selling the place out every night.
Oh, them days, he says, them days after the war when this town was alive with money and merriment, when the clubs had Georgie Jessel ?? and Sophie Tucker and Milton Berle, when they had chorus girls who'd scrounge for a living and save pennies living four to a room at the places like Herman's boarding house, St. Paul and Preston streets, and look for some fellow to buy them a meal and, oh, them nights when Martin and Lewis seemed to ad-lib their way through an hour's comic anarchy.
Dino would start to sing. He'd get a couple of lines into a song, and here came Lewis, mugging and dancing like some manic puppet and leaping into Dino's arms. Melvin Souder was playing the piano up at the Club Charles then, and any time a woman got up from a table, Dean and Jerry would holler, "Melvin," and Melvin would play something saucy while a spotlight followed the embarrassed woman all the way to the ladies room.
"Yeah, them days," Nick says now. "And Dino, he was a great guy, a great guy (ELLIPSIS HERE) . . ."
Naturally, I say, this business of the crap game and the $60 owed over 48 years sounds like it has possibilities for an amusing newspaper column.
"Only don't say it was me," says Nick, whose name is therefore altered. "The police will come. They're looking for any excuse."
"That's right," the neighborhood guy says from the back seat. "They'll want the $60, plus interest from 1947."
In those days, America was beginning to fall in love with the singing of Martin and the nuttiness of Lewis. Simultaneously, Nick was commencing a profitable career that involved breaking most of the major gambling laws, which the state of Maryland has subsequently altered to make money for itself.
"In them days," Nick was remembering yesterday, "it was my job to carry the money for this crap game. I'd take the money over to Thames Street, with two bodyguards following me for protection, and at the end of the night, we'd take the house winnings back to Highlandtown. Believe me, in them days you needed bodyguards."
One night, Martin and Lewis finish their act and Dino, who's met Nick a few times by then, still has some adrenalin pumping through him.
"Any action tonight?" he asks.
Nick takes him to the crap game at Broadway and Thames. In those days, he'd bring a lot of the big entertainers down there. Some of them won, some lost, and the action went on all night long. Martin, as luck would have it, proceeds to lose everything in his pockets. By now, dawn is breaking over East Baltimore. As Martin has been up all night, he feels hungry.
"Lemme borrow a few bucks," he says, "for breakfast."
This becomes the $60 that he takes to his grave, and which Nick is pondering yesterday afternoon as he takes lunch in Little Italy.
"You want me to fly out to California?" asks an East Baltimore guy.
"For $60?" says Nick.
"Well, I'll take his tie off. That oughta be worth $60."
"Or his pinkie ring," says another voice.
"Nah," says Nick. "Dino was a great guy, a great guy."
What's $60 over the course of half a century? A memory's gotta be worth more than that. Dean Martin goes back to another time in Baltimore, a time when the lights were on all night long, when the big names were Berle and Tucker and Jessel, and the clubs were filled with people all dressed up, and some of them went off to shoot a little craps until dawn, and so what if a guy forgets to pay off a debt? At Dean Martin's passing, the memory helps warm a winter's day, 48 years after the fact.