La Bolita — A child­hood link

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - More Opinion - JUAN NE­GRONI Juan A. Ne­groni, a We­ston res­i­dent, is a con­sul­tant, bilin­gual speaker/fa­cil­i­ta­tor and writer. Email him at juan­negroni12@gmail.com; fol­low him on Twit­ter @JuanANe­groni. His col­umn ap­pears monthly in Hearst Con­necti­cut news­pa­pers.

At the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, La Bolita, (lit­tle ball in English) was a type of lot­tery that peaked in pop­u­lar­ity in Cuba and Florida. A pre­cur­sor of Amer­i­can lotto games, it in­volved lit­tle white balls with win­ning num­bers be­ing drawn out of a bag. It mor­phed into the bet­ting game, also called La Bolita, I came to know in Span­ish Har­lem. It flour­ished through­out my youth as a pop­u­lar sub­cul­ture of sorts.

The La Bolita I re­mem­ber con­sumed ev­ery­one, young and old. For many of us, play­ing the num­bers be­gan at an early age and con­tin­ued into our adult lives. It was as if this game of chance nested in our DNAs.

But in­stead of pick­ing white balls out of a bag, win­ning num­bers came from daily horse rac­ing re­sults. Ev­ery day a win­ning three­digit num­ber paid 500 to 1, as do to­day’s lotto draw­ings in many states. Win­ners were apt to show off by en­thu­si­as­ti­cally pro­claim­ing, “Me pegé hoy, Me pegé hoy,” which meant “I won to­day, I won to­day.” I never heard any­one scream, “Perdí, Perdí, I lost, I lost.”

It hard to say when my brother Peter and I be­came La Bolita play­ers. Prob­a­bly in our pre­teens is my guess. Be­cause of our fa­ther’s ob­ses­sion with it, and be­cause of Ce­sar, our block’s es­teemed bookie, it’s doubt­ful we could have ever dodged the urge to play. And Ce­sar’s bodega, a few steps from the stoop of our four-story ten­e­ment, took bets from ev­ery­one — of any age.

Span­ish Har­lem was swamped with La Bolita book­ies. It was as if they had hung up flashing signs “Bet with Me” on blocks north of 101st Street and Madison Av­enue, and across the First Av­enue Bridge into the South Bronx. Yet bet­tors took buses and sub­ways to come play with Ce­sar.

He had worked dili­gently to set up his store as one of the most re­spected num­bers cen­ters in the city. His rep­u­ta­tion for pay­ing off win­ners quickly, even with pay­outs of $5,000, was renowned. How he could get so much cash so fast was an El Bar­rio mys­tery. Some thought it might have been from ex­tra in­come he took in for host­ing card and domino games in the back of his store.

My fa­ther played La Bolita reg­u­larly. He had one fa­vorite three-digit num­ber. Peter re­mem­bers it as 329, a num­ber he him­self even­tu­ally adopted as his own. It’s pos­si­ble my fa­ther could have got­ten his 329 from The H.P. Suc­cess Dream book­let, which I found in our apart­ment af­ter he passed away.

First pub­lished in 1924 and re-copy­righted in 1954, ev­ery one of the book­let’s 94 pages had a three-digit num­ber for any­thing and ev­ery­thing a mind could con­ceive or dream of. If you dreamt of a beg­gar, you would play 235. If you had a belly ache, you might have hur­ried to Ce­sar’s to bet on 210. It had num­bers for each state, month and day. Alaska, 207. Jan­uary, 569. Thurs­day, 310. And next to the num­ber 712, (my birth­day is 7/12) was the word “grief.”

Has the La Bolita cul­ture I grew up in in­flu­enced me? I would say no in one re­spect and yes in another. A gam­bler I am not. Never was, never will be. Dur­ing a long con­sult­ing project in Las Vegas I never went to a casino. I did lose seven dol­lars and 50 cents at an air­port slot ma­chine.

Race tracks vis­its? A hand­ful of times. In my col­lege days I went once with Ed­die, also a stu­dent. On a few busi­ness trips go­ing back 40 years I have gone with col­leagues. One who lives in Con­necti­cut is still a “horse­meis­ter.” His wife rides them. He bets on them.

For lotto, it’s dif­fer­ent. Of the 46 states I have been to, I have bought a lotto ticket wher­ever they were sold. Es­pe­cially when the top prize was in the gazil­lion strato­sphere.

As to the three-digit num­bers game, I rarely buy a ticket. But once in New Haven my car’s dis­tance gauge showed 359 miles trav­eled. That was my fa­vorite La Bolita num­ber in Span­ish Har­lem. I pulled into a gas sta­tion, played 359, and the fol­low­ing day col­lected sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars from one of the Con­necti­cut lotto pay­ing cen­ters. Was this win ran­dom luck or some­thing else in play?

Un­til now I had not given much thought to the bond between my La Bolita play­ing in Span­ish Har­lem and my in­ter­est in to­day’s lotto. Surely the two are linked. It makes me won­der how much of who we are to­day is rooted in our child­hood.

The La Bolita I re­mem­ber con­sumed ev­ery­one, young and old. For many of us, play­ing the num­bers be­gan at an early age and con­tin­ued into our adult lives. It was as if this game of chance nested in our DNAs.

The front and back cov­ers of the “The H.P. Dream Book.”

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