(This article, by yours truly, appears in the editorial page for Florida Today, this date)
This is about remembering special fathers on Father’s Day. Stepfathers, that is.
Bernard Stein was one of those. Actually, he was known to most people as Bernie the Bookie. I was 16 when he came into my life. Then a widower, he had known my mother from the mobster scene in Queens, New York, during the war years. She was a twice a widow.
My blood father died in 1941 when I was a toddler. My mom was a well-known showgirl who remarried a New York mobster named Willie. We moved to Florida in 1945 where Willie died four years later of natural causes. My embedded images are of his smoke-filled casino room in a Miami Beach hotel, with gangsters, hookers, New York lingo and laughter everywhere. Later came dinner time and the flow of booze at the apartment.
Seven years later in 1956 my mother married Bernie. Few people in my 79 years had such a deep impact on my future. Bernie the Bookie was one of those. He deserves a heartfelt remembrance.
After the Great War ended, Miami Beach was ripe for an invasion of organized crime. Gambling rooms (illegal) opened everywhere, prostitution flourished, and gang lords found safe haven in the warmth of Winter Wonderland because common corruption infested the landscape. Bernie never knew another lifestyle. He grew up in lower Manhattan and hung around with such notables as Meyer Lansky and Bennie Siegel (Bugsy to you and me).
Bernie took to me like I was his own. Long chats in the bedroom between phones calls taking bets on horses and ball games. He finagled a part-time job for me with a Miami Beach mafioso named Frankie Dio, servicing cigarette machines along Collins Avenue. I also played strolling violin at one of Frankie’s upscale restaurants. Great food. Gorgeous women.
Every so often, high-level cops wearing suits visited our house for their weekly pay-off. I never thought about it, other than business as usual. Every time the cops left, Bernie glanced at me chuckling, “Hey. It’s pay day.”
In 1960 I married a pregnant girl expecting the baby by fall. I desperately needed a full-time job. Bagging groceries, selling ladies shoes and playing violin was no way to support a family. One day, Bernie lay back on his pillow and smirked, chewing on a wood-tipped cigar. “What’s up Bernie?” I asked, curiously.
“I got a job for you, Kid.” (I was “Kid.” I don’t think he knew my name.)
“Job? What job?”
“You’re gonna be a cop,” he said, grinning, nodding, puffing the cigar.
Stunned. I asked, “What? Me a cop? No way.”
Bernie disregarded my rebuff. “I got a detective coming here tomorrow at 9 a.m. to bring you to headquarters. Be ready. You’re gonna take the test.”
“Bernie, they’ll never accept me.”
“Yeah, they will.”
“How do you know that?”
He waffled his head. “I got connections.”
A tough plain-clothed sleuth named Dave showed up the next morning. The rest is history. Thirty years later, I retired as a police captain with 16 years in homicide and more in administration, not to mention 14 published books after retirement. Never was I asked or ordered to do anything illegal or corrupt. Bernie made sure of that before he died in 1966.
Once, I asked him to take a few bets on sporting games. He turned dead serious and pulled the cigar from his lips, peering at me.
“You listen to me, Kid. I do what I do ‘cause I don’t know nuttin’ else. You? You keep your nose clean, and never again think about goin’ dirty. That understood?”
At 21, I was a kid spinning in circles, about to be a father with no future in sight. My stepfather may have been “connected” to organized crime but he made sure my path was clear. Because of his vision, his love and his power I have all that I have today. Stepfathers count too.
Thanks, Bernie. And Happy Father’s Day.