The last time I’d seen Sammy Arkin he was behind the wheel of a taxicab. This was in the 1980s when Jews still drove cabs. We were recent graduates of a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, the two of us having enthusiastically exiled ourselves for four years from the hurly-burly of the New York City in which we’d grown up. Arkin was an unlikely driver. The last I’d heard, he was going to study economics in a PhD program at the University of Chicago. But that wasn’t why I was surprised. Arkin was practically blind. He wore thick-framed glasses and when he read something, he’d place the page flat against his face and slide his head back and forth scanning each line like one of those old dot matrix printer heads. The thought of Arkin weaving in and out of Manhattan traffic would have been unimaginable if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes. But there he was on an August afternoon in a cab with the front window rolled down. He stuck his head out of the car and called out my name.
“We should get together,” he said as the stop-and-go traffic inched ahead.
“Watch the road Arkin,” I yelled as he screeched to a halt just short of the car ahead of him.
And then the light changed and he was gone. That had been twenty years ago.
Cinema Village is an art-house movie theater in Greenwich Village. In 2007 I went there on a weekday afternoon to see a documentary called Abduction about a 13-year-old girl named Megumi Yokota who had been kidnapped from her seaside town by North Korean agents. She and dozens of other young Japanese had been snatched and carried off as part of an elaborate program to teach North Korean spies how to pass for Japanese. The theater was nearly empty, and I was waiting for the film to begin when I noticed a familiar face a few seats away from me in the otherwise empty row. It was Arkin.
After exchanging surprised exclamations of recognition and greetings, I asked Arkin what he was up to these days.
“I’m a gambler,” he told me.
“You mean a trader? Commodities?” I asked.
“No. Backgammon, card games, sports. European soccer is big. I’m doing pretty well with the Italian league games this year.”
“What do you know about soccer? Gambling can’t be how you’re making a living. What’s your bread and butter?” I asked.
“Oh, anything and everything,” he said vaguely. Then, after a few seconds, he suggested, “Why don’t we place a wager right now? One hundred dollars on whether the next person to walk in the theater is Caucasian or Oriental.”
“I think the preferred term is East Asian these days,” I told him.
“Well in that case let’s make it two hundred dollars. Even odds. You choose,” Arkin proposed.
I turned him down, but we exchanged phone numbers and since that chance meeting, Arkin and I would get together for lunch maybe once or twice a year.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by his vocation. In college Arkin had been an excellent backgammon player. And he’d been a schemer, more interested in the action – any action – than a particular result. During our freshman year, he had rented two vans and hired twenty students to travel from Minnesota down to Des Moines to sell buttons when the pope made an Iowa stop during his pilgrimage across the United States. It was a ridiculous escapade, arranged at the last minute. A Jewish kid in a small college town gets on the phone with a friend back in Brooklyn, a guy who knew a guy, and arranges to have ten thousand buttons manufactured and mailed out to Northfield. Bearing the face of John Paul II and the words “Papal Visit, October 4, 1979,” they had arrived at the Carleton College Post Office less than twenty-four hours before the pope’s appearance in Iowa. That episode turned out pretty well, although I still have a box full of papal buttons somewhere in the back of my bedroom closet.
Arkin, as it turned out, wasn’t making much of a living as a professional gambler, but he was surviving. He lived in a rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper East Side, and claimed to have a Romanian girlfriend named Elena, although I never met her.
Games of chance, just like most everything, had been turned upside down by the Internet. Like a newspaper reporter lamenting the lost glory years of print, Arkin was wistful about the old days. He recounted tales of 24-hour backgammon matches at New York’s Mayfair Club. Dice clattering across the board, checkers moving forward. Poker games where Russian immigrants faced off against garment executives and Wall Street lawyers. Arkin talked about walking around with ten thousand dollars in his pocket one week and sleeping on a park bench the next. Ah yes, the Mayfair, Arkin’s home away from home. Some of its regulars became legends in the gambling world. Heimowitz, Appelman, Lederer, Seidel, and Harrington. All would go on to be big winners at the World Series of Poker.
Through Arkin I met some less successful card players. They all had nicknames. Mugsy, Dummy, The Genius, Pips, Gabby, and Big Foot are the ones I remember. Some of them were math guys and card counters, rumpled quants with extraordinary computational powers. Others went with their hunches.
The Mayfair, Arkin told me, had been closed down in 2000, a victim of the quality of life campaign of “that bastard, Mayor Giuliani.” But the games just moved elsewhere. Across the city, card players gathered after work hours in nondescript office buildings that doubled as gambling rooms.
“We all have the fever, and if you know how to play it doesn’t matter how much of a misfit you are.” A community of losers and the camaraderie of degenerates, Arkin liked to go on about this, before bemoaning how Internet gambling and legalized casinos had decimated his world. Things had changed. Of course there were still gamblers who preferred private games to the glitz of Las Vegas. But the illegal operations also had disadvantages. If the money was big and the game had been going on long enough for people to know about it, the house was still expected to pay protection money to the mob guys. And gangsters liked to gamble too, which could be a problem because they didn’t like to lose. As Arkin pointed out, why deal with all that when you can open an online account or head up to one of the big Indian casinos in Connecticut or take a bus to Atlantic City.
Apparently, the advent of Internet betting did offer some new opportunities. I was surprised when after one of our periodic lunches, Arkin said he’d pick up the bill. That was an unprecedented act, and I remarked on his show of generosity.
“I’ve had a few good months,” he explained while scanning the check and calculating the tip. “I’m working an angle. Arbitrage. Have a bookie in Flatbush and I’m also betting with an online site in Singapore. By placing bets on the same match with both of them, I make money regardless of the outcome. Tennis, anyone? Yes, tennis. That’s my game this year. The return’s only two percent, give or take. So I’ve got to bet big and move fast. Sometimes I have maybe fifteen minutes to time my bets. But if you know how to add, it’s a sure thing. I need fronts to bet for me to avoid being detected. Might you be interested? Or even better, might you lend me a few grand? This is guaranteed. You can’t lose.”
“I don’t think so. That’s not for me. And if we got involved with large sums of money, it could ruin a beautiful friendship,” I told him.
“No. It would just make it more beautiful. Think it about it, anyway.”
I didn’t hear again from Arkin for six months, until one day at work I got an email. “Lunch. Japanese. Sakagura. 43rd Street. Thursday. If you can make it, let me know. I’ll be with Elena. She wants to meet you.”
To my surprise, Elena existed. She was tall, much taller than Arkin, had fake eyelashes, and knew all about Japanese food. So much so that she ordered for all of us. Sea urchin soba; salmon flakes topped with poached egg over rice; and bonito sashimi.
I’d never seen Arkin so happy. Instead of talking about blind bets, cracking the nut, and doubling down, he and Elena were telling me about Romanian movies and a book group to which they both belonged. They’d spent the weekend at the U.S. Tennis Open. He seemed like a different person. And to my astonishment, they’d recently bought a house in the Catskills. It was less than a three-hour drive from the city, and Elena proudly showed me photos of it and the surrounding countryside on her phone.
“I’m growing tomatoes and zucchini up there. Can you believe it?” Arkin said doubling over with laughter. He told me Elena spent most of her time at the country house, and he was going up on weekends.
The man was in love. I’d never have guessed he had it in him and would have been even more doubtful that a woman of substance, someone like Elena, would ever fall in love with him. When Arkin excused himself to go to the bathroom, I told Elena that I’d never seen my friend so happy.
“He is very kind. Very generous,” she said.
And then she began to cry.
“You know he is a very sick man,” she said.
Her eyelashes were a mess.
“Well, he has his vices. But he seems to be doing pretty well. You just bought a house together,” I said gently.
“I know he is a betting man. But it is not that. He is a sick man. Very sick.”
“He looks great. He could lose fifty pounds. But hey. Middle age, you know,” I said uncomfortably.
“Promise me. You will help him if he comes to you. He doesn’t have friends. Not real friends. Will you promise me?”
Mascara was running down her face.
I told her that I’d do what I could, and then we just stared at each other. By the time Arkin returned to the table, Elena had wiped her face with a napkin and composed herself. The conversation resumed, much as it had before, with talk of tomatoes and tennis players, before digressing, as happened with many discussions in 2016, into a consideration of Donald Trump.
Elena said Trump reminded her of Nicolae Ceausescu, the dictator, who had ruled Romania for 25 years. “Like Donald, his inner circle was made up of family members. With Ceausescu also, there was this cult of personality. Our painters had to paint him. Our poets had to write poems about him. But unlike Donald, he was a small man, only five feet and six inches. Just like Sammy Arkin.”
“And Ceausescu’s wife was also named Elena,” Arkin said helpfully.
“Once a megalomaniac gets power there is no telling what will happen. But America is a very advanced country. I think it can handle Mr. Trump in a civilized way. My country was not so civilized. So we had to execute Mr. Ceausescu along with his wife.”
I had to go back to my office for a meeting, so after finishing up with green tea, we got up and said our goodbyes.
“I hope you will not forget us,” Elena said, looking over her shoulder as we walked away in opposite directions.
Baseball isn’t something I like to watch on TV, but towards the end of October Arkin invited me over to his apartment to watch the first game of the World Series. It was two months since we’d had lunch together.
I’d never been to his place before, although we’d met several times at a long narrow bar called Nash’s, one of those half-invisible vestigial New York haunts, around the corner from where he lived. Arkin’s neighborhood, by which I mean the streets in the 80s east of 2nd Avenue, was once known as Yorkville, but it had long ago been absorbed into the Upper East Side. The habitués of Nash’s consisted of doormen and superintendents working in the high-rise apartment towers of the neighborhood who would stop in after finishing their shifts. It was a little United Nations—Albanians from Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo, a smattering of Poles and Bulgarians, and Spanish speakers from all over Latin America. There was also another group of regulars, sour faced third and fourth generation Germans and Irish who had lived their entire lives in the neighborhood and inherited the rent controlled tenement apartments of their parents and grandparents. A good number of these men liked to gamble.
More than its customers, cheap drinks and large widescreen TV, Nash’s was notable for a barkeeper named Rudi with whom Arkin sometimes placed bets. More than once, I’d accompanied him to the bar as he either dropped off or picked up an envelope filled with cash.
But according to Arkin, Nash’s was gone. It had been replaced by an overpriced Italian restaurant with mediocre food. When I suggested we meet somewhere else, Arkin had insisted I come over to the apartment.
“It’s about time you saw my place,” he said as he opened the door.
The building had no elevator. The apartment was five stories up. It was a narrow floor-through, and the walls were bare besides a couple of Japanese woodblock prints and a movie poster of Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason playing pool. A queen-size futon took up most of the bedroom, which you had to walk across in order to get to the living room. There was a faint smell of cat urine throughout the apartment.
The game wasn’t close, and not far into it, Arkin muted the sound on the TV during a pitching change and told me he had a proposition he wanted to discuss.
“Actually it’s a situation as much as a proposition,” he said. “The situation is my doctors are telling me I have less than six months to live.”
There was a welter of details that Arkin calmly related to me over the next half hour. Kidney cancer. Targeted therapies. A protein called PD-L1. And a series of doctor reports and lab results that he read out loud to me. I didn’t understand a lot of it, except that it was very clear Arkin didn’t have much time left. A few months and then it would be all over.
Not surprisingly, knowing Arkin, he had done a lot of research on his condition. He told me that he had managed to get into a trial being run out of NYU Hospital. Fifty percent of the patients were receiving an experimental drug. The others were getting a placebo.
“There is a doctor I know who has led me to believe I’m receiving the real thing. I can’t be entirely certain, but I’m quite confident,” he told me.
“I don’t know what to say about all of this. I’m sorry.”
“Yes. The timing’s not the best. A bit overextended with the country house and I’d like to find a way to take care of Elena. So I’m going to have to keep going. That’s all there is to it. And that leads me to my proposition. A straight up wager. I’ll bet you a thousand dollars that I’ll still be alive in a year.”
“So I win the bet if you’re dead in less than a year?”
“That’s perverse. It’s not something we should be betting on.”
“It would be very good for me to have a little extra riding on the outcome. You know how I am.”
“But I don’t want you to die. It’s wrong. And how would I collect anyway?”
“I will leave instructions and an envelope with Elena. She will be informed of our arrangement.”
“A thousand bucks. That’s a lot of money. My wife wouldn’t like it if I lost it gambling. And given the circumstances, she’d be just as upset if I won.”
“Then don’t tell her about this. If you win, you can take her out to a nice dinner. Or donate it to charity if it makes you feel better. I am asking you to do this for me.”
I thought about it, and about Elena and her eyelashes and the promise I’d made to her.
That night I left my friend’s apartment having bet a thousand dollars that he would be dead within a year.
Over the next several months, I called, texted, and emailed Arkin close to a dozen times, asking if there was anything he needed or if he’d like to meet for lunch or dinner. The only reply I got was a single brief message that Elena wrote on his behalf, saying he didn’t want to see anyone, but that he’d be in touch when he felt a little better.
I was busy with work that year. There were business trips and project deadlines, and over time Arkin and his condition receded in my mind. He’d never been one of my closest friends, but rather was one of those people who periodically surfaced before disappearing again. I’d always got along very well with him, but we’d never spent long nights at the bar baring our souls to each other. Arkin wasn’t that kind of guy. So perhaps I can be forgiven for putting him out of my mind. Life went on for me with the usual preoccupations and concerns, and Sammy Arkin was not one of them. So after waking up early one morning at the beginning of November, I was completely thrown when I looked at my phone and saw a text message that read: You owe me money, Arkin 🙂
It took a few seconds to register, and then I heard myself laughing out loud. The bastard was alive. Pictures of Arkin digging up vegetables in the garden of his house upstate and holding hands with Elena as they walked down a narrow side street in Greenwich Village ran through my mind. The doctors had underestimated my friend. He always had been, in his awkward way, tenacious. The man was a survivor. I felt a lump in my throat as I considered it all.
That evening, I began thinking some more about the last two times I’d seen Arkin. It occurred to me that I hadn’t actually looked at any of the doctors’ letters and lab reports he had read to me that night when we watched the World Series game. And it was strange that I’d only met Elena once before learning that Arkin had a terminal condition. I began to wonder if she actually was his girlfriend, and if her name was really Elena. Did the photos of the house she’d shown me on her phone during our lunch really belong to Arkin and her? When it came to his finances, Arkin often seemed on the precipice of a catastrophe. If he owed people money – lots of money – was it possible that out of desperation he’d resort to hustling a friend of nearly forty years? Or maybe Arkin had just marked me as a gullible fool and saw our bet as nothing other than an amusing caper.
In all the time I’d known him, though, Arkin had never been devious or dishonest with me. And the idea of setting such a bizarre scheme into motion a full year in advance seemed a peculiar game to play. Maybe Arkin really was sick. If I refused to pay him and he then died three months later, I’d feel bad. Very bad. Only a sleaze would welch on a bet with a dying man. I could insist on seeing documents confirming Arkin’s condition, but it would be bad form. And if he really was playing an elaborate con, and I wasn’t sure that he was, he wouldn’t have any problem coming up with a doctor’s note and forging records attesting to his illness.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t really going to know anything about my friend’s health for quite some time. There were two things, however, about which I was certain. Sammy Arkin was alive, and I owed him a thousand bucks.
© Jacob Margolies
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse. Read Jacob’s interview]