It was in the late ‘forties when I first met Charley. He had one of a large number of Italian restaurants in our area, but Charley’s, the Bella Via, was a bit different in that he also maintained a large gambling operation on the second floor in the form of a craps table.
I had taken my date, Mary Ann, there – more to impress her with the fact that I could get in than anything else. Upstairs, the little lady’s turn came and she was instructed to throw the dice the entire length of the table, so that they would bounce off of the other side. She threw the dice and missed the table altogether, hitting players with the sharp edged cubes. Charley, who owned the layout, came over to me and diplomatically suggested that we go downstairs and get something to eat!
Wheeling was a wide open town then with illegal booze, gambling and prostitution sanctioned by the law enforcement agencies and condoned by the civic leaders. There was a tacit agreement between the manufacturing and moneyed interests of the town and the elements of the underworld stating that the laboring class could have their entertainment, booze etc., if it was controlled. The town was a “happening place” with well over a hundred clubs in the downtown area, many of them with live music and “chuck a luck” or other games of chance.
What I am trying to say is that Charley, while he operated outside the laws on the books, was not considered a “gangster” in the movie sense of the word but was more a purveyor of product that was in great demand.
When the town was cleaned up by a young prosecutor, Charley was forced to become a first rate and a very successful restaurateur. He served the best veal marsala I have ever tasted, and we dined there frequently. Over the years Charley and I became friends and he would join us in our booth for coffee. In the course of his various business adventures he had a major disagreement in another establishment that resulted in a broken upper right arm, and for a time Charley was hors de combat. Soon afterward, he asked me about the stock market and how it worked. You see, Charley needed “action.” I was a stockbroker, or a “customer’s man” as we were called in those days, so I sent him information on the market.
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One day he called me at the office and asked how to open a margin account. I instructed him to read and sign the papers I would send him and return them with a check for at least $2000. He did, with a very substantial check. A few days later he called me and asked the price of a company called “Mono B” listed on the American Stock Exchange, and I told him it was “bid 22 – offered at 22 1/4.” Charley in his inimitable style instructed me to “put 10 Gs on it.” I explained that most orders were in hundred share lots, and he said that was OK with him. Charley was in the market! He was the easiest and most delightful person to deal with – he never got emotional, handled the good news and the bad with equanimity. One day he asked about one of his holdings that had been hit pretty hard and was off by multiple points. His only comment was, “That sure is a lot of spaghetti!”
In those days we operated in a large, open Board Room with prices posted in chalk on a wall by a “board boy.” There was an Ultronic device that gave quotes for the people who sat around. Charley had just finished getting his quotes, and as he turned around, he ran into the young prosecutor who had closed his gambling operation. Charley said to him, “Arch, this is the best game in town, and you can’t lay a finger on it!”
One evening while having coffee with Charley at his restaurant his son came over and asked him, “What are we going to do about Rose [an elderly and much beloved waitress who had come from Seiberts when it closed]? She is having trouble handling the trays.” Charley said to get her a busboy. His son replied that he had. Charley said “Get Rose a busboy to carry the food to the table and one to clear the table and Rose picks up the tip. Now, that isn’t hard, is it?”
Nostalgia always sweetens memories but it seems to me that in those days people had to be tough to survive, but they truly cared for their own.