Probstein (Ford Professor of Engineering, Emeritus/MIT) offers a delightful life story of his father, Honest Sid, “a gambler, a horseplayer, a bookie… a ticket scalper” and an all-around nice guy.
“Even though his lifestyle was crooked,” writes Probstein of his father, “his intentions were loving and honorable.” It was just that he had neither an interest in nor a temperament for a real job. In his youth, in the early decades of the past century, he’d been a promising baseball player—until he threw a game. He’d tried being a booking agent for vaudeville acts—Adam and Eve the Twin Bowling Monkeys were a big draw—but that was too straight a profession. And so, seemingly inevitably, he made his life and living amid the denizens of New York’s Broadway—shady characters with bright suits that Damon Runyon would later turn into American archetypes. This, then, was the setting of Probstein’s childhood. His playgrounds were boxing gyms, betting parlors and theater basements along the Great White Way. While other kids learned to hunt or fish with their dads, Probstein learned to handicap horse races and calculate betting odds, skills that would serve him well in his later science career. Life was not easy for a freelancing ne’er-do-well and his family in Depression era New York. A good week would mean Sid brought home a large stack of cash to his wife, and the love of his life, Sally. A bad week meant the shylocks would come calling. Good times meant Sunday dinner at Lindy’s, bad times meant quick exits from transient hotels. Nevertheless, Probstein adored his father and this affection imbues the book with an appealing nostalgia. A lithe, dashing figure in his tailored suits, Sid was never anything but kind and devoted to both his son and Sally. An eternal optimist, he was sure that the next bet, the next horse race, would be their ticket to the good life. It never happened, but despite the bumps along the way, Probstein cherished life with this charming dreamer of a dad. With humor, a rich eye for detail and a storyteller’s knack, the author brings to life a time and place now long gone.
Probstein is clearly having a good time here—the reader will as well.