Billy Rorer was voted Most Popular and Most Athletic by the Class of 1948 at George Washington High in Alexandria. He had a good run as a semipro baseball player and ended up as a mailroom clerk for a union in the District. But on that summary of lifetime earnings that Social Security sends out each year, the years 1955 to 1985 are, as Billy puts it, "a total blank." He flashes a big, mischievous smile.
For those three decades, Billy was a bookie, a rogue who ran the numbers game and collected wagers on the streets of Alexandria, Arlington and Washington. There were some close calls, but the law never nailed him.
For all those years, money flowed through Billy's hands like monsoon water down a storm drain. Yet he's 75 now and he's never written a check in his life, never owned a thing -- no house, no property, no stocks. For more than half a century, he never saw or paid a bill. He lived a life of cash and carry.
Rorer says he trusts no one, but that's a lie. He's a sweetheart with a trademark shaved head, a confident, wily voice and an impressive collection of friends and acquaintances, many of them the waitresses from Belle Haven to Old Town to whom Billy's the number one tipper they see. He swims for 45 minutes every morning at the Mount Vernon rec center and spends afternoons visiting people who don't have much time left -- his sister, his best friend. He's been with the same woman, Ruth Bishop, for 35 years. "She went through hell with me. Hot temper, gambling." Ruth, Billy says, "is straight paper."
In a wonkish town, Billy Rorer is what passes for a rogue. His stories are about being tough and hard, yet he's such a softie that he carries with him a postcard-sized painting of the two-room cabin in Gretna, Va., where he was born, and he shows off the inscription that Willard Scott, the famed radio funnyman and TV weatherman, wrote in Billy's high school yearbook: "Roses are red, violets are blue, you play baseball and basketball too."
Billy is grumpy enough to keep a catalogue of grudges and blame. He writes it all down, the names of folks -- some of them big names by now -- whom he dismisses in a single savage phrase. "Thief," he writes after the name of a big local pol. "BS artist," he says of a union leader. Here's a guy who sicced the cops on Billy. Here's a player who never made good on a $5,000 debt.
Then I turn the page in Rorer's account of his life and the same character is back, but now the story has flashed forward a few decades, and that thief is "an ok guy." The union guy is still a crook, but Billy has scratched this verdict on the page: "Nice wife."
Billy keeps a record of his fleeting contacts with the great and the near-great, like when he sat and talked to Roger Maris in a North Dakota bar or the night he bonded with Johnny Unitas because the gridiron great liked the Smothers Brothers and Carling Black Label beer and Billy loathed both.
In the old news clippings, Billy is a strapping blond athlete, a crew-cutted standout, pictured in the Alexandria Gazette signing a Class A baseball contract as his mother, Annie, leans over his shoulder.
Billy pretty much lived at the Alexandria Boys Club in those days. He was a Golden Gloves boxer, a pool player, a gym rat. He can't recall opening a book in high school, spending his time instead on basketball and football. After high school, Rorer found work playing baseball in the Shenandoah Valley League; most of the other players were college kids soaking up the experience. Billy played for the money. He got a quick look-see from the Philadelphia Phillies and another from the Cleveland Indians but ended up on a Greyhound back to Washington, where, in 1956, he found work helping out his brother in the numbers game.
The brothers Rorer employed four clerks to collect bets on the street; the money was plowed right back into the local economy. Billy says his brother spent $800 a week at the clubs on 14th Street NW, the old Casino Royale, Lotus and the other vestiges of vaudeville and burlesque that survived downtown until the middle years of the Barry era.
Rorer's brother spent time in the clink in the '50s and '60s after he failed to pay a sports gambling debt and the guy he owed turned him and his numbers operation in to the FBI.
For a time, Billy took over the family business. But he got cocky: "being flashy, giving money to women, gambling too much," he recalls. When his brother returned from prison, Billy went back to working for others.
He was constantly on the move, staying a couple of steps ahead of the law, "mostly by paying off the detectives. We had two of them who even helped us move one time when we had to get out of a place on Minnesota Avenue" in Northeast. Once, Billy was hauled before a grand jury, where "I lied," he says. "I said I didn't know anything."
In 1967, Arlington police raided the house where he was running the numbers operation. He got off with a $500 fine and a six-month suspended sentence. He reopened for business the next day.
Finally, in 1984, things got too hot. Billy's girlfriend saw cops collecting his garbage bags. A friend who drove a phone company truck called: "Hey Billy, they tapped your phone." And an old acquaintance who was sweet on him in high school got the word from Alexandria City Hall and passed it on: "They're watching you, Billy."
He quit. Even now, he gets agitated running through the list of people who "must have turned me in." Even now, he misses it. Not the money -- he did make anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 a week, but "I blew it all the same way I made it -- gambling. And women." What he misses is the action, the status, the pulling one over on the smart guys.
For all those years, his mother begged him to stop. She thought it was wrong. She feared he'd be caught. Billy politely disagreed. People gamble, he says. That won't change, nor should it.
"Everybody should be a bookmaker at one time or another," he says. "You learn so much about life."
Rorer wrote down a list of those lessons. "1. Everybody's a thief. 2. Don't trust anyone. 3. The players are worse than the bookmaker."
Instead of trusting, Billy has always tipped. Tipping, he believes, is the key to making it. He tips 65 percent at the Prime Rib on K Street, 200 percent at Pema's, an Italian place on Richmond Highway. He tips at the racetrack, at the gas station, at Roy Rogers. Billy Rorer may be the only guy on the planet who tips at 7-Eleven.
"I'm an old man," he says. "Friendship means a lot to me." So does a cute girl. The tips go way, way off the chart.
He lives off Social Security and a union pension check. He did 20 years in the painters union, mainly in the mailroom. He never had a chair.
He comes out of it all with good friends and, he says, no regrets.
"Streetwise, I'm brilliant," he writes. But later, he tells me that no, "I'm a nobody, never amounted to anything. Just a dummy.
"I'm a bum, and I'll never change."
And then Billy Rorer brightens, because the news has presented him with an accomplice, a rogue who may be worthy of the name. It's that school bus driver in Prince George's County who had more than his fill of the kids' wild behavior and deposited them on a street corner and drove off.
Billy is delighted. "Good for him," he says. "Instead of firing him, they ought to give him a raise."
And he whips out a thick wad of bills and starts peeling off tips for the waitresses, the bartender, the busboy.