THE OTHER DAY, I had to borrow a couple of dimes to make a phone call, and as I stood in the booth hearing the interminable ring on the other end, I was reminded of another such time, years ago, and my first and last introduction to Nick the Greek.
I was doing publicity for one of the gambling casinos on the Las Vegas strip back in the 1950s, and famous names and faces were as familiar and routine to me as the housewife's butcher is to her. After the trill of rubbing elbows wth the stars had worn off, i began to look around the rest of Vegas and i found there was just as much poverty and pain a few minutes from the strip as there is in any other town.
It was nearing Christmas, and I had the bright idea of soliciting funds from such of the casino owners and making up Christmas baskets for needy families. In a week's time, operating on a small scale, I had enough money to make up 100 baskets -- a great deal of it coming from the bartenders, cocktail waitresses, showgirls and guys who worked in the casinos.
On Christmas Eve, friends helped me load the baskets, filled with the proverbial turkey and trimmings, along with toys, into the casino station wagon. Just as I was about to take off, the manager handed me a "pickup" slip and asked if I'd mind going out of my way to meet a guest who was arriving at the airport.
Meeting and greeting celebrities and other VIPs was part of my job, so there was nothing I could do but grin, shift into first and head for the airport with my baskets bouncing beside and behind me.
My VIP was one Nicholas Dandolos, and I figured if it wasn't Greta Garbo in disguise and going under an assumed name, the gent had to be a loaded rug merchant.
Mr. D. turned out to be a heavyset, graying man with not a trace of the arrogance and impatience I had encountered so many times with my pickup slips.
He gave me a shy smile and extended his hand, and he opened and closed the door for me when we got in the wagon.
I apologized for the crowded conditions and explained I was delivering Christmas baskets. As one of them threatened to topple over, Mr. D. placed it in his lap and thoughtfully examined the contents, rearranging them.
As we neared the casino, he spoke for the first time since we had gotten in the car:
"I wonder if you would stop here and do me a favor."
I noted we were in front of a rival casino, and I pulled into the driveway.
"I'd like you to make a call for me. It's very important you let the phone ring 15 times, or they won't answer."
He jotted down a number and a short message on a piece of paper, and I strode into the casino muttering under my breath. Polite or not, it seemed to me Mr. D. was as eccentric and lazy as the rest. A couple of minutes more and I could have dropped him off at my place and he would have been able to make all the calls he wanted. On top of that I had to use my own dime. It never seemed to occur to a big spender that a dime is still a dime, or it was in those days.
After dialing and waiting, then redialing to be sure, I returned to the car and informed my passenger I hadn't been able to reach his party. He thanked me, adding something about my seeming to be a girl who would really try, and three blocks later I delivered him into the hands of the usual doorment, bellhops and higher-echerloned lackeys.
As far as I was concerned, they could make his phone calls for him.
It was almost midnight when I finished delivering my baskets of Christmas cheer, and I fell into bed with a sense of all's right with the world that I had contributed in a small way.
It was apparent the following morning that I'd never guessed how much.
The calls started coming in during the night -- and by 9 the next morning the switchboard was jammed. Some people had waited because they didn't have phones and had to get to a public booth. All voices, one way or another, said the same thing. Laughing, crying, some imcoherent -- none could express what the baskets had meant to them: Christmas was not Christmas without a turkey and toys for the children. And the $100 bill tucked into each and every basket was truly the star on the top of the tree.
I was stunned -- but not too stunned to put the pieces together and realized I had been gloriously duped. Phone call, indeed! I rummaged through my handbag and dialed the number I found on the slip of paper. No one answered, but the day after Christmas I tried it again and sure enough, it was a Las Vegas bank. A number that would not only not answer on a holiday but would be closed in the evening.
Let it ring 15 times, indeed, and I had redialed to be sure. Time enough for someone to fill a hundred baskets -- that is, if he were the kind of someone who walked around carring $10,000 in $100 bills.
It didn't take me long to ferret out the fact that Mr. D. was the Nick the Greek -- a man who was a legend in the gambling world and a name I had heard daily in the six months I'd been in Vegas.
Nocholas Andrea Dandolos, alias "Nick the Greek," was born in 1886, son of a wealthy Greek merchant, educated at the best schools, steeped in the creed of Aristotle and Plato, an acquanintance but never a friend of the Al Capones and Legs Diamonds of the world -- a man who skirted the idolization of movie stars and at-the-moment celebrities with his polite but aloof manner, and who was by his owner calculations a winner and loser of more than half a billion dollars in his lifetime.
A man, according to a national magazine, who, as his friends figured it, distributed $3 million in day-to-day touches during his lifetime, had given at least $500,000 to various charities and sent 28 children of friends to college, and started 300 men in business without profiting by it, and had paid hospital bills for 600 people. He had been quoted as saying, "Money has been made a substitute for everything. Even character. It shouldn't be an ambition. I'm sorry we have to use it. It's just a stake."
He was also obviously a man whose one ambition in life, or at least at the moment, was to avoid me as if I were carrying the bubonic plague. After fruitless attempts to contact him by phone, even though our bungalows were only yards apart, it finally dawned on me that Mr. D. did not want me to recognize his exercise in Christianity. I had been in Las Vegas enough to learn you don't go around mentioning money and especially anyone's source. It wasn't that it was considered vulgar, as it might be in Boston or Philadelphia; it was just, well, you might say, unhealthy.
Not that Nick the Greek was anything but a gambler -- he was not, but if he was going to take $10,000 off his income tax as a charitable contribution, I figured he could break it to the government in his own way.
It was just that I had the need to thank him personally for a gesture that surpassed my craziest dreams.
I was given the chance a week later when I received another pickup and delivery slip. Mr. D. was departing. When I called for him it didn't take him long to make himself understood. It was as if he'd never set eyes on me in his life, but I couldn't resist making a final stab at victory.
"By the way, Mr. D., did you ever get through on that call you asked me to make? I mean to the bank that's closed at night."
With not a change of expression, my passenger looked me straight in the eye and replied, "Now, why should an old man like myself ask a pretty young lady, and a very through one, I might add, like yourself, to run my errends? You don't think I can dial my own phone?"
As we stood in the airport waiting for the call to board the plane, Mr. D. put out his hand and, hesitating only slightly, raised it to my head and patted me. Then, without a word, he strode off.
As I headed for the parking lot, I heard my name called and turned to find the plane stewart running after me, waving his arms.
"The gentleman who just borded the flight asked me to give you this. He must be some kind of nut or something. He gave me a ten-spot to catch you."
The stewart turned and hurried back to the plane, and I looked down at the palm of my hand. In it was a dime -- just the correct amount with which to make a phone call in the 1950s.
He was a giant of his kind. And on Christmas of 1966 he died -- broke. Gamblers are a funny breed. They always pay their debts.