It's midnight in Old Blue's kitchen and the place is jammed with people giving each other money. Blue, sitting in a folding chair at his unpainted table, seems not to notice. To the inexperienced eye it is hard to tell that he is one of the oldest and most successful numbers writers and bootleggers in the city.
"I get by," he says with a wry grin. "A little business here, a little busines there. . ."
Blue has been getting by for years not only with numbers and whiskey, but by buying and reselling goods from tobacco to shoelaces.
"He'll go down to North Carolina and buy a bunch of firecrackers and sell 'em up here, or he'll sell Christmas lights, pumpkins, Easter corsages, whatever goes along with the times," said one city police officer familiar with Blue's operation. "He'll buy a pint of whiskey for a buck and a half and sell it for five."
When everything else in the city closes, Blue opens up for business. At age 60, he is the F.W. Woolworth of the Shaw ghetto.
"Sit right down, girls, sit right down!" Blue says to three giggling, bewigged, middle-aged women coming into his kitchen. He pours them some gin and escorts them into his living room. "It's the ladies night out," he winks at a visitor.
Of course it's cheaper to buy whiskey at a liquor store, and numbers can be bought there, too. But police seem to watch liquor stores more closely than Blue's house, and when some people run out of whiskey at midnight, they want more right away.
Blue, with his tired, scarred face and brown peg-like teeth, speaks in a voice that sounds like one of his folding chairs dragged across his kitchen.
By his account he has made as much as $1.500 a day in the numbers game alone, yet he is living in a brick row house that is falling apart, next to an alley that smells of urine. In the last 10 years there have been 20 murders on his block.
"If the ghetto means where all the bad-damn people is, then we here, right in the middle of it," he says.
He stays there because his friends and customers are there. They need him, he believes, and he needs them.
A sullen young man walks into the kitchen and without a word, opens up the refrigerator, takes out a gallon milk carton filled with gin and puts it to his mouth. "What ya want?" Blue's friend asks.
The young man glares at the friend for several moments. When he has finished drinking he walks out, without a word, without paying.
"Sometimes it's better not to push them," Blue says. "You never know what these jitterbugs might do."
In the last five years Blue has been robbed in his kitchen three times. "One guy was killed right here where I'm sittin'," he says.
Blue explains that he and the nowdeceased friend were playing Tomk, a card game, at 4 a.m. when four men walked into the kitchen. "I knew two of them and thought the other two'd come in with 'em for a drink." The two strangers walked to either end of the kitchen, and one of them pulled out a gun.
"All right, this is it. I want the money, First one who moves, I'll blow 'em away'," Blue says the gunman shouted.
The friend seated at the table pulled out a revolver and pointed it at the gunman.
The friend "should've shot him right there," Blue says sadly, "but he kept pointing it at him, like he expected the dude to drop the gun." The intruder shot Blue's friend dead. He got one round off as he fell out of his chair.
The friends stray shot "went right in here," Blue said, pointing to a hole in the kitchen window frame which has since been painted over.
The robbers took $4 off the table and ran out, Blue explains. "They killed a man and got $4."
Blue's real name, and nickname, cannot be revealed here because if they were, police say, his customers might kill him. Some of Blue's friends don't like publicity of any sort. Blue "is close to a lot of murders," said one veteran lawman. He has had his own scapes with the law, but largely he has been able to keep policemen from his kitchen by being discreet and dealing with regular customers.
The kitchen, with its worn lisoleum floors and bare bulb lighting, is suddenly lit with blinking red lights. A cruiser moving through the alley outside. Blue pays no attention.
To play the numbers, Blue explains to the visitor, a player picks one, two or three numbers, and places a bet with a writer.
The winning numbers are taken from a combination of payoffs on races four through nine at Bowie. Other race tracks in Maryland are used when horses are not running at Bowie. A player picking three numbers correctly can win several hundred dollars for a dollar bet. Or player can pick a single number, which pays 8-1, or two numbers, a parlay, which pays 64-1, or any combination of three numbers. The writer gives the number to the runner who gives it to the banker. There are special combinations that alter the odds, and the writer and banker each take varying percentages of the bets and any winnings.
"Sounds like you've got to have a master's degree in math to understand all that," the novice visitor observes.
"Nope," says Blue, "you just' gotta be poor to understand."
Numbers are the ghetto's lottery, he says, and most people play them.
Business has been dropping off in recent years. Blue says People are a little more reluctant to come out late at night because they're afraid of getting robbed by marauding junkies. Still, for him, life is more rewarding than the years when he held odd jobs, painting, paper hanging, loading trucks for the government, cleaning cars for a dealership.
"I always have liked to help people," he says. Doing what he does now "gives me more time" to do that. Lawmen who know him say he takes unemployed neighbors into his home and provides groceries for the sick. "Anything anyone has ever done for him, he hasn't forgotten," said one police officer.
The money he has not lost in craps, Blue has also used to educate his six children and help pay for their homes in safer areas. All six live in suburban Maryland or Virginia. They have jobs for the military, federal government, a taxicab company and a law firm.
Two women almost trip over each Outta my way or I'll walk over you," says one. "Ain't no excuse for you," says the other A man walks in with a bag full of fish. "Croakers," he says, "my barber always gives me some when he goes out." The man puts some in the refrigerator, and drifts off to do business with Blue's friends. It's 1 a.m.
Someday, Blue says wistfully, he 'd like to leave it all and move to the suburbs, Peace and safety. Maybe someday, As he speaks another man comes in and Blue pours him a plastic cup of gin.