Again, I lament the vanishing of the great Bawlamer characters. On Reisterstown Road the other day, I passed the little strip shopping center where we once had Miller’s Deli, and inside would be Nookie Brown, known to God as Daniel Brozowsky and to horse players all over town as “Nookie the Bookie.”
When last seen years ago, Nookie was laid out at Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home, where mourners included much of Baltimore’s known gambling community. I sat that morning with Clem Florio, the great racing handicapper, who looked around the crowd and whispered, “Nookie’s last instructions, he told Sol Levinson to finish up before post time.”
Let’s face it, it was a different era. The daily lottery was still private enterprise, and thus illegal. The horses were still running regularly at Pimlico, and the betting, much of it off-track and thus also illegal, was abundant. And the police made all of this sound like some big threat to society.
Once, the cops set a record believed still intact in the annals of criminal justice. They positioned a few officers across the street from Miller’s, on the roof of the old Stewart’s department store at the Reisterstown Plaza Shopping Plaza, and spent days watching the gamblers hang out in front of the deli.
One day, they saw Nookie through binoculars as he was handed something wrapped in paper. It was believed to be bets. The cops, uniformed and plain-clothed, then charged across Reisterstown Road. It was the only time in recorded history that somebody was grabbed for possession of strudel.
At his funeral, everybody remembered Nookie’s “private office.” It was a sidewalk phone booth around Hayward and Park Heights avenues, right outside the track, where he took bets. It was a public phone, but it was widely known nobody else could use it.
If he wasn’t in the phone booth, or the track, you could find Nookie at Miller’s, hanging with fellows with no known last names, such as “Haircut” and “Shmatte,” and “Fat Herby” and “Abe the Conk,” and “Bundles” and “Joe Alphabet.”
Some days were better than others. One day, witnesses remembered, a guy put a pistol to Nookie’s head.
“Nookie, you got big trouble,” the guy said.
“I’m in trouble?” Nookie inquired.
“Yeah,” the guy said. “You owe me $300, and you’re gonna pay me the money right now or …”
“Or what?” Nookie asked.
“Or get out of town,” the guy said.
Nookie asked the guy to wait a minute. He started walking from table to table, conferring with friends. He whispered to one guy here, another there. Finally, he walked back to the guy with the gun.
“How did you make out?” the guy asked.
“Terrible,” said Nookie. “Nobody had a suitcase to lend me.”
It fell to one of the old horse players, Stanley Fisher, to write an epic poem titled “Nookie,” which I still have in my possession. It runs 42 stanzas, such was the richness of Nookie’s life.
Every day was a gift to Nookie. He was among the U.S. Army troops who landed at Normandy. Once, asked how the D-Day invasion went for him, he shrugged it off.
“They told us, ‘Don’t worry, you won’t even get your ankles wet,’” he laughed. Another time, he admitted, “I walked through half of Europe and wound up in Germany. But at least I came back.”
Nookie was a diminutive guy, but he could stand up for himself. Unmarried, he lived in an apartment with his sister. One night, she was home alone when the cops kicked in the door, expecting to find betting slips. The raid scared the hell out of the sister.
When Nookie heard about it, he was furious. He went over to the Northwestern District, confronted the desk sergeant, and slammed down his fist. Then, he handed the startled cop the key to his apartment.
“Next time,” Nookie told him, “just use the key.”
“Here’s the kind of guy he was,” an old friend, Gus Hansen, said. “If he had $10 in his pocket and you needed $12, he’d give you his $10 and go borrow $2 more.”
Among those at Nookie’s funeral was another old pal, Charles “Hawks” Eisen.
“I guarantee you,” Hawks said, “Nookie’s up in heaven now, and he’s telling God, ‘I bet you 4 to 1 this whole thing’s a mistake.’”
Bawlamer characters like that gave us a smile. We could use a few these days.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).