You can learn plenty in a dirt parking lot!

Feb 18, 2003 7:22 AM

ON BEING A "YUNKER!" I was a Yunker! If you’re out of the Philadelphia area you know that Yunker is the term affectionately applied to those who live in Manayunk, a small, peaceful burg on the northwest end of the city.

Many of those already living there had ties to Rome. And, as the exodus from South Philly continued, it soon became a full-blown Little Italy.

The town was built on the side of a hill. One of its main east-west streets was Green Lane. That’s where I lived; between the Italian Church (St. Lucy’s) and the North Light Boys Club.

On Sundays, when the club was closed, its large parking lot became Little Vegas. Neighborhood guys of all ages gathered for card and dice games. Forget out behind the barn. The parking lot is where I got my education. The younger fellows had their own games. But, usually by their early teens, they were ready to play with the adults. And, there were games to fit any bankroll.

In order to keep everyone honest, we had some simple safeguards. The crapshooters had to make the dice hit the wall or the roll didn’t count. Card games required the deck to be cut by two different players.

The games started right after church and continued throughout the day. Often there would still be action after sunset. Those left playing ”” usually these were high stakes games ”” would simply move street-side where a convenient city lamp shed light.

Cheaters were our No. 1 enemy. The police ran a distant second. They knew about the games, but seldom bothered them. However occasionally, when they needed some extra pocket money, they would slowly drive down the street in full view. We all knew what to do. Everyone scattered leaving the pot behind. That was the rule ”” always leave the pot. The police knew what to do with it. The following Sunday it was business as usual.

One of the big feats everyone admired was a homerun. Not the kind you hit in baseball. This was more exciting. This was an action homerun. It was accomplished when a player with a limited bankroll started playing in the low end games and built his winnings up enough to play in the high stakes games at the end of the night. I’m proud to report that I loved hitting action homers and did so often enough to keep me coming back for more.

Those truly were the days. We were making memories and didn’t even know it.

It’s been a number of years since I’ve been back to the old neighborhood. I don’t know if the games are still going on, but if they are, I doubt it’s the same.

With the arrival of casinos in Atlantic City and elsewhere there was no longer a need to kneel in a dirty parking lot on Sundays. Action could be had any night of the week while sitting on a comfortable chair with plenty of light and assurance that the shuffle was honest and the dice weren’t loaded. And, casinos offer something you couldn’t get in Manayunk ”” credit. Cash was king back then. If you didn’t have it, you didn’t play.

But, the parking lot taught me a lot. How to read faces. I got very good at knowing if someone was telling the truth or bluffing. How to spot a guy dealing seconds. The importance of money management. The rewards of tenacity.

Yes, those were the days. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.