It hadn’t been easy for Vinnie Patterson since the plant closed. He lost his job as supervisor, which had earned him good money. The family had tightened their collective belts about as tightly as possible, trying to make ends meet. They sold the place at the Jersey shore, the second car and the 21–foot motorboat.
Vinnie went to The Salvation Army along with many of the guys from the second shift at the General Motors assembly plant in Tarrytown, New York. There he and the other laid off workers got help once a week in a food assistance program arranged by the Army and the union. At first it was a big joke.
“Hey, keep this oatmeal stuff. My kids won’t eat that. They don’t eat anything but junk food,” he would kid. By the end of the 12–week program, no one was laughing—and no one was refusing food.
Soon the unemployment ran out, as did the union insurance. Vinnie took out a second mortgage on his home, but that just bought him a little time as he slid deeper into debt. It didn’t solve his problem though, for he was without a job in a depressed market, with few skills and a wife and three kids to take care of. Despairing of ever seeing prosperity or even solvency, he contemplated jumping off the Tappan Zee Bridge into the Hudson River just across from his closed plant. That idea almost seemed possible until he remembered that he had cashed in all his insurance policies to pay the outstanding mortgage and utility bills.
Lack of work was not Vinnie’s only problem—he was a compulsive gambler. He didn’t start out that way—just a few bucks in an office football pool, cards with the guys, a couple of lottery tickets on payday or even an occasional trip to Atlantic City. He wasn’t a high roller or a big winner.
Over time he had a few good days and made some serious money, but lost it and lots of other dead presidents by trying to get that one big score. Just one big one score and he could get all his creditors off his back. He just needed that one big score and played anything and everything—horses, craps, roulette, slots—anything, just to hit it big.
But that big score never came. He was out of money, out of time and out of hope. In desperation he went to a loan shark—a dangerous idea even in a best-case scenario. Loan sharks charge exorbitant interest, and when payments are late, they take payment in broken kneecaps, fingers, arms and other body parts. Some might even get a one-way ride to the swamps of the Meadowlands in North Jersey.
So Vinnie borrowed money from an “investment counselor,” as the man called himself, since loan shark has such a negative connotation. Everyone else called him the Boss. Vinnie borrowed $100,000, putting up his house for collateral, an unwise decision since he already had two mortgages on the property that were close to default.
Armed with his big stake, Vinnie went to Atlantic City with the hope of winning enough to clear his debts and repay the loan within the 30-day time limit. After 30 days the interest rate compounded at 50 percent per day.
At first, Vinnie won and did well. He should have banked the money and gone home. But, like every other gambler, Vinnie had a system, and he was going to make a bundle— once that system started to work. He forgot that the only absolutely foolproof system is that “you can’t beat the house.” When you set out on a path to beat the odds, you might as well write a check to the casino and save yourself some time.
Vinnie lost the entire amount.
What could he do? He thought about running, but there would be goons looking for him, once the word got out that he lost the money. The Federal Witness Protection program took too much time—time Vinnie didn’t have—and Vinnie wasn’t tough enough to fight it out either. All he could do was beg and plead for time. Maybe they would only break one arm or leg instead of every bone in his body.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed” (— Matthew 18:23–29).
“I hear you dropped a bundle at the tables, and that your wife and kids are going out on the street. This is most disturbing news to a businessman such as myself,” the Boss said in his soft, gravelly voice as he turned to sniff at a perfect white gardenia in the buttonhole of his expensive suit. “But what is even more disturbing is your cavalier attitude concerning your outstanding obligations. I see you have no intention of repaying me. You came to me, and I gave you the money you asked for in good faith. You sought me out. I didn’t put an ad in the Yellow Pages to get your business. So what are we to do with this unfortunate situation?”
Vinnie, already sweating profusely, poured out explanations and entreaties, as well as information about his family.
“Stop, please,” the Boss interrupted. “Do not insult my intelligence. I already know you could care less what happens to your family. I would be well within my rights to take the house and toss your wife and kids out on the sidewalk. But, unlike my feelings for you, I rather like your family. They have honor and respect where you have none. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to forgive the debt. Now, get out of here before I change my mind.”
Vinnie could hardly believe his ears—forgive the debt. “Now I have more time. I can still do this and come out ahead,” he thought, as he ran for the exit past several large security people who were obviously packing firearms.
No sooner had Vinnie reached the street but he ran into Todd, a small time gambler and recreational player, who happened to owe Vinnie $50 from a lost bet on a football game.
“Hey, you rat; you lousy cheapskate— where is the money you owe me. Pay it or so help me, I’ll bust your face,” demanded Vinnie.
“I haven’t got it,” Todd stammered, “but I’m good for it and will get it to you on payday.”
“Not good enough, creep,” Vinnie shouted as he drove his heavy fi st into the smaller man’s face, breaking his nose. “Let that be a lesson to you—you stinking deadbeat!”
Unknown to Vinnie, the Boss’ men heard the altercation and dragged Vinnie back inside to see the man himself.
“I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in you, treating your friend with such anger. He owed you so little. I thought you would be happy that the debt was forgiven,” said the Boss. “So concerning our prior arrangement, fuhgetaboudit. You will completely repay the loan, one way or another— and payments begin now.”
Several days later Vinnie’s wife Angela received two packages. The official looking parcel with the certified receipt contained a copy of the deed to their house, paid in full, with her name on it—along with a cashier’s check for $100,000—the full amount Vinnie had borrowed.
When she opened the other package, it held Vinnie’s car keys, wallet and lucky sneakers rolled up in newspaper—with a dead fish, for tonight Vinnie Patterson sleeps with the fishes.
By Major A. Kenneth Wilson