Big Shoulders

Damon Runyon

December 1936

One night I am sitting in Mindy’s Restaurant on Broadway partaking of some delicious gefilte fish when a very beautiful young Judy comes in and sits down at my table and starts in sobbing as if her little heart will break.

I am about to call a waiter and have her chucked out of the place as her sobbing interferes with my enjoyment of the gefilte fish, when I observe that she is nobody but Zelma Bodinski, the daughter of BIooch Bodinski, a character who is well known to one and all along Broadway as a small operator in betting matters.

Well, every time I see Zelma Bodinski, she always makes me think I am looking at a ghost, because she is a dead ringer for her mama, Zelma O’Dare, who once does a hot wiggle in the old Garden Café on Seventh Avenue a matter of some twenty-odd years back, and who confirms a general suspicion that she is none too bright by marrying Blooch Bodinski and going to live in the Bronx.

However, as near as anybody can figure out, they get along together pretty well down through the years, because all Zelma O’Dare ever says is yes and no, and this is enough for Blooch, who does not understand many longer words, anyway, and when Zelma finally dies of influenza, she leaves him this daughter, who looks so much like her the chances are Blooch never misses the original.

This Blooch Bodinski is a short, fat, scary-looking little character who wears a derby hat and loud clothes when he marries Zelma O’Dare, and who always has a sad expression, and he does not change much in appearance as he grows older, except maybe to look sadder.

He comes up out of Essex Street to Broadway, and he does this and that, and one thing and another, to make a living, until finally he gets to taking bets on prize fights and baseball games, and scalping the bets. That is, if somebody gives Blooch a bet on a proposition, right away he hustles around and gets somebody else to take it off his hands, generally at a shade better price than Blooch gives in the first place.

Besides, he knocks off five per cent on a winning bet as his commission for his trouble, so he really is nothing but a sort of middleman, or broker, though what he calls himself is a betting commissioner. He never risks anything on his own account, no matter what, because Blooch is a very careful character by nature, and about as loose as concrete with his money.

So it gets around that you can always place a bet on almost any proposition through Blooch Bodinski, and that he is an honest character and always pays off, and by and by Blooch opens an office and goes grinding and chiselling along in a modest way for quite a spell, making a few dibs here and there, and having Zelma O’Dare stash them away in a jug uptown against a rainy day.

I hear Blooch has quite a package planted when the jug fails and he is knocked out and has to start all over again, and there is a rumor around and about that things are none too good for Blooch at the time I am speaking of. He still has his office, and his credit remains Al with the trade all over the country, and anybody will accept a commission from Blooch because they know he never offers any bets he cannot guarantee, but the trouble is most of his old customers are also pretty well out of money, and new customers are scarce.

Anyway, here is Blooch Bodinski’s daughter sobbing in Mindy’s Restaurant, so naturally I ask her what ails her, and Zelma looks at me out of her big, black, wet eyes that are blacker than ever, what with the tears making the mascara run, and she says to me like this:

“It is Poppa,” she says. “Poppa wishes me to marry Jake Applebaum, the druggist, and I hate druggists, especially when they are Jake Applebaum. Poppa wishes me to marry Jake because he owes Jake ten thousand dollars borrowed money, and Jake is getting tough about it.”

“Jake Applebaum already has ten thousand dollars,” I say. “Twice,” I say. “Maybe five or ten times. Jake Applebaum is fatter than a goose when it comes to money. Besides,” I say, “Jake Applebaum is not hard to take. He is by no means bad-looking. He has a kind heart, unless you are asking him for dough. In fact, somebody tells me that you and Jake are almost an entry.”

“Yes,” she says, “I promised to marry him six months back. This is why he lends Poppa the ten thousand, which Poppa needs for the overhead. Up to yesterday, I practically love Jake Applebaum. Then I meet Charley.”

Well, I do not ask her Charley who, as I figure it may be one of those knock-knock things, and anyway, I can see that if I just let her talk I will get the whole story. I am thinking of the difference between her and her mama, Zelma O’Dare, who never makes a longer speech than to say she will have another rye high, but who foals a chatter-box.

“Charley is a Yale,” Zelma says. “He is very handsome and full of fun and not like Jake Applebaum, who only thinks of betting on something when he is not thinking of his drugstore.”

“Jake makes a nice bet, at that,” I say. “But where do you meet this Charley and what happens?”

“He comes into Poppa’s office yesterday,” Zelma says. “You know I am working in Poppa’s office since last summer because Poppa cannot afford a regular office girl just now. I wish you could see his eyes. They are blue-grey. I am glad the baseball season is over because I get sick and tired of sitting there all day long telephoning bets on the Giants and the Yankees and the Cubs and Joe Louis, to Brad Cross in Fort Worth, and Dutch Ambrose in Omaha, and Izzy Harter in Indianapolis. They get awfully fresh with you. I mean the people in Izzy Harter’s office.”

“You are speaking of Charley’s eyes,” I say.

“Oh, yes,” Zelma says. “He wishes to make a small bet on the Yales to beat the Princetons tomorrow. Somebody sends him to Poppa’s office thinking we take football bets. Poppa is not there, so he talks to me. I tell him we not only do not take football bets but that it makes Poppa mad to even mention them, because he thinks football is silly. Poppa says football is nothing but a lot of big shoulders, and zing-boom-bah, and that anybody who bets on such a matter is a sucker.

“Well,” Zelma says, “Charley says Poppa is wrong, and that he is making a big mistake not to take football bets. He says football is the coming big-betting proposition of this country. He talks to me four hours. He is a poor boy and works his way through college. This is his last year. He says I look like Mona Lisa, and he likes my shape.”

“Well,” I say, “the bloke is no chump about some things, anyway, although I cannot say much for his idea of betting on the Yales to beat the Princetons. The Princetons are one-to-four favorites in the betting.”

“Yes,” Zelma says, “Charley says it is a wonderful opportunity for everybody to get rich betting on the Yales. He says he is only sorry he does not have more than ten dollars to bet on them. He says they cannot possibly lose. He says he personally dopes the game for the Yales to win. I ask him if he is certain, and he crosses his heart and hopes to die if it is not the truth. I am going to tell Poppa about it as soon as I get back to the office. Just think,” Zelma says, “Poppa can win enough money on this game to pay Jake Applebaum back and then give me some so Charley and I can get married and go into business.”

“Just a minute,” I say. “Does Charley ask you to marry him already?” “Why, sure,” Zelma says. “Do I not tell you we talk four hours? What else is there to talk about so long? He goes on to Princeton to the game, and he is coming back here as soon as he can and take me to dinner. He plays substitute in the game, and he simply has to be there: But now I must go back to the office and tell Poppa what a wonderful opportunity this is for him.”

Well, I figure that listening to Blooch Bodinski when he is propositioned to bet his own money on something, and especially a football game, will make Broadway history, so I tell Zelma I wish to see her papa about a little business matter, and I go with her to Blooch’s office, which at this time is a rat-hole in an old building in West Forty-ninth Street, with just a desk and a couple of chairs and only one telephone in it, and as we come in, Blooch is slamming the receiver back on the hook and talking out loud to himself.

“Big shoulders!” Blooch is saying to himself. “Zing-boom-bah, eight to five.” Then he sees me, and he says to me like this: “Baseball, yes,” Blooch says. “Prize fights, yes. Hockey, yes. Elections, yes. Big shoulders, no. Fifty times a day they call asking for prices on Mr. Minnesota, or Mr. Wisconsin, or somebody. I am about crazy. What do I know about prices on the big shoulders?”

“Why, Poppa,” Zelma says, “Charley says it is your duty to hire college parties who can handicap the games for you, and get out your own prices and make your own book. Charley says most of the betting figures on the football games are a joke, and that if he is in the business he can get rich taking bets at his own prices and then catching the other fellows out of line and laying the bets off to them at their odds.”

Well, Blooch Bodinski looks at her for a minute without saying a word, and Zelma goes right ahead as follows:

“Charley says football betting is in its infancy,” she says. “But the big thing is about the Yales tomorrow,” she says. “Charley says they cannot possibly lose to the Princetons, and you can make yourself well off for life by betting on them.”

“Charley?” Blooch says. “Charley what?”

At this Zelma pauses to think, but she is never much of a hand at thinking, just like her mama, Zelma O’Dare, so she soon gives it up and says like this: “I forget what,” she says. “Maybe he never tells me. Anyway, you are to bet on the Yales. Charley says they are like wheat in the bin.”

Well, Blooch finally shakes his head and looks at me and says:

“Yes, I am crazy. The big shoulders get me at last. What are the Yales?” he says.

“They are four to one,” I say.

Well, at this, Blooch drops his head on the desk and groans, and I can see that he is overcome at the idea that anybody in this whole world thinks he will bet on a 4-to-l shot, but Zelma pays no attention to him and goes right on gabbing.

“Charley says college football and Presidential elections are the only things it is safe to bet on,” she says. “Charley says they are the only propositions that give you a dead-square rattle. Charley says nobody can cheat you in college football or Presidential elections.”

Blooch raises his head and sits there looking at her as if he never sees her before in his life, and moreover he acts as if he does not hear a word she says for a while. But finally, when Zelma has to stop for breath, he holds up one hand to keep her from starting off again and says like this:

“My own daughter,” he says, “she wishes me to bet my own dough on something. The whole world is crazy. Listen,” Blooch says. “For nearly thirty years I grind along in this town and never do I risk a single dib of my own on a bet. I take it off the top, or I take it off the bottom. Always something for nothing is my motto. And if ever I do bet it will not be on the big shoulders, and what is more, Jake Applebaum is in here a little while ago about you standing him up last night, so,” Blooch says, “never you mind about somebody called Charley.”

“He loves me,” Zelma says.

“So he tells me,” Blooch says.

“I mean Charley loves me,” Zelma says.

Then all of a sudden Zelma begins sobbing again, and I wish to say that when it comes to a job of sobbing she is much better than a raw hand, and between sobs she says she works hard all summer in this dirty old office, taking the insults of people over the telephone, and she never gets to go anywhere or see anything, and she wishes she is dead, and if her poppa loves her as he claims he does, he will take her to see the Yales and the Princetons play, even if he refuses a chance to bet on an absolutely sure thing like the Yales.

Well, I can see that these tears make Blooch Bodinski very uneasy, and he says there, there, and now, now, and my, my to Zelma, but she only sobs all the harder, and says for two cents she will pitch herself off the new Tri-Boro bridge, and finally Blooch is almost crying himself, and he pats Zelma on the head with his hand and says to her like this:

“Why,” Blooch says, “I remember hearing Jake Applebaum say he is going to this very game, and I know he will be glad to take you. I will call Jake up at once if you will just stop crying.”

Now I claim Zelma is sobbing right up there around the record from the beginning, but when Blooch says this she turns on a notch higher and says it shows her that her poppa does not love her at all to wish to shove her off on Jake Applebaum when she has only one desire in the world and this is to be with her only parent, so finally Blooch says all right, he will go around to Jack’s ticket office and see if he can buy some tickets to the game, on condition that I go along.

Well, naturally, Zelma has no reason to bar me, so there we are the next morning taking a special train to Princeton, and I remember seeing Jake Applebaum at a distance in the Pennsylvania Station before we start, but he does not see us, and I also remember that Zelma seems to maneuver us around so we do not make the same train that Jake does, or connect with him when we hit Princeton.

Blooch dozes most of the way, because it seems he is awake most of the night worrying about the way Zelma is acting towards Jake Applebaum, and I sit in a seat with Zelma and listen to her talk about Charley. I also listen to what some of the other characters in our Pullman are saying, and although most of them seem to be Yales, I judge that they figure this game is just a breeze for the Princetons, and I say as much to Zelma.

“No,” she says, “they are wrong. Charley says the Yales are a cinch. Charley says the handicapping of football teams so you can determine the winner of a game is an exact science and not mere guesswork as many people may think, and,” Zelma says, “Charley says he applies scientific methods to handicapping this game, and he makes it close but certain for the Yales.”

She places so much faith in what Charley says that I am wondering if maybe I am making a mistake in not taking advantage of the price, for if there is anything I dearly love it is a long shot, and in football 4 to 1 is a very long shot indeed, and they do not often get down there in front. Then I remember that some handicappers who are maybe about as smart as Charley make this price, so I decide I am just as well off keeping my dough in my kick, although I do not speak of this to Zelma.

Blooch wakes up when our special pulls into Princeton, and we get off and start walking to the football yard with the rest of the crowd, and I am thinking that these scenes must be quite a novelty to him, when we pass a bunch of characters who are offering to buy or sell tickets to the game, and who are what is known as ticket hustlers, and a couple of old characters among them give Blooch a blow, and he stops to talk to them. When he joins us again, Blooch is smiling, and he says to me like this:

“I hustle duckets with those parties among these same crowds over twenty years ago,” he says. “They remember old Blooch. I am a champion in those days, too.”

He livens up quite some after this and begins taking an interest in his surroundings and talking about the good old days, but as near as I can make out, Blooch’s good old days are about the same as everybody else’s good old days, and most of the time he is half starving.

Well, by this time Zelma is paying no attention whatever to us, but is looking all around and about, and I can see that she is hoping she may get a swivel at Charley, but naturally he is not to be seen, so she does the next best thing and takes to looking at other young characters who are quite numerous all over the place, and they look right back at her, if anybody asks you, and personally I do not blame them. She is the prettiest thing that ever steps in shoe leather this particular day, what with her eyes shining, and her cheeks red with excitement, and all this and that.

Our seats in the football stadium are not so good because they are right behind the goal-posts at one end of the field, and close to the ground, and we are not able to see a whole lot of the game, especially when the ball is in the middle of the field or down towards the other end, and Zelma is disappointed no little and Blooch is saying he will see Jack when he gets home about this, but personally I do not care where we are as long as we are at a football game, because football is one of my favorite dishes. Even Blooch partakes of the general excitement when we get settled down, and the bands play, and the young characters in the stands begin letting out cheers.

Zelma keeps watching the Yales’ bench trying to locate Charley, but we are too far away for her to see good, and anyway, the game gets going and takes her attention, especially as right away the Prince tons start running all over the Yales in a most disquieting manner.

I can see in about two plays why the Princetons are l-to-4 favorites, and I say to Zelma like this:

“I am afraid Charley is wrong,” I say. “This looks as if it may be murder.”

“Never fear,” Zelma says. “Charley gives me his word the Yales will win.”

“Where are the big shoulders?” Blooch says. “These parties are a lot of midgets.”

Well, all of a sudden the Yales commence playing better football, and instead of running over them, the Princetons now have a tough time keeping from getting run over themselves, and the game goes this way and that way, and nothing happens in the way of a score, and the Yales in the stands are in quite a hubbub, and are singing Boola-boola and I do not know what all else, and Zelma is jumping up and down and shrieking, “Charley is right!”

All the time she is trying to locate Charley on the field or on the side lines, but there seems to be no Charley, and I am commencing to wonder if some character does not play a joke on her.

She is somewhat downhearted when the second half starts and Charley remains invisible, although she is still confident that the Yales will win. Personally, I figure a tie is about the answer.

Well, it is getting on towards the end of the game, and the goal in front of us belongs at this time to the Princetons, and the Yales start a march that winds up with them losing the ball on downs on the Princetons’ one-inch line, and everybody is half insane, especially Zelma, and even Blooch Bodinski is saying out loud to the Yales: “Come on, big shoulders!”

But it is no go, and it is coming on dark when the Yales lose the ball, and one of the Yales gets hurt on the last play, and there is a substitution, and when they line up again one of the Princetons goes back behind his own goal to kick out of danger, and he is standing just a short distance from where we are sitting waiting for the pass.

Then, just as the ball is flipped to the Princeton back of the line, Zelma Bodinski lets out a shriek like a steam whistle, because it seems that she just spots the last Yale substitute, and she screams as follows: “Char-lee!”

Well, afterward I read what the reporters say about the darkness and the slippery ball and all this and that, but it seems to me that I see the Princeton character back of the line jump at the scream and half turn his head, and the next thing anybody knows he drops the football out of his hands, and then as all the Yales are coming at him, he falls on it behind his own goal for what is called a safety, and this means two points against the Princetons.

And a few seconds later the whistle blows, and there the Princetons are, licked by the Yales by a score of two to nothing, which is very discouraging to the Princetons, to be sure. Naturally, there are some great goings-on over this business among the Yales, and nobody is more delighted than Zelma Bodinski, and I hear her saying to Blooch like this:

“Well,” Zelma says, “now everything is all right. Jake Applebaum is paid off, and we have all the money we need. I am glad, because it proves Charley is right.”

“What do you mean Jake Applebaum is paid off?” Blooch says. “And what do you mean we have all the money we need? If you do not marry Jake, we will be on relief in a month.”

“Oh,” Zelma says, “I forget to tell you. This morning before we leave New York, I go to the office and call up Dutch Ambrose and Brad Cross and Izzy Harter and bet them two thousand dollars each in your name on Yale at four to one. Then I happen to have a date with Jake Applebaum the night before, and I tell him you have a commission of two thousand dollars from out of town to place on the Yales at the best price you can get, and Jake says he will lay five to one, because it is just the same as finding the two thousand in the street.

“So,” Zelma says, “we pay off Jake and win twenty-four thousand in cash. Even if we lose,” she says, “the most we can lose is eight thousand dollars, but I know that Charley says there is no chance of our losing. I will always believe Charley all my life, no matter what.”

Well, Blooch stands there as if he is thinking this over, and there is a very strange expression on his face, and about this time who comes up but Jake Applebaum, and it is plain to be seen that Jake is very angry, and he shakes his finger in Zelma Bodinski’s beautiful face and says to her like this:

“See here,” Jake says. “I hear all about you this morning when I am at breakfast in Mindy’s. I hear all about you being in love with a Yale by the name of Charley, and now I know why you are jerking me around. But do not forget your old man owes me plenty, and I will make him hard to catch.”

Naturally, Jake’s statement is most uncouth, and Zelma is starting to turn on the sobs, when a large young character in football clothes approaches, and I can see that he is nobody but the Princeton who fumbles the ball, and I can also see that he seems to be slightly perturbed as he says to us like this:

“Where is the pancake who sings out Charley over here? My name is Charley.”

Well, personally, I do not care for his attitude, and I do not think it shows proper college training for him to be speaking of pancakes, but before I can decide what to do about the situation, Jake Applebaum steps forward and says:

“Oh, so you are Charley, are you, you snake in the grass? Well, my lady friend here that you try to steal from me is the one who sings out. Why?” Jake says. “What do you wish to make of it?”

“Only this!” the football character says, and then he lets go as neat a left hook as ever I could wish to behold and stretches Jake as flat as a pancake, and immediately disappears in the dusk.

We leave Jake there and start walking back to the railroad, and all this time Blooch never says a word but seems to be thinking of something, and finally he turns to Zelma and speaks as follows:

“You mean to say I stand to lose eight thousand of my own money on a four-to-one shot in this game?” Blooch says. “Yes, Poppa,” Zelma says, “you can figure it in such a way. But Charley says—”

Then without finishing she lets out a scream, because Blooch falls in a dead faint and starts rolling down a little hill, and the chances are he will be rolling yet if a big blond young character does not come leaping out of the dusk to grab him and set him on his pins again and shake him out of his faint. At the sight of this young character Zelma lets out another scream and says like this:


So now Blooch Bodinski has a big suite of offices, and fifty telephones, and he calls himself the Flannagan Brokerage Company and makes the biggest football book in this country, and everybody along Broadway is pretty jealous about this, although Mindy, the restaurant man, says: “Well, you must give Blooch credit for digging up Charley Flannagan, the best football handicapper in the world, for a son-in-law.”

And every time Blooch looks at Charley he nods his head to show he approves him, and sometimes Blooch says out loud: “Big shoulders!”