Ronny Schwartz and I were close friends when we were kids. Ronny had bright red hair, freckles, and a really nice disposition. He was always up for any of the crazy adventures and schemes I proposed, and in my memories, I always see him as smiling and cracking up. At some point, I named him "Schwo", as a kind of funny abbreviation of his last name. And till this day, almost fifty years later, Ronny is still called Schwo, by everyone, including his wife.
Now there was an elephant in the room, in our late 1950's middle-class neighborhood in northwest Detroit. It was something everyone knew about, but no one talked about. Schwo's father, Max Schwartz, was a bookie. Which means he was a small-time gangster, working for organized crime, and taking bets on horse races and other events. Actually, it was sort of cool. In the middle of automobile boom-town Detroit, in our middle-class, conformist, upstanding, all-American neighborhood, CRIME was taking place.
I remember Max very well. One day I was standing in his living room and Max was there with a few friends. The TV was announcing that Sir Edmund Hillary had just made the first successful ascent to the top of Mount Everest. In his gruff, New York Jewish accent, Max said, "Yeah, that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee". I guess he wasn't very impressed.
When we were thirteen, my older brother's band, The Classics, played Schwo's bar mitzvah. Now it was customary at these elaborate and showy affairs to have a candle-lighting ceremony. Different guests would be asked to light one of the thirteen candles on the cake. There would be a candle of honesty, a candle of integrity, a candle of diligence, etc. etc.
Well, at Schwo's bar mitzvah, this all became quite hilarious. As the band leader and M.C., my brother would announce, "and now, to light the candle of integrity, Mr. Chicky Sherman". And everyone would fall on the floor laughing. Apparently, Mr. Sherman had just been released from a federal prison, for tax evasion. And this would go on with the candle of honesty, the candle of modesty, the candle of scholarship, and so on. You get the picture.
And God forbid you should make the mistake of calling Schwo between three and six P.M., when Max was taking bets. In my high-pitched ten year-old voice I'd say "Is Ronny there?". And at the other end, Max would mutter "God Dammit" and the phone would slam down on the receiver.
Now one serious problem Max Schwartz had, was what to do with his money. He didn't want to declare his income or put it in a bank, so he bought jewelry. Schwo, who was a very unassuming and totally down-to-earth kid, would be bedecked in huge gold rings with bulbous diamonds popping out all over. Heavy gold and platinum chains around his neck, fabulous Swiss diamond wrist watches, and gold arm bracelets. One day at school, my friends and I tried to estimate the net worth of the jewelry Schwo was wearing that morning.
I want to mention here, that other kids might have become quite stuck-up or snobby, having all that expensive stuff. But Schwo, was just the sweetest, most totally unpretentious kid you could imagine. It didn't mean anything to him. He just wore it because his parents gave it to him. Anyway, I can't remember the exact figure we came up with, but it was many, many thousands of dollars, at a time when a man could comfortably support a family on $10,000 a year.
Schwo was a really good friend. We laughed a lot and had a lot of fun. Which is what kids are supposed to do.