Pop’s Store

by Raff Ellis


For most of his working life, Pop opened his cigar store at seven in the morning and closed at eleven at night--seven days a week, 365 days a year. His core business consisted of traditional tobacco products, magazines and newspapers. But, because of his ingrained Lebanese peddler instincts, he was always on the lookout for new products to sell. Over the years he acquired such items as ice cream, ballpoint pens, antacid pills, aspirin, books for rent, and even condoms--which were secreted in a compartment inside the cigarette display case. The latter item was for regular customers who were too bashful to ask for them at the local drugstore. This was in a long since-forgotten puritanical era before such items were freely placed on drugstore shelves. It wasn’t the only secret compartment that my dad had in the store and another housed a .32 caliber Colt pistol. No one was going to rob Pop of his hard-earned nickels and dimes, not without a fight at any rate.


After the World War ended and public morals began to relax somewhat, my dad decided gambling would also be lucrative source of revenue. He soon came to offer lottery tickets, football pools, and five and dime chances on a punchboard, all of which were illegal of course. The local authorities, however, winked at these activities—and even the police chief’s wife became a regular customer.


The lottery racket was run by an organized crime syndicate out of Utica, New York. The tickets contained numbers that used the last five digits of the US Treasury balance and those taking a chance could look up winning combinations in the daily newspaper. What the syndicate didn’t take into account, however, was the simmering political situation that existed in the summer of 1948. Former prosecutor, district attorney, incumbent New York State Governor and Republican presidential candidate, Thomas E. Dewey, was seeking ways to embellish his already substantial reputation for being tough on crime.


This was also the summer Pop was incapacitated due to a gall bladder operation, and I was placed in charge of the store. One fateful Saturday morning in June of that year I noticed a state trooper’s car pull up and park in front of the store. Although cops and troopers often frequented my dad’s store, and he was on a first name basis with most of them, it seemed curious only because the two officers just sat in their cruiser, staring into the store. I soon came to understand why. Promptly at 10:00 AM, they emerged from the patrol car and entered the store. The tall, muscular troopers strode with a swagger, their leather belts and boots creaking with every intimidating step. The senior officer approached the counter, while the second stood back, with one hand lazily resting on his holstered revolver.


The lead trooper quickly announced their mission. “We’ve come for the lottery tickets!” After recovering from this shocking proclamation, I regained enough composure to feign ignorance of any lottery tickets. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I sputtered. My denial fell on deaf ears, of course, and I was told in no uncertain terms that I’d better give the tickets up or they would start searching for them. The menacing urgency of the trooper’s voice threw me into a panic for I thought I was going to be arrested and would have a criminal record for the rest of my life. I quickly reached under the counter for the cigar box that held the contraband. There were many more hidden in a different compartment but since the lawmen didn’t ask for them I decided not to mention them.


You see, Pop’s store was also a drop off point for tickets that would be picked up by one of the mob’s couriers and taken further north to sellers in Star Lake and beyond, all the way to the Canadian border. I was a bit surprised that the John Law didn’t know about this arrangement.


So, after handing me a subpoena to appear before a grand jury in Syracuse two months hence, they left to pay a visit on my recuperating father at home. When Pop came down the stairs in his bathrobe, his first thought was they were just friends paying a courtesy call, but his usual congenial manner quickly faded when the lawmen handed him a similar subpoena for the same grand jury.


This incident soon became the talk of the town, as newspapers across the State played up the story of Governor Dewey smashing an extensive gambling ring. Try as I might to be excused from the grand jury appearance, even writing a letter to the district attorney claiming that I was joining the armed forces with several of my friends (which I really had no intention of doing), I was not to be excused. Thus, in September, my dad and I boarded a bus to Syracuse, some ninety miles away, to appear before the convened grand jury.


I waited anxiously in the jury anteroom while my father went in to testify. He was in and out in less than five minutes. I was summoned next. The courtroom was intimidatingly large and had a lot of impressive woodwork such as arches, railings and paneled walls. In addition to the judge and twelve impaneled jurors there was a substantial gallery packed with people. “Raise your right hand…” the burly bailiff barked before proceeding to administer the oath. After being duly sworn, I was confronted by the dapper DA, who had sauntered over to the witness box to begin questioning me. He was of medium height and wore an expensive suit under his neatly coifed brown hair. This was a man obviously on his way up the political ladder, one who knew how to play up to the half-dozen or so newsmen and flash-bulb popping photographers seated in the front row.


The prosecutor apparently decided to have some fun with me to liven up his audience. His first query concerned my trying to get out of appearing in front of his grand jury. “You didn’t want to come and see us?” he asked with a saccharine smile. “Going into the service, eh?” He brushed aside my attempts to explain and continued with more lighthearted repartee by asking me my age and what grade I was in. I replied that I was seventeen and had graduated high school the previous June. He smiled broadly and said, “Kind of backward aren’t you?” much to the laughter and apparent amusement and of his audience.


After what seemed to be an eternity of this style of banter, he suddenly changed gears, went to the evidence table directly in front of the judge and picked up what appeared to be a felon’s mug shot—with both front and side views and a string of numbers on the bottom. He stuck it in my face asked, “Do you recognize this man?”


It was the guy who used to bring the lottery tickets to my dad’s store. “Sure,” I said, anxiously wanting to be cooperative, “That’s Sam Ross.”


Sam was a large, suave, ruddy-faced guy of about sixty who dressed in custom tailored suits, wore a fine felt fedora over his neatly combed gray hair, and always had a long, fat cigar clenched between his teeth. He used to chat me up in the store when he came by to pick up the proceeds and pay off the winning tickets, which were few and far between by the way. One time he even suggested that I get myself a cheap car, a “flivver” he called it, and he’d give me my own route to peddle lottery tickets. I was really attracted to the proposition, but my dad wasn’t and quickly put an end to that idea.


“Sam Ross!” the DA bellowed. “Don’t you know this man to be Samuel Rosencrantz?”


“Oh, no,” I said, “that’s Sam Ross.”


The DA wasn’t happy with my proclamation as he apparently didn’t know Ross’ alias just as I didn’t know his true name was Rosencrantz. What had been a fairly amiable and humorous session, despite my nervousness, suddenly turned very serious. He pivoted, as if to walk away from me and in a Perry Mason like move, wheeled around while simultaneously pulling one of the notorious lottery tickets from his pocket, and thrust it in front of me.


“Does this look like the ticket you sold to Sgt. Hamilton of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation?” he demanded with a self-satisfied smirk. I knew I had never sold tickets to people I didn’t know, so I peered carefully at the specimen and finally said, “I don’t know sir, they all look alike, don’t they?” At that point my antagonist shouted, “I REPEAT, DOES THIS LOOK LIKE THE TICKET YOU SOLD TO SGT. HAMILTON OF THE BCI?!”


I suddenly had visions of being cuffed and frog-marched off to the nearest lockup, so I quickly responded, “Yes sir, that’s the one for sure that’s the one.”


When I finally exited the jury room, my dad asked what I had been doing in there for twenty minutes. The DA, who had followed me out, and in what I felt was a let-bygones-be-bygones gesture, put his arm around me and told my dad, “You have a fine boy here, Mr. Ellis.” My dad smiled and nodded, relieved that this ordeal was now over, even though he had lost a fairly good source of revenue.


In any event, the lottery ticket furor soon died down, and when the presidential election was held a couple of months later, Thomas E. Dewey, the crime-busting heavy favorite… lost.