Conversations with Black Mike

He looked like the kind of guy you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. The scowl on his dark unsmiling face seemed permanently etched. He wore a baseball cap tilted backwards and a long shirt that concealed a loaded .45 automatic that he kept concealed in the small of his back.


I met him in the horse room at the Fremont Casino in downtown Las Vegas on Saturday morning in May. I had just celebrated my 49th birthday, my wife had just left me, and I was trying to put my life back together by picking some longshots at Hollywood Park.

'Mind if I look at your Racing Form when you're done?'

His voice was low and respectful, not at all menacing. It didn't fit his appearance and I smiled at him.

>'Sure if you'll introduce yourself,' I said. 'I never lend my Racing Form to strangers.'

He reached out and we shook. His hand was large and powerful, with deep callouses. He introduced himself as Black Mike from Detroit.

'I used to work for Berry Gordy,' he said. 'I was his A&R man. Now all I do is handicap horses.'

Another horse player, an older white man, broke into the conversation. 'He's one of the best,' the man said. 'You can count on that.'

I handed Mike the Racing Form. He glanced at the horses in the upcoming race, made a couple of notes on the form, and asked me who I liked. I told him. Black Mike shook his head.

'He won't beat the four horse,' he said. 'The four horse will take him by three lengths.

I was amused. 'Really? You can predict the winner and tell me how many lengths the horse will win by after just two minutes?'

'You can count on it,' the older guy said. 'He's the best.'

Post time was in two minutes. I looked at Mike and felt his confidence.

'Okay,' I said. 'I'm changing my mind. I'll bet on the four horse. But if he doesn't win, as soon as my attorney gets out of jail your ass is going to be in trouble.'

Black Mike stared at me. Then his expression softened and he began smiling.

'I like that,' he said. 'What's your name?' I told him. This time when we shook it was genuine.

I hurried to the cashier's window and bet the four horse to win and place. It went off at six to one odds and won by three lengths. After collecting my winnings, I went back to Mike and slipped him a $10 bill. He tucked it away without saying thanks. Mike, I decided, was a tough dude.

For the next two hours I remained in the horse room making bets. Mike picked out two more winners for me. I would ask him what horse he liked and how many lengths it would win by. If he was hesitant about the victory lengths, I would pass on the horse.

But if he was specific, I would bet on the horse, it would come in, and Mike would get his tip for the win. But he would rarely pick a winner for himself. Instead of wagering on the horse to win, Mike would hook it up in an exacta or trifecta and the other horses would run out of the money.

I was staying at Binion's Horseshoe just down the street from the Fremont. I gave Black Mike my room number and said I was heading for the Horseshoe to play some poker.

'You'll see me around,' he said. 'I'm pretty much a fixture around here.' He hesitated. 'Do you like dance revues?' I told him I did.

'There's a show at one of the Strip casinos we could go to,' he said. 'I used to date one of the dancers in it. Some night we should check it out.'

I smiled. 'So you're an expert on dance revues and beautiful women?,' I said.

'I told you. I'm an A&R man. I worked with Diana Ross and the Supremes. I know talent when I see it.' I told him if I did well playing poker, I would treat the two of us to the show.

That night the poker gods treated me well and I won over $600 playing Texas Hold'em. The following day after a restful night's sleep I walked over to the Fremont. Black Mike was there in the same chair he had been seated in the previous day. He didn't smile, just nodded and motioned for me to take a seat.


'Where'd you stay last night?,' I said.

'My usual suite. Park bench number six,' he yawned. 'How about buying me a drink?

I signaled to the cocktail waitress and ordered drinks for both of us. When the drinks were delivered, I told Mike I had won at poker and that we could attend the show that evening if he wanted.

He smiled...

'You're a man of your word,' he said. 'I like that. You'll enjoy the show.'

We had a couple of drinks and Mike picked two winners for me. I called the Strip casino where the dance revue was taking place and made reservations for us.

Mike and I stayed at the Fremont until around 5:30. We won a couple more races and headed for the casino.

Our table was a good one near the stage platform. When the dancers came out, Mike said to me, 'Here's some trivia for you. Do you know what's long and hard on a black man?'

I grinned. 'No I don't, Mike, but I'm sure you're going to tell me.'

He sipped his drink. 'Getting through the third grade, Man.' We gave each other a high five.

The dancers were excellent and the crowd gave them a rousing round of applause. One of the dancers at the end of the line blew us a kiss. Mike waved back at her and returned the kiss.

'That's Angela,' he said. 'Great gal. From Phoenix. We'd probably still be together if it wasn't for the crack.'

I stayed in Las Vegas for about six months. Mike and I hung out together in the horse parlors and the poker rooms. Once he came down with a bad case of flu that was near Walking Pneumonia. He came to my room around midnight shaking badly with a fever of around 104 degrees.

'I can't handle the park bench tonight,' he said, his teeth chattering. 'It's too damn cold out there. Mind if I crash here?'

I took an extra blanket and pillow and laid them out on the floor for him. Then I went down to the restaurant and got him a big bowl of steaming hot noodle soup. Mike ate it and then fell into a deep sleep that lasted until noon the following day.

He stayed in my room for three days until the fever left. One day when I got back to the room he was gone. He left a sheet of paper behind with a single word on it: 'Thanks.'

I left Las Vegas and moved to Florida where I worked for a newspaper on Marco Island. From there I went to work as editor of The Observer, a weekly newspaper that served St. Kitts and Nevis. After my work permit expired, I flew to St. Maarten 60 miles away and accepted a job as a reporter for Today, a daily newspaper.

After five years in the Caribbean, I returned to America and made my way to Las Vegas. I went to the Fremont and the Riviera, where Mike hung out, but couldn't find him. Wherever you are, Mike, I wish you peace. you deserve it.

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