The Michael J. Agovino Interview

Today I chat with an author whose new memoir is making a splash. In "The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family From the Utopian Outskirts of New York City," he writes about growing up the son of a buttoned-up union man who moonlighted as a gentleman bookmaker and gambler in the Bronx's Co-op City, the largest and most ambitious state-sponsored housing development in U.S. history. When the winnings were good, the Agovinos were taken on exotic vacations: when they weren't, well, they lived in Co-op city. When he's not working on his next project, Agovino contributes to such publications as he New York Times, Esquire, GQ, Salon, Elle, and The New York Observer.

Since when did you know that you wanted to write a memoir?
Probably since the mid-1990s. There was a former colleague of mine--from smalltown, Texas, a brilliant, well-read guy, who I felt very comfortable with--and I told him about my background and upbringing, and about my father's gambling, which I'd never told anyone. He said, 'Wow, that would make for a wonderful book.' But it seemed impossible to write a book. And frankly, I was afraid. Afraid of what people might say, about what they might think, and afraid I might write a bad book. And fear can paralyzing--especially for writers. I wish I wrote it ten years ago, but I probably wasn't ready, psychologically and intellectually. It's a rigorous pursuit, writing a book.

Why did your father bet so much on sports, as opposed to at the casinos or something?
My father was a smart guy--smarter than me--but when he didn't go to college and needed to supplement his income on top of his day job, he fell back on what he knew, which, in his neighborhood, East Harlem, was sports gambling. Casinos weren't that accessible to him and never a big deal in his world. And when he married and had kids, it was a good way to be at home. He never boozed or womanized. Being a bookmaker and sports gambler, he was always home. And that's what he wanted: to be close to his family, to be a present father.

Do you think his gambling skewed the way you watch or enjoy sports?
Yeah, I'd say it did. There were times when we'd watch a game together--or even go to game--and I sensed he needed the other time, not the team I supported. It's hard to root for the Knicks when your dad needs the Cavs, minus the points. It's like rooting against your family's interests. So I've always been a sports fan, but a kind of cynical one.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to write a family story whose family was still alive?
Slate did something on this a year or two ago and had a few different memoirists weigh in. I'd just talk to them about it first. I needed to go back and have my parents tell me their stories again, re-construct scenes and conversations, so I had to have their co-operation. My mother was the more reluctant one. I think they thought 'why would anyone care?' But I told them I was trying to get to larger themes and ideas. If they had said "no, no way," I wouldn't have written it.

How much did living in Co-op City and being exposed to many different kinds of music influence your own taste in it?
Oh boy, don't get me started on music. One thing I would have loved to do is include a CD with the book. Has anyone ever done that? Co-op City, for all its faults, was a very musical place. There was a great music program back then in our public school, which was known as the Pablo Casals school. First rate. We could bring home our musical instrument and practice. This was in junior high! We were playing Tchaikovsky--swear to god. And then something by Donny Hathaway. I think the program's been disbanded, unfortunately. By the late 1970s the dominant culture in Co-op City was African-American. There were still whites there--though less and less were young--and I guess someone was listening to Zeppelin, but it wasn't me. Ground Zero of the advent of hip-hop may have been a little to the south and west of us in the Bronx but it was close enough, and that early rap was played constantly, over and over, from car stereos, from boom boxes on the basketball courts and handball courts, in schools themselves, just kids singing and rapping. And besides hip hop, there was always R&B and funk. WBLS was always on. Even my mother listened to it--early Luther!

Then I got into post-War jazz as a teenager, which probably came from my father. He loved the Big Band era--Basie, Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman--but it got me used to that big brass sound. Even in R&B, I always liked brass (the Earth, Wind & Fire horns, for instance).

Hip hop kind of lost me in the 90s, but I was grateful that many rappers began sampling and referencing and paying tribute to some of the 70s and 80s R&B, the kind of music the hyper-educated, upper-middle class whites in publishing I began working with the early 1990s completely ignored or laughed at. If I had a better marketing sense, I would have been Eminem before Eminem.

One last thing, Queen Latifah apparently lived across the street from me in Building 8 for a couple for years in the early 80s, though I haven't been able to confirm that.

What is Co-op City like now?
That's hard for me to say. I lived there from 1970-1992. One reviewer, who loved the book and gave it a thoughtful review, wrote that Co-op City had improved. I'm not sure what he's basing that on. I will say this: in 2004, New York Magazine sent me back up there to do a piece on it, it's history and the state of it now. I went back to my old school, played some ball in the same courts with the kids, and did a long interview with a black single mom, just a few years older then me, who also grew up there. When she invited me to her apartment, I even said to her that it looked as if Co-op got better, there were nice flowers outside and muzak in the elevator. She said not to believe it; that it was all sugar coating, that it was as bad or worse as when I'd left. She was looking to move herself. Her oldest son had had run-ins with the law and she wanted to save her three younger ones. I should find her full quotes--she had a bunch of good ones.

She said she was afraid to even walk past her oldest son's friends in front of her building.

On the other hand, I interviewed a Ukrainian women, also a single mom. I met her son at my old school. He was one of the few white kids. She said she liked Co-op. When I was alone with her son, he told me he often heard gun shots behind my old building, Building 6. When I asked his mom, she said she didn't know anything about gun shots. So I guess it depends on who you ask and what they want to believe. I do know the local papers reported a couple of years ago that guys would go up to the roofs and practice shooting their guns.

Just one last bit from the reporting I did: I also interviewed two young teachers from the well-regarded Teach For America program. They lived in Manhattan and just kept telling me how great they thought Co-op City was, despite some of their troubled students and single-parent households. Finally, I asked, if it's so great why don't you move there, it's inexpensive and you'd save all the commuting time. And one of them said, "I didn't move all the way to New York to live in Co-op City." Which is what my mom said again and again (in life and in the book): that educated liberals (and god love 'em, don't, get me wrong) thought Co-op City, for all its lofty ideals, was always a good place for someone else to live--but not for them. And New York Magazine never ran my piece, by the way.

What are some of your favorite fictional portrayals of New York City?
The first one's goofy I guess: Catcher in the Rye; City of Glass (Auster); Manhattan Transfer (Dos Passos); Bright Lights, Big City (McInerney); Ragtime (Doctorow); Pafko at the Wall (DeLillo's prologue to Underworld); look forward to reading Lush Life, Richard Price's latest. Price lived in Co-op City for a couple of years when it first opened, I believe, and set his second novel Bloodbrothers there, though Co-op City doesn't figure in it prominently at all, and though I like Price I don't like that novel. And also want to dig into the late Gilbert Sorrentino, a REAL Brooklyn writer, not like these newcomers who think they've discovered Brooklyn and ooze pretension. Of course, the best work on New York is non-fiction: The Power Broker, by the incomparable Robert Caro. And then of course there are the films....

What are you working on now?
That's what my mother's asking me, too. I'm trying to get a novel moving and a book of essays off the ground.

Do you think living in Co-op City shaped your architectural preferences?
Oh man, great question. And I love architecture. How to give a succinct answer? I grew up on the 22nd floor (my building had 33 floors), and Co-op was made up of 35 of these buildings. So I guess the short answer would be that I'd be against the notion of gigantism--and "tower-in-the-park." Then again, maybe Co-op City was ahead of its time--maybe that's how large numbers of people will be housed in places like Asia. I've never been to China, but it seems as if that's already happening. I do grapple with Robert Moses, in one chapter especially. The obvious response for such a long time was that he was pure evil, that he ruined this and he ruined that. And I suggest that he was a necessary evil. He was practical--often to a fault--and tone deaf and unfeeling, but it's still hard to imagine what he accomplished.

You know when I was trying to convince some magazine editors to publish that Co-op City piece I wrote, I told this one editor that Co-op was an alienating place. He said something like, "Oh, I don't buy that." And this guy grew up on Fifth Avenue, the Museum Mile! And he's telling me he doesn't buy it? I lived there for 22 years.

How did you become a soccer fan?
Kind of by accident. I put on the Spanish station one day in 1982 and it was the opening game of the World Cup. Argentina played Belgium. It was the most amazing spectacle I'd ever seen. I was mesmerized. And my father didn't have the rent money riding on it--so it was a stress free sport.

If you were to be loyal to a team simply based on the payouts it delivered your father, who would you root for?
He always had to root for a different team, every day, every week. So he didn't necessarily do better with one team than another. He did remain a Yankee fan (he loved Ron Guidry; he loved all lefties), and he did seem to win more on pro football than any other sport.

I studied abroad when I was in college and I lament that I'll never be able to travel with the same freedom and innocence that I did at that time--do you feel anything similar regarding your childhood travels?
I lament with you! Yeah, as you get older, there's always more to worry about, more stress, less time to enjoy. As my old Jewish driving instructor told me 20 years ago behind the wheel on Boston Road: "Ehh. Youth--it's wasted on the young."

Would you rather have given up the travels for a home somewhere else?
I still think about that a lot. It would be nice if my parents had a house or some kind of real estate--"security" as my mother still calls it. I'd worry a little less about the future if they did. But the house never came. By living the life we did, I became the person I am. I'm aware of foreign cultures and traditions and I have, I'd like to think, a wide-angle view of the world. I have to attribute that to my upbringing.

What are some of your favorite memoirs?
I do like the memoir genre an awful lot and have liked a bunch of them. Let me see: The Wolff brothers (Geoffrey's Duke of Deception, though I like Tobias's Vietnam memoir better than This Boy's Life--I'm probably in the minority there); My Brother (Jamaica Kincaid); Out of Egypt (Andre Aciman); The Factory of Facts (Luc Sante); Honky (Dalton Conley). And recently My Life in the Middle Ages (personal essays but very well done by James Atlas); The Tender Bar (J.R. Moehringer); Falling Through the Earth (Danielle Trussoni, who was nice enough to blurb mine); and the Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (Lucette Lagnado). As you see, I'm not into the addiction memoirs. That or the "I'll do something for a year and write about it" memoir. But those are the ones that seem to get all the attention.

You've reviewed books: did you read the reviews of "The Bookmaker" with that point of view in mind?
When you write a book you realize how hard it is to execute to the end. You gain a new appreciation for the process. I didn't feel this way before, but now I feel as if only writers who have authored books should review books. I've heard too many nightmare stories from other authors who put years and years into a book only to have a lazy reviewer who wants to show what a tough-cookie critic they are. So far, for me, the reviews I've gotten have been positive for the most part, though I'd have thought I would have gotten more, especially in New York.

Your mom sounds like an amazing cook. Did you inherit any of her culinary abilities?
She'll be delighted you said that. She took a lot of pride in the preparation and presentation of the meal, too. I'll never be as good as she is, but my chicken cattiatore comes damn close. But we won't tell her that.

How does it feel to be the 219th person interviewed for

I think I'm supposed to say something ironic or especially clever here, but I'll just say this: It's been a real pleasure. And I appreciate that you, a proud Chicagoan and Midwesterner, would include a Bronx kid like me on your terrific blog. There have been a lot in the chattering classes in my own city who seem to be ignoring the book. So I thank you so much Claire.