In the man’s jacket, the police said, they found 38 pieces of paper. On them were jotted numbers, seemingly random hieroglyphics to the untrained eye.
But in truth they were far from random. To the police, each slip of paper was evidence of a crime, but they were also fragile relics of a bygone day in Harlem and New York City as a whole. These three-digit prayers were mementos from the old-school streets.
Each slip was a bet in a numbers racket.
Betting a number was once nearly as much a part of daily life in the city as shopping and working. The neighborhood numbers runner came around to collect and jot down the bets of housewives and dockworkers, businessmen and barflies. One could place a straight bet on a three-digit number or a combination bet that paid — albeit less — if the digits hit in any order.
“I play a combination number for 60 cents every day,” a Lower East Side woman told The New York Times in 1964. Her number had hit three times in two years, winning her about $150 after she tipped the runner. She was doing better, she said, than a neighbor who played bingo at church.
Back then, there were an estimated 100,000 numbers workers and more than 8,000 arrests a year. In neighborhoods like Harlem, the game became an element of black and Latino identity and culture. Black leaders called for black-owned rackets in the 1960s, and there were conflicts with the Mafia.
Several years later, with the state lottery offering a similar game, runners and numbers bankers openly protested in Manhattan. They feared the legal game would wipe out the rackets and their jobs. They were, for the most part, right.
“That’s a dying breed,” Lt. Joseph Agresta of the New York Police Department said of the man arrested on 115th Street. “I talk to other vice units, they don’t see these kinds of places anymore.”
But even Harlem, once known as the cradle of the numbers rackets, has watched the little betting slips dry up and blow away like leaves. The older players are dwindling and there is no evidence that neighborhood newcomers are playing the numbers in droves. In 2011, there were 136 civilian complaints in Upper Manhattan, north of 59th Street, about locations — the police still call them joints — where betting was taking place. The next year, that number dropped by more than half, to 57. Citywide, gambling complaints that included numbers rackets dropped by more than 30 percent in that same period, said Inspector Lori Pollock.
This is not news to the man arrested at the door that day, Nelson Urena, 50. “People don’t play the numbers anymore,” he said in an interview. “Old people only play.” He would seem to be something of an authority, as he was also arrested at a joint in the Bronx last year. That room was filled with hundreds of slips and “a chalkboard with various numbers written on it,” according to a criminal complaint.
The tools have not changed with technology over the last 100 years. The games still rely on figures from designated horse racing tracks on particular days. The two most prevalent games are the Brooklyn number and the New York number. The Brooklyn number is the last three digits, before the decimal, of the total amount of money taken in at the track that day, a number available with racing results. If you pick that number, you win. The New York number is drawn from data on three races.
Bettors bet, in triplicate, on slips in little joints like the one on East 115th Street, the police said, and runners collect the slips and cash and bring them to a numbers “bank.” The cash goes in the opposite direction when a winner hits.
The few numbers joints that survive do so in part because the payouts are often better than the lottery, the police said. And tax-free, although there is that tip for the runner. For men and women of a certain age, playing the numbers has another strong draw. It is something to do.
“They have the time of day to hang out,” Inspector Pollock said. One numbers location was known to give away chicken lunches on Saturday for its regular players.
“This neighborhood is definitely changing,” she said. “You’re seeing fewer spots like that.”
The 115th Street raid netted, besides Mr. Urena’s 38 slips, $1,024 from his back pocket, the police said. He was charged with promoting gambling. Detectives also found a 74-year-old woman identified as Felicita Guillen, behind a desk inside, and arrested her, too, seizing 60 more slips and $113. They also seized three video slot machines.
When a visitor knocked on Thursday, a voice called through the door, “You’re too late to play!” But when a man opened the door and found a reporter, he introduced himself as Isa, 70. He said he had no idea what a numbers joint was and, whatever it was, this room was not one.
So what exactly, he was asked, was it too late to play?“Games,” he said. “I play games.” He shut the door.