- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

Back in the '60s, Brown used to run the numbers racket along the Georgia Avenue strip just north of Howard University.
He seemed like a decent enough fellow at the time: efficient, industrious, easygoing, usually one step ahead of the cops. He was open for business at all hours, and he had a couple of favorite haunts where he could be found, one being a shot house near 11th and Harvard streets, if memory serves correctly.
Lots of money used to exchange hands inside the shot house, whose proprietor was a pleasant woman, almost grandmotherly, who kept an ample stock of whiskey, gin and vodka in a cabinet just behind her chair at the table as a concession to the elephantiasis in her leg.
Brown sometimes would be there, chomping on one of his ever-present stogies, making small talk while satisfying an awful thirst.
Brown always paid up when you hit the number, peeling back the amount from the large wad of cash always in his possession. He didn't mess around like that. You gave him your dollar and three-digit number each day, and if your number came up, you received about $500 in return. That was a tidy sum in those days.
Brown carried some of his better customers. They might miss each other over a period of two or three days and then catch up on business after crossing paths.
My father once hit his number after missing Brown a couple of days. It didn't matter. Brown paid out. They were like-minded spirits in a way, each having worked the same streets for years, one legally and the other illegally. To them, the distinction was unimportant, as history eventually demonstrated.
It seemed Brown was a visionary. He predicted that one day the government would legalize the numbers game and he would be out of a job. The money was too good, too easy, he said. The notion seemed like a hoot then. Brown, someone would say, "You're crazy," and then everyone would laugh, Brown included.
Brown didn't seem to mind the long hours or the occasional drawback of doing business on the streets.
They were sitting at the counter of a coffee shop one morning, Brown and my dad, when two "young bucks," in the vernacular of the times, came into the place brandishing guns and emptied the cash register and took what they could from the customers.
They left my father and Brown alone because, as Brown explained it later, in words to this effect: Those boys might be stupid, but they ain't dumb. That prompted a belly laugh, and no one ever said much about the incident afterward. It was no big thing, really, as far as things went in the neighborhood.
I don't know what happened to Brown, but I sometimes think of him as one of these lottery jackpots reaches unthinkable proportions and people line up en masse to buy tickets.
You did not have to fight a line to see Brown, and for what it was worth, the odds of winning were considerably higher with him than with the latest Powerball prize.
The Powerball jackpot comes with a 100 million-to-1 chance, which is about the same odds as conceiving identical quadruplets or boarding a jet with a bomb on it.
Brown didn't do odds or encourage his customers to dream of a cruise in the Mediterranean. He didn't advertise or promote his services, except by word of mouth, which seemed good enough. He was a businessman who trafficked in tiny slips of paper with numbers written on them. It was a pretty good living, as word had it, and he was pretty good at it.
It's funny, but I don't know if his name was really Brown. That's just what everyone called him. He was Brown, followed by: What was the number yesterday?
That's how the numbers game was played in the District before government no longer could resist the easy money, and newspapers posted the winning numbers. You cultivated a relationship with Brown, or with someone like him, and gambled a dollar, or a couple of dollars, at a time.
For some reason, in hindsight, Brown's low-level game seems almost more honorable than the government-sponsored lottery games today.


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