If there is such a thing as a typical New York upbringing, Michael Agovino knows nothing about it. As recounted in his new memoir, The Bookmaker, Agovino’s Italian-American parents grew up rough (Mom in Bushwick, Dad in Mafia-controlled East Harlem), yet fell in love over a shared passion for Europe’s New Wave cinema. Their subsequent family life—thanks to Dad’s dual professions of city bureaucrat and sports-gambling bookmaker—was a bizarre mash-up of petty criminality and cultural sophistication. Young Mike was raised during the seventies in Co-op City, a utopian urban experiment in slow decline, and though the family never saved enough to move out, the occasional windfall had them vacationing in the Caribbean, Florence, Amsterdam, and Paris (even if they had to bounce some checks along the way). Agovino spoke with Boris Kachka about the ups and downs of his family, his city, and the stock market.
Presumably your friends didn’t know how tenuous your finances were—they just knew you were one of the only kids in Co-op City who’d been to the Rijksmuseum.
It’s not something I advertised to my friends at the time. But it wasn’t a judgmental place—I will say that about Co-op City. Some people were beating their kids or wife or had alcohol problems. Everyone had their own stuff going on. It was forgiving that way.
Your mother was always begging your dad to stow away some money to move out—but he was always waiting for that one big score. Do you resent him for squandering the family’s savings on gambling and lavish European trips?
It was a bit reckless at times, but I’m glad he took us to those places, or I would have had a much narrower view of the world. In a way, he was ahead of his time, because look at this debt problem we have now. My mother would say, “Why don’t we invest in stocks?” And he’d say, “That’s gambling, too.” She said he was only making excuses. [Today] when I ask people if I should be in the stock market, they say the same thing. Now people just use credit cards instead of bouncing checks.
Are you a better financial planner?
Not really. I’ve never been tempted to gamble, but my 401(k) is losing money like everyone else’s.
Your father wound up declaring bankruptcy, and your parents have moved out of the city. Do you have to support them?
No, but it could come to that. I don’t want to get into it—but that could be a second book.
Your mother didn’t seem too keen on your writing about this. Have they read it?
My father did. My mother hasn’t, for two reasons. One, she’s the more introverted one. And two, she’s third-generation Sicilian—she still has the omertà thing.