A few days after that traumatic, transformative night in 1992 when I came out to my father, he had a bright idea. “Come on,” he said at 8 p.m. on a Friday. “We’re going to Atlantic City.”
I was 20. He was genuinely surprised I’m gay. I was surprised he was surprised. He thought this Very Important Thing that I needed to tell him was that I’d knocked someone up. There were moments in the many hours of difficult and often tense conversations over the days that followed when I know he would have preferred that.
This was, chronologically, socially and politically, a long, long time ago. AIDS was still the dominant, deadly concern for and about most gay men, especially young, reckless ones who believed they’d live forever and were just starting to find themselves. In 1992, I resisted coming out not because I thought my largely secular Jewish family would reject me, but because it seemed tantamount to accepting a life without marriage and children. The 2023 me, a father of two and partner/husband for almost 19 years, knows better.
It was tough for Dad, who died seven years ago. There is a painful middle ground between utter rejection and full acceptance, and we resided there for quite some time. Neil Friess was too good a man and too innate a father to conceive of shunning any of his children for any reason. But it also made him uncomfortable, disappointed and embarrassed that his only son was “like that.” That’s how he put it for a while, too. “When did you know you were like that?” he asked. Or: “I read something today that they think it’s genetic, whatever makes you like that.”
Nothing would be solved that week, part of my winter recess from college. But a new version of our relationship began to bud even on that three-hour drive from my childhood home on Long Island to Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City. He’d decided we needed something to take the edge off.
As we sped down the New Jersey Turnpike, he tried to explain craps to me. Hours later, after I’d made a few hundred dollars for him at the tables, he took me for ice cream to explain that my winnings were the result of stupid luck. Evidently, I had been betting against myself several times. He didn’t care, he said, because I looked happy for the first time in a week.
I knew then and there that everything would all be OK.
My father was a gamblin’ man, yeah yeah
It escaped me, growing up, how much my father loved to gamble. Later he’d explain to me that there were times in the 1980s when his business struggled but he made our upper-class ends meet at The Club by betting thousands on his pro-level golf game. Then the same pals would lose thousands more to him playing gin rummy in the Men’s Grill. Why they all seemed OK losing to him so much and so often is a mystery, but he did have a boisterous personality that made everyone want to be around him.
When the poker boom arrived and everyone moved on to Texas Hold ‘Em, he complained loudly about how much harder it was to find a gin game worth his time. He turned his gambling sights to the legal online casino known as day trading in the stock market, where he lost big and his personality had no currency.
It was serendipity that led me to Las Vegas as a journalist. Around the time I was restless in my first job out of college, at a small newspaper in Rockford, Illinois, a friend told me about an opening covering the school district for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The night before I accepted the job offer, my boyfriend at the time sadly asked me as we lay in the dark: “Tell me again. Why Las Vegas?” I wasn’t sad at all. It sounded like a ton of fun, and it would be.
One person wasn’t baffled: My father. He couldn’t be more excited. Every year, he attended the Consumer Electronics Show in January as much for work as for the bling and thrill of The Strip. Once I was there, it became our annual father-son bonding week. He would give me stacks of chips, and now armed with a full understanding of craps, I would lose them all anyway. He’d tell me so many times he couldn’t live there — too much temptation.
After I left the R-J and became a freelance journalist covering the casino industry and the broader American Southwest, he couldn’t get enough of my Vegas-related work. He thrilled at the trinkets I’d send or show him from openings of casinos, shows and restaurants.
After he died, I found a small clipping from The New York Times, when I covered a freak fire in the upper floors of what was then the Monte Carlo, stuffed in a bag he carried around.
I’d had magazine covers and bylines from all over the world, but he would delight in showing friends that long-forgotten minor news item.
The Super Bowl bet as an annual ritual
I rarely gambled in the first few years of life in Vegas. I hadn’t gotten the gumption to play poker, I still didn’t understand craps and slot machines felt tedious. If friends visited, I’d play a little table blackjack or plug a few bucks into a multi-hand blackjack machine I liked.
The big exception: Every year, my father would call with very, very specific instructions. I’d take $200, go to whatever sportsbook was the easiest to pop in and out of — The Orleans, most often — and carefully recite for the ticket writer the script Dad had dictated to me to lay “our” Super Bowl bet. It was a real-life “free bet” — if we won, he’d let me keep it; if we didn’t, he’d reimburse me.
I don’t remember any of the bets, although they were always parlays. I was terrified I’d get the bet wrong because I was spouting off what felt like gibberish. It felt like placing a really complicated order at the world’s most intimidating McDonald’s.
Then, during the Super Bowl, we’d check in a few times — first by old-fashioned phone calls and later by text message — about how it was going. Once, I heard him over the din of a friend’s party, telling someone: “I’m talking to my son, Steven. The journalist. Yeah, he’s in Vegas. He knows Steve Wynn. We’re checking in about our bets.”
Talking NCAA Tournament on his death bed
By the time he died in 2016, we were more than solid. He had long since dispensed with his discomfort over my sexual orientation, toasting my husband and me at our wedding and asking often for updates as we began a lengthy effort to adopt children. He died before we succeeded; our son Nevada’s Hebrew name, Noach, is in Dad’s honor.
He had stomach cancer that went somehow undetected until it was so ravaging it killed him within a week. He was in a ton of pain and heavily sedated. In the last two days, he was barely able to open his eyes, much less converse.
Still, our Super Bowl bet had expanded by then into other realms of sports and the NCAA’s 2016 Elite Eight was coming up. I sat on his second-to-last day, killing some time going over the lines for that weekend’s contests. I thought I was talking to nobody, so zoned out did he seem.
He was listening. He squeezed my hand when I said UNC and again when I said Villanova. It was subtle. I wasn’t sure it was anything more than an involuntary response. Except he didn’t do anything when I said Syracuse or Oklahoma.
Ten days after he died, Villanova beat UNC in the final.
Even though I don’t believe in an afterlife, it was a rare moment of levity in a bleak period to wonder aloud if he’d won a bracket in heaven.
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