The text arrived from Johnny Dings in the darkness of dawn – a name, a coffin emoji. Hugh Hefner was dead.
Mike Silvano, co-proprietor of Mike & Matt’s Italian Market in South Philadelphia, glanced at it, rolled over in his bed, and contemplated time and mortality and the fleeting nature of human existence. But mostly, he thought of the fat purse awaiting Stevie Open Coats, who nine months earlier had pulled Hef’s name in the Celebrity Death Pool.
A $1,900 jackpot. You can’t go wrong with that, Mike knew. That bought Christmas gifts, vacation. Even a mortgage payment or two. The lucky jerk.
He told me as much when I stopped by the deli that morning.
Mike & Matt’s, at 12th and Mifflin, is the kind of place you hope to find when you move to a neighborhood like South Philadelphia. There it is, amid all the hipsters and craft beer: a little deli, a hundred years old, owned by Mike, 45, and his younger brother Matt, 43, who save their fire for each other. At Mike & Matt’s, there’s a long-established cast of characters and the nicknames that go with them.
There’s Open Coats. It could be 20 degrees and Stevie wears his coat unfastened.
There’s Oscar, whose real name is Anthony, but when he was born, the first boy after three girls, his grandmother rejoiced: “We finally got a little Oscar Mayer Wiener.”
There’s ZZ Chris. For the long beard he wears in the style of the Texas rockers.
There’s Petey Brooms. Whose father was muscled enough to balance cinderblocks on the broom tops. (A sobriquet, of course, that begs the questions of why Petey gets to coast on the feats of his father – or why it’s not Petey Cinderblocks.)
There’s Uncle Joe, who’s nobody’s uncle, but that’s what everyone calls him.
And there’s Nicky Head, who has the biggest cap size the deli has ever seen.
“You would rather his head full of quarters than this whole pool,” Johnny Dings said.
Okay, the pool. There are already a few exclusive clubs at Mike and Matt’s. The first one I joined was the A.C. Club, which I thought had something to do with Atlantic City.
“Nah. Auto Cutlet,” Matt corrected me from behind the counter. Matt is the quiet brother, which means he isn’t constantly screaming.
The A.C. club means I automatically get a pound of the exquisite chicken cutlets Matt cooks in the back of the store every Wednesday. I get my cutlets wrapped in wax paper stamped with “Mikey Inquirer.”
So, I got my nickname. But I didn’t believe that I had truly arrived until I was invited join the Celebrity Death Pool.
The pool was the brainchild of Johnny Dings.
John “Dings” Dingler, is 46, and works as a union stagehand at the Convention Center and on Hollywood films, building sets. He’s big and bald and tattooed, with a booming laugh. Dings loves to gamble.
Think back to last summer. The Phillies stunk. The Eagles were months away.
“We had nothing to look forward to,” Mike remembered.
So, Dings came up with the death pool.
Pretty soon they had 20 people on board, new and old customers.
“When people come in and hear us talk about it, they laugh,” Mike said, “They go, ‘Wow, that’s something I’d like to get into.’ ”
Criteria were established: Celebrities had to be 70 and up, in good health (“No preexisting conditions,” Mike yelled). $10 bucks a month. Due on the first, Dings, emphasized. Not the second or third. So Dings doesn’t have to dig into his own pocket.
“Hey, the guy dies, you’re getting it before the funeral,” he assured everyone.
A draft was held. Names were selected at the counter from a black silk bag. Betty White. Elliot Gould. Debbie Reynolds. Pacino. De Niro. Wilford Brimley.
Weeks stretched into months and the purse grew as fat as the mozzarella balls Mike and Matt keep in the display case.
“Any word on Dustin Hoffman?” ZZ Chris would ask.
Then, Princess Leia’s mom died of a broken heart.
Ray Wags pocketed the $850 December purse, having drawn Debbie Reynolds, who died of a stroke just one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, passed on from a heart attack.
This is as good a time as any to mention that no one at the deli is actually rooting for death. Yes, it’s morbid. And possibly, maybe, it could potentially be perceived as a tad insensitive, they concede.
But look: Death comes anyway. Celebrities die, and so do perfect slices of South Philadelphia. And while everyone at Mike & Matt’s is hanging on, as Mike says, they might as well make some scratch while they’re at it.
“We’re not hoping they die,” he said, turning serious. “But if they do, we win money.”
Or, as Dings put it: “I had Betty White. I wasn’t wishing for Betty to die. But if she sevened out,” he said, using a craps term for a losing roll, “God bless, I would have made some money.”
Last month, I completed my final initiation on Mifflin Street: the death pool draft.
The pool had grown to 35 contestants. Dings set up by the meat slicer.
“You better use another one,” he told Matt, trying to work. “We’re busy here.”
Mike had a fistful of new names, which he had researched at home while waiting for the paint on his front door to dry.
“Siri, how old is Ellen Burstyn?” Mike asked his phone, after some life-or-death debate about the actress who played the mother in The Exorcist.
Mike picked for his brother.
“Come on, Betty.” Betty White, of course, the all-time favorite, known at the deli as Secretariat.
Betty it was.
Vincent, one of the old-timers from 12th Street, came in for his cold cuts.
He looked at Dings and the scene by the slicer: the silk bag and me with my notebook, and realized he had shuffled straight into the celebrity death pool.
“Put me in there,” he said. “I’ll be hitting the road soon.”