Fannie’s brother worked at Detroit’s racetrack, and she saw her chance. The numbers had been flourishing in Detroit, buoyed by the steady incomes supplied by the auto industry, and the daily racing forms were used to generate the winning three-digit combinations. After working as a bookie for Eddie Wingate, a big numbers man notorious for his ruthlessness, she struck out on her own. To make money, she needed volume; and to get volume, she required an edge. Hers would be a reputation for reliability — which, in an unregulated business, turned out to be worth a lot.
As the fifth and youngest child, Davis describes herself as the first of Fannie’s children “born in comfort”; even though she knew from a young age what her mother did for a living, she doesn’t remember worrying about it much. She recalls sitting at the dining table of their red-brick Colonial, eating Frosted Flakes and watching her mother take bets over the phone. When young Davis wanted to be alone, she retreated to her own playroom in the basement, replete with an Easy-Bake Oven and a toy chest from F.A.O. Schwarz.
What Davis recognizes in hindsight is how precarious that comfort and prosperity were. In 1960s Detroit, redlining meant that banks would deny mortgages to black home buyers, no matter the source and regularity of their income. Fannie couldn’t purchase that red-brick Colonial outright, entering instead into a risky land contract with the seller. If she missed a single payment, she would forfeit the house.
Fannie also had to worry about cash flow on the business side. If one of her customers won big, she could get wiped out. Davis depicts her mother as a disciplined businesswoman, making sure to limit bets on popular numbers — “fancies” like 007 (for James Bond) and 313 (Detroit’s area code) — so that she wouldn’t be too exposed. She was also superstitious, putting her customers’ business in the freezer to “cool it off,” and assiduously avoiding anyone or anything she deemed unlucky; aside from one Dinah Washington song, she couldn’t bear to listen to the blues.
Fannie used her profits to provide for her family, but as Davis movingly shows, the proceeds allowed for something more. The family home wasn’t just a roof over their heads; it became “our armor against a world designed to convince us, black working-class children of migrants, that we didn’t deserve a good life.” Davis remembers how abundance afforded her “the indulgence of daydreams” and a first-rate education. Fannie also put some of her profits into the local community, supporting black-owned businesses and giving out “a little piece of money” when someone needed it.