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The Gambler's Daughter

Photo by Anne Fishbein

At the fashionably unfashionable Petrelli’s in Culver City, Peggy Shank is a waitress with a following. Peggy has worked in this old-style steak house steeped with nostalgia for the last 13 years. Her territory is the lounge, the best part of the restaurant, with ample booths, amber lighting and an HO-scale model train that wends its way around and above the room when George Petrelli comes in to turn it on.

The first thing one notices about Peggy is her quick wit, an attribute she says she inherited from her father, who was a professional card player. A self-described beach girl — “no surfing, just the boys” — Peggy grew up in the world of gambling. As a young woman she worked in the card rooms of casinos in Cabazon and San Jose. Her fourth and fifth husbands were card players. Consequently, she has a self-described knack for odds and the numbers, dispensing advice on occasion, when solicited by customers.

“Card playing isn’t as much about gambling as it is about management,” waxes Peggy, who learned early to view card playing as a business.

“Ask her about her dad and Lucky Luciano,” one customer offers.

“There’s not much to it,” says Peggy. “Dad knew him when he was setting up the gambling ship in Long Beach.”

Her most colorful stories revolve around the subject of men. One time, a man came up to her in a casino and said, “You know, your father stole a girl from me and now I’m going to steal his daughter.” Peggy credited him with an above-average pickup line and the two ended up dating for years.

Always a magnet for men, Peggy laughs proudly when she reflects on the time she turned the head of a driver in a passing truck that promptly took out the center divider.

Peggy’s customers unanimously credit her with the rare ability to always be in a good mood. One customer named Brenda gratefully acknowledges that Peggy has a way of making a single girl feel good about being in a bar. Another customer recommends ordering Peggy’s special salad for dieters. It’s not on the menu and she actually has to go back into the kitchen to make it.

The quality that most distinguishes Peggy is her ability to playfully put people at ease. Many of her regulars regard her as a favorite great-aunt — the kind of relative who didn’t take the conventional path in life, the one with great adventure stories, real-world advice and always the best sense of humor. A couple of times at Petrelli’s is all it takes to make you feel like you’ve got yourself a new great-aunt to indulge you and bring your steak the way you like it.

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