“Last week, I was rich,” says Vito, sitting in the Off-Track Betting parlor in Park Slope, one eye on a race playing on the television overhead. He says he won 700 dollars on a two dollar exacta. Then he lost 300. Then he lost 600. Then he won 800, but he lost that too. The bugle call announcing the start of a race blares from across the room. “I should just stay calm when I’m winning,” he says.
Vito’s not rich today, though he came in when the OTB opened at noon and will stay until it closes at 9:15. He’s been coming to the OTB every day since the day it opened 30 years ago. Sometimes for variety he’ll go to the Bay Parkway branch in Bensonhurt.
Vito is 71, though he looks more like a grizzled 55, like a Norwegian longshoreman. Every time I see him he’s dressed the same: khaki pants, brown leather jacket, black wool knit hat, and gold-rimmed eyeglasses. His eyes are blue, his hair is gray, and his cheeks are sunken slightly in the middle, criss-crossed with lines.
I meet Vito through his friend Artie, who sees me wandering around the OTB with a notebook and recommends that I talk to Vito about how the place works. I introduce myself and ask Vito for his help. “Do you want to make a bet?” he asks. I say sure, and he leads me to the electronic machines. I hand Vito my two dollars.
“I’m gonna put it in for me and you and we’ll be partners,” he says. He bets on a tip from Artie in the next Meadows race.
We take the ticket that comes out and head over to the televisions to watch the race. The numbers are all a blur to me, and I can’t remember what we bet on. The screen is so badly distorted that I can’t read the horses’ numbers, but the men around me are intensely focused.
“Come on Dennis, don’t fuck around,” someone shouts at a horse.
“Whenever you’re ready, Dennis!”
Vito and I lose, and Vito calls it quits for the night as far as bets go. But he asks if I want to make another. I say sure, and Vito recommends a part-wheel exacta on the next race at Santa Anita. I can’t keep what he’s telling me straight, so he writes it down for me, and finally goes with me to the machine. He puts in my two dollars and types the bet out on the screen, but the wager isn’t high enough for this race. Vito adds his own two dollars. “We’ll be partners,” he says.
We go stand at the televisions with Artie, who rocks back and forth nervously as he watches the horses. Our race runs and we win eleven dollars between us.
Vito started gambling when he was 14, after a friend gave his brother a tip on a horse. Too young to get into the track, Vito placed bets with bookmakers and later became a trackside regular.
Vito was 35 when the City of New York first introduced Off-Track Betting in 1970, partly as a measure to break the mob’s hold on gambling. The OTB would raise money for the city and state by taking a five percent tax from the winnings, while still supporting the racing industry. But the New York Racing Association wanted nothing to do with the betting parlors, and the OTB ended up taking away most of the race tracks’ customers. Today the OTB accounts for 80 percent of bets placed on horse racing.
“They killed the track,” Vito says of the OTB. “Years ago, they used to get forty-thousand, thirty-thousand. Even on working days, there used to be over twenty-thousand. Now you look, and there’s no one there.”
The bleak linoleum atmosphere of a betting parlor may seem a sorry trade for a racetrack’s green fields, but there’s a grubby intimacy to the OTB that keeps Vito returning. He’s pleased to point out that everybody there knows him. He says that when he comes in broke, other regulars will give him money. He points to one man. “When he hits something, he’ll come over and hand me 10 dollars, like that. He did it today. So now, if I win, and I know that man helped me, I would throw him something. You know, it’s like a family. We help each other.”
Most commerce at the OTB takes place between man and machine, but Vito and his colleagues sometimes visit the tellers who work in glass-fronted booths at the back of the shop to cash out or complain. One afternoon, Vito takes me to say hello to Amelia, a six-year veteran at her station behind the window.
“That’s your boyfriend?” Amelia asks me in a cheery Caribbean accent. “He talks like he has marbles in his mouth sometimes.”
I ask her how she likes working there.
“Not with these people driving me crazy in here,” she says, laughing. “Especially when they’re losing they money! He goes like this: ‘I want the four.’ And then he come back: ‘No, I didn’t want the four, I wanted the six!’”
These exchanges seem to take place in good humor, but nevertheless Vito constantly complains about the staff. “The ones behind the window stink,” he says. “And the manager stinks, he’s a wise guy.”
Most of Vito’s complaints center on the manager. “He never does nothing,” Vito says. The manager, being fat and lazy, just sits in the back, never coming out to fix things when he should, and never changing the channels on the television when his customers want to watch a particular race, says Vito. Even more galling to Vito is the fact that the customers aren’t allowed to change the channels themselves. “What’s the big deal to touch a little button?” Vito says. “When we’re at home, we touch our buttons on the TV. So what, your finger’s different than mine?”
Attached to one of the fake wood paneled walls at the OTB is a metal plaque offering a number to call in case of gambling addiction.
“Gambling’s a sickness,” says Artie. “Wouldn’t recommend starting, it’s the worst thing I ever did.” Artie says he could have done a lot with his life if he hadn’t started gambling. He says he should have been a singer, and he demonstrates by singing a few Barry Manilow songs into my tape-recorder. He really has a beautiful voice.
I ask Artie if he’s ever tried to quit. “You can do anything if you put your mind to it, but I never tried,” he says. “I guess if I had something better to do, if something came along with more interest I would.”
Another race is about to start, and Artie tells Vito to put some money on one-nine for him. “I’ll pay you tomorrow when I cash my check,” he says.
“When he’s got money, he’s a smart gambler,” Vito says of Artie, whom he’s known since Artie was a kid. “But when he starts talking and bragging, that’s when he don’t win. I keep telling him stay alone, relax, keep winning and keep giving me money.”
Vito doesn’t seem to share Artie’s tragic view of gambling. “It’s just enjoyment to pick a winner, pick something,” he says. “It’s just like when you get a guy that smokes, and that’s all he wants to do.” It’s a funny analogy, but fitting for Vito’s commitment to the OTB—placing little bets, hour after hour, two or five dollars at a time, consuming his own winnings with more bets.
But through his talk of odds and fixes, handicaps and heart numbers, Vito also demonstrates the pleasures of figuring out a system and putting that body of knowledge to work. “It’s like you go to school and you learn things,” Vito says. “So it’s the same with horses. You learn who the trainer is, you learn who’s cheating, who’s not.”
I ask Artie if he thinks Vito has a problem.
“Vito’s got his own system, but he’s a loser like everybody else,” Artie says. “It’s a hard game to beat.”
By late afternoon, Vito’s fortunes still haven’t improved, so we go to the luncheonette across the street for a break.
“What kind of pie you got?” he asks the waitress, who seems to know him well. She brings him a slice of coconut cream pie.
“Lucky day, big piece,” she says as she sets it down on the green Formica table.
Across the restaurant, Vito sees his friend Louie, who got stabbed in the arm at the OTB last winter over an altercation regarding the parlor’s smoking policy. As I leave, Vito and Louie stand in the doorway of the luncheonette, racing papers in hand, poised to cross 5th Avenue and head back into the blank stucco faÃ§ade of the OTB.
MIMI GROSS is a painter, set and costume designer and teacher. She lives and works in New York City. Currently, her work A Large Wooden Beach Scene is a part of “Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland” at the Broolklyn Museum.