In 1962, before off-track betting, you bet horses with either a bookie or at the racetrack. It's a time when shopping malls are newborns and, if you're nimble, you can walk across Blackstone Avenue without getting killed or caught. My sign shop is wedged in a line-up of brick and mortar on Blackstone, waiting for eventual demolition.
This morning I park behind my shop, breathe the reek of slaughter from the meat jobbers to my left. Glancing right I see Johnny behind his sandwich shop tossing roasts into a jerry-rigged outdoor oven. Tall bamboo lining the alley rustle in the fall air.
Inside I spread the Daily Racing Form on my drawing board. I study it, finally circling four horses running today at eastern parks. I call my selections in to my bookie and check our bottom figure. It's a few bucks my way for a change. Seems there's a drought back there giving horses with early speed an advantage.
I'm stealing a strawberry pop from the drink machine when in walks my partner, Gib. He's carrying a giant mug of coffee from home. His Clark Kent face collapses when he sees my soda. "You pound that Bud last night?"
I look with him across the street at DiCicco's. The beeline to the restaurant's cocktail lounge could be the work of a skilled surveyor. Mr. DiCicco himself is locking up after baking since dawn. Gib's gaze drops to my Racing Form. "Let's close early," he says "We'll go out to the fair, bet a few races."
I tap the back of my fingers against the horses I've marked. "We've got all the action we want right here. There's nothing but nags at the fair."
"It ain't like we never been," Gib pleads, "We can goof, drink beer, eat shish kebab on peda with onions and parsley." Saying it like a menu.
"What time do we leave?" I ask, and, "Do we have any cash?" Gib insists we be partners in everything, providing he holds the money. Mr. Ace, from the knitting mill up past the pharmacy, drops in. Dark suit, Chronicle Sporting Green in his hand. Old, yet emitting a youthful heat. He stuffs three $5 bills in my shirt pocket. "Five across on the five horse, fifth race," he says. Somehow he's guessed we are shutting down to go to the track and wants us to make a wager for him.
"You need a racing form, Mr. Ace. You shouldn't bet on hunches."
He gives me a dark look from an older world. "Am I down?"
I shake his hand. "You're down, Mr. Ace," I say, meaning I'll see that his bet is covered and bring back any profit should his horse win.
At the track
Three hours later, we're at the track eating beerocks, drinking beer in the shade under the grandstand. All the players, pals, touts, and bookies turn up like face cards dealt in a game long gone. There's Mill The Thrill chatting with a cop in baseball cap and Levi's, who runs an off-duty handbook. Greenshade Louie laments a pick that stumbled in the stretch. Someone swears they've spotted "Wild Willie" Saroyan. And the silent king, Papa Joe the bookmaker, watches us all from the shadows. After our day at the races, Gib, a light drinker, takes the wheel, heads for our shop. The mood is grim. We didn't cash a ticket. The hazy evening makes Ventura Avenue's neon bleed.
"How did Mr. Ace's horse do?" he asks.
Until then, I'd forgotten about it. "Five across on No. 5 in the fifth. Probably ran fifth."
At that, we laugh like sultans, until I check Gib's program where he's noted the winners and their pay-offs.
"Oh, Lord," I say.
"He win?" Dread fills Gib's voice.
"He win large," I say.
"How big a large we looking at?"
"Better pull over," I say.
"Why? Didn't you bet his horse?"
"I gave his three finskies to you."
Gib rakes a hand through his crewcut. "What do we do?"
"What all true gamblers do," I say. "We either leave town or pay Mr. Ace."
"With what? We tapped out in the last race."
"Didn't you borrow last month's rent from that banker guy down past the knitting mill?"
"On a handshake," Gib says. "But that was $40. This is like $240."
"Well, partner," I say. "When that banker guy asks for collateral, this time look him in the eye, shake his hand with the firmest, most sincere handshake you can muster."
It's 1962. Things are like that.