my most persistent customer

“Someone once asked me why women don’t gamble as much as men do, and I gave the common-sensical reply that we don’t have as much money. That was a true but incomplete answer. In fact, women’s total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage.” -Gloria Steinem

Note: More apologies for another month-long delay. The racing season proved to be more taxing than usual. One day a man said to me, “If you’re single, then I love you.” This story, which I wrote a year ago, is in the same vein.

Two years ago, I had a regular window in the Lower Clubhouse. A good portion of my customers were serious career gamblers: big bets, big tips, and a whole lot of leering. I’m good with casual flirting, good with being called sweetheart and baby doll and brushing off little flashes of male perversion. “I haven’t won a single race in two days,” a man once told me, looking desperate and a little bit angry. “Take off your top for me.” His friend just laughed. “Don’t mind him, he’s drunk.”

Most of our customers are men and I’d say two thirds of the tellers are women. You hear plenty of horror stories about men taking things too far: waiting for tellers after work, threatening to follow them home, the sorts of things I imagine strippers face regularly. But we’re not so overtly sexual; some of us aren’t sexual at all. Customers ask us out but I don’t know anyone who follows through.

But two years ago in the Lower Clubhouse, I had a suitor. To protect his identity, I’ll call him Laszlo. I worked this window every day, and Laszlo was a regular customer. He is from Eastern Europe, and though he’s nearly fluent, our conversations were stunted: I had to reorder his words in my head, and he blinked at my colloquialisms. He’s relatively nice looking – incredibly European, with a flat, open face and a somewhat weak chin. And he has fluffy, dark grey hair. I’ve never asked, but I’m guessing he’s at least fifty-five.

Laszlo is an expert gambler. He’ll pick horses with long odds and win a few grand on a single bet. He’s the rare customer that understands horses’ physiology: he can spend a few minutes looking at a horse’s legs and then slap down a $200 bet with confidence. He wins, but more importantly, he tips. He gave me hundreds that summer, including the ultimate tip, a crisp hundred-dollar bill.

A lot of customers casually ask me out, so casually that it’s best to laugh and lower my eyes and avoid words like “yes” and “no.” But Laszlo was serious and straightforward, and he asked me out literally every day. “Would you like to go for dinner sometimes?” “How old you are?” “Here is my card: you call me soon.” I was twenty at the time. But Laszlo was very charming and incredibly nice, and I didn’t see the harm in having a meal with him. So one Monday towards the end of the meet I said, “You know what, why don’t we go out tomorrow?” His face lit up but before he could say anything, I continued. “Tomorrow’s my day off, we could go to lunch.” His face literally collapsed. “Okay, lunch,” he agreed, sounding resigned. “You give me call in the morning.”

So I called the next morning. “You meet me at the backstretch,” he said. I paused. The backstretch is the back of the track, where the trainers work out the horses. There was something weirdly unsavory about the whole thing. “How about somewhere in town?” I asked, my apprehension growing. “I know nowhere in town,” he told me resolutely. “Can we please meet in town?” I asked again, suddenly terrified by the prospect of meeting him anywhere. “We go in my car,” he suggested. “Get out of the city. It will be good for you.”

I hung up, baffled and nervous. We had arranged a place and a time, but when I walked into the kitchen to explain this to my mother, I realized how awful the entire situation was. Get out of the city. It will be good for you. It was probably just a matter of awkward translation but it was also fairly creepy. I called him back half an hour later. “Look, I don’t know if this is such a good idea today…” I began. He didn’t even try to argue; he cut me off, his tone sharp. “Okay. Bye.” And he promptly hung up the phone.

But he came back to my window the next day, undeterred. “When we go out?” I was deliberately vague. He kept coming back. A few days later he said, “I like you, you know. I like your shape. You should just fix your hair.” I was outraged: he had the audacity to insult me while complimenting my “shape,” which he could only really see from the waist up. I finally told him that it wasn’t going to happen. He came back to cash one last ticket, a few thousand dollars, and as I handed him the stack of bills he asked, “How much of my money you want today?” “It’s your money,” I told him, eyes narrowed. He didn’t come back again.

I worked on the opposite side of the park the following year. I saw him once, from afar. The entire thing became an anecdote that showed exactly what sort of attention young female mutuel clerks receive. But one day about a week into this year’s meet, I saw a familiar profile twenty feet from my window. Fluffy, dark grey hair, well-cut olive khakis. Laszlo looked exactly the same. I leaned over and whispered to the girl next to me, “See that guy over there? He used to ask me out all the time.” She nodded sympathetically. A week later, I looked up and he was next on line at my window, grinning, a winning ticket in his hand.

He wasted no time. “How have you been?” he asked me, his accent just as thick. As I counted out his money, he leaned forward. “How old you are now?” I told him and he didn’t miss a beat. “If you would be liking to go out sometime…Do you have my number still?” He dropped a ten-dollar bill on my machine. I slipped it into my pocket, and round two of our courtship began.

It’s only two years, but things look very different at twenty-two. I might be carded at the door but we can still go out for drinks. He may be as old as my father but I’m a college graduate, something like an adult, or closer to it. And just like last time, because I apparently never learn my lesson, I thought it could be all right. We would meet somewhere, have a drink and talk – about what remained to be seen – and a little voice in the back of my mind tried to help me imagine Laslzo in a sexual way – as a hook up, as a sugar daddy. I didn’t want Laszlo as any of those things, but I knew one drink probably couldn’t hurt.

I asked my friend Brooks for advice and he half-jokingly wrote: “I’d say what you should do is drag this out in a low-key stagnant way for as much of the summer as possible. Keep him guessing? Isn’t that how girls are supposed to deal with guys, anyway?” That seemed perfectly reasonable. As I continued to drag things out, Laszlo started winning every single race. The tipping increased astronomically. One day I went home with more than two hundred dollars in my pocket. He’d tell me to keep fifty, keep seventy, and I kept saying, “Are you sure?” I wanted him to know that I wasn’t coercing anything out of him. I probably made five hundred dollars off of him in a little under a week.

He was also making odd little comments here and there. A few offers to visit him at his home in Florida. Maybe we could go down to Kentucky together? I was sick for a little while and he came in a few days later sneezing. “You’re sick too?” I asked. “ I did not get it from kissing you,” he said. Nervous laughter, and I stepped off to the side, grateful that I had to count my money. It also became clear that we didn’t have anything in common. He asked me what I was reading and I showed him the cover. “I don’t read,” he said to me, almost proudly.

The tips kept coming and there was a weight growing in the pit of my stomach. It was the idea that I’d have to pay him back for all of this, and I started to understand what it’s like to whore yourself out. A lot of female mutuels use their sexuality at work, tossing hair and flirting to endear themselves to customers. But when it comes right down to it, there really isn’t any follow through. Unless you go and blurt out something ridiculous – like a promise to follow through.

“You are running out of time,” he told me. “I leave after the big race.” The big race is the Travers Stakes, and I resolved to do something about the situation before that weekend. I don’t know what came over me, but the words just slipped out: “How about tomorrow? We could go out tomorrow.” He looked ecstatic and handed me a twenty. He told me that we could have dinner at the “shopping center.” Plans could potentially include a movie. We would certainly do a lot of walking and talking.

First of all, the shopping center? He wanted to take me to the mall? Second of all, a movie? What are we, fourteen? How are we supposed to have conversations – he kept referencing our potential conversations – in a movie theater? But more importantly, I don’t have a car, and it would be tricky to walk to the mall. We were venturing back into dangerous territory: that in which he takes me somewhere in his car. Out of the city. It’ll be good for me.

I panicked all night. The next morning I mentioned it to my mother. “You need to tell him that you’ll meet him in town,” she said. I told her how hard it is to actually explain things to him, the way his eyes scrunch up when he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. “And,” she added, “you need to tell him that you’re just going as friends.” “He certainly won’t understand that,” I said, feeling like this was all just as bad, if not worse, than the first time around.

It was cold and overcast and he didn’t show up until the fifth race. He came to my window, wearing a cream sweater and smiling. “You okay today?” he asked. “Where you want to go tonight?” “Look,” I began, and his smile disappeared, replaced by the look of someone who’s just been caught doing something illegal. “We…I…” I stumbled, trying to find some clear way to say the few simple things that needed to be said. Finally, I managed to tell him that we needed to meet in a public place. No cars, no shopping center. He looked crestfallen, much like when I had proposed a lunch date.

“No, it’s just…” I tried to explain that he was a customer and that it’s a big step for a teller to trust anyone, to talk to someone without the windows between us and an armed security guard three feet away. But every time I started a sentence he made these creepy little shushing noises. “Never mind,” he said, holding up a hand. “When you want to go out?” I tried again. Shush shush shush. Finally, I gave up. “Look, I’m not sure that…” He was instantly cold. “You do not want to go out today.” It wasn’t a question. And then: “Okay. Bye.” And he was gone.

I felt awful. I was a tease and he wasted a thousand dollars on me. I couldn’t even go out for a single drink. I moped through the next few races, wondering if I had made the wrong decision. Then Sal, the machine guy, appeared at my window. Salvatore, a big, good-natured Italian, has been a constant source of good humor in the bay. He asked me what was wrong and I started to explain the whole thing. I was barely two sentences into it when he started shaking his head.

“No.” he said. “No. You do not go out with him. He only wants one thing.” I was a little alarmed. Yeah, Laszlo’s a guy, but I had been sure he wasn’t expecting me to put out right then and there. Sal disagreed. “Look, we’re friends, right?” he asked. I nodded. “And when we talk, I’m looking you in the eye. But when you turn around, I’m looking down. I’m looking other places.” Gee, thanks Sal. He continued. “All the men in the world have one thing on their minds. They just have different ways of trying to get to it.” I tried to tell him that Laszlo seemed nice, that he seemed relatively harmless. Sal shook his head. “He wants to go downstate with you.” I looked at him blankly. He wanted to take me to Belmont? Sal rolled his eyes, gesturing emphatically. “He wants to get in your pants.”

That night I called an old high school friend and made plans to meet at our favorite bar. My friend is a sweet, sensitive type, and I was hoping he’d give me a little reassurance about his sex. I walked up to the pub and my heart nearly stopped. Laszlo was sitting at a table outside the bar. He was with a few people and he stared directly at me. I don’t know how horrified I looked but his expression was nothing short of cold. I stumbled into the bar and grabbed my friend, whispering dramatically, “This man who was pursuing me is sitting outside right now.” We debated sneaking out the back. We wound up at a booth and I told him the whole story while glancing back at the door, mildly panicking.

Laszlo didn’t come inside. Maybe he hated me but if he still had any desire to make something happen, he could have come in and bought me a drink. But we were in a crowded pub, not a car in the middle of the woods. I decided that maybe Sal was right. It was never about talking and it certainly wasn’t about taking a walk around the mall. Laszlo didn’t come back to my window the next day. Who knows if I’ll see him again.

Another customer asked me out a few days ago. Gap in his teeth, potbelly. He’s nice enough, and a fluent English speaker. “I’m sorry,” I said, trying to sound sincerely regretful. “I just had a bad experience with a customer a few days ago…” His eyes widened. “I understand. I have seven sisters. Just thought I’d ask. I’m one of the nice guys.” I’m sure he is one of the nice guys. But there is a physical barrier between the customers and the tellers, and I think it needs to stay that way. I’m not going to go downstate with any of them.

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2 Comments

Filed under personal, the racetrack

2 responses to “my most persistent customer

  1. jamesemcnally

    Thoroughly enjoyable. I remember you telling me about this. You should write more about encounters like these, even if they never end in sordid, backwoods buggery.

  2. Pingback: scenes from the racetrack « listenbetter

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