“Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.” -Russell Baker
Note: It’s been a long, strange summer, and a few things (an infestation, a new job) derailed plans for regular updates. I did, however, spend the better portion of August taking bets at the Saratoga Race Course. The following is a collection of observations from my seventh summer as a pari-mutuel clerk. For a primer on the bet-takers, see “My Secret Summer Life.” For a primer on the people who place bets, see “My Most Persistent Customer.”
I became a pari-mutuel clerk in 2003, pushed to the racetrack in a sort of last-ditch effort to find a job in a weak economy. I’ve watched the crowds expand and contract in the past seven years, fueled by increasing prosperity, shrinking with the sport’s waning popularity. They reached new lows last year; I blamed high gas prices—and the feeling that our precarious bubble was about to burst. This year, I didn’t know what to expect. There was rain—it came down in thick sheets on and off that first week—and there was blazing heat, but the economy didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind. For the first few weeks of the meet, people were happier than I’ve seen them in a long time. A lot of men were unabashedly forward. “If I was younger, I’d be on you like beans on rice,” one told me, leaning eagerly against my window. He was probably around sixty, with spiky silver hair and a big, white smile. “Oh boy, you know I would,” he continued. “But there’s not enough Viagra in the world!” One afternoon they pumped Dixieland jazz on the loudspeakers. It was heavy on the lazy, staccato trumpet, with a brisk walking bass, and it was infectious. Across the clubhouse, I watched two men in their early sixties, golf shirts tucked into pressed khakis, grin and link arms, skipping drunkenly across the cement. For a week or two, I was happy, too. The tips were pretty good and I was back on familiar ground. Regulars from five years ago greeted me with a slightly skeptical, “You’re back.” “You are, too,” I’d point out, wishing I could add, “At least I’m getting paid for this.” Continue reading
“It’s the people’s race! It’s the people’s party! It’s the people’s event, which means a lot to the city and the state. I think the Preakness will be here in 2010 and for many years to follow.” -Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas Jr., in the Washington Post
There’s always something a little disappointing about the second installment of a trilogy. The first part is usually fresh and full of possibilities, all exposition and introductions and hobbits in the Shire. The final part, of course, is climax and conclusion, where the guy gets the girl and most of your favorite characters make it out of the battle unscathed. The middle is full of necessary evils: slow plot and character development, red herrings, and unsatisfying cliffhangers. It’s easy to argue against this on a case by case basis–I’m no “Star Wars” fan, but I enjoyed “The Empire Strikes Back” a hell of a lot more than the others—but as a general format, it often holds true, and the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, is no exception. It lacks the glamor and Southern charm of the Kentucky Derby, and it has none of the Belmont Stakes’ grim finality, something you’d expect from a longer-than-usual race held just outside of Queens. Despite its storied history and important role in the racing calendar, the Preakness seems to be more famous for drunken (and dangerous) revelry than for anything that has to do with horses.
“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” -Aaron Levenstein
I’ve spent the past eight months trying my best to be useful—and trying to get paid for it. I arrived in New York City in October, a few weeks after the fall of the first big, public dominos of the financial crisis. Thousands were being laid off every day, and I was looking for work. I got my foot in a very specific door—web editorial work—and I learned that I’m actually a methodical, detail-oriented person, capable of handling large amounts of material and performing repetitive tasks without gouging my eyes out. I’ve gotten gigs up and down the length of Manhattan: big media corporations, small magazines, dictionaries, an investigative journalism outlet. It’s fun wearing my fancy pants one day and jeans the next, but it gets confusing, and it’s hard to feel wholly committed to anything. I know people who’ve done this for years; I’m already completely exhausted. Continue reading
“Hope is the bedrock of this nation; the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is; who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” -Barack Obama, after winning the Iowa Caucus
Four years ago, I cast my very first presidential ballot. I was 19, living in one blue state and voting absentee in another, and there was something vaguely unsatisfying about putting a little X next to John Kerry’s name. I was voting against George W. Bush—who terrified me, a memory that’s hard to reconcile with our 2008 keep-as-low-a-profile-as-possible president. Bush’s first term marked a strange time to grow into a thinking member of the electorate: September 11th, the hyper-patriotism that followed, the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the invasion of Baghdad, the Patriot Act, and Abu Ghraib. I didn’t think we could afford four more years, but a slim majority of the American public disagreed with me. I cried on election night, and when I woke up the next morning, I wrote an editorial for the campus newspaper that basically endorsed resigned disillusionment. There was hope and there was fear, and the latter had prevailed. Reading over the piece now, this passage stands out:
“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.
“A racetrack is a place where windows clean people.” -Danny Thomas
Note: I apologize for the long delay in updating. A few weeks ago I suffered a personal tragedy; unsurprisingly, it’s taken up a lot of my physical and emotional energy. I’m not prepared to write anything meaningful about it yet, but I didn’t want to go any longer without posting. Instead, I’ll write about the other thing that’s been taking up a lot of my time: the start of my sixth season as a pari-mutuel clerk at the Saratoga Race Course. I’m sure I’ll write about the track at least a few more times, so I thought I’d start with a primer for readers who don’t know about my secret summer life.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I was desperate for work. I had spent nearly two years as a professional sweater folder, conning anyone who could hold a pen into opening a GAP charge card. I was done with the GAP, but nobody else wanted me: the economy was bad and I would leave for college in two months. My mother saw an ad in the paper for jobs at the Saratoga Race Course, a place that had been a source of seasonal irritation for my entire life. The population of our small city triples every August, packed with transplanted trainers and grooms and, noisiest and most numerous, tourists. Overdressed women in elaborate hats, men uniformed in polo shirts, khaki shorts, and dock shoes. Friends’ families would rent out their houses and leave town; we’d stay and grumble about the traffic and the jacked up prices. I’d been to the track a couple of times, but save the horse-drawn carriages that clomped past our house every evening, I had never given horses a second thought.
“East is East, and West is San Francisco.” -O. Henry
The other night I dreamt that San Francisco was on fire, and as I watched a jumbled version of the city’s skyline burn to the ground, the Transamerica Building, that iconic white pyramid, fell like a tree with one swift motion, destroying everything in its path. I woke up tense and confused, and I had trouble sorting out reality from what was one of the most terrifying dreams that I can remember. Half of Northern California is on fire right now; this map shows the dozens of major blazes that currently ring San Francisco, Sacramento, and work their way up to the Oregon border. A state spokeswoman said that there are more than 1,000 individual fires burning, and Bush declared a federal state of emergency at the request of the governor. It’s been hazy here for the past week, and local health officials are urging people to limit their time outdoors.