“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
“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.