At the Track, Near the Tents

Not Far From Hell: Off-Track Betting in New York City

Giuliani be damned, the window washers are back, only a few streets from all the models and their witnesses. On 37th Street, still reeling from the twice-yearly shows at Bryant Park, I stop in a phone booth and find a few empty bottles of rum. How much? The closest liquor store, one of Hell's Kitchen's grim closets, sells tiny Bacardis for $1.50. Grey Goose, for the tony Port Authority guzzler, runs $4. A slip of Jack Daniels is $2.50.

A bus rumbles by, just clearing a red light at Eighth Avenue. The destination on the bus's marquee: PARADISE. In its wake, a window washer finds a mark in a two-door Honda with New York plates. He lathers up the front and back window. "Thank you sir." And $1 exchanges hands.

A few feet away, in a store front, a different industry rumbles. Ten men, all of whom appear to be of Central or South American descent, assemble eight-foot heroes. An employee wearing a Budweiser handkerchief is on break, and I catch him licking his lips and watching traffic pour into the Lincoln Tunnel. The Eastern European manager blocks his way back inside and sucks on the cigarette clenched in his teeth.

"Bet With Your Head . . . Not Over It."
photo: Holly Northrop/
"Bet With Your Head . . . Not Over It."

Traffic clatters by, rain sizzling on ugly concrete, and manager and employee look at the eight-foot sandwiches. I look at the eight-foot sandwiches, too. An automatic cheese slicer works on one wall, seizing a thigh-sized brick of provolone through its teeth. I can't see his head, but one worker is assigned to the roasted red peppers, which keep sliding off the towering pile of meats and cheeses.

The Budweiser fan is back to work. New York smells like a wet dog.

First thing I do is find the bathroom. Blocking the urinal, a gentle old man holds a rumpled can of Sunkist in one hand and rummages in his pocket with the other. Barging into the room is one of the younger guys I noticed laughing in the corner. The old man is unfazed and finally fishes out a hip bottle of rum.

"Don't drink it all at once!" The younger guy bellows, taking down his drawers with one hand and pre-flushing with the other. There's no door to his stall, and I catch him looking at the old guy with a kind eye as he reaches for paper.

The old man considers his bottle. "Gotta get some in me now," he says, "before I give it all to the horses."

The snack bar at Winner's Circle, one of Manhattan's 18 Off-Track Betting parlors, serves coffee ($1), soda ($1), chili ($1.75), and hot dogs ($1.25.) Two guys belly up to the bar and clap each other on the back. They share a cup of coffee, which they split into two cups.

One guy turns to the other. "You know you gonna be begging in the subway in a minute."

The floor is littered with a thousand paper tickets. An Asian man with a stoop shuffles along, grabbing at different drifts, seeing something worth picking up. The ceiling hangs low, almost dripping with the stink of cigarettes long ago smoked but now banned. Two rows of plastic seats are bolted to the floor in front of the five main TV screens. Counters line the walls, and a few other islands stacked with race forms give views of other screens bolted to the ceiling. There are at least a hundred men here. These are the guys you'd cross the street to avoid. The broken, stinking ones no one will sit next to on the subway. They bounce around the room, murmuring, slapping hands, patting backs, making bets. This is their turf, and they stumble around in a graceful ballet without apology.

A poster urges us all: "Bet With Your Head . . . Not Over It." A number is below, in fine print: (212) 903-4400, Gamblers Anonymous.

There's some kind of altercation: A guy in a dirty maroon windbreaker foams at the mouth. Green sweatshirt (Dartmouth Lacrosse) interjects. Enormous-nosed white guy sweeps the floor, dusting the tops of all of our shoes. Crisis is avoided with a $2 loan.

"Where's the Meadowlands? Where's the goddamned Meadowlands?"

She's got red hair, a red duffel bag, a black newsboy's cap, high heels, and a leather jacket. Looks like the panhandler I saw Friday on the F train, which is to say she's just as striking. Her fingernails are clean. That's a good sign. But she disappears, never having found her New York horses. And it's just men again.

The second woman of the day hides most of herself in a billowing grey sweatshirt. She bounces a couple of reedy black guys out of her way and works her considerable hip against the wall. She's as close to Belmont as possible. On the screen, horses slap through the dirt, heads bobbing and tails arched as if filled with a man's urgent blood. One breaks loose, his jockey in perfect time with his switch.

"I got it," she says. "That was my horse!" The men chew at their teeth and hem and haw and finally give her a bit of a cheer as the horse breaks the finish line. It's the first time today that this—the watching of the races, the rapt spectacle, the show—has felt simple or plain.

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