At the Track, Near the Tents

At the Winner's Circle, Not Far From Hell: Off-Track Betting in New York City

A roach crawls under everyone's feet, loops around a pole, and shimmies up one of the counters.

It's revealed that the woman was wrong. She had bet on the eight horse, but it was three that won.

A hefty black guy in sweats is discreetly eating canned corn.

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

There's more cheers, and the same woman is pounding on the same TV. This time she does win: $450, she tells us. She's crying, feigning hoarseness. But I watch her fake a path to the counter to collect. Instead, she shuffles out the door without pausing.

A roughneck pounds in. He's drinking beer like he's hyperventilating. Sweating, his shaved head pulsing with veins, he clutches stained, ripped betting forms. The horses run, and he loses badly. The other men give him a wide berth, and he stamps out the door.

It gets later, the betting slows down, and people are starting to nap—in their chairs, standing up, leaning on each other. The security guard knows everyone's name and gently taps them, cooing, "C'mon now, y'hear. You know the rules."

This is a graveyard of broken men, but it's also their refuge. The guy next to me has been biting at the air, clicking his teeth and whimpering. The dread-locked guy feeds losing betting slips into automatic payout machine, one after another— working his way through five-inch stacks, only to begin again. Then there's the third woman of the night, a dirt-caked senior with what looks like a bear cub skinned and arranged on her maybe five foot two, and is treated with no malice whatsoever.

I'm drifting off, losing myself in the warm din, and then a bologna and cheese sandwich floats into my line of vision. My neck and arms itch. My mouth is dry. (I've been drinking whiskey on the sly all day.) But my teeth-clicking pal is offering dinner. I give it a look and figure I could do worse.

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