Note: If it seems like I’m horribly mean in my depiction of the people in this story, it’s only because over the years they’ve become, through no fault of their own, larger than life representatives of one of my life’s great tragedies. This should make you feel better: if they were to read this(unlikely; no one else does), they wouldn’t even recognize themselves. I’m normally a nice guy. Really… I am, you stupid jerk! Also, this isn’t how I usually talk about people behind their backs. As far as you know.
Back when I was in high school, I was introduced to the fascinating world of Greyhound racing by my father. What a guy. “Here, son. Here’s an entertaining way to lose everything you have, to squash all your hopes and dreams, and squander away any chance at maintaining even the lowest level of subsistence. And best of all, we can do it together.” He didn’t say that, of course, but he might as well have. He wouldn’t have done much worse had he introduced me to heroin, organized crime or prostitution(actually, that’s stupid: I would have been an extremely ugly and unsuccessful prostitute). I honestly think he didn’t see anything wrong with it. I know I’ve made mistakes with my own kids(don’t talk to them), but I hope I never do anything that foolish.
Greyhound racing was very popular back then; apparently, animal advocacy hadn’t been invented yet. No one gave a thought as to how those dogs had been duped into thinking that a revolving white blob on a stick was a rabbit, or what happened to the dogs themselves after their usefulness as racers had passed. Tucson Greyhound Park was always crowded, with a fascinating mixture of sad, rent-money gamblers, college age kids looking for excitement and high roller-types. These were the guys who sat in the upstairs clubhouse(it cost an extra couple bucks to weed out the losers) with girls who were way too hot for them, and actually spent money on things other than wagers. There was food, booze and smoke all around. The races themselves were a thirty-second explosion of blinding speed and effortless grace. Add to this the obvious allure of winning money and you had the hottest ticket in town.
By the time I was a freshman in college, I was there almost every night it was open. I had some moderate success, enough to suggest I could have a career in the making: Rich Peddy, Professional Gambler. I certainly liked the sound of it. I started charting all the dogs, noting their preferences, whether they liked to go out fast or come from behind, liked to run inside, midtrack or outside, etc. Now, it might appear foolish to some to have mapped out a winning formula predicated upon the notion that a dog knowingly employs a consistent strategy to win a race against seven other dogs. In retrospect, I would have to agree. One might also consider it downright stupid to think betting on dogs running in a circle a viable career at all. Well, now you’re just being mean.
Then, in one amazing night, my career choice was laid out before me, all paved in gold brick and lined with fruit trees nested with happy, chirping birds. I won almost $1500, which was a lot of money in 1980, especially for a starving college student. I’m sort of a cocky winner(it pisses people off, because they’re losers, which sort of makes winning more fun, doesn’t it?), so I’m sure anyone within fifty yards knew I had won big. A big, fat, red-haired woman came and sat next to me and started bleating in an Irish accent. I usually find said accent most endearing, but this time it sounded , well, stupid. You gotta be kidding, I thought. I’m a high roller now; where’s my chick who’s way too hot for me? It turned out she wanted to show me pictures of her daughter, who was available and might like a nice, enterprising young man like myself. Now we’re talking. Come to Papa…yamma hamma, fright night! Her daughter had Irish features as well; she looked like a distended leprechaun(who ate Lucky Charms by the box), though her beard was slightly less kempt. And for the cherry on top, she showed me pictures of her three grandchildren, as though that might finally tip the scales in her daughter’s favor. They were hideous, each more engorged than the other; the trifecta of gluttony, as though they alone were responsible for the Irish potato famine.
The following day, my future assured, I went to work and quit my job. I had worked for three years at Tucson Country Club, starting as a dishwasher and working my way up to prep cook. The chefs had begun training me on the line; soon I would be a full cook and on my way to a career as a chef. I don’t know that I would have wanted it, because other than going to college forever, I didn’t know what I wanted. Given my lack of direction at the time, however, it was a “bird in hand”, and would have been as good a path as any. That is, of course, until Rich Peddy, Professional Gambler became my destiny.
Things began to unravel soon after. I might be winning money, but it was never enough. A rational person might think “Whoa. I’m up a hundred and fifty bucks. I’m outta here.” Curious thing, gambling addiction. If I stayed for all fifteen races and won $150, I’d be really happy. But if I was up that much after three or four races, it never occurred to me to leave. I had to go for the kill, to turn that $150 profit into $1500. It never did happen again, and within a few months I had lost pretty much everything I had, including my college fund.
My very last night at the tracks played out true to form. I was way up early, but went for the big score, and by the last race I was down to my last fifty bucks. I bet it all, of course, and the dog I had keyed on all my bets led the entire race. At the end, however, he began to fade and two other dogs came up alongside him at the wire. There was a photo finish, meaning the race was too close to call, and judges would determine the order of finish by examining a photo taken at the line. We all crowded around the t.v. screens hanging from the ceilings inside for a glimpse of the photo. I let out an anguished wail as the photo revealed my mutt had lost by a nose; literally less than an inch. I collected myself by yelling a particular exclamation(dang it) at the top of my lungs and flicking my cigarette at the television screen. I had lost everything; my fledgling career was already a complete bust.
At this particular moment, a very large and overly made-up girl walked beneath the television set. I can see her as clear as if she were standing in front of me now, as she instantly became the poster child for this particular failure of mine. She wore a blue denim jacket, with beads on the back that spelled out “Fat, Gaudy Slut”(I don’t actually know what it said)in cursive, and dark jeans that were so tight it looked like an entire school of tuna had been caught in a black denim net and were fighting to get out. Her face was spackled with some brand of makeup grout that was two or three shades lighter than the skin on her neck, and she embroidered her face handsomely with eyebrows and lashes done with black crayola and lips painted brown like mud. The perpetual scowl she wore finished the look perfectly; she looked like a prostituting Grouper fish at Halloween.
Leticia had managed to get her hair to stand a good foot above her scalp; it was a tribute to engineering, teased and stretched to its very limits. Her black hair glistened with a chemical sheen; if she stood in a hurricane, it would not move, but if you hit her hair with a rock, it looked as though it might shatter into a thousand pieces, like glass. Of course, no rock was forthcoming. Her hair instead caught the aforementioned cigarette, and combustion was instantaneous. Curiously, though, it was fairly contained at first, like a small campfire amidst a stand of trees. As I stood transfixed and somehow content to do nothing, however, it quickly began to grow; it was clear that soon all lives would be at stake, and so I sprang to action. As I pummeled her about the head with both hands, her boyfriend( for whom I still occasionally pray – either for his escape or merciful death)became understandably upset. I explained that someone threw a cigarette in Leticia’s hair(no lie). After the fire was out, he thanked me for my help. I think she opened her mouth and a clown fish swam in and started cleaning her gums.
Consider this lessons one and two in The Struggler’s Handbook. First, gambling is stupid, unless you have more money than you know what to do with, in which case the term isn’t applicable. Second, please extinguish all smoking materials in a sensible manner; while fire is fun to watch, the life you save could be your own.