14 December 2010

OTB Fades Away

I have to say, I never went inside an OTB. I've never had any interest in gambling. On anything. Ever. And for many years, I regarded the inhabitants of OTB offices as pathetic. They looked worn out, shabby, barely members of the world that surrounded them. Over time, however, I developed a begrudging respect for their little demi-monde. And as OTBs were surrounding by boutiques and fast food joints, I came to treasure their stubborn seediness.

The last three OTBs in the City closed on Friday. Here's an article that makes the patrons and clerks seem like the very salt of the earth:
A Hole in Old Routines After OTB Parlors' Last Day
By Michael Wilson
The end looked like this: five old guys sitting around a Chinese bakery, sipping coffee, the hour and minute hands on five wristwatches creeping together at the top of the dial. “It’s about time,” one said, reaching for a cane and falling in behind the others, on oversize physical-therapy shoes, onto Queens Boulevard.
“You can see somebody in there,” he said, peering through glass.
At 12:10 p.m. the doors finally opened, and the group, now 20 strong, walked and limped and shuffled in out of the cold and into the final, death-watch hours of an Off-Track Betting parlor.

OTB, a New York City institution since 1971, shut the doors to its three remaining parlors on Monday, including the one in Forest Hills, Queens. After years of stories about just such an event occurring, its actual demise seemed, like the death of even the sickest patient, sudden.
Far closer to the end of their lives than the beginning, these men and their peers in five boroughs suddenly find themselves orphans. There are gaping holes in their daily routines that used to include visiting an OTB parlor like this one: greenish, spare, with 21 metal seats and almost as many televisions that showed horse races from as close as Aqueduct and as far away as you liked. Spacious, compared to others, and more or less safe. Even vital.
“We’ve got people here who can’t live without it,” said Tommy Hellstrom, 75, who lives in an assisted-living home down the boulevard and counts himself among that group. “Better than sitting at home with those senile people.”
He, like others on Monday, had no business to conduct in the parlor — the corporation stopped taking bets a week ago, and kept open this branch and two others merely to pay outstanding winning tickets and cash out account holders. The cash flow was strictly one-way.
The televisions were dark. Most of them, anyway. As if to add insult to the day, one monitor was showing “All My Children.”
The 20-something group dissipated, and other regulars trickled in.
“I can’t look at horses anymore — there’s no fun,” said Michael Partridge, 69. He regularly added money to his account, but never withdrew. “I got the pleasure of it,” he said. “To handicap horses every night.”
Henry, another regular, turns 82 on Wednesday and declined to give his last name. “The service was excellent,” he said of the parlor.
What was he going to do now?
“Shoot myself.”
“I just lost my wife,” he said, his wet eyes getting a little more so. “It seems like yesterday, but it was four years ago. Don’t believe time’s the big healer.” OTB has helped him, he said: “Just getting out of the house.”
In lieu of anything resembling action, there were rumors. A woman who used to paint signs for a living said, “I heard it’s going to reopen in February.” Nobody paid much attention, and this would be news to the State Legislature. Someone said, “I hope something works out.” Villains abounded: Inept management. Thieves. “Corruption.” “Bums.”
When you hear someone say “Good luck” at a betting window, it tends to come from the inside out, but on Monday, it was the now former bettors wishing their best for the clerks. One clerk, a 30-year veteran, had no idea how he was going to spend his first day out of work. Another, Clark Sygurdsson, 63, with 39 years on the job — men with seniority were picked for Monday’s work — shrugged.
“I’m heading to the golf course,” Mr. Sygurdsson said. He counts himself among the lucky ones, with enough time on to draw a decent pension. His wife wants him to cook more. “There you go,” he said. “I’ll be busy.”
George O’Neill, the owner of the betting parlor and bar O'Neill's in Maspeth, Queens, stopped by to close his account. He recalled the sudden word of the parlor closings last week. “One guy, two babies,” Mr. O’Neill said. “He was crying. I’ll never get over that one.”
Joe Fazz, 53, a court officer who works across the street, cleaned out a mound of betting tickets in his Forest Hills home — “shorties,” he called them, or small winners — and brought them to the parlor on Monday. He chatted while the clerk tallied dozens of tickets.
“It’s all old money,” Mr. Fazz said. “You should never play with money you need.” A sign overhead, now moot, read, “Bet With Your Head, Not Over It.”
The shorties came to $326 and change. Mr. Fazz peeled off a $10 bill and handed it back through the glass as a tip.
“You’re a gentleman,” the clerk said.
“Good luck,” Mr. Fazz replied.


Unknown said...

I've written about horse racing for many years and have seen some sorry scenes at city OTBs: the GW Bridge Bus Terminal, the Winner's Circle in midtown, the one in Downtown Brooklyn on Livingston. They were never my place, though at times I wanted to pop in and watch a race. I'm sad that convenience will be gone. I'm also sad for those the Times story describes, and it's something I saw at the OTB on Livingston St. Most of the people there don't bet; it's a place for them to hang out and see familiar faces. It's like a low-rung social club. I'm not sure who can fault them for that. And I'm not sure where they'll go next.

enodo said...

I never understood how the city/state could lose money running betting parlors anyway. Why would anyone want to subsidize OTB?

upstate Johnny G said...

Last week there was a story in the papers about the upcoming closing which noted that even in the throes of bankruptcy the NYC OTB had hired a new director at the salary of $120,000 per MONTH. Kind of says it all, really.

JakeGould said...

You know why they went out of business? The huge pensions, salaries and benefits for the staff.

That guy in the article who slipped a $10 bill back as a tip? I understand the gesture, but that window person will probably have a pension that will keep them in decent shape for decades. Look at Mr. Sygurdsson in the article. He’s not the exception. He is the rule.

NYC and NY State jobs are the most bloated positions on Earth.

Don’t mourn the management of OTB. They won.