Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wanna bet? Not at OTB

The good news is that yesterday was the shortest day of the year, so tonight it’s staying lighter just a tad bit longer, and this will – I promise – actually start to get noticeable in another couple of weeks.

It is only because it is getting lighter that I’m willing to throw a dark cloud over the holiday week by showing this picture of the union hall meeting where the recently laid off workers from New York City’s Off-Track Betting Corporation (a.k.a., OTB) gathered for info on their benefits.

Talk about Ho, f-in’ Ho.

The article is just about as downbeat as the accompanying picture. (Source: NY Times.)

For those who aren’t familiar with OTB, NY legalized off-track betting in the early 1970’s. They opened a bunch of betting parlors throughout the city, where people could go and bet on the ponies without having to trek to Aqueduct or Belmont.  Or place a wager with their local bookie.

I’ve passed many OTB parlors. Not surprisingly, they were grim, dingy, ill-lit, and – for most of their tenure – smoke-filled.  Not inviting in the least.

But, then, I am not much of a gambler.

I’ve been to the horses a few times, each time allocating how much I was willing to pay for a night’s entertainment. (Typically, a two-buck wager per race.)  I would pick my pony based on its name, or the color of the jockey’s silks, or some other distinctly unlikely attribute.  Mostly I’d lose.

I take a similar approach to casinos.  Quarter slots only, no more than a $10 spend.  When the roll of quarters runs out, so do I.

I did have good luck once in Reno, and won $200 at a quarter slot. I immediately cashed out, much to the surprise of those working the adjacent machines, who couldn’t believe that I’d quit on a lucky machine.  As I pointed out, I’d just parlayed $10 into $200, and that this sort of investment success was not something I was likely to replicate.  Ever. In my whole, wide life.

The lottery I do play.  Not religiously, but with some regularity.

My feeling about the lottery is that, while buying a ticket is a fool’s errand, paying a dollar to get a couple of days worth of ‘what if’ fantasizing about what I’d do with the $38 million Powerball jackpot is well worth the ‘it figures’ I experience when, a couple of months after the drawing has passed, I dig out my lottery ticket and realize that I didn’t even match one number.

Still, those wiled-away minutes when I get to play John Beresford Tipton (the millionaire of the eponymous 1950’s show about a wealthy recluse who sent his emissary around the country to bestow million dollar checks on worthies) are most enjoyable.  And, yes, I would quit my day job and do something else.  Hey, I like my work and all, but it’s not all that scintillating, earth-moving, soul-satisfying, or ennobling.  So, yeah, if I won the Powerball, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ve written my last tech white paper.

Still, I’m not much of a gambler.

But though that’s the case, and though I never set toe in an OTB parlor, I can’t help but feel really bad for the folks who worked there until OTB was closed down earlier this month – the victim of shifting gambling habits (online betting, buses to Atlantic City and Foxwoods), of internal mismanagement, of politics (OTB was some kind of quasi-government entity, maybe just because it forked over so much revenue to the city and state).

A number of the folks interviewed in the Times article had spent their entire careers working at OTB: a 58 year old woman who’d been there 33 years; a 46 year old fellow who’d worked there since he was 18.

“I love what I’m doing,” Mr. [Dennis] Ferington said, a black cap on his head sporting the OTB logo. “And I know I’m the best at what I do.”

What does a couple of decades of taking bets on horse races look like on a resume? Where does Dennis Ferington go to replace the level of pride he felt about being “the best” at his job? Walmart greeter?

For all the problems OTB has had over the years, I’m guessing that the average employee probably felt somewhat buffered from the economic vagaries that have decimated the job lot for so many lesser-skilled, lesser-educated workers. Bookie may not be the oldest profession, but people have been gambling on anything you can gamble on since Ugg and Mog placed a bet on who was going to win the pterodactyl race.

I’m pretty sure that OTB parlors served a social function for the down-and-outers who hung out there, too.

It may not have been much of a life, but, hey, it’s a life.

Maybe because it’s the holidays.  Maybe because it’s cold. Maybe because it’s dark. (Although a bit lighter than yesterday.) Maybe because there aren’t a boatload of jobs out there for the kind of folks who were taking bets at OTB, I find this story especially depressing.

One laid off employee – Angela Page, an 11 year veteran who had “thought [she] was going to make a life out of this,” was talking about what she could do moving forward.

“I’m good at everything,” she said, rattling off her qualifications. “I can serve food. I can run a register. I can stack boxes. I can baby-sit kids.”

Because it’s the holidays. And because it’s cold. And because it’s darks. And because I tend to like New Yorkers, I wish all the laid-off OTB workers the best of luck.

But people who spent 10, 20, 30 years on a job aren’t going to replicate that experience – the routine, the camaraderie, the pride in being good, being the best at what they do – anytime soon.

Maybe because it’s the holidays. Maybe because it’s cold. Maybe because it’s dark.  This makes me very sad.

But no more gloom for Pink Slip this year.  I’ve had enough.

No comments: