Put your money on sure thing: tough times rounding the track


October 07, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER




Against the grumble of trucks along South Hanover Street, the voice does not penetrate.


Forget it. Eddie from South Baltimore, the semi-well-known bookmaker, has business on his mind and does not look up. At the moment, he's in high-level conference with a distinguished fellow named Butch who wishes to bet a dollar on a three-digit number.


Eddie stirs and glances around from his business office located on the front steps of this row house. The voice has begun to penetrate. From high above South Hanover Street, he sees now, a woman is crying his name. She has hair in rows of curlers and a light blue, sleeveless housedress wrapped about her.

"Eddie!" she cries again. Her voice is like somebody starting up a lawn mower.

"Oh, jeez," Eddie mutters, waving a hand. "Juliet."

"Juliet?" says Butch.

"Yeah, Juliet," says Eddie. "I gotta stand under her window and play Romeo to her Juliet."

"She's your girl?" inquires Butch, eyebrows arching.

"Nah," says Eddie. "Every morning, I stand under her window and she drops a piece of paper down with the number on it."

For Eddie, in good times and bad, Shakespearean passion has always revolved around the three great romances of his life: taking horse racing bets, taking lottery bets and taking football bets.

On all three, these are heady times.

"It's almost a direct reaction to the economy," he says. "Times are good, betting's OK. Times are bad, betting gets very heavy."

"And now?" somebody asks.

"It's beginning," says Eddie, "to get very heavy."

The absence of money does things to people's heads. TC generalized anxiety takes over, a need to hit it big at least once and get yourself a little breathing room against the economic chill to come.

In Woodlawn, they're talking about cutbacks for Social Security employees. At the gasoline pumps, the cost of filling your car takes your breath away. In Washington, the president talks of Medicare cuts and tax hikes, and the congress balks, but nobody comes up with a plan we can live with.

And the recession is arriving, like something thrown through a window, and it ticks.

"Desperation," Eddie from South Baltimore says now. "People's level of desperation goes up, their betting habits go up. I saw it during the Jimmy Carter troubles, and I saw it during the Reagan recession, and it's happening all over again. People get scared, they look for a quick fix."

On Hanover Street now, a car horn is honking. Half a block away, streaking across the street as though heralding the start of a new olympics, comes a guy in sneakers and T-shirt who has spotted Eddie.

In his eagerness, though, he has neglected to think of the cars and buses and trucks separating them. And now, halfway across the block, he suddenly finds himself facing oncoming traffic like a football lineman.

"Bleepin' bleephead," cries a guy in a truck.

"Jerk," cries another.

From a shirt pocket now, Eddie removes a football card. If the guy in traffic makes it alive across Hanover Street, he will be wishing to wager on this weekend's games. The football card says: "Printed for informative purposes only and not an inducement to wager."

All over town, people fail to see these words as they place money on various teams. Win five games without a loss, win $15 for every dollar you bet.

Win 10 games without a loss, win $300. Win 15, win $1,000.

"Tampa Bay," says the fellow who's survived the traffic flow. He takes a ballpoint pen and circles that team.

"Terrible bet," says Eddie, shaking his head.

"Kansas City," says the fellow, ignoring Eddie and circling his second pick.

"Terrible," Eddie says again, leaning back against marble steps.

A few doors down the street, an ambulance has been parked for several minutes. Now stretcher bearers emerge, carrying an old woman down the front steps.

She has a porcelain doll's face, but time and circumstance have conspired to sink her cheeks and thin out her hair. A few neighbors straggle past.

The old woman's eyes stare skyward, as if to distance herself from this thing happening to her on Hanover Street, while another woman, a daughter perhaps, stands in the doorway hugging a terry cloth robe to herself.

"Terrible, ain't it," says the fellow making football picks, as the ambulance drives off.

"Terrible," says Eddie. "How can you pick Detroit over Minnesota?"

In Eddie's business, some things are more terrible than others. The country braces itself, and Eddie is open for business. His Juliet still awaits him at her second-story window. The horses are running at Laurel. And on Hanover Street, people want to play the football pools.

"Could you advance me money till next week?" the guy who dodged traffic asks now, his football picks complete.

"I wouldn't advance you money for a Hershey Bar," says Eddie.

But then he takes the fellow's card. Five bucks till next week, he agrees. The economy's a little rough, and everybody will have to make adjustments for a while.

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