Don't bet anyone that Slow Eddie will get a job

MICHAEL OLESKER

May 14, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Because he regards all honest labor as human catastrophe, Eddie from South Baltimore, the semi-well-known bookmaker, finds himself at Pimlico Race Course on this Preakness Week with his friend Leon and a delusion that he knows what he is doing.

"The number three horse," declares Eddie, pointing with impressive authority to a Racing Form. "Or maybe the number six."

Leon, basking in the clear afternoon sun, seems not to hear him. He is concentrating on a tan. With great skill and cunning, Leon has managed to spend 18 of the last 22 years of his life in prison, where sunshine is a precious commodity, so he is lapping it up.

The last time Leon went away, it involved the slight use of a gun and such colossal stupidity that Leon will never forgive himself. He walked into a drugstore on St. Paul Street and drove off with about $300 and a humidifier machine.

Unfortunately, he drove immediately into a traffic jam, while the manager of the drugstore called the cops. As Leon sat in stalled traffic, rapidly losing his mind, word went out to all police in the area that a holdup had just taken place.

Then, into the backup at St. Paul and Fayette strolled a uniformed city policeman Leon knew from the last time he'd been arrested.

The officer, spotting Leon, smiled broadly and approached his car as it sat before a red light. Leon, seeing this gesture of letting bygones be bygones, smiled back at his old nemesis.

"How are you?" said the officer.

"Terrific," said Leon, though at this point a not-so-terrific thing was about to happen. The officer looked at the front seat of his car and noticed a gun, a stack of money and a humidifier machine.

Delighted at his apparent good fortune, the officer said, "Leon, you didn't hold up that drugstore, did you?"

"Yeah," said Leon, pleased that his old acquaintance seemed so happy for his success.

"Then I got to arrest you," the officer said.

"Arrest me?" said an astonished Leon. "I thought you were asking as a friend."

So now, all these years later, here was Leon sitting with Eddie from South Baltimore the other day, and the sun was shining the way it never did behind prison walls.

"The number three," Eddie was saying again, finger on his Racing Form.

"Listen to him," said Leon, head back, eyes closed as he faced the heavens. "He thinks he knows what he's doing."

"Although this six horse . . . ," said Eddie.

For the better part of three decades now, Eddie from South Baltimore has played touch-and-go with financial solvency. For a while, he made a comfortable living booking illegal numbers. But then the state of Maryland, which always declared gambling a pox upon humanity, suddenly changed its mind and created its own lottery business.

As this drove the small independents such as Eddie nearly out of the numbers profession, it forced him to rely more and more on racing wagers -- except that now the state wishes to bring in off-track betting, thereby threatening to cut almost completely into Eddie's livelihood.

"What about getting an actual job?" someone suggests now.

Along the front rail at the track, this is greeted with the kind of sneering reserved for chumps.

"Like restaurant work?" says Eddie.

There is a reason for the reference. As it happens, Eddie and Leon dined this very morning at a place called McDonald's, located at Park Heights Avenue and Hayward.

It is quite lovely, when you think about it, to see all of the workers at places like this. Many are young, and often are full-time students, and they work a pretty frantic pace. For this, they make anywhere from $4.25 an hour all the way up to $5.

This is learned with a simple telephone call. Leon, whimsically considering employment but a little too embarrassed to walk up to the manager of this McDonald's with strangers standing about, instead walked across Park Heights this very morning, to the phone in front of a combination gas station and food mart, and placed a call to the manager.

"For $4.25 starting pay," he says now, "I'm gonna get a job? At the age of 52?"

If he did, it would place him in a position no one in America had imagined. On the front page of this newspaper the other day a story related the numbers on those who work at honest jobs and yet flirt with poverty.

The U.S. Census Bureau says that 18 percent of all those working full-time earn less than $12,195, which is the poverty line for a family of four. The figures cut across all lines of color and age, but of course hit the low-skilled laborers the hardest.

"And I'm not exactly what you call skilled labor," says Leon.

Everyone in Washington says the new figures are stunning. In the wake of Los Angeles and Rodney King, the poor of America are suddenly being rediscovered. Some work for a living, but not so that their lifestyles show it. Others give up on the thought of fruitful employment.

Eddie from South Baltimore and his friend Leon are in a period of transition. In a week in which this city celebrates a horse race and welcomes the president of the United States to talk about his deep concern for cities as an election dawns, they are taking a slight breather from life's pressures.

Leon is taking in a little sun. And Eddie, after much consideration and deep study, is putting his money on the number three horse.

Or maybe the number six.

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