Eddie the Book says gambling is a very good thing

September 25, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Hanover Street with football pools in his meaty paws, here is the semi-well known bookmaker Eddie from South Baltimore. Once considered a social pariah, he is suddenly the future. Once considered a criminal, he is now seen as the salvation of this city and state.

"Gambling, huh?" he says, wearing his new civic stature lightly and quoting the odds on a few college games to an old guy with veins across his nose that look as if they may erupt at any moment.

Yup, gambling. This governor, William Donald Schaefer, and this mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke, wish to appoint a smarty-pants commission to investigate bringing casino gambling here as a way of balancing the government's books. They have glimpsed the future, and it carries dice in its hands.

"Well, why not?" says Eddie, who's only been in the gambling business for the past 40 years, or since those golden days when he was hopping on cross-town buses to take three-digit numbers bets before jumping right off and waiting for the next bus filled with prospective players. For a long time, the ones like Eddie could make a healthy living on the street number. The government naturally sent the various vice squads after them, and grand juries came and went, along with much talk about the immorality of all gambling, but basically it was a pretty good life for professional gamblers until the state got into the lottery business itself and pretty much monopolized things.

So now, having long since divested itself of any corner on the morality market, and taking note of its financial success with the Maryland lottery, the state is thinking about the next big step of roulette wheels and craps tables and such.

On Hanover Street, Eddie from South Baltimore slips a couple of football pools into the hands of a fellow in a New York Yankees baseball cap and declares his official approval of all such efforts.

"Might as well," he says. "Right now, you got all the gambling money going to Atlantic City and Vegas. Why don't we keep it right here? Everybody I know, they make a score with the number, and they take it right to Atlantic City and lose it there.

"I see 'em when they come back. I ask 'em, 'How'd you do in Atlantic City?' They say, 'Busted.' Every one of 'em. Listen, they ain't building all them casinos because they're losing money up there."

Thus, the inclination to build casinos around here. With the state strapped for money, and with casinos now doing an estimated $250 billion a year around the country, and with Washington and several nearby states considering such ventures, many think it's a natural here. Some of these persons, however, haven't been to the places like Atlantic City.

The once-fashionable resort, down on its luck, brought in the big casinos nearly 20 years ago with great fanfare and promises that gambling profits would rejuvenate the town. It hasn't exactly happened. The casinos draw big crowds, and there's some life remaining on the boardwalk, but Atlantic City's streets still look bleak and undernourished, the deterioration of buildings is general, and there are long, angry stretches where no tourist wants to venture.

If casino gambling's been the salvation of Atlantic City, it isn't immediately apparent. If it's Maryland's big shot, not everybody's convinced that it would work any better here than it has in New Jersey.

Among other problems, some think it encourages gambling among those least able to afford it. With the poor, it's not so much sport as an exercise in desperation, blowing the rent money in hopes of a major score. "Baltimore's a gambling town," an ex-city cop loves to say. "People will stand in the lobby of an office building and bet which elevator will come down first."

In other words, gambling's always going to be with us. But, is it any way for a government to run a community?

"See, that's the reasoning we used to hear," says Eddie from South Baltimore. "The police would say gamblers were a bad influence. Who's a bad influence? Did you ever see a bookmaker forcing anybody to place a bet? Never in your life. We're a service is all. People are gonna bet no matter what, and all we do is take care of it."

More and more, the government sees things the same way. The bookmakers were way ahead of government officials. Now, with the state facing tough economic times, it begins to explore the previously inconceivable. We used to say manufacturing was the backbone of an economy. Now it's a roll of the dice.

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