Pay Day

Pimlico residents are betting on Preakness fans' need for parking, food, drinks, even bathrooms. It's a sure thing.

May 18, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

It's a retiring, winding-down kind of life on Hayward Avenue in the neighborhood that squares Pimlico Race Course. Does anything exciting ever happen here? It's such a still life - until today when more than 100,000 dolled-up, hyped-up people will congregate for the 127th Preakness Stakes.

Gentle young men, start your shopping carts.

As local custom encourages, shopping carts will have mysteriously vanished from area grocery stores and be converted today to rickshaws for transporting visiting beer coolers and other track essentials. For perhaps another $5, the same teen-ager pushing the same cart will ferry the wobbly Preakness guest back to his car. It's not pretty, but it's pretty ingenious.

"The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. We will never ever really know how much money is made on the Preakness," says Diane Frederick, executive director of the Northwest Baltimore Corporation, a nonprofit group that directs services in the neighborhood. For today - Christmas at Pimlico - there's no "buyer beware" nonsense. Forget about permits and licenses. Parking Are Us. Everybody is out to make a buck.

"It works, and it works for everybody," Frederick says.

Indeed, the Pimlico neighborhood will again revel in the deflected attention, glory and commerce from the famous horse race few people in the neighborhood ever witness themselves. They see plenty of the Preakness spectacle from their stoops and front lawns on Winner and Hayward avenues. And for one day of the year, they are on the map, a tourist destination! Who cares about post positions, extra security and slot machines?

"I'm going to cook me up some good ol' food and sit on my porch and watch the pretty people," said 68-year-old Alice Bellamy on Hayward Avenue. "I'm going to watch the going and coming, going and coming. This is the best view - sitting here on my porch," Bellamy told us from her porch.

Any talking people in the neighborhood did this week they did from their porches facing Pimlico, as crews weed-whacked the perimeter grass (by the spanking new fence) and as the horse trailers tiptoed in (so easy with the turns). Bellamy has lived here for 27 years and has never attended a race. Of course, there are people in Orlando who have never been to Disney World - but Disney has ample parking.

There's a Preakness tradition where people pay in advance for the same parking space every year. Thomas Richardson, who owns a half-acre lot on Northern Parkway, rents space every year to a group of doctors traveling by Winnebago. That's $100 for the RV, $40 for cars, and by the end of the day, the 29-year-old Richardson might be $2,000 richer. The action is on the outside, he says. "That's what I figure."

Bellamy plans to rent out her yard for $50 for parking or whatever. The stoop, however, is not for rent.

"I see how the pretty people look. It gives you a lift up."

Last year - when Bellamy was feeling a bit better - she dressed up in a white outfit for the Preakness. "I thought I looked pretty nice." This year, she doesn't feel as well, a little slower to rise from her chair on the porch, a little slower to rise from her bed. But maybe she'll wear something red and green - "something colorful" - for today's race. She'll sit on her porch the entire day, if she can. She'll keep to herself, as she usually does on Preakness Day. And watching the pretty people will give her a lift up.

Her neighbor, Bernice Brooks, has been more ambitious. She made $800 last year selling everything from chicken, ribs, crab cakes and hamburgers to hot dogs, potato salad, cake and sodas and a bunch of stuff we left out. A good day's take during the Preakness covers some people's property tax in this neighborhood, as Frederick says. Whole hogs have been barbecued and sold in the neighborhood.

Brooks, who works in nutritional services at Sheppard Pratt, planned to buy 20 pounds of ribs, 60 pounds of chicken and 50 crab cakes for today's feastimus. She likes to wait to buy the crab cakes - "I don't like to freeze them" - and also likes to wait before adding mayonnaise to her potato salad. Nutritionists never pre-mayonnaise.

According to sources close to the neighborhood, Hayward Avenue is the place to be when you are technically not at the place to be. On this very public street during the Preakness, free-form movements known in some cultures as "dancing" have occurred. Preakness guests have also dropped by - or on - lawns to physically regroup. At some point in the day, the race fan might want nothing more than a quiet, still place to sit. They ask so little.

Or they might stop to ask the porch crowd if they may use their facilities. A few years ago, Winner Avenue resident Betty Ropka was minding her own Preakness-parking business when a limo pulled up. I'll give you $20 to use your bathroom, the limo rider pleaded. "That's the gospel's truth," said Ropka, a hot walker at the track. She took the easy money. "I said: `Instant bingo money!' " Winner Avenue, turns out, is thick with bingo players.

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