Finalist, 2015 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction
I never knew what to say when people asked me what my father did for a living. Sometimes I joked, “He’s involved with high-risk investments.”
“More like ponies and dice.”
The last time I wrote about the horse racing world, I was in the third grade. Sister St. Edmund pointed us to the stacks of encyclopedias and told us to write an essay about a topic of our choice. And they’re off! were the first three words of mine. The same ones the racetrack announcer says after the bell sounds, the starting gates fly open, and the earth rumbles with the sound of hooves.
My father made money cashing winning tickets at the racetrack. Not his winning tickets—everyone else’s. People lined up for the service. There was never a shortage of people willing to pay my father 10 percent of their jackpot rather than double that amount in taxes. Eventually, the security officers at the track would intervene. They knew Dad by name and addressed him with the gentle force police use to shoo panhandlers from a restaurant.
But Uncle Sam didn’t like sharing his cut. One day when I was about twelve, I lifted a ceiling tile in the basement to hang party streamers and found a three-inch stack of opened mail hidden there. Letters addressed to my father from the IRS, dating many years back. I skimmed through pages of boldface words that demanded action and threatened fines and imprisonment.
I remember, back at the school library, the sense of pride that washed over me when I opened the encyclopedia and learned horse racing was the sport of kings and queens. What a happy revelation. I had no idea it was considered a sport or that those Sundays my brother and I spent with my dad at the Detroit Race Course after my parents had divorced were part of a noble tradition.
The people at the track didn’t look like royalty, but we met some interesting characters. My dad’s friend Lawrence was one. My father didn’t like when Lawrence sometimes claimed he was Jesus Christ and my dad was John the Baptist. I’m not sure what annoyed my father more—Lawrence’s delusions, or the fact that he was assigned lesser status.
Actually, rank and title meant little to my father. Early on, I too decided status was bullshit. Unlike Lawrence, I imagined my father as the Christ-like one—nonjudgmental and unfettered by convention or material wants. True gamblers are not in it for the money. They are dreamers, fixed on the prize of possibility, and hooked on the chase.
My father helped me open my first bank account when I was ten and had two paper routes. Both of our names were on it. I made the deposits. He made the withdrawals. Years later, when he asked for money, it went something like this:
The phone rings
“Cindy. Cinderella. My, you’re looking beautiful today.”
“What are you up to? Have any plans for the weekend?”
“Tina and I and a bunch of people from school are going roller skating this Saturday.”
“Sounds like fun. Hey, did you hear the one about the horse that went to the bar? The bartender walks over to him and says, “Why the long face?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have twenty dollars I could borrow?”
“I’ll pay you back. You know how much I hate to ask.”
The compliment and joke before he dropped the question was an effective method. I didn’t want to spoil the mood.
My parents divorced when I was five and my brother, Al, was nine. During those weekend visits with Dad, we stepped into a bizarre alternate universe and became beggars and outlaws, if only by association. My father sometimes asked my brother and me to pick the winner, and we would study the racing form, searching for clues. Once, I saw a horse named Time for Brandy. My dog’s name was Brandy, and a dog trainer had been working with her to help improve her manners. It was Brandy’s time to shine, a sure sign she was the winner. I jumped from my seat to share the tip with my dad. The race was about to start, and my father was nowhere to be found. I pushed my way through the crowd lined up at the ticket window. My heart sank when I heard the ring of the starting bell. But after the race, I learned he’d had the same hunch. He bet it all on that long shot and won.
Too bad he was unable to quit while he was ahead.
The same was true for his friends. People greeted one another with empty pockets searching for cash in a beg-borrow culture where cigarettes and prayers were used to barter. It went something like this:
“Tony, I’d like you to meet my children—Cindy and Al.”
“Hi kids. I think we’ve already met.” Then Tony would turn to my father. “You wouldn’t happen to have some extra smokes?”
“Sure,” my father would say as he tapped the bottom of a pack of Pall Mall Red. “Any chance you have a few bucks to spare? I’ll pay you back next week.”
Then Tony would dig into his pocket and make a small donation.
“Thanks, Tony. You’re a good man. I heard your sister is still in the hospital. I’ll say a prayer for her.”
When the money dried up and all the preyed-upon lenders had fled, my father, brother, and I would embark on a hunting expedition. We crept curbside in pursuit of cash people might have dropped getting in and out of cars. We used our fingers to sweep change dispensers of vending machines. Felt around for left-behind nickels and dimes. We pressed change buttons and coaxed them to spit up coins.
I didn’t understand my father’s money dilemma and would often counsel him. “But you would have enough if you didn’t spend it all at the track.” My brother and I were never kids in his eyes, which had its benefits. I enjoyed cocktails at weddings years before I was old enough to drive. I watched R-rated movies in grade school, like The Warriors, which led to a discussion about reasons kids join gangs. Sooner than I reached my teens, my dad asked for my advice on all kinds of things. I went through life believing my opinions were as valid as those of people twice my age. Don’t smoke was one of the few pieces of advice my father gave my brother and me. Qualified by, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Neither of us have ever smoked cigarettes. They snuffed out my father’s life at sixty-three.
The weekend peril and excitement felt sort of make-believe for my brother and me. When the visit with my father ended, we returned home to my mother, a Detroit cop, and stepfather, who worked long hours for modest wages as a manager at a bakery. We opened the door to a neat, clean home where bills were paid on time. To a refrigerator and cupboards bulging with food. To rules, and discipline, and family dinners. Those visits with Dad often felt like sitting in a dark theater immersed in a war scene, then walking out into the sunshine thinking, Whew, it was only a movie. We’re safe after all. At least until the next visit or phone call.
But I became skillful at countering my father’s borrowing scheme. It sounded something like this:
“Oh, hi Dad.”
“Thanks, but I’m actually feeling pretty damn ugly today.”
“No, I don’t have any plans this weekend. I got into a fight with Tina. I’ve had a terrible week.” Sigh.
Then he would tell me things would get better. Forgo his wants and transform into a father.
My mother used to say, “Don’t give him any money. He’s sick.” It helped to hear those words. I never took his addiction personally. I learned to recognize all of its features and its ability to coexist with my father’s love for me.
Thanks to my dad and his colorful acquaintances, it is easy for me to interact with all kinds of people—the poor, lawbreakers, and the mentally ill. I see the hope for potential and the good in everyone. Why wouldn’t I? They are the people I have known and loved all my life. And it was the way I had watched my father regard all people.
My father never paid those taxes or went to prison. He had many friends. One of them worked for the IRS. Maybe his friend fixed things, or maybe the government decided he had no money and gave up the chase. My dad got away with that lifestyle, but it also got him. Losing his family to gambling tortured him and, he swore he would change. He talked about quitting. He talked about quitting. He talked about quitting, but he never did.
Do you know what Sister St. Edmund said after reading my horse racing essay? She called me into the hallway to explain the meaning of plagiarism. Could you blame her? I knew too much about that world. She accused me of being a cheat, but I forgive her. Tolerance and understanding are part of my makeup, childhood lessons that stretch far beyond those eight furlongs.