It was one of the hot-spots on the avenue. The place where the men hung out every day. It was their church, their sanctuary, their cave, a place where the regular lives went away for a little while. My father and two of my uncles were regulars.
The inside of O.T.B. was a cancer pit. Men were only obscured behind screens of thick cigarette and cigar smoke. The men, and some women, would be huddled together, rubbing shoulders, rolled-up racing forms clutched in hands, stubby pencils tucked behind ears, shuttling back and forth between the betting window and the racing monitors posted near the ceiling, which they would shout and cheer and jeer at during the races.
Some men spent the entire day inside O.T.B., not once stepping foot outside. Others took occasional breaks to loiter on the sidewalk, or grab a coffee or bite to eat at Harry’s Doughnut shop across the street.
My father blew a lot of money at O.T.B. and on gambling in general. His gambling often left us, his family, in hot water. He’s burn his entire paycheck on the horses, and would then scramble to come up with money to pay rent, bills, etc.
He would also steal the rent money, or bill money, which my mother tried to keep hidden, but he had an uncanny knack for being able to discover where it was she had hidden money. One time she hid the rent money in an envelope inside the oven, forgot that was where she had hidden it, and accidentally burned it all up.
My father sometimes stole from me, or rather borrowed, as he called it. If my grandfather had given me money, or if I had received my allowance, I, like my mother, would hide it, but he’d always find it. I think he sometimes reimbursed me, though I can’t clearly remember.
As is the custom with gambling, he mostly lost, occasionally won, and once in a blue moon he won big. The times he won big, he’d come home with gifts for me, my sister, and mother, or would take us out to eat. Sometimes both. These instances, few and far between, did not gain favor with my mother, who had been embittered by the thefts, lying, and desperation that mostly spelled out my father’s gambling career.
I saw how my father’s gambling caused chaos in my family, yet a part of me perversely enjoyed that he was a gambler among the many gamblers that populated O.T.B., they were like a secret fraternity or order which could only be truly understood and appreciated by those who were part of the order. These men, mostly blue-collar workers, found companionship and escape through a common cause, even if that cause was diseased thinking.
When the O.T.B. in Bensonhurst closed in 2012, I felt that the neighborhood had lost a vice-den place of worship, and left holes on top of the holes that these men had been trying to fill.