Breaking the Bank of Southland

This essay represents the eleventh post of The Angry Czeck Century Series, a thought-provoking collection of penetrating harangues of rancor leading to the Angry Czeck’s 100th Post. You are currently reading Post 98.

Back when my brother was rich, he financed a vacation to Colorado through withdrawals made at the Bank of Southland.

In those salad days, Southland Greyhound Park was not the glimmering casino-slash-dog track it is today. Rather, it was a kind of dingy repository of disheveled humanity with an interest in placing wrinkly two-dollar quinillas on bulk-rate greyhounds. To avoid the first wave of panhandlers, you had to pay a dollar for admittance to the upper deck. Avoiding the second panhandler wave required another $3 for a “booth seat.”

My brother (we’ll call him “Gene”) was in very good standing with the Booth Lady, who assigned valuable booth-position from her own both (a symbol of her mighty status). She was about 400 years old and always gave Gene a nice booth, because he always left her a nice tip. The Beer Ladies liked Gene too, because they also got a tip. Getting a tip at Southland wasn’t easy.

Unless you used the men’s room. Then there was a good chance some guy was going to give you a tip. “Bet on three tonight, the kennel cuts the dog food with meth…hey, you got two dollars?”

Old Southland was sometimes called
“The Bellagio of West Memphis.”

Guys like Gene and I were about as rare as a tip for the Booth Lady at Old Southland. We were young, for starters. That’s not to say young people didn’t attend the races at Old Southland – they did! Maybe it was the flickering fluorescent lighting, but young people looked old at Old Southland. So old, a teenager could buy a beer from the Beer Ladies without leaving a tip.

The biggest gamble at Old Southland was the food. You couldn’t taste the popcorn from the box in came it. The pizza was triangle shapes punched out of old tires. A hot dog might have failed to place the night before.

The best part about the concessions was that many items costs about two bucks, establishing an interesting dilemma for 80% of Old Southland’s clientele: Do you eat? Or do you make another bet? The Beer Ladies tried to alleviate the pain of this Sophie’s Choice by reducing the price of a cup of suds to $1.85. No dice.

If you got bored with betting the dogs, you could play an interesting game I call Not-cho Nachos. The rules are pretty easy. First, you go to the concession and buy some tasty nachos. Then you attempt to make it back to your booth before somebody asks you for some of your nachos. If you win, well, you get to eat all your nachos. I didn’t say it was a great game.

You just bought trouble, pal. Tasty, tasty trouble.

An unimaginative man could probably herd Old Southland’s clientele into one marketing skew: The Suzuki Samurai Crowd. But that’s lazy. You have to segment. For example, how can you market to Old Black Man Wearing Blue Pants the same way you market to Old Black Man Wearing Red Pants? You can’t. They’re not the same guy.

OBM Blue Pants and OBM Red Pants did share similar qualities and traits. You’d never find one in a booth, for example. No, these two patrons liked to mingle; absorb the raw energy of the crowd. They carried their programs in one clinched fist, but you rarely found them studying the statistics. Rather, their ears were perked for scraps of information. They eyed the odds board without trying to look like they were eyeing the odds board. Sometimes they passed the time by chatting up the Beer Ladies.

There were about a hundred sub-skews who thrived at Old Southland. There was Mr. Hey Hey! What Time Is It? There were the Struggling Mustache Guys. You could locate the Man-Desperate Hag drinking whiskey and coke at the bar. There were The Men Who Wore Questionable Pants and the One Thousands Bets A Minute Before Race Time Bastard. A popular skew was The Drunk Women Who Scream “Go Rusty.” (Rusty was the mechanical robot the dogs had to chase.)

In this forgotten culture dish, my brother Gene was King. He could shrug off a panhandler more effectively than a Struggling Mustache Guy could fail to tip the Beer Ladies. He didn’t just bet the dogs. He had a system – a code even greater than the one brought down by Moses.

No fat dogs in the middle. No skinny dogs on the outside. Never eat the popcorn. Never bet on a Maiden Race. Don’t make eye-contact with Mr. Hey Hey! What Time Is It? Never carry your swag (i.e. “winnings”) in your wallet.*

* A keen strategy was to carry five or six empty wallets on your person to thoroughly confuse and frustrate the cutthroats who skulked around the shadowy parking lot. Remember, you’re still a loser if you don’t bring your winnings home.

Gene’s rules were simple but effective. Gene always came away from the Bank of Southland richer than when he came in. When Angry Dad and I would join him on occasion, we generally came away winners too, thanks to Gene’s excellent system. He even wrote an entertaining brochure detailing his keys to success.

Fat and old dog, seen here on the far left.

I remember one glorious night. Angry Dad was in town, and the three of us decided to spend a couple hours at Old Southland. It was best going to Old Southland in threes, because it intimidated the panhandlers and made the bandits think twice about jumping you in the parking lot.

Gene tipped the Booth Lady while I collected a couple beverages from the Beer Ladies. It was always interesting to watch Gene peruse the program. He studied it like it was the map to the Ark. Soon, the margins were filled with scribbled notes only an Old Black Man Wearing Red Pants could decipher. And he was good about sharing his advice. Exercising great sagacity, Angry Dad and I yielded to Gene’s valuable experience.

Because I’m a cheap bastard, I stuck with two-dollar quinellas (choosing the two dogs that will come in first and second, in whatever order). The more sophisticated Gene liked to “box” his selections, choosing three dogs to finish first and second, or he’d wager five or ten rocks on a quinella. Angry Dad, a fiscal conservative, stuck with two and five dollar bets.

For whatever reasons, the Gambling Gods were winking at the Czecks that night, my friends. The dollars rained down on us like the Grovel For Cash Air Booth the executives of Old Southland occasionally set up in the lobby. One of us seemed to win every race! If I recall correctly, Gene netted more than two C-Notes, Angry Dad cashed in over $100, and I pocketed a cool 80 bones.

The Family Czeck dominated Southland.

With our swag bulging in our hip pockets (not in our wallets), we chortled like master villains on our way out of the Bank of Southland. Gambling was easy! I remember sauntering into the bedroom of our tiny apartment and slapping down a roll of cash on the night table next to a sleepy Mrs. Angry. “I can do that every time,” I announced smugly.

That night marked the last time I really won any cash at the Bank of Southland. I had occasional evenings where I came out ahead, but I was not in Gene’s class. Like I mentioned earlier, Gene won enough dough at Old Southland to do Colorado in style. Gambling on the dogs was a legitimate income supplement for him.

Until it wasn’t.

Something happened. Gene had a theory that ownership of Old Southland had changed hands, and the quality of the dogs had been even further reduced. That made making any kind of educated wager impossible. Gene’s System no longer functioned, not when every dog was as old and slow as the other.

Me, I think that he just lost his focus. Gnene used to study the program the way we’d study Uma Thurman’s nipples in Dangerous Liaisons. But then he grew too cocky. Cavalier. Gene flew too close to the sun, man, and it all came crashing to the earth.

EPILOGUE

The other weekend, while visiting Gene in Memphis, I suggested a visit to Southland. Gene was game of course.

I knew Old Southland was gone. It had been purchased by a conglomerate and transformed into a venue for “Gaming and Racing.” (Gaming is tricky casino speak for gambling.) But I had yet to visit New Southland, and I was curious what had been done to the ancient and tired doghouse.

The first thing you notice is that the “gaming” area feels like a casino. It’s dark. It’s a little cheesy. Guards are sprinkled liberally on the floor to ensure everyone is wearing shoes and pants. Women with fat elbows are feeding coins into slot machines. True, Southland the Casino has an air of amateur hour to it, with it’s two-man jazz ensemble in the lobby and karaoke on Thursdays, but you can see the promise almost.

Gaming.

Gene and I arrived hungry, but when we saw that entry to the fancy buffet bar costs eighteen rocks, the classic dilemma was once again in play: pony-up for food, or marshal our dollars for bets? The Marshal won. We moved on to the concession counter.

Gene ordered the polish dog while I took a chance on the “Arkansas” Fish n’ Chips. (Why the quotes around “Arkansas?” Who knows!? That’s how it was written on the menu.) After placing my daring order, I requested a cold beer to round out my dinner.

“Saw-ree. Beer’s out,” said the woman behind the counter. No beer? At a casino? That’s like Jacques Cousteau nervously tapping on his submarine’s instrument panel and announcing, “We’re out of air.”

“Damnitt, Simmons! You just torpedoed our last canister of air!”

So instead of making myself stupider with beer, I made myself smarter with a bottled water, hydrating my powerful mind while devouring my not-so-bad “Arkansas” fish n’ chips. However, not all the water in Lake Erie could prevent me from making my first bad decision of the evening.

“Let’s try out those blackjack tables!”

The blackjack tables at Casino Southland are a riot. On the surface, they appear to be regular blackjack tables, with a stone-faced dealer surrounded by miserable gamblers. But on closer inspection, you can see the strange stamp of the Bizarre Arkansas Gaming Commission in action.

No real cards are dealt. Instead, the dealer presses a big button, and your digital cards appear on screen in front of you. Even the dealer’s phony chagrin after busting you doesn’t quite restore the authenticity the digital screens sap away. Plus, even though you know federal gaming guidelines place very strict programming controls on these machines, you never get over the suspicion that the casino is controlling the cards from some kind of evil volcano lair.

It’s like doubling down in The Matrix.

Regardless, Gene and I assumed a pair of empty stools and we each dropped forty banana peels on the table. (Which, at a $10 limit table, presents the real possibility of an embarrassing and unsatisfying “Four and Out.”) The dealer cheerlessly transmogrified our cash into chips, and the drama was dealt.

I hung in there for nearly fifteen minutes. Gene’s cards were cursed, and he never got on a roll, but I was hitting 21 after being dealt a 13 or a 15 with regularity. A brazen Double Down rescued me from financial annihilation at one point, and I began to believe that the gambling gods had restored my gift for cards.

That’s when the guys in the volcano lair began transmitting fresh programming to the blackjack machine.

Suddenly, I was busting like a pair of high school jeans. Worse still, the “dealer” insisted on scooping up my chips with stoicism not even the mighty Robert Mitchum could muster.

“The mean man keeps taking my chips!” I announced at the table. My wit was returned with uncomfortable silence. Either everyone was terrified of the dealer (understandable), or their throats were too dry from beer deprivation. I never got the opportunity to crack the case, though. The dealer took my last two chips, and a crestfallen Gene and me staggered out of the casino and into Racing Southland.

Here, the world took on a much more familiar shape. No pricy buffet. No synthesizer-led jazz duets. Not even an armed guard checking you for pants. Just hearty Americans that you know arrived in an Oldsmobile Aurora. This was more like it!

But there were alterations. For example, the Booth Lady was still in place – but her booth was gone! Dismantled!

“They took your booth!” I gasped.
“They didn’t think I needed one,” said the Booth Lady sullenly.

Adding insult to insult, all booths were free now, meaning any fool could have a booth! Naturally, the booths were packed, and mostly by familiar characters. The Struggling Mustache Guys were more popular than ever. And even the ultimate booth-snubbers, the Old Black Man Wearing Blue Pants, were boothing. Boothing hard! The Booth Luster was gone.

Fortunately, I wasn’t there to booth. I was there to make New Southland my bitch! I had 20 small burning in my pants (minus $1 for program, 75¢ for a pen, and $5 for two beers), and I was ready to triple my investment. Or at least get the forty pesos the mean man at the blackjack table took.

“Mush! Mush! Mush for me, bitches!”

After the first race (we were both losers) I noticed that Gene was paying more attention to the program than he had in previous outings. On this evening, he was circling dog weights, underlining dates-of-birth, noting fastest times, checking experience, and even investigating kennel records (“Hmmm…DogEatDog Kennels wins 40% of their races,” he’d mutter). Almost instinctively, much in the way Moses knew to take off his sandals before the Burning Bush, I tipped my beer to Gene.

For Gene had created a new system. And by the conclusion of the second race, we both knew it was good.

Race Two netted Gene 75 crescent wrenches, while I saw another pair of Washingtons go to Southland’s favorite charity. “Next round of beer is on you!” I told Gene hopefully.

Luckily, Gene was all for financing the beer. In fact, my brother had become a Frankenstein monster resurrected by the electricity of victory. He treated me to a detailed analysis of the race’s outcome, which is the standard price one must pay for free beer. You could tell he was jazzed. Gene was doing everything short of high-fiving Mr. Hey Hey! What Time Is It?

Gene collected another $60 pot before my cash ran dry. Then, as if to underscore his gaming mastery, he placed a $20 bet at the blackjack table on the way out, and he won. For Gene, it was just business.

Another withdrawal from the Bank of Southland.

###

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