OK, so a new restaurant opens in my neighborhood: I have to check it out, right? I mean how many times can you go to the Berghoff and Italian Village? Anyway, this new place is kind of like Italian Village–three eateries in one–and it would be nice when my girlfriends come down for lunch if we could try something new.

I’ve got about an hour and a half before the school bus brings my daughter home, so I saunter over to check out the ambience.

OK, so it’s not exactly a restaurant. But they serve food and drinks and it’s new and it definitely deserves a look. So I walk in and read the little sign on a stand by the stairs: “DRESS CODE…No jeans, no jogging clothes, shoes required.” Classy place.

OK, so it’s a betting parlor. But it’s really nice. It’s called the Winner’s Circle, and the entrance is just a few doors north of the Chicago Theatre. On the first level, which is called the Second Floor, it’s all done up in little black and white and green tiles, pale oak tables with matching chairs and walls. It’s crowded and smoky. There are Loop office women and guys who look like cabbies. TV screens are scattered over the walls facing in every direction.

On the second level (the Mezzanine) it’s a little cozier; half the cold tile is replaced by plush dark-green carpeting. Here the women are a little more smartly dressed, and the guys are mostly fat with pinkie rings. And there are some handsome young working stiffs. Still TV monitors in every direction.

I climb up another floor to the Derby Club. Just like at the track, the highest level serves the most expensive food and booze. Lots of suited lawyers and traders and yuppie guys. All forest-green carpeting, plush and quiet. A young, pretty hostess greets and seats. A scruffy street guy wants to see if his two lady friends are here. A cop won’t let him in, but checks for them himself. They aren’t here.

Race three is three minutes away. So I figure I’ll try one bet on the Mezzanine level–just to see what it feels like to bet the horses a block from home. I join a long line that moves fast. I have no program, no racing form. I just plunk down $2 to show on horse number three. I have a hunch, since it’s three minutes till post and this is the third race… A long shot–just to see what happens. Then I’ll go.

The announcer from Hawthorne says a couple of the horses use Lasix–but not mine. They’re at the gate. They’re at the post. The trumpet plays–da-da-da-DA-da-da-da-DA-da-da-da-da-da-da-da. And they’re off! Live on video. I lose $2. So what?

OK, so I’ll stick around for race four. I mean, what a novelty, to bet only two minutes from home. No surcharge, no bookie, just plain old betting at a window just like I was really at Hawthorne or at brand new, beautiful Disney World-like Arlington Park. What a kick.

So I plunk down $4 on two long shots to show (no Lasix users this time either), and the agent smirks. I guess he figures it’s jerks like me who pay his salary. I bet on horses four and nine, because these numbers right now have meaning in my work life and married life, but it’s very complicated. This time I’m on the Second Floor, just to see what it’s like on the proletariat level. I watch the race standing in front of a video screen (no seats available), and I lose again. So what?

OK, I know I’m flirting with danger here. I have eight great-uncles who never missed a day at the horse track, the dog track, the poker table. They all married women who ran their businesses so they could gamble all day. My grandmother (their sister), 96, and her son (my uncle), 75, have been settled in Las Vegas for decades. They are allowed to pay for no food or entertainment in the town because they are such a joy to the casino managers. When I was a teen, my grandmother would give me $20 to get lost and play roulette so she could do her own thing. She never had time to learn to use a stove.

And I have a great-aunt who worked all her life for an oil company but made her money as a bookie. I have cousins who made fortunes in various businesses and who can’t afford a cab ride to the airport because of gambling. There are big gamblers who even married into the family.

I’m a novice, but I have a few more minutes before school-bus time and decide to make one more little bet on race five. I’ve got the money for the cleaning woman in my purse and I can replace it at the bank on the way home, right? So I decide to bet just a little more vigorously this time. Hell, it’s the last race of the day for me. So I figure I’ll bet two favorites to win, two long shots to show. $8. So if I lose I’ll be out $14 on the day. So what? I have to look for signs in the numbers. I decide that a meaningful bet for me would incorporate the zip code of the New York Times: 10036. So I bet one, ten, three, and six.

This time I place my bet on the Mezzanine and settle into a cushioned chair at a nice oak table. My feet sink into the carpet. A waitress asks me if I want something. I’ve got a nice video monitor overhead and a view of the Lake Street el out the window to the right.

A fat middle-aged guy from a Caribbean island or maybe Africa is next to me. He says in a thick accent, “I’m so stupid. What a stupid bet. Stupid. Stupid.” A fat middle-aged guy from a Slavic country or somewhere else in Europe says in his thick accent, “Mind if I join you at this table?” We don’t.

And they’re off! None of my four horses is in the running, then suddenly the race is over and I’ll be damned–the number-one horse wins, three comes in second, and six comes in fourth. I win $16.80. I’ve made $2.80 in a little over an hour! I love this place. It’ll be great for lunch with the girls.

I rush out onto State Street, up Lake Street and home. A few minutes late for the school bus, but so what?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.