Excerpt from 'The Art of Losing'
I first went to the track right after my third film flopped. Sebby, my producer, took me. I think he believed the film’s failure was his fault and felt obligated to help me get my mind off my troubles and maybe win some cash.
We drove out to Aqueduct on a weirdly hot and bright March afternoon. After we’d found seats in the grandstand, Sebby excused himself for ten minutes to go place his bets, including a fifty-dollar bet he’d conned me into laying on a horse named Wren’s Lament I’d neither heard of nor read about. When his ten-minute errand became a half-hour disappearance, I began to wish I’d passed on the bet and instead used the cash to chip away at my gathering credit card debt. It was enough to be away from the city, enjoying the dazzling green of the infield, the ivy that curled over the arched windows, the sleazy chatter in the grandstand, the smell of horsepiss and loam and money, the peal of the bell when the horses burst from the gate, but as usual I’d smelled money and done the foolish thing.
Only after Sebby returned empty-handed did I realize that he hadn’t made the bets here at the track. He’d been on the phone to his bookie.
‘This is good, Mike,’ he said. ‘Very, very good.’
‘I hope you’re right. I needed that fifty bucks.’
‘It’s going to be worth twenty-five hundred in a few minutes.’
However inviting that thought was, a nagging dissatisfaction remained, a dissatisfaction that was invulnerable to any sort of good news. My third film had tanked, and although the critics had been kind, nothing was going to bring it back. I had been counting on the film getting national distribution, and as usual I went to pieces when it didn’t. While you’re making it, putting in your twenty-hour days and your sleepless nights, you think, ‘This will all be worth it when the film hits it big,’ or, ‘Everything you’ve given up will pay itself back twice over after this one screens.’ And it’s exactly these, the lies you peddled, that kill you when the film tanks. Of the three documentaries I’d made, my second, Red Circle, Red Square, was the biggest financial disaster. I leveraged my credit card to get it finished, and when I fell behind on the payments the collection company blacklisted me and shoveled my name to a handful of credit agencies. I unhooked my phone and tried to ignore the notes being tucked under my door. At first these notes said things like Due to default and In light of failure to remit. When I received one that began To avoid a court hearing, I resolved that I would not call my parents and ask for money. Then I called my parents and asked for money.
I have this thing about money. Somehow I’ve always equated success with wealth. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. This is the result of growing up in the home of a self-made man who started out selling bootblack door to door and ended up with a company of his own, a four-car garage, and an in-ground pool. My mother, who was born into wealth, was raised to never speak of the vulgar subject of money, which of course only added to my money-fixation. Whatever the reason for my hang-up, it worries the hell out of my dad, who never cared much for money, especially now that he has too much of it. He made a pile of cash by accident with a company that makes screws and bolts for government contractors, but he never liked his work. I think he always wished he’d been a painter or a teacher.
When I was young, he always told me, ‘Mike, I don’t want you making the same mistakes I did. Go out and do exactly what you want to with your life. Do something meaningful.’ So I took his advice and hadn’t been out of film school for a year when I realized that being broke all the time was going to kill me.
In my father’s mind, being broke meant going to the cheapest cafes and sitting at an outside table wrapped in wool and tweed sipping clear glasses of Eau de vie with friends, sharing Galouise cigarettes and plates of food, and talking about interesting things all the time. Since he’d never experienced being broke himself, even in college, he’d turned to books to learn about it and had read far to much of A Moveable Feast and Winesburg, Ohio and even some Jack London stories that he’d later tried to push on me. All are good books, but they are dangerous books for a man to read late in life while in the midst of a deeply wistful stage. It was left to me to learn the hard way that being broke meant selling your plasma, counting out the pennies at the bottom of your drawer, and passing up asking out women you really liked because you couldn’t afford to take them anywhere. It meant lying to friends when you met them for dinner, telling them that you’d already eaten, when of course you hadn’t. It meant going without heat and television and a lot of other conveniences that people took for granted. Some damn fool somewhere got the idea that this was good for the artist’s soul, all the denial, but from where I stood it seemed to wither a lot more than it created.
When I told my father this, he said, ‘You’re doing what you want. You don’t need money.’
Tell that to the bank, I wanted to say.
The next Christmas my mother gave me a framed needlepoint that said
The love of money is the root of all evil.
—I Timothy 6:10
I didn’t much appreciate having a wealthy couple tell me that the pursuit of money was peripheral and essentially immoral. ‘It’s not about the money, kid,’ my father says. ‘That’s because you have so much,’ I say. ‘You don’t have to worry about it anymore.’ ‘You ever smell it, money?’ he asks. ‘Honestly, ever held it right up to your face and had a good, deep breath? It stinks. Stinks of impulse, of corruption, of greed. Stinks of id. It stinks of all those things, but what it stinks of most is the things we had to do to get it. It’s not about the money, kid. It can’t be.’
My friends tell me the same thing. ‘You’re doing what you want,’ they say. ‘Be happy for that.’ Sure, I want to answer. I’m doing what I want. I make films, but I practically have to lay down my life to get twenty-thousand dollars from my production company. I make films, but I skip meals because I have to spend the development money on DV tapes, interviews, equipment, and to pay insurance on a car that I can’t afford but absolutely cannot move film equipment without. I make films, but I live in a one bedroom apartment the size of my father’s office back home, and I still can’t make the rent. I haven’t got a television. The plates and glasses in my cabinet are all mismatched. I grind my teeth in bed at night, and add sums in my head. I can’t take a girl on a date, unless it’s a walk in the park. How can I possibly be a success? The biggest problem with the films: no one’s seen them. Your friends go to the first screening and pack the house. A few even go to the second screening. Maybe your mother goes to the third. And twenty-five empty screenings later, the film’s a tree falling alone in the forest. It never happened. No one saw it, and it never happened.
Sometimes, late at night, I get my blood up and call my father and say, ‘You had it all wrong. This is all your fault. You should have warned me.’ He says to me, ‘People like you are looking to buy something, Mike, except what you want isn’t for sale. You think getting more money will make everything all better, but it won’t. You’ll be just as unhappy as you are now.’ I told this to Sebby after I’d heard that my third film, The Daisy Chain, had ended its New York run. Sebby said, ‘I’m taking you to the track. We’ll win a pile of cash, and then we’ll see what’s what.’
A dark spine of thunderclouds had been hanging overhead to the south since morning and the rain broke as the race I’d bet on roared out of the gate. The bell was still going as the pack curled around the near turn. The horses came around the last turn still in a pack, spreading as they hit the stretch, Wren’s Lament in front, all neck and nostril and blurred forelock, every strike of hoof an explosion of water, the horses’ heads bobbing forward as the jockeys whaled on them with their crops. The grandstand crowd had come to its feet. ‘We’ve got it, Mike,’ Sebby said, ‘we’ve got it, we’ve got it.’ He was gripping my arm so hard it hurt, which made me realize I was gripping my race-card so hard that my hand hurt. The pack was just pushing to the finish line when our jockey stood up suddenly in the stirrups. The pack passed him and broke the finish line, but neither of us saw it happen. The jockey had slowed the horse to a stop and dismounted, and was standing on the track with the bridle in his fist, holding the horse’s bad leg up off the loam and talking gently to him.
We sat there in silence for a long time, the rain already past, Sebby chewing on the brim of his hat and staring unblinking at the mirrored pools that had gathered on the track. I didn’t know what to say to him to console him, and the truth was I was suddenly feeling pretty rotten myself. We’d been so close to a big win. The race was declared official, and we saw on the tote board that Wren’s Lament would have paid almost fifty to one.
‘I should have bet that other perfecta, Mike,’ he said.
We went inside and had a drink at the bar upstairs that overlooked the saddling area, but even alcohol couldn’t cut through the disappointment. So one vice couldn’t ease the pain of another. They piled up on one another, instead. I could almost hear my father saying, in his instructive, rich-man’s voice, ‘The love of money, Mike, the love of money.’ At fifty to one, my lame bet of fifty bucks would have paid off at more than twenty-four hundred dollars, enough to cover next month’s rent and then some. Because my horse had been out in front so close to the finish, I’d already counted the money as mine, and when he came up lame, I felt every dollar of it slip away.
‘What was the word on that horse?’ I asked.
‘The public word,’ he said, ‘was that it was still correcting its gait for a strained tendon.’
‘And the inside word—’
‘—Was that it had healed up much better than people thought, and was a sure bet.’
‘Apparently,’ I said, ‘the inside word was wrong.’
‘Let’s go get a bite,’ Sebby said. ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’
We drove to a little French place in Greenpoint, on the north fork, where the waiters all had accents and wore white aprons and the maître d’ wore a tuxedo. The menu was all in French. Sebby bought a bottle of wine that cost almost a hundred bucks. Though I didn’t say so, I thought the money would have been better saved for his bookie or his orthopedic surgeon. The rumors said that Sebby owed money all over town, and that sooner or later someone was going to come and break his thumbs.
‘Wait’ll you try this wine, Mike,’ he said. ‘It’s a good Côte-Rôtie.’
‘I can’t afford this.’
‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘It’s expensed.’
I ordered côte de veau, which turned out to be a stuffed veal chop. Sebby had grouse that we guessed had been shot that morning in some nearby field. Both were excellent, but we were feeling too down about the horse to enjoy the food much. We were just finishing when a slight man came inside and crossed the room to us.
‘Hello, Sebby,’ he said. ‘Sorry I’m late.’
‘Hi, Thierry,’ Sebby said. ‘Have a seat, will you?’
He sat between us.
‘This is Thierry Vosgues,’ Sebby said. ‘Thierry, meet my friend Mike.’
Thierry had slicked-back, shiny black hair, and the bluest eyes I had ever seen. He couldn’t have been more than five foot six, with the build of a quick flyweight boxer, but he had the confidence of a man a foot taller. I took him to be about forty years old. Though he was thin and pale, he didn’t seem weak, and I guessed that more than a few men had made the mistake of thinking he was. His nose had been broken at least once, but the lack of symmetry in his face only enhanced his good looks.
‘Pleased,’ Thierry said, and shook my hand. ‘Do you work with Sebby?’
‘Only with Sebby,’ I said.
‘Mike’s a genius,’ Sebby said. ‘We get him when we’re lucky.’
‘How about you?’ I asked.
‘Thierry’s a jockey,’ Sebby said.
‘It must be nice to be thought of as a genius,’ Thierry said. ‘I myself am not.’
‘Can I get you anything, Thierry?’ Sebby asked.
‘Some ice water,’ Thierry said. ‘I was one hundred and twelve this morning.’
Sebby flagged down the waiter and had him bring Thierry a glass of water.
‘What will you do when you have to eat?’ I asked.
‘Same thing I always do,’ he said, and tapped the tabletop with his index finger.
‘You do that?’ I asked.
Sebby had told me that a jockey would sometimes put his finger down his throat to make weight. It seemed like an odd thing for a grown man to be doing.
‘That’s why I never buy him dinner,’ Sebby said.
‘If you want to make weight,’ Thierry explained, ‘you do what you have to. You have to stay light.’
‘Are you riding this week?’ Sebby asked.
‘Three sure bets,’ he said.
‘That must be nice,’ I said.
‘Not really,’ he said. ‘If you win on a jolly, everyone says, Well, it was the horse. But in a loss it’s always the rider who gets blamed. I’d rather ride the rag for the odds-on. That way you’re never anything worse than the loser they already thought you were.’
‘That’s a depressing way of looking at things,’ I said.
‘It’s true, though,’ Thierry said.
He took a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket, then glanced at the maître d’, who nodded to him.
‘I don’t know many athletes who smoke,’ I said.
‘Smoking keeps the weight down,’ Thierry said. ‘It’s better than Lasix or Amphetamines.’
‘Even a boxer gets to eat after a fight,’ I said.
Thierry exhaled smoke through his nose.
‘When it comes down to the money,’ he said, ‘the owner doesn’t want to hear about how good a jockey you are. All he wants to hear is how much weight the horse is going to be carrying.’
‘What makes you want to ride?’
‘My father was a jockey,’ he said.
So I wasn’t the only one. A world full of kids who bought the old man’s lines.
‘That’s all it takes?’ I asked.
‘It’s like Catholic guilt,’ he said. ‘It gets passed down whether you want it or not.’
‘I’ve heard it’s dangerous work.’
‘Only the steeplechase,’ Thierry said, and crossed himself.
Sure, I thought. If you really believe that, why are you crossing yourself?
‘Listen, Mike,’ Sebby asked, ‘you mind if Thierry and I talk some business?’
I did, of course.
‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to make a few calls.’
I got up from the table. Thierry stood up and shook my hand.
‘I hope I’ll see you again,’ he said.
‘I’m sure you will,’ I said.
I went out through the front door and down the dark street without any real idea of where I’d go. It was a lovely night, the smell of spring riding the air, which, in my curious state, seemed to resemble nothing so much as the smell of possibility. With nowhere to go, I walked back to the restaurant, sat on the front steps, and lit a cigarette. I wasn’t exactly sure what the business was that they were talking about, but I had a good idea, and I had to admit I was interested. Ordinarily I would have stayed away from something like that, but losing at the track earlier had qualified my sense of what one should and should not pursue. I had the strangest feeling Sebby had known it would.
So here I was again. I’d worked harder on the second film than I had on the first, and harder on the third film than I had on the second. The Daisy Chain had cost me one very lonely year of my life. I had spent eight months shooting the daily lives of Bellevue psych ward patients, then another four months figuring out the correct way to link together the seven different stories I’d selected from the raw footage. While others were out living their lives, I was teaching schizophrenics to operate a camera, or listening as two old obsessive-compulsives argued for the tenth time about the ping-pong score. I had made what I was sure was a very good film, and once again it had all come to nothing. No funding for whatever was next, no clear audience. It seemed uncannily appropriate that I’d ended up today at a place that was governed by chance.
Twenty minutes later Sebby came outside and sat down beside me.
‘Sorry, old man,’ he said. ‘I had to work some things out.’
‘We’d better head back,’ I said.
‘You want to have a drink first?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘We should get home.’
But neither of us moved. We sat quietly there in the dark, Sebby pensively working through a cigarette, both of us looking out at the street and watching couples glide by, until he said, ‘It’s a sure bet, Mike.’
My guns were loaded for this.
‘Sebby,’ I said, ‘never mind that there’s no such thing. Never mind even that. Even if you could get that close to a corrupt jockey, even if you could find one you could trust, one who everyone else trusted and who could keep his mouth shut and who could be counted on to see things through—even if you could do all that, you couldn’t make the horse run a step faster. The horse is what it is. There’s nothing you could do that would make a horse win that couldn’t already win.’
‘I don’t want him to run faster,’ he said. ‘I want him to run slower.’
I was reminded of the time he’d told me that gambling, in its earliest days, was called ‘hazardry.’ How right they’d been, calling it that. This was hazardry, and he was the hazard.
‘You get the fastest two-year-old out of the lead,’ he said. ‘You get that, and the odds on the quinella go through the stratosphere. Four hundred to one, Mike. I’m not talking about winning a thousand, or even a couple of thousand. I’m talking about winning enough money to change your life. Winning by losing, and using everyone’s money against him.’
‘Thierry won’t go through with it,’ I said.
‘He will, Mike.’
‘You heard what he said about his father. He’s too proud of what he does.’
‘Making weight is killing him. And that’s just the day-to-day of it. Imagine the risks he’s taking. Sooner or later his number’s going to come up, he’ll get thrown, and he’ll break his neck. He wants to retire, but he’s got a wife, two kids and a mortgage, and he hasn’t got enough money to quit. Riding is all he knows. He says to me, Sebby, this is the way it’s got to be. I worry I’m going to leave my family with nothing.’
‘If you had won today, would you still have come to meet him?’
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘When you get some, it just makes you want more.’
‘And you thought you’d share the wealth.’
‘I thought I owed you, since your reel didn’t get picked up.’
I didn’t believe him. Sebby wasn’t a bad person. But he wasn’t really a good person, either. As much as I liked him, and as much as I felt I owed him, there was something about Sebby that you couldn’t quite trust. He looked out for himself first and last, even when he was working on my behalf, which was a fine quality to have in your producer but a lousy one to have in a friend.
‘There’s one other thing,’ he said. ‘It’s kind of tricky, but I was hoping I could trust you, after everything that’s gone on between us. I’ve got a few debts that I haven’t paid, so no one’s taking any bets from me any more. Today was my last chance.’
‘You need me to place the bets,’ I said. ‘Thierry wanted to meet me, so he could decide if he could trust me.’
He knew me so well. All he had to do was hang the cash in front of me.
‘These are—these people are different from you and me,’ he said. ‘Everyone wants to meet everyone face to face before he goes ahead. It’s better that way.’
‘I’d have to think about it.’
‘Don’t think too much,’ he said. ‘No one ever got rich off being wise.’
We were quiet for a moment. He flicked his cigarette to the curb.
‘You remember those guys who ran me out of Los Angeles?’ he asked. ‘They’re here, too. They always were. They’re running things here in New York, and we don’t stand a chance against them, Mike. Guys like Jay Lesch. They can smell the poor on you from five hundred yards. They know it the moment you walk into a room, and they use it to humiliate you. This is not about getting rich. It’s about buying back the dignity we both deserve.’
I knew what he was getting at. No more skipped meals, no more humiliating myself to his boss. But still making films. Having what I’d always wanted. I might even be able to take a girl on a date.