Sidney Offit hadn't been to Pimlico since 1952, when his old man had money on Blue . . . Blue . . . Blue Man, the Preakness winner that year.
Mr. Offit came back to Baltimore on a muddy, drippy Tuesday. He bought a $1.50 racing program that was Greek to him. "You know I don't know how to read this. I can't believe it. I really can't believe it."
The bookie's son doesn't bet on horses. He writes books for a living. He says that's enough of a gamble.
"Owner . . . Meyerhoff . . . it's probably a Baltimore horse, right? Let's see what the odds are. I didn't realize it was a favorite."
Mr. Offit's father always said never bet against yourself. And look at the trainers, Barney "Buckley" Offit always said.
"OK, we like Tough Broad," the bookie's son says.
He has a hunch Tough Broad will show, but he doesn't bet it. Mr. Offit, a 66-year-old New Yorker, puts $6 across-the-board on Tough Broad in the fifth at Pimlico. It's a conservative bet; some say stupid. You're betting on the horse to win, place and show. Hard to make money that way.
Turf run for the fifth at Pimlico. Photo finish. Tough Broad finishes third. The crumpled man at the window gives Sidney Offit three bucks back. "That was such a non-gambling bet," Mr. Offit says. "I always hedge."
That's all right, sir. You're a writer and today, Father's Day, your book about your bookmaker father arrives in the stores. A few copies of "Memoir of the Bookie's Son" (St. Martin's Press, $18.95) duck behind the great pyramids of books about Kato and Quivers and Co. Everybody has a story to tell and sell.
Sidney Offit wrote a love story about his father.
It's a long shot.
"You begin with incidents, then dramatize them," says Mr. Offit. That's how a son begins to write about his father.
Beginning with the incident in 1934, when 5-year-old Sidney is waiting for his dad to come home. It's 5:30 p.m. The boy sees his father coming up the steps of their Baltimore apartment. Two men in overcoats approach his father. Buckley takes a swing at )) one. "I ain't going no place with nobody!" the boy hears his father say. The boy's eyes fill with tears. "You take me, you take me dead," says his father, rolling on the pavement, grabbing a garbage can lid to beat at the thugs. Sid's parents never discussed the attempted kidnapping.
The boy was left wondering why two goons would want to beat up his father -- the fairest, street-smartest man in Baltimore -- the man who took the family to Orioles double-headers in his four-door Buick. He was a typical dad, mostly. An attempted kidnapping simply didn't fit the life of Buckley Offit.
True, men were always visiting Buckley, men with nicknames such as "Buzz." But they didn't come bringing trouble. They came to place bets with Buckley. And Sidney would grow to understand and accept his father's profession.
Sidney would always be the bookie's son.
"The idea of this book has been haunting me all of my life," Mr. Offit says.
He took 10 years to develop and write his 165-page memoir. The Baltimore native has spent his life writing children's books, sports books and young-adult novels. But he had never written about perhaps the toughest subject: parents. We spend our lives learning about our parents, judging them, then finishing them off in our books, says Russell Baker, syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Growing Up," his Baltimore memoir.
"He's one of the world's great oral storytellers -- an East Coast Garrison Keillor," Mr. Baker says of Mr. Offit. They have been friends since they worked together on the student newspaper at Johns Hopkins University.
As for Sidney's book about his father: "He threw a Valentine on the grave," Mr. Baker says. Another old friend, Kurt Vonnegut, told Sidney to keep his book short. "This is beauty," Mr. Vonnegut wrote of "Memoir," keeping his blurb short.
"Bookie" in the title gets attention, but Mr. Offit's memoir isn't really about bookmaking. "This book is about what makes a good parent," he says. This book is about what kind of father Sidney Offit became.
His son Kenneth says his father -- like his father before him -- gave his children two critical things: confidence and approval. It's difficult to maintain the sense that you are there and supportive, says Ken Offit, father of three girls.
"The book is a reminder of those kinds of priorities," says Ken, a 40-year-old researcher of cancer genetics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "My father also hammered into us that self-pity stinks."
Sidney Offit learned that from his father. He remembers his first year at Hopkins when he thought he might flunk out. He was feeling sorry for himself, but he bet on the wrong audience. His father was dumbfounded: What does feeling sorry for yourself get ya? Nothin.
"It was so rational! So bright! You could hate a guy like that," his son says.
Buckley Offit never went to college; he never went to fifth grade. He was educated in the unaccredited profession of Baltimore bookmaking. No class time, just fieldwork. At age 6, Buckley was selling The Sun and fighting to keep his corner. Working on the street, he saw the men playing craps and cards. He learned about gambling; he learned about life.
After returning from naval service in World War I, Buckley became a king among bookies in Baltimore. Everybody knew Buckley in the 1930s and 1940s. His tips were money in the bank, they said.
The world is full of gamblers, Buckley said. The universe is a big gambling casino. Put two guys in prison and the first thing they'll do is bet how many bricks are in the wall, the bookie said. Gambling is human nature.
"I accepted my father's perception," Mr. Offit says.
He rejected Damon Runyon's stories, which turned gambling characters into caricatures. Many gamblers were just regular people -- not scoundrels or criminals and definitely not caricatures, Mr. Offit says. His father was part regular Joe -- part Gatsby. He felt he had no choice but to write about his father.
"You do it if he's part of your consciousness," Mr. Offit says. "You do it if he's with you all the time."
'The shirt business'
Details are the blood of memories.
Buckley Offit smoked Tareytons, had dinner every night at 6 and could eat a steak faster than any man. He never told his two boys that he loved them, and they never doubted that he did. Buckley was pragmatic, not romantic.
Buckley once (politely) blew off Al Capone, who was looking for some action. Buckley was no big shot; he was just a family man who listened to the Philco and drank two shots of scotch when he drank. He would take Sid to Sunday double-headers at old Oriole Park on Greenmount Avenue to watch the Birds of the International League. Sid would watch his father.
"I saw the extraordinary resemblance of my father's profile to the Indian head on the nickel," wrote his son, keeper of the details.
Buckley spoke in gambling jargon. Life don't owe me nothing. Take nothin' from nobody. And I got action, honey, so don't tie up the line, he'd say to his wife. Buckley kept his bankroll of rolled fifties under his pillow, until his 5-year-old son uncovered 00 them one morning while snuggling in his parents' bed. At their midtown Baltimore apartment, workers hollowed out the ceiling so Buckley could stash his shoe boxes of money.
"We gotta protect our bankroll to keep you boys in toys and hot cakes," his father would say.
His young son had no idea what his father did for a living. When his friends asked, Sid would say, "Parlay the winner." He overheard the mysterious expression enough around the house. His father didn't try to hide his work from his family, but he didn't advertise it, either. A son is just acutely aware of his father's language and moves. And something was different about dad.
In the first grade at P.S. 61, Sid was stumped and shamed by the question about his father's profession. He had to tell his classmates something other than "Parlay the winner." His mother, Lily, finally told her son to say his father was in "the shirt business."
Sid finally asked his relatives what a bookie was. Sid's Uncle Walt attempted to explain Buckley's profession:
"He's an outstanding citizen, but even fine, outstanding citizens sometimes because of various circumstances . . . bend or flex laws, which they would otherwise respect. I'm sure Buck can explain it to you."
Buckley came home that night, sat in the front room, smoking and rocking. It was late fall, and the windows were open.
"I'm a bookmaker, I been one all my life," the father told his son. "I take bets. If the action is too heavy and I wanna unload, I call Chicago, St. Louis, sometimes New York.
"What else you wanna know?"
Arrest and trial
Years later, the son wanted to know if his father fixed his own trial. A 1951 headline in The Sun said BOOKIE RAID NETS 5 MEN, WOMAN IN STONELEIGH. The story said it was "one of the largest bookmaking operations ever uncovered in Baltimore County." The raid "yielded four telephones, a large radio, an adding machine and a quantity of betting slips and wager records."
Barney Offit, 55, 700 block Druid Lake Drive, was released on $1,500 bail, the paper reported.
"They got Frenchy cold and two of the guys at the phones. It wasn't even my joint," Buckley told his son. "You never know -- the judge is a gentleman, he believes 'live and let live,' then I'll walk out of it. He takes my money and goes the other way, I'll do time. They say it's only tough for the first twenty-four hours."
Buckley went to great lengths to avoid jail.
He got a lawyer with "contacts in the valley. He's a former state's attorney and in with the judge." Two days before his trial, the bookmaker met the captain of the county's vice squad at the Lord Baltimore Hotel. Sidney tagged along for the meeting.
"Take a walk around the block," his father told him.
At the trial, no defense witnesses were called. Buckley Offit walked.
"I knew he considered it his responsibility to deal with his case without consideration for other people's rules or laws," wrote his son, who would not judge his father's "self-defined morality." Enough people morally indicted his father, Mr. Offit says.
The trial, such as it was, had a profound effect on Buckley's career planning. In 1951, he promptly gave up bookmaking. His family still says he would have made a heckuva judge, but he had been a bookmaker who knew when to get out. Most gamblers, like athletes, don't know when to quit. Most guys wind up broke, Buckley said and knew. So, he retired with his bankrolls in all those shoe boxes.
Buckley got up every morning at 8, fixed coffee and toast for his wife, read the paper, and then walked the family terrier, Raimey. He and Lily lived frugally and contentedly for the rest of their long lives.
The last parlay
The man still occasionally bet on the horses. He took his oldest son to Pimlico for the 1952 Preakness, a "high holiday" in Buckley's profession. The old man had a hunch about a horse. Blue Man, Buckley said and knew.
Benson Offit, a Baltimore businessman, met his younger brother at Penn Station. Sidney Offit has lived in New York City for years, but regularly visits Baltimore. The town is still packed with Offits. Cousins, mainly.
Benson busted his brother's chops about his clothes: the signature Sidney bow tie and sneakers! A nice touch. Benson, naturally, reveres "Memoir." It's a short book, but he read it very slowly. "I loved it. I loved it. Every time I read it, I cry."
Sidney tears up when remembering his father. Several years ago, his father called him on Father's Day. This was stunning, because they rarely marked birthdays or occasions with calls or gifts. "Just checkin' in widya. Save ya the trouble of calling," Mr. Offit says, mimicking his father's gravel vocalese.
In his old age, Buckley was still picking winners -- Strike the Gold did win the Nassau County Handicap and Thunder Rumble did win the Jim Dandy Stakes.
In 1992, his son wrote an obituary about his father, who spent all 96 years in Baltimore. Sidney thought it would be appropriate for the obit to run in The Sun, the paper his father sold as a kid. But family members said Buckley always tried to keep his name out of the paper. Sidney killed the obit.
At Pimlico, the bookie's son is waiting for post time in the fifth race. He's got a hunch about Tough Broad and $6 across-the-board. Never bet on a favorite. Never bet on anything that talks. Dad would have bet the one race and watched the rest, Sidney says, doing just that.
After all the children's books, Sidney Offit finally got the parent's book out of his system. Someone told him that having a happy childhood is a great handicap for a writer. Still, the man can't help it. The bookie's son loved his father, and his father loved him. What a scandalous revelation!
Who will believe the story?
Who will buy it?