Quinn and Dixie go to Mardi Gras.
The last time I'd visited the Fairgrounds in New Orleans was the spring of 1977, when I was 16 years old. A classmate of mine had a gambling debt of $8,000 that he couldn't pay off—$8,000 being the equivalent today of roughly 27 grand, real money for a high-school junior back then. In what seemed at the time like a sensible strategy, he hocked the coin collection given to him at birth by his grandparents and came up with $2,000 cash. This he handed to me, along with instructions to go to the Fairgrounds and lay it all on Albo Berry to show in the sixth. His nerves couldn't take it, he said, and besides, he had math class. Albo Berry was racing on a school day, during seventh and eighth period, when all I had was film history—which could be skipped safely. And so I grabbed another friend and drove to the Fairgrounds to lay two grand on Albo Berry to show.
Probably there was some law forbidding minors from betting on horses, but it wasn't taken any more seriously than the other laws in New Orleans that separated children from the grown-up world. So long as you didn't make the enablers feel as if you were going to attract the wrong sort of attention, they let you do pretty much what you wanted. Two grand was attention-getting, however, and we decided the only safe way to get it down on Albo Berry was in small, childish chunks. The moment Albo Berry's race was announced we each took $1,000 and dashed around madly, placing $5 bets. We wound up with 400 tickets, but we got it all down, then took a seat in the grandstand to watch the race.
They were already off; a bunch of horses had broken from the pack, Albo Berry not among them. Indeed, for the longest time Albo Berry went unmentioned. It was as if he existed only in a dream. But then, as if he knew what was at stake, he made his move. Coming hard on the outside, he passed all but two other horses. By a nose, Albo Berry showed. We spent half an hour running around collecting what came to just shy of $8,000 in small bills. Armloads of cash made us conspicuous, and so we made quickly for the car. Only then did a grown-up—the guard in the parking lot—take notice. We were a step too fast for him. He peered into the car window as we whizzed past, and my friend heaved all the money up into the air, so that, for that moment, the inside of the car looked like a ticker-tape parade. We made it back to school just in time for baseball practice.
Now, for the first time in 30 years, I'm back at the Fairgrounds, with a 7-year-old daughter holding one hand and a 4-year-old holding the other. I hadn't planned to teach my children how to bet on the ponies on this trip. But my brother lives down the block from the racetrack, and the three of us went to visit him for lunch, and one thing led to another. Before you could say "trifecta," we had them on our shoulders and were walking over to the races. Just one race, I told them, and then we'd leave. For old time's sake. They might learn something.
"You promise we can we bet real money?" asks Quinn.
"Yeah, Daddy," says Dixie, "Can we bet real money?"
"You can each make one small bet," I say, judiciously.
"You'll have to make it for us," says Quinn, knowingly, " 'cause we're too little."
Through the turnstiles we plunge and make for the viewing area to decide which horse to back. But before we do, we bump into Al Stall, a year behind me in school, who has, it turns out, spent most of his time since then training race horses. I haven't seen him since high school, but it feels like yesterday, and he ushers the kids into the space reserved for horses. He wants them to see Winsky, a sleek, tan, 4-year-old mare *, his horse in the race. As they inspect the animal, the jockey appears, followed by Winsky's owners, and so they inspect them, too. They listen as Al talks a little bit about his horse, the favorite. Al doesn't sound worried. Al doesn't look worried. Al, truth to tell, looks as if his horse has already won.
"I want to bet on Winsky," says Quinn, firmly.
"Me too!" says Dixie.
"If we win, you girls have to join us in the winner's circle!" says the owner.
We rush out to lay some dough on Winsky. "Daddy, what's the circle?" asks Dixie, but I'm too distracted to answer. They've replaced old tellers with new betting machines. It's now more complicated for a 46-year-old man to place two $5 bets on a horse to win than it was 30 years ago for a 16-year-old to lay two grand on a horse to show. I waste 10 bucks printing out two erroneous tickets before finally getting my hands on tickets for Winsky to win. Grabbing them from me, the girls race outside to watch their horse up close, from the rail. The weather is clear, the track fast. As the bell rings and the horses bolt from the gate, I wonder: This is what fathers are for? To take children to the places they aren't supposed to go, so that they can do the things children aren't supposed to do? If Mama's the law, I'm the blind eye.
For roughly 51 weeks a year, I'm a bit player in my children's moral education. This week is the exception, when we visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras. For seven days I'm more or less in charge and use them to cultivate the aspects of their characters that they'll need to make it in the modern world: guile, greed, charm, and a deep appreciation that what you know is less important than who you know. Mardi Gras might just as well have been created to teach small children how to compete in the more ferocious sectors of our nation's economy. Beads, in the brief moment they fly through the air, become so valuable that grown men will trample one another to get them and young women will disrobe. Three hours later they're worthless again, but that's not the point. The point is how to get as many of them as possible.
Last year, when she was 6, Quinn draped the beads she caught around her neck. This year she takes what she catches and squirrels it away furtively in a camouflaged Army duffel bag beside her. "If they see you have lots of loot they won't throw you anything," she explains, hurriedly, and then resumes her quest for more beads. Dixie is only 4, but even she seems to be coming along nicely. As I haul home a 50-pound sack full of beads, she says, "Daddy, you want me to tell you why they gave me so many things? 'Cause I was making a sad face." Every small child in America should be flown to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Those who excel should be offered jobs by Goldman Sachs selling bonds. Those who fail should be taken to the racetrack, to see if they are perhaps better suited to trading.
The race starts, a mile and 40 yards. There is no drama to it. Winsky, on the inside, takes the lead and never surrenders it. She wins so easily that, if I were one of the other horses, I might just canter back to my stable and shoot myself. My daughters leap around: They won! "How much did we win, Daddy?" they ask but then are distracted by their new best friends, Winsky's owners, trainer, and jockey, who guide them into the winner's circle. They pose for a group photo, Quinn and Dixie front and center, as a man with a television camera races back and forth filming them from every possible angle, beaming their smiles into every off-track betting parlor in the land. Quinn sees the camera and waves.
Twenty-two minutes after they strolled into the Fairgrounds, they're back in their car seats, waving $5 bills and looking for something to argue about. The experience has struck neither of them as noteworthy. The problem with lucking out with your children is that your children don't appreciate their luck—and the lucky feeling is more than half of the pleasure. You go to all this trouble to get them an education, and they promptly forget the lessons. On the drive home I explain to them that it isn't common for two little girls to walk into a racetrack in the middle of the day for a single horse race and wind up in the winner's circle, holding winning tickets, with the horse's jockey on one arm and the horse's owner on the other. Not to mention getting serious screen time on every OTB network. It takes some effort, but by the time we arrive home, each little girl has been convinced she has something worth saying about her field trip—only it isn't the same thing. Dixie, running to the back of the house to find her mother, squeals, "Mama, I made $5 at the round field!" Quinn races up the stairs, finds her grandmother, and shouts, "Nana, we were on national TV!"
Michael Lewis' most recent book is The Blind Side.
Photograph of Dixie's sad face by Tabitha Soren.