Excerpt: Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Posted by Lizzie on 03/30/08

From the title essay of David Samuels’ Only Love Can Break Your Heart. The essay, which originally appeared in Harper’s, concerns three weeks at the Derby Lane dog track in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The only bettor I find at Derby Lane who does not complain endlessly about the track is Richard Hens, who has sat in the no-smoking area in Derby Plaza since 1986 with only a few complaints. The most immediately noticeable thing about Hens is not his complacency or the braids in his beard or his enormous shoulders but his style of dress, with the formal vest, the bush shirt and tie, the black spandex shorts, and the paper rings that decorate his fingers. “The last time I shaved I was thirty-two years old,” he says. “I am now fifty-three. The way the braids came about,” he says, when I ask, “was that I was with some lady company one time, and the female asked if she could braid my beard. For the last thirteen or fourteen years, I would say that it hasn’t grown at all.”

On the subject of betting, Hens is all business. “I keep handwritten records in a large file that I have, and I see myself as a professor of the subject you mention.” He fixes me with a trained hippie stare. “The way I see it, your money is the tool that you have.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small wad of cash and counts through the bills one by one. “This here is the nail,” he says, pulling out a five. “This is the level,” he says of a ten. Then he holds up a twenty. “And this is the hammer. The fifty, I call that the chalk-line.” He holds up his hands, stares, and slips the paper rings from his fingers and unwraps them without ever breaking his gaze. “The hundred-dollar bill you see here, that is known to me as the toolbox.”

Hens is known to the staff of Derby Lane as the track’s most dedicated patron, having lived for the past four and a half years in the small lean-to he built behind the track. As we sit and talk, a young man with a truck-stop haircut, sometimes called a “mullet” or a “neck-warmer,” comes up to our table dragging a shy-looking blonde behind him. He slaps Hens on the shoulder.

“Hey Braids,” he says. “What’s the best dog in the race?” Hens rubs his thumbs together and waits until a spark of inspiration finally comes.

“I’d try the five,” he suggests. The odds on the five dog, I notice, are 13 to 1.

Although there are many people who dismiss Hens as a harmless madman, he has also built tip a considerable following among occasional bettors at the track. At one point, I am told, he had over twenty people who would regularly come to Derby Lane to play his tips. I ask him to explain his reasoning on the five, which he does at length and with enough lucidity that I go up to the teller window and bet $10 on the five dog to win. When I return with $282.50 in hand, Hens is not at all surprised.

“I believe that I already told you that I have spent many hours observing the races,” he says. “Over the course of my betting career I have made well over one million dollars.”

What Hens and I have in common, it turns out, besides our interest in the dogs, is that we both like words. On the desk in front of him is a folded copy of the evening’s racing form and a well-thumbed copy of the Webster’s New World Large Print Dictionary, which is held together with electrical tape. The page to which the book is open reveals a number of carefully underlined words and definitions, including faux-naif (“artificially naive”), feather (“any of the soft, light growths covering the body”; the last three words of the definition, “of a bird,” are not underlined), and form (among the underlined definitions are 6, “a way of doing something requiring skill”; 7, “customary or conventional way of acting”; and 9, “condition of mind or body”). As I flip through the dictionary, I am struck by the thought that Hens possesses a fractured version of my own familiar consciousness. When I ask him why he likes the dictionary, he looks off into space for a full minute and a half before he responds.

“I read the dictionary because it is pure and without distracting opinions,” he says. “I have been reading this particular volume for nine months and have studied it completely. The print is large, and it features short etymologies, a general term which means `pertaining to the origins of words.’ I bought it back in ’93. Before that I used to read a Random House dictionary, which I purchased after the divorce. I was thirty years old. I read that edition for approximately three years, but it was not as good as the Webster’s.”<

As we flip through his dictionary, I also discover that the word dog is not underlined or marked in any way. When I ask Hens about this omission, he grows pensive, and it takes him a moment to gather his thoughts. “Animals to me,” he finally says, “such as the dog or the cat, mean very little. This is particularly true of dogs. Dogs bite people for no reason. Once I had to knock one out with a club. The dog is simply another low-life animal. They’re like livestock. I like fish as much as I like dogs. I like birds the most, because of the word ornithology, the definition of which is `the scientific study of birds.’ I would be very grateful to you if you could use that word in your article.”

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