"A hundred grand!" the tall man called Galveston was saying. "I got $100,000, American money, says we get a major earthquake in California before 1990. How about it--any gamblers in the crowd?"
It was a slow afternoon at the Polo Lounge, and his offer dropped into the silence like a fumbled bottle of Perrier. Across the table, his drinking companions wore faces carefully filled with Nothing, while inadvertent eavesdroppers tried to size up his $18 Levi's and $700 boots. But nobody laughed.
This, after all, was California, where gambling is taken seriously--where voters handily approved the new state lottery despite opposition from the governor, the Legislature and religious leaders. And the Polo Lounge is notable as a headquarters for a form of wager called the California Proposition. These bets always seem to occur to someone on the spur of the moment, and always appear to offer at least an even chance to win.
"Only, they're always gaffed," said a sad-faced cherub known as Chuckles, sitting at Galveston's table.
"Right. Fixed," nodded a dapper little grifter called Luckboy. "Uh, Galveston, this earthquake of yours--what odds?"
"Even money," the tall man said.
"Lemme think about it . . . "
Galveston shrugged and settled himself to wait.
"In California," Chuckles went on, "a bet doesn't have to be logical. Hell, in California people will bet on professional wrestling!"
Seems it's always been that way. One of the earliest examples of the California Proposition, Chuckles said, involved a man known to the 1890s as "Camel Charlie" because he'd show up leading a lazy-looking dromedary and bet that it could beat a horse in a race through town.
"For a honeybee. You know--$100? Big money back then." Almost always, he said, there were takers.
"And almost always, Camel Charlie had to leave in a hurry," Luckboy chimed in. "But he left rich because he knew something the local cowboys didn't. He knew that while a camel can't keep up with the average horse over a mile or more, he's greased lightning for the first 200 or 300 yards. And back then, damn few towns were 300 yards long . . . "
That, Luckboy said, is an example of the "inside information" scam. But sometimes the gaff is pure nerve. His own introduction to the California Proposition came just three days after his arrival on the West Coast, when an out-of-work actor wagered $100 that he could hit a golf ball 400 yards in one stroke. Checking first to be sure the actor wasn't a former golf pro, Luckboy took the bet.
"And lost a honeybee," he sighed. "Son-of-a-gun took me up in the mountains and knocked the ball off a cliff!"
"How about my earthquake?" Galveston finally interrupted. "Bet?"
Chuckles looked at Luckboy.
Luckboy looked at Chuckles.
"Speaking for both of us," Luckboy said, "you been out here too long. You're getting to think like a Californian. But hey--for curiosity's sake, and for a honeybee apiece--will you answer one question?"
"Maybe. What is it?"
"Galveston, how the hell do you gaff an earthquake?"