From "Finish Line" To "Shut The Mother F-er Down": OTB Employees Struggle To Be Heard
If one was to ask what happened on December 7, 2010 and 2011, most folks would reference the 69th & 70th-year anniversaries of Pearl Harbor. Few people would know or care that New York's Off-Track Betting Office doors were shuttered that first year, depriving thousands of workers from earned health benefits. And on its anniversary date the following year, it marked the day that OTB worker Patti McCole entered the hospital for brain cancer.
While the travesty of Pearl Harbor took the lives of 2300 Americans, perhaps you cannot compare the two events. Nonetheless every life is precious. Patti McCole, 52 of Staten Island was the first victim to die as the result of the government of New York choosing to turn a blind eye to the relinquishment of health benefits for OTB employees.
After 31 years with the company, Patti's case is one of hundreds who were not only forced into early unemployment, but also couldn't afford the health options available to them via the COBRA system -- many of which carried a $6-700 monthly price tag. According to Patti's co-worker Michael Mellon, due to lack of health coverage, Patti was sent home from Columbia Presbyterian where she fought for weeks to get back into the hospital for treatment. Within 2 weeks, she was rushed back into the emergency ward due to her organs completely shutting down. Patti died on New Year's Day, 2012.
Patti's 'Damon Runyon-esque" real-life tragedy and others like it are being told for the first time in Joseph Fusco's documentary "Finish Line: The Rise and Demise of Off-Track Betting," currently under production. "This is the film Albany doesn't want you to see," notes the filmmaker. "Don't let the Governor sweep this story under the rug," he adds referring to the current governor, Andrew Cuomo. "While the OTB shut-down was not under his watch," noted Fusco, "Cuomo picked up the lead from his predecessor and did nothing to rectify the situation."
Fusco's background in filmmaking stems back to the 80's where out of college, he was picked up as a production assistant by Leon Gast to work on his Academy Award-winning Mohammed Ali documentary, "When We Were Kings."
Fusco reminisces that "the experience opened up my way of looking at the possibilities of how a documentary could be both socially conscious and a nail-biter at the same time."
"As a director I have always tried to push the envelope of any subject matter that I explore, whether that film is a dramatic narrative, like my previous feature film, "Chloe, A to Z," which dealt with unplanned pregnancy, a poetic experimental film, such as the short series I made based on the classic Frank O'Hara poem, "Song (is it dirty)" or the chronicling the personal and professional growth of a burgeoning rock and roll band starting out on their first tour, as I did for nearly two years with Brooklyn-based band Shinobi Ninja," says Fusco.
When asked what type of economic impact the OTB closing had on New York City, Fusco made it very clear that the $1 billion hit to OTB's top-line revenues was only the tip of the iceberg for the real losses incurred by the city:
"The impact that New York City Off-Track Betting's shutdown had is enormous. NYC-OTB took in nearly $1 Billion a year, much of which in single-dollar bill bets. These funds supported the racing industry in New York, as well as other states who depended upon the handle from OTB to operate, schools and hospitals, and thousands of employees. Remove $1 Billion in income to the state, local governments, and racing coffers, and replace that hole with the liabilities the state has to pay out in new unemployment, food stamps, and medicare claims, not to mention the number of personal bankruptcy filings which came about as a direct result," says Fusco.Perception may have also played a part in receiving an unsympathetic ear from the New York legislative body:
Few people in the legislature had the foresight to understand what a lynchpin in the economy New York City Off-Track Betting was, because it was, and I say this with all due respect, not the most glamorous of places to patronize. While some effort was made in recent years to clean up the storefront brick and mortar operations, and in many cases to quite some success, the image that OTB had of being a seedy dirty place where disgusting buns hung out was not an unfounded image. It came from SOMEWHERE. So since it did not seem "high-end" I think it was easily dismissed. However, numbers do not lie, and I don't care which side of the tracks you are from, one-billion dollars is still ONE-BILLION DOLLARS," notes Fusco.
With almost 75 percent of the film complete, Fusco is looking to release his film to the public in 2013.
For those interested in donating to Fusco's non-profit fund-raiser for the film, please go to his GO FUND ME website. While the documentary will be submitted to the top film festivals in the country such as Sundance, Tribeca and South by Southwest, "a documentary like the OTB film needs as much grassroots attention and buzz as possible," notes Fusco.
UPDATE: For those in Manhattan who would like meet the filmmaker, the public is invited to a fund-raise
Joseph Fusco can also be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @fuscofilm.
- Monday June 11, 7:15 - 9:00
- Ripley Grier Studios
- 520 Eighth Avenue, Room 16Q, 16th Floor
- Between 36th and 37th Street
Steve Baker (aka "bwaySteve"), another ex-employee also felt disenfranchised with the closing of OTB. His efforts to be heard came in the form of a song, with the no-holds bar title, "Shut The Mother F*cker Down." While OTB was his day job, Baker has been a song writer for years. His use of the verboten cuss word, from his perspective relied on the fact that "there was no other word that really captured the emotion he and his co-workers were feeling when they learned they were permanently being laid off," says Baker.
The song debut of "STMFD" will hopefully give some solace to Baker's OTB colleagues - and will result in becoming a grass-roots hit underscoring not only the current economic recession we are all struggling with, but also, hopefully assisting Fusco and Baker whose work needs to seen and heard by the powers-to-be in Albany.