It is nightfall at Greenetrack, where it is hard to tell who's running faster -- the dogs on the racetrack or the poor people who scurry toward the $2 windows for an evening of wagering financed by their $70-a-month welfare checks.
Never mind that inflation is soaring, the dollar is dropped and winter heating bills are expected to climb as fast as mortgage interest rates. Legalized dog-track gambling here is the hottest local entertainment this side of the nation's No. 1-ranked University of Alabama football team, which practices just down the highway at Tuscaloosa.
In cars and busloads, they arrive by the hundreds almost everly night at the modern, $5.8 million Greene County Greyhound Park, which sits across the road from a row of rickety houses in the middle of a piney wilderness where poverty, unemployment and infant mortality are among the highest in America.
"If you're making only $70 or $80 a month on welfare, you're going to try to win $300 or $400 in one night, aren't you?" on gambler, Martha Brooks, said as she clutched a printed sheet of odds and gazed at one of 25 color television sets that show closeups and instant replays of each race.
Her friend Doc Beckley, bellied up to the beer bar and disconsolately shook his head. "Ain't nothing but a one-armed bandit," he said.
Five nights and two afternoons a week, bettors come to Greenetrack, the only industry in this predominantly black, rural county of 11,000.
With a per capita income of $3,510, Greene County ranked next-to-last in Alabama in 1977, and is among the poorest in the nation.
The track, built on 200 acres not far from the county seat of Eutaw (pronounced like Utah), opened in September 1977, after the county's voters approved a referendum by a 2-to-1 ratio.
It is owned by 12 western Alabama investors headed by Paul W. Bryant Jr., 34, a Tuscaloosa businessman-developer. Bryant says that his rich and famous father, Paul (bear) Bryant, the University of Alabama's head football coach, holds no financial interest in the track. He added that it probably will be several years before the track turns a profit, although the wait could be prolonged if Alabamians elsewhere -- notably in Birmingham and surrounding Jefferson County -- decide that they, too, want parimutuel betting on dogs.
Greenetrack, which originated after a group of local politicians and businessmen had visited Alabama's only other track, in the Gulf Coast city of Mobile, remains a hotly controversial enterprise in this Bible Belt region.
"Even if it made $100 million for the county, it would never catch fire with my soul," said Sheriff Thomas E. Gilmore, a black, part-time preacher who refuses to war a badge or revolver.
To date, Greenetrack has produced about $4.5 million in next tax revenues and added about 300 jobs for the county's shoestring economy.
Greene County, whose pre-racetrack budget was about $300,000, receives 4 cents on every dollar wagered at the track. Another share of each dollar, averaging about 14 cents, goes for track upkeep, salaries, other taxes and for breeders and owners who run their greyhounds here.
Thanks to gambling, $513,000 in tax revenue was added to the county's coffers, out of the $12.3 million that was wagered in the final 12 weeks of 1977, just after the track opened. And $2.04 million accrued to the county is 1978, when $48.9 million was wagered. The county is expected to collect at least $2.1 million more before the end of this year, during which the dog players already have gambled about $49 million, the track's officials said.
The county's elected leaders, all blacks who wrested control of the government from whites in 1972 after a massive black voter registration drive, have quarreled among themselves about how best to spend the revenue generated by the track. One group is said to prefer financing schools, health care and other human services. The other wants to use the money to improve roads and bridges, among other projects.
Thus far, much of the money has been earmarked for upgrading long-neglected county programs, such as one that provides better nutrition for young mothers and their infants. With the 30 percent of its racetrack revenues that are set aside for education, the county also plans to build a high school gymnasium, libraries at all schools and more early-childhood centers.
"It's been very helpful to the schools," Robert Brown, the county's school superintendent, said in an interview. "The prophets of doom -- the city fathers and preachers who made us feel we were going to hell and that the Mafia and prostitutes would be on every doorstep -- have been wrong.
"The only regrettable thing about the track is that a large number of poor people go there. That's painful. It's sad to see so many people line up there when they really can't afford it."
One county health employe, Anita Davis, 22 who also sells souvenir programs at the track, said that Greenetrack became the county's only entertainment center earlier this year when Eutaw's single movie house went out of business.
"Win or lose, they keep coming back," she said. "I see a lot of my patients here. I know people who will bet their $20 light bill, hoping that they can win $40."
Gambler Martha Brooks chose stronger words. "It's been good for the county," she said, "but hell for the people."
The evening show begins at 8. The first of a dozen races is heralded by an announcer who shouts, "Heeeeeeerrrrre comes Kelly!"
Suddenly, an electronically operated mechanical rabbit nicknamed Kelly glides down the straightaway, with the pack of sleek, 60-pound greyhounds giving futile chase at speeds up to 40 mph around the track, which has a surface of soft sand.
"C'mon! C'mon!" Milton King of Birmingham yelled at the TV screen, exhorting the dog he had wagered on. "Man, them dogs are whipping my a-- tonight. They brought these Florida dogs up here. I don't know too much about them. I'm trying to figure them out . . . I've already lost $85 tonight."
Greenetrack is open 11 months of the year every night except Sunday and Monday. It closes for about one month during the Christmas-New Year's holidays.
One regular is a retired 74-year-old postal worker who talked excitedly about his new hobby. He said he once won $966.40 in one night, but he asked not to be indentified because, as he put it: "My wife is a good Christian woman."
"When I walk in this door, I'm like an 8-year-old kid," he said, clasping a fistful of race tickets and poring over a listings of dogs named Stings Lika Bee, Aerosol and Okie Donna.
Some Greenetrack patrons complain that the track has not provided sufficient jobs, even though by law it must fill 75 percent of its jobs with residents of Greene County.
"Too many folks working here already have jobs," one woman said. "It seems to me that they ought to move over and let someone without a job have one here."
Bryant, the track's president, acknowledge that the new track has not made an appreciable impact on the county's reported 17 percent unemployment. "We've got a great number of skilled jobs here," he said, "and we've got to hire the best people we can get."
Security chief Cecil Rhodes, who is also Eutaw's police chief and is in charge of track personnel as well, was more blunt. "Listen, operating that parimutuel equipment isn't the simplest job in the world," he said.
"We have second and third-generation welfare people in this county. A lot of them have a hard time even carrying on a conversation, which is important in this business. So a lot of our people are schoolteachers, and they do a fine job . . ."
On this night, the 1,138 patrons had wagered $109,610 but it seemed to matter little to some of them that part of the money would eventually be returned in the form of county services.
As they strode out of the grandstand and into the parking lot, most faces were expressionless and sorrowful. One woman walked alone, her head bowed and her eyes moist.
Many would be back to chase their get-rich-quick dreams again the next night, including the elderly man who says that Greenetrack makes him feel like a kid again.
"My preacher wasn't happy when he said to me, "I hear you're going to the dogs now,'" the man said with a wry smile. "So I told the preacher, "Yep -- every day but Sunday and Monday.'"