His name is Robert, he said. And precisely why Robert wasn't in school more frequently this December is open to discussion.
Maybe he thought he was too clever for the ninth grade. Certainly he was racetrack smart, and racetrack tough. He knew the language of the game and he knew how to hustle.
On many December days, by mid-afternoon, Robert could be found on the Route 1 side of Laurel racecourse, patrolling the area between the grandstand and the parking lot. Often he worked the underpasses, beneath the train track, which connected the two areas.
Robert had a good thing going. As fans left the track early he would ask them for their racing forms or daily program. More often than not, the fans agreed to his request.
The racing form which contains the past performances cost $1.25. A program is 35c. That's if you pay the full price, inside the track. Robert offered a bargain to late arrivals. He resold his material at a cutrate price.
"It depends what condition the form and the program are in; how much they've been wrinkled and beat about, and how much use the guy going in the late is going to get out of them." Robert said, in explaining his prices. "I average about 50c for my used forms, and a dime for my programs."
Robert developed quite a few regular customers.
"I put 'em a little more than a dollar ahead before they go in," he declared. "It's a dollar more that they have to bet."
From the start, the first week in December, Robert said he was doing his horse-information hustle on only a temporary basis.
"It's for Christmas, to get some money for presents for my younger-brothers and sisters," he said. "My goal is $50. I'm getting close."
I didn't believe Robert, of course. A hustle is a hustle is a hustle, and Robert sounded too good to be true.
"Tuesday. The Tuesday before Christmas. That is going to be my last day for this," Robert said. "Say goodbye to me Tuesday. I should have all I'll need by then. You won't see me again."
But Robert couldn't say good-bye without hustling another dollar, this one on the famous airborne foggy Christmas Eve race.
"Bet you can't tell me the fastest funny-horse pulling Santa Claus's sleight," he said.
"Dasher," I replied.
"Then give me the exacta," Robert presisted.
"Dasher and Dancer," I answered, becoming more certain of imminent victory.
"And the triple?" Robert continued.
I held off a few seconds at this point before blurting: "Dasher, Dancer, and Prancer," thus relegating Vixon, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen to out-of-the-money positions.
"Very good," Robert remarked. "Not bad at all. The third horse often stops a lot of people.
"But you're wrong, and I have a picture to prove it."
That said, Robert pulled a folded picture from his pocket of the famous Dec. 25 feature and, sure enough, I was out a dollar.
"Rudolph. You forgot Rudolph," Robert said. "Rudolph woulda never lost by a nose in his life."
"I thought Rudolph was called in at the last minute to take Blitzen's place," I said, attempting to explain my ignorance.
"What was wrong with Blitzen?" Robert asked.
"He had a quarter-crack," I volunteered, "and was a late scratch."
Robert would accept none of my explanation. I gave him the dollar and walked away, thinking suddenly about Bashful, Sneezy, Dopey, Grumpy and Doc, Dopey particularly.
I intended to get my dollar back from Robert on Wednesday by testing his trivia. But Robert wasn't there Wednesday or Thursday or yesterday. I now think it's better than even money that he won't be at Laurel today, either, or ever again.
So Merry Christmas, Robert, wherever you are. You helped make the last few weeks an enjoyable experience.