Wednesday, May 5, 2010
I've been sorting out this year's Kentucky Derby for the past few days. Despite the tumult and change, I love that it's still so unpredictable, such a mystery. This year I seemed to be burdened by a bit more than finding the winner or getting a nice score at the window. This year was more about other years. Here's a first draft of what followed the Run for the Roses in my mind this year
It’s finally here. As always, I haven’t slept well because I’m too excited. I quit trying to get to bed early any more. Useless. Too much to replay in my mind, anyway. Will it rain? How much? Who can I eliminate? Who might I be leaving out? I turn over on my back. I picture the view of the Churchill Downs infield from the Press Box. Ever see an oval of 150,000 people? It’s a sound tunnel of cheering, anticipation, and delirious mystery about to be revealed. I hear My Old Kentucky Home, with it’s revised lyrics so the racism of Antebellum America lies buried where it belongs. No more “darkies.” It’s the “people” now who are “happy and gay.” Gay darkies, my how times change. The night before the Derby I spend revving up for the one day that I enjoy above all others.
This Derby morning something is different. I feel oddly alone. Can’t seem to find anyone who feels what I feel. Can’t find anyone who knows or cares that today is Derby day. It’s in the blood,” the hard boot horse trainers say. That may or may not be. I’m certain, however, it’s in my blood. This year my excitement is tempered with a gnawing sadness. I will watch the Derby alone. Oh, I’ll probably go out to the track, place a bet or two and come home to watch the ceremony and tradition on my favorite couch. Even if I stay and watch at the racetrack, with thousands around me, I will still watch the Derby alone. This morning, while my anticipation builds, while I stick an apple and some trail mix into a paper bag, while I double check the mud breeding for the fifth time, I keep thinking of Ted.
We were such improbable friends. When I was in college at UCLA, Ted dropped out of Southern Illinois University. When my anti-war anger solidified, I marched, and resisted. Ted questioned the war and spoke out too, but ended up in uniform and soon after in Vietnam. When I went to Texas to serve as a VISTA Volunteer, Ted went to Alaska for a change of scenery. By the time we both ended up in the Bay Area, I fulfilled my dream in a high school classroom, while Ted found comfort and satisfaction in culinary school. Only an equalizer like horse racing could have brought us together.
Our unlikely bond formed at Golden Gate Fields. The love of horses and the lure of the track create uncommon community. That’s just how it worked for Ted and me. We’d discuss past performances, turf breeding and trainer stats before politics. Eventually, we got around to talking about everything. Turns out we weren’t that far apart at all. After horses came music, art, literature, and pop culture. Our friendship grew through a yearlong series of late Friday afternoons. After a full week’s work, come Friday, we’d find one another in the “Top of the Stretch” room surrounded by cab drivers and doctors, educators, restaurant owners, restaurant workers, professional athletes, military personnel, mail carriers, recent immigrants, recent homeless, the bored, the retired, the inept, and all manner of over and underachievers. I’d come for the last couple of races and an opportunity to enter an alternate universe, if only for a couple of hours.
9:30 Pacific Standard Time.
The Derby is six hours away and I find myself repeating patterns. I get bagels and then coffee and pour over the Racing Form just like I did with Ted. Somewhere deep inside I harbor the thought this routine still might be possible some day because I never found his obituary. None of the other guys he knew from the track could be sure either. But when someone’s life begins to implode it’s easy to connect the dots yourself. Still, that last year lingers in my head and stings as much as losing a tight photo finish. Ted was dealing with health issues. First it was prostate cancer. In our little posse of thoroughbred fanatics, Ted found friendship and support. From Mike the writer, Zim the psychiatrist, and Bob, stock broker, the horse talk could easily be replaced with sound advise on anything that mattered. So why did Ted suddenly disappear?
Ted had a checklist of demons following him. Though he’d beaten the heroin addiction that crippled so many Vietnam vets, his body wore the scars. He was such a chain smoker that nicotine became part of Ted’s complexion. Though I never knew Ted’s ethnicity, his skin was an off, off white. A reddish gray face, like an old barn or a singed apple held Ted’s deep blue eyes. I always thought that a good scrubbing with soap and water would restore Ted’s complexion, but there were too many toxins, too many stressors, and too many cigarettes in succession.
I know Ted has a brother somewhere. He told me they were close too, just not living in the same town. He’d often wear a red and blue baseball cap that he and his brother loved. It had a Warner Brothers logo and always reminded me that Warner was Ted’s last name. Even last week, while walking through downtown Portland I saw a similar looking red and blue cap coming toward me. Without thinking, my eyes brightened and I approached the guy as if something pulled me forward. Man, that was weird, I quickly told myself. Imagine that, I thought that was Ted. That’s hardly the first time that has happened.
The Derby is three hours away and I’m ready for another cup of coffee. The lovely puzzle that handicapping a horse race can be has now replaced any lingering thoughts about picking up Ted at the BART station, grabbing coffee, sharing last minute insights, and scrambling for a good seat at the track. I can live without that ever happening again. It’s the way he just disappeared that won’t leave me alone. Even old Tom, who went to the track everyday kept asking me about Ted. Tom is living proof that the racetrack contains all the characters it is famous for. Tom is 91. He came up in New Orleans, knows how to look at a horse, and knows even more about human nature. Tom is the alpha male in a group of older black men who are arguably the most knowledgeable and funny human beings on the planet. Listening to Tom and Floyd and an octogenarian who goes only by “Mr. Brown” is better than television.
“Floyd’s blackberry cobbler is so good it’ll make you slap yo mama,” Tom tells me.
Tom, who gives everyone a nickname, called Ted “Marin” because even though they caught the same bus in San Francisco to the track, he knew Ted lived in San Rafael, in Marin County.
‘Teach,’ have you seen Marin this week?” Tom asks me.
“No Tom, still haven’t seen him. Nobody here has, best as I can tell.”
That conversation went on for two months. That’s when I tried to play private investigator. I took everything I knew about Ted and set out to solve this conundrum. I knew he’d had a bad year. First his work hours got cut. What was the name of that catering firm he worked for? Then his roommate almost burned down the apartment they shared. Ted lost most of his clothes and personal possessions. Probably that Warner Brothers hat too. On top of that came the hit and run driver who clipped him in the early morning fog while he walked from a bus stop in San Francisco. But Ted bounced back. He bought new clothes, his beat-up body began to heal, and he’d beaten cancer, hadn’t he?
Some years ago, I befriended an older Austrian man, Eric, in a coffeehouse. He’s quit driving because he couldn’t always remember where he parked his car. Eric was always inviting me over to see his favorite film, “The Third Man.” Even after we shared a simple dinner and watched the film in his apartment, he kept inviting me over to see it. One afternoon I managed to change the subject and asked if he had any children.
“I’ve got a daughter who lives in the city,” he said. “She’s got her own problems with alcohol, and bad relationships. She’s also got a daughter who won’t listen to anyone about anything.”
“Yeah, that must be tough,” I said. “She’s so close, but can hardly get over here to see you.”
“But you’d like my son,” Eric said. “He’s about your age.”
“Where does he live?”
“Well, he was in Alaska, and then he went to Europe or the Middle East. But he’s disappeared.”
“What do you mean, he’s disappeared?”
“I haven’t heard from him in a few years. People disappear, you know.”
Eric was so sincere that I just left it there.
In the years since that conversation, Eric’s words defined themselves. Ron, another track regular, died of cancer. In six months he went from amiable wine salesman to instant retiree. With wizened face and body, he played improbable longshots with increased regularity and pitiable anger. Glen, a fellow teacher, never made it home for the weekend. His life ended on the kind of rain-slicked freeway that takes away vision and vitality in a heartbeat. We wished him well on Friday evening and never saw him again.
The eleventh Derby of this century has locked into place. Super Saver with a rail-skimming ride from the master, Calvin Borel, wears the roses. He was on most of my tickets, yet no elation, no contentment still. I need to lay Ted to rest. Turn the page. Go on to the Preakness and the Belmont.
There is talk among the big advertisers and networks to move the Derby to Saturday night. 136 years of tradition branded, sold, stuck under the lights. It’s what we do best, isn’t it? I see neon jockey silks and corporate logos all over that teeming oval.
Not just people disappear.