I met Alex at the race track. At first he was just one of those familiar faces passing by in the line for a program, the line tomato a wager, the line to by something to eat or drink. Something about his smile and his ability to be alone in a crowd was soothing. He often huddled with groups of other Asian horseplayers. They all spoke Chinese, I guess. But once Alex asked me something in English. It was probably the meaning of some footnote in the program.
"What this mean, horse is two pounds over?"
"It means the total weight carried by horse and rider is two pounds more than the assigned weight.
"Why that important?"
"Maybe the jockey ate too much last night or drank too much water, but they are just telling yo what the horse will carry."
Our friendship grew from there. When Alex learned I was a teacher, his questions about language usage multiplied. He was always asking about idiomatic expressions. I was always reminding him that English is a strange language and has many contradictions. I think he knew the parallels to horse racing too.
That Alex could switch from English to Cantonese so quickly always amazed me. But he was so curious, he began asking me personal questions. He learned I had a wife and also a part time job writing for a thoroughbred horse magazine. My interest in going to the track was much more than trying to win a few bucks. For Alex, it was his escape from a minimum wage job, a home with some family members in an overcrowded apartment, and a chance to hang out with friends. It soon became a chance to learn more about the English language.
We exchanged names early on but somehow he was more comfortable calling me by my last name, or most of it. Greene became GREE. This in the same way that Alex and his Chinese friends took American names and make them one syllable sounds, like the jockey Tom Chapman. I'd hear them shouting Chap Mon Chap Mon. The numbers too got translated into loud one syllable sounds in staccato. If the number two horse finished first, and the number five horse was second, followed by number 8 in third, they's shout TU-FI-AYE (two-five-eight)
One afternoon, Alex and I shared a small table in the Clubhouse. We ultimately shared food and more of our life stories. I learned that Alex had lived most of his life in Vietnam. I knew that South Vietnam had a large Chinese population at one point in it's history, but never went into the war and the U.S. role in Vietnam. I figured if it ever came up, we'd be good friends by then and it might be better understood by then. During the course of this afternoon, I mentioned to Alex that I had a Stereo receiver that had recently stopped working. He told me that he was good at electronic repair and that I should bring it with me and he'd look at it. A week later, we met in the parking lot of Golden Gate Fields for the exchange. A week after that the receiver was in working order again. Alex explained that it was nothing more than one loose wire that he re-soldered to the proper connection. I offered to pay him; he said no with that wonderful smile.
"No," I countered, that's at least $20. for your time."
He refused. But I had the last word when I left that day by giving him my voucher with an extra $20. on it. You see at the racetrack people run around with little slips of paper called betting vouchers that they insert into self-operated betting terminals. Alex and I often split the cost of a bet. If we wanted to "box" three horses in an exacta (any combination of the three numbers has to run first and/or second) we'd each put up three bucks for a $1 box or six bucks for a $2 box, or nine dollars for a $3 box. If the horses came in we'd split the winnings.
"I gotta go,"
I told him and stuffed the small slip into his shirt pocket.
"Who you like," he countered.
"Play the five horse, with any two others you think have a chance. See you later"
That night the phone rang. I answered:
"Gree" we didn't win, FI ran third.
Oh but we did, Alex, I thought.