The first thing you notice at the racetrack is this: one spends
a lot of time staring at the back of people's heads. Keep in mind
this is Sunday afternoon, and the temperature is cold enough to
warrant adorable wool cozies for the horses and their jockeys.
Therefore, attendance was spotty and committed; no wandering eyes
or distracted, swiveling heads. Except mine, of course. I hadn't
been to the track since I was a child, when my grandfather and
his son would take us to the track, thinly veiled summer outings
that served as a front for their love for gambling - like a field
trip to a convention for volatile, sartorially challenged men.
(My uncle, who lived at home until he was 35, was a professional
lawyer, impassioned handicapper, and perennial bachelor. He was
also the only living man in my personal experience that used HI-KARATE
after-shave. Looking back at those two sentences it seems like
many of the elements, in any order, could easily add up to "perennial
bachelor." So foolproof is this formula for late-adult bachelordom
that I was tempted to change "professional lawyer" to "TSR pewter
figurine collector" because I that one single flaw in perfection
nagged at me. I only resisted because I decided the lawyer wildcard
contributed to some theory of chaos of which I am still only vaguely
aware. Did I mention he wore golf shirts for all occasions? Did
I need to?) I didn't have the heart or stomach for gambling back
then, often betting my allotted $4 on a few horses with funny
names to 'Show' - a coward's bet, my grandmother would assure
me, blowing acrid cigar smoke in my face. Worse yet I eventually
received the nickname "Chipwich" from my entire immediate family,
for my tendency to blow half of my gambling allowance at the racetrack's
Chipwich vendor. I thought of him as my bookie. I was adorable,
and I always went home with a dollar and delight in the knowledge
that I was a risk-shy fattie.
Today Chipwich found himself reunited with the horse track, in
the ugliest of places on the ugliest of days. The second thing
you notice after all the strange heads spotting the clubhouse
stadium seats is: no one looks rich. No one. It's no different
than I remembered it, except the leisure suits have been swapped
out for sweatshirts over Dockers or Members Only jackets, and
plaid hats have been retired as an accessory, giving way to the
rise of fanny packs. There is clearly a lot of money diverted
from Clothing or Hygiene Funds, and channeled directly into Superfecta
Securities. The off-brand jeans, rumpled tracksuits, eight-dollar
haircuts, and throwback facial hair (and I'm talking about the
women now) should all be seen as symbols in a very rich cautionary
tale about the dangers of excessive gambling.
My optometrist gambles. In his own words: "I can spend $100 for
50 minutes of therapy and feel shitty about myself for the rest
of the day, or gamble $100 in 50 minutes and have a great time."
(He did. And he did.) This seemed to me a logically infallible
statement, but I was still a little woozy from the two hotdogs
I'd just inhaled. (The hotdogs reminded me of the racetrack denizens,
rolling over themselves endlessly, getting old and cracked. And
the hotdog lady - wow. She looked like she arrived at the racetrack
in a crate with the hotdog cooker, 37 years ago. She probably
suffered from second-hand nitrates.) My optometrist demonstrated
a few old-hand tricks, like arriving late and asking financially
ruined, departing gamblers if you can have their racing programs.
(A $2 savings! And absolutely preferable to rooting through a
trashcan at the racetrack entrance, which my optometrist was also
prepared to do.) When an old-timer handed me his program as our
opposite-direction escalators met for a moment (And this did seem
like the kind of place where you could call someone 'old-timer'
without being disrespectful. But this is also a place where I
saw a thick-necked man in a white turtleneck - a clothing choice
that raises all sorts of irrational red flags for me - call his
father, clearly an old-timer, a "fucking idiot in [his] old age.")
I felt a small sense of kinship. But where other writers might
take a moment like this and attach a sentimental importance -
a sweet moment of nearly-Zen inclusion, if you will - I was not
so myopic that I believed this bond actually existed. And if I
did, that self-congratulatory bubble was burst when, moments later,
an elderly black man who looked like he took the wrong turn at
the crossroads, called me a shitball for squeezing by him in the
middle of a televised race.
The third thing you notice at the racetrack is: numbers rule.
They have an almost kabalistic importance in this world. So many
numbers in so many equally significant configurations, it makes
you nauseous. Even watching a live race, I couldn't follow the
lighted numbers board that changed frequently, displaying important
information about each horse and his standing in the race. I always
liked those carnival games where you control the horse race through
squirt guns or miniature skeeball. In that type of racing, the
only number that counts is your own. At the racetrack numbers
and their precise order are always at stake. My optometrist was
incredibly facile at this system, often slipping into an autistic
trance as he considered trifectas, exactas, and funkmastas. Me?
I went for the funny names again, but this time I through a twenty
dollar bill at my favorite name, to win. It didn't matter to me
one way or another and I decided that the greatest pleasure in
placing my bet was, in the event that Mister Poopies won the race,
it would be a neat act of subversion in the face of all the calculated
gambling bubbling up around me. Oh yeah - and fuck a Chipwich.