Memoir, Personal Essays

The Horse Race

This essay is the write-up of an event that happened to me several years ago. Check the photo for proof!-20743251542B1DD264

Freud once said, “Love and work, work and love – that’s all there is.”

Well, I was in the midst of losing both: I had been feeling powerless about the changes going on inside of me, but I also felt euphoric about them. Ten years ago, I had had a glimpse of my future and now it was here. The tectonic plates of my existence were once again in motion and I was on the verge of the biggest roller-coaster ride of my life.

That particular Saturday in the spring of ‘91, I was scratching my head in my kitchen, contemplating how to get encrusted food off the abandoned dishes that were knee-deep.

Out of nowhere, a loose thought broke into my pitiful train of housekeeping acumen. Lightning Dancer will win a pick six race today at the Canterbury Downs. The tickle in my brain said that the name would be close to Lightning Dancer. Since there were no live races at Canterbury Downs in February, it would have to be a simulcast race from some tract that ran live races in the winter.

I stood very still and wondered: where did THAT come from?

This thought didn’t feel like it was purely imaginary, like some random burp of an idea floating up from my bored mind, a daydream everyone has while doing mindless tasks. It was solid. A Fact with a capital F. As real as, the sky is blue. I’d been so thoroughly consumed by coming up with various ways to clean dried spaghetti off dishes with the least amount of sweat that there hadn’t been the opportunity for anything else to creep in. Actually, it didn’t even feel like it had been my idea, like it had sprung up from nowhere. But it was so compelling. I immediately considered heading out to the track even though I already had other plans for the day.

What if it was real? This could be the tip of a lifetime! A dead certainty. What other reason is the future revealed?

Like the hardwired gambler that I am, I convinced myself to go in a split second. I dropped the scouring pad, shut off the water in the sink and rifled through the morning paper until I found the sports section. My hands began shaking as I scanned the pages for that day’s racing entries at Golden Gate Fields in California, where winter racing was in full force.

4th Race? No. 5th Race? No. 6th? 7th? 8th? 9th? Nada. Not a single pony with a name that was even close to Lightning Dancer.

I was confused. The message had been so clear: it had to be right. Instead of logically considering the idea a fluke, I started to come up with other possibilities.

Maybe the horse was a late entry. Maybe the paper was wrong. Maybe the dates were screwed up.

Then, it hit me: on weekdays, the Pick-6 always started in the 4th race. But on the weekends, it traditionally starts in the 3rd. I checked the new column.

And there it was: Lyphing Dancer, so close to Lightning Dancer. The number three horse in Race 3. The morning odds on her were 4:1. It would be a pretty sweet return if this was, in fact, a ‘sure thing.’ I decided to put $200 on this dark horse to win.

I dipped into my cookie jar and pulled out enough cash for the bet, left the kitchen to the cleaning fairies and drove out to the track. I had plenty of time to make the 3rd race.

Maybe I’ll run into my friend Val, I thought. He always wanted to quit his job in sewer management at the county to go back to school and become an artist. If I won big, I could give him the money, turn him away from being a drunk…the daydreams kept coming as I started to imagine all the ways I could spend the money I was surely about to win.

When I was twenty, I worked nights as a cashier and ticket-seller at Monticello Raceway – Upstate New York’s harness track. It was a rapid-fire summer of new experiences for me, there in the Catskills of the ‘60s. By day, I was a lifeguard at Pollock’s Hotel in the hills above the swanky Swan Lake. Pollack’s was a bedraggled resort that had seen better days. Most of the guests were Jewish and had traveled from their tenement apartments in Brooklyn for their annual one-week in paradise. To them, a swimming pool was an anathema – something dangerous you didn’t go near and made damned sure your kids didn’t either. “Stay away from the edge! You’ll fall in and drown!” the Jewish mothers yelled at their kids daily. In fact, during that entire summer, I only saw one person who actually knew how to swim.

Pollock’s also had a ramshackle old dinner theater that seated maybe fifty guests and every night they’d dress up to watch itinerant comedians, many sharpening their acts on their way to stardom, schlepping the rounds of the Borscht Belt circuit. The noise in the room, even during performances, was a cacophony of distracting schmoozes, staccato snores and table pounding over schlock one-liners.

Within the first week, I conceived an escape plan from those nights at Pollock’s and took a job at Singer’s Delicatessen, Bar & Chinese Restaurant in Liberty, NY as a sandwich maker/bartender. I was in heaven. My first love affair was with the meat slicer – one slice of pastrami for the customers, one slice for me. But I quickly discovered that the bar really put out: one maraschino cherry for the customer, one for me. One shot of Jim Beam apiece for the party at table three in the corner, one for me. I topped off my orgasmic gastric bombardment at closing, with unkosher pork-fried rice leftovers before I headed over to sleep with my fiancé at her parent’s house in Jeffersonville, seventeen miles west of Liberty. This visit necessitated a round-trip in socks, tiptoeing up – and then down – three flights of stairs. By the end of my first week, I was six pounds heavier, well-fellated and a lush. I knew this love affair was headed for doom so I quit Singer’s and found a job as a ticket-seller at Monticello Raceway, thanks to my Phi Sig fraternity brother and former fiancé of my fiance, Lonnie Sachs, who lived in Liberty. Thus began the corruption of my soul through racetrack betting.

My summer soon found a rhythm. Every day by 8:00 am, I crawled back from Jeffersonville to Pollock’s Hotel, unlocked the pool, threw forty chlorine tablets willy-nilly into the water, perched myself securely in the tall lifeguard chair and donned my sunglasses, which allowed me to catch up on my beauty sleep while appearing ready to rescue the next victim from drowning if anyone dared to venture into the menacing pool. By the afternoon, I was off to the races at Monticello, topping the day off at 11:00 p.m. with the usual romance in Jeffersonville.

By the time I got back to New York City to start my fall semester, I had acquired a limited skill for betting on harness racing as well as a not-so-limited appetite for it. I made it a point to take my dad out to Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island once a week to play the trotters. One night, before our weekly sojourn, I dreamed about a horse named Symphony Rhythm who won three races in a row. Normally, I didn’t remember my dreams, but this one I did.

At Roosevelt raceway the next day, I scanned the program for my dream horse and, to my surprise, there was a filly named Symphony Starlight who’d won three races in a row.

“That’s our punt,” I told my dad, so we pooled our funds and put eight bucks on her to win. We walked out $56 richer that day. I must have been too young to appreciate this amazing incident, because I’d forgotten all about it until the day I drove out to Canterbury Downs, ready to bet on Lyphing Dancer.

Once I got into the Downs, I looked for my buddy, Val. Normally, he was a fixture out there, and just as normally, a loser despite being a studious horseman. But he was nowhere in sight. Instead, my attention was drawn to a lone middle-aged African American man contemplating his tip sheet. It was fifteen minutes to post in Race 3. I asked how his luck had been and he said, “Lousy, not even close so far.”

“Who are you going to bet on in the 3rd race?” I asked.

“I don’t know. They’re all a bunch of nags. Anyone could win.”

I hesitated on giving him the tip on Lyphing Dancer – it’d be awkward if the horse lost, but I took the chance anyway.

“Bet number 3. A sure thing.”

He looked it over and thanked me.

With ten minutes to post time, I headed toward the betting windows to place my wager. The line was twenty deep. Not a problem, I thought. There’s plenty of time. Suddenly, I saw Val, so I gave up my place in line to rush over to his table. He was sitting with three guys I didn’t recognize and I suddenly felt hesitant. As I looked down at him sitting right in front of me, I couldn’t convince myself it was him. He was almost Val, but some quality, possibly softer features, stopped me from speaking to him. I tried not to appear to be observing him until I had to accept it wasn’t Val at all, but just someone who looked like him.

I ran to the betting lines in a panic. It was five minutes to post and I was 30th in line. After all that, I was about to get shut out.

The line advanced at a torturously slow rate, but my heart rate was over the top. I kept talking myself in and out of the bet, wondering if I’d invented the whole thing in my head.

Finally, it was my turn, with only minutes to spare. “$50 on Lyphing Dancer, I mean #3, in the 3rd race at Golden Gate Fields,” I sputtered to the cashier.

I had punked out.

I walked away from the ticket window, totally confused. I wasn’t certain about anything, including my own reality. Like seeing almost-Val, the whole day felt like a dream.

I bunched myself with other hopefuls in front of the large TV screen that would beam us our destiny from sunny northern California.

Lyphing Dancer broke out of the gate smartly and my heart started to pound. Effortlessly, she powered to the lead as if it were her place. I was elated by her confidence and I could feel her fire gaining strength within her.

She’s really going to do it, I thought, scanning the track behind her. None of the other horses were pacing with her. No one was even challenging her. Heading into the far turn, none of the other horses had closed the gap.

My head began to swim. My chest was pounding harder and harder as the finish line approached. Joy of joys for a horseman, knowing that your horse is going to prove you a genius, a courageous gambler, omnipotent, a winner in an orgiastic ten seconds to the finish line.

Lyphing flew into the last stretch almost as if she didn’t need to touch the ground. Two hundred yards to go and she was still 4 lengths ahead. Damn, she was gorgeous. I drooled.

Just about then, two other horses began closing ground on her. Abruptly, the finish line seemed farther away than it had just a split second before.

“No! No! It can’t happen!” I shrieked. Suddenly, time became elastic and those last one hundred yards seemed to take forever.

“Hold on…hold on…hold on, you bitch!” I screamed, as the other two nags relentlessly nosed into the gap between themselves and Lyphing.

Then, at that last possible moment, a lightning flick of the whip from her jockey launched Lyphing Dancer forward, and it was all over. She slipped past the finish line with distance to spare.

“She did it! She had it in her all the time!” I screamed at the glum betters standing near me. “How could you bet anyone but Lyphing Dancer? Don’t you guys have brains?!”

As I stood in line to collect my winnings, which would have been significantly more if I had not chickened out at the last minute, I considered this remarkable experience I’d just been given. I wondered: what good is knowing the future if I don’t believe 100% in it? From now I on I would take these premonitions as G-ds truth.

short story

The Others

A while ago I wrote a story called, “The Others,” or also, “The Odders,” about a special bathroom for people who didn’t identify as either male or female – people who were confused about their gender, or perhaps weren’t yet comfortable using the bathroom of the gender they actually identified with. It was based on an article I read in The New York Times in 2006, about how a new bill in New York would allow residents to change their gender on official documents. But my bathroom in “The Others” was a little different – it was run by the mob.

I ended up writing two versions of this story – one that used the vernacular and one that didn’t. I want to share both beginnings of the story with you so that you can see how much the use of slang changes the way the story feels. I’d also love your opinions on which version you think works better.

But a warning – this piece is NSFW. Heavy on the foul language and themes. This is the mob after all!

Version One – Non-Vernacular:

Dear James Thurston

Reporter, The New York Star,

I’m going to lay it on you just like it happened. I got respect for the way you carved up those bums what were cheating on the welfare dollars. You’re my kind of newspaper man and I’m going to give you a chance to get the mob for all the shit they pulled on me.

You better be careful though, because the mob knows how to make it rough on everybody. They got the goods on everyone, maybe even your boss. One wrong move and you’re out. You’ve got to have guts to take on the mob. I kind of think you do, but be sharp and never let your guard down. They are dirty fighters, always throwing shit at you, never a clean blow. Whatever dirt there is that a human mind can think up, they know it; that’s their business.

I should have kicked their fucking asses, yeah I should have. I ain’t no coward but I never had the guts to do it until now. What a stupid jerk, that’s what I am, a stupid mother-fucking jerk. Thirty years of eating shit, now I wake up. That’s slow for you, slow and stupid. Thirty years in the shitter, thirsty years in charge of the Other’s shitter. The worst job even the devil could think of. Yeah, the devil would throw the worst sinning bastard into the Others and tell him “you’re in charge, schmuck, for the rest of your goddamned life.” That’s what the mob did to me – the ever-loving bastards. Fuck them all. They fucked me royally but no more. My time’s up.

That’s the trouble, get on the wrong side of one of those bastards and you’re cooked. They could have killed me, thrown me into the East River up to my ass in cement, but no, they wanted to have fun with my hide. So they slap my ass into this job working as the attendant for the Others shitter. It’s easy for them because the mob controls the Others.

Version Two – Heavy Use of Vernacular:

Dear James Thurston,

I’m goin to lay it on ya jus like it happened. I got respect for da way you carved up dos bums what were cheatin on der welfare dollars. You my kinda paper man and I’m going a give ya a chance to get der mob for all da shit day pulled on me. 

You better be carefull do because da mob know how to make it rough on everybody. Day got da goods on everyone, maybe even your boss. One wrong move and your out. Ya gotta have guts ta take on da mob. I kinna think you do but be sharp, never let ya guard dwon, der doity fighters, always throwin shit at ya, never a clean blow. Whatever dirt der is dat a human mid can tink up, dey knows it; dats der business.

I shoulda kicked dar funkin asses, yeah I shoulda. I aint no coward but I neva had da guts to do it til now. What a stupid joik, dats what I am, a stupid mother fuckin joik. Thoity years of eating shit, now I waks up. Dats slow for ya, slow and stupid. Thoity years in the shitter, thoity years in charge of the Odders shitters. Da woist job even da devil could think of. Yeah, the devil would tro da woist sinnin bastard inta the Odders and tell him “you in charge, shmuck, for da rest of your goddamned life.” Dats what the mob did to me – the everloving bastards. Fuck em all, day fucked me royally but no more, my times up.

Dats da trouble, get on the wrong side of one of dem bastards and your cooked. Day coulda killed me, throwd me inta the east, up to my ass in cement, but no day wanted ta have fun with me hide. So day slaps my ass into dis job woiken as attendint for the Odders shitter. Its easy for dem because the mob controls the Odders.

Any thoughts on which version is more successful?