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.

Doc What's Up?, Personal Essays

Down With Sad

Considering the weather, the cold, and this seemingly never-ending winter, I thought this was an appropriate essay to share with you all today. This was originally published in Doc, What’s Up?

It’s early November and I was tossing and turning in my bed in an attempt to get much needed sleep. I couldn’t let go of my thoughts about SAD or what the medical field calls, Seasonal Affective Disorder. After all, this time of the year was the beginning of the downslide for us SAD suffers now that the shortest day of the year was rapidly upon us.

I tried to come up with a new twist on my troublesome problem because living in the cold, dark Minnesota winter was a recurring fact of life for me and my patients. As I lay there dreaming one winter night, a placid image of hibernating bears, safely nestled deep in their snow-covered cave, came to me.

Perhaps SAD was a remnant of the hibernation instinct, which, in some individuals, is so strong that it causes severe depression. Actually, if you follow this line of thought, the hibernation instinct itself would not cause depression, but our cultural taboo against laziness would. Imagine—with 50 thousand years or more of conditioning, your body says: “NOW IT’S TIME TO GO TO BED…” What would you tell your family? How would you explain it to your boss? Who would pay the bills while you’re getting your forty thousand winks?

Anthropologically, it makes obvious sense. We didn’t always work eight to ten hours a day nor did we have the resources to do so. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that free men and women worked more than four hours each day.

Not so long ago, most people this far north of the Equator lived in small villages or clans. Barter and collective cooperation was the necessary way of life—for survival’s sake. We worked hard, long hours tilling the soil, through the planting season and finally to harvest. All that hard work thinned our protective body fat but we gathered it back during the winter. Survival demanded that we paid close attention to Nature, so our intuition was more highly developed than today. Our survival was completely dependent on our abilities to adapt to Nature’s changes. The consequences otherwise were gruesome.

Back then there weren’t outdoor floodlights as the days began to shorten. In fact, it was less than a hundred years ago that electricity lit up our households and factories so that we could continue into the night with our work or shenanigans. We came indoors and played or talked by the fire or an oil lamp. Or we simply retired to our huts, houses or hovels and went to sleep right after sundown. Like any member of nature, we were dying as the seasons do, lying fallow. It’s a natural cycle, why wouldn’t we be a part of it? All through the late autumn and winter, while lying fallow, we restored our bodies, loved our families, told our stories, built our relationships and most of all, we slept!

Everyone went to bed without guilt. We worried about next season’s crops, not our next promotion or the pile of bills. By the coming of spring, we, like the plants and other animals, had prepared ourselves to be reborn.

Instincts are mighty. Some are impossible to ignore. If indeed, Nature is telling us that it is time to rest, then resistance against Nature’s rhythms and systems inside of our bodies murders our most basic and intuitive selves. It has nothing to do with will power or the mind. Compound our resistance to follow our nature with a cultural environment that makes it a felony to follow our natural animal instincts and—who wouldn’t be depressed?

SAD sufferers who are wealthy go to the equator for the winter. Their doctors even tell them to do it. But what about the middle class and poor working stiffs?

I was still tossing and turning in my November attempt at sleep as my mind shifted to the Russian playwright, Maxim Gorky and his play, The Lower Depths. It portrays the lives of poor Russian working class people in the basement of an apartment building in Russia. They were the lost souls, the mentally ill, and the destitute creatures of G-d, who, in the play, comes to bring them hope. The setting is late winter and the tenants live communally in the chill of the basement. Yet, even with the cold, no one complains of having SAD. Obviously, they have a lot to be depressed about, but instead, they hibernated—together.

There was the answer! Why couldn’t SAD sufferers get a 90-day work release prescription from their psychiatrists, be eligible for Workman’s Comp and sign up for the Hibernation Renewal Center? We could rent out basements in Minneapolis that are made up of large open spaces and paint the walls with snuggling bears contently hibernating. The floor could be one big mattress. It could be lit with dim lights and soothing new age music, with a soft snoring rhythm, could be piped in.

We could stop fighting SAD and surrender to it instead. Go with the natural hormonal flow and hibernate the winter away! We’d have to get labeled from DMS IV, but it would be easier than fighting Nature and a whole lot more fun!

Where do I sign up?