The first Saturday in May, as written about by Hunter S. all those years ago with his limey friend in tow, was decadent and depraved. It lacked the civil or social value that was inherent in every other high class society meeting this town threw. Instead of string quartets and cocktail conversations about recent pieces of art, there were garish hats and strong mint juleps that stained the white linen suits of the men on the way down, then on the way back up as they hunched over a toilet. Meanwhile, from their boxes in the bandstands, those wealthy few watched the teeming masses on a sea of green surrounded by brown track, a mob of humanity that was circled sporadically by the rumble and pound of hooves on mud as thoroughbreds strained by. High society watching low society as the sport of kings separated the two into their proper social standings. It always seemed strangely appropriate to me.
“Damn tourists,” I mutter, stirring tea and staring into the roiling crush of bodies.
A crowd has moved into town in their bright suits and ties, fat men with faces reddened by muggy air and liquor. Their voices bray through the air, calling to one another in an intense mixture of affectionate curses and amounts of lost money. The tongues curl with accents that sound as foreign as Arabic. Clipped words and missing r’s drown out the lazy drawl that normally fills the street. My knuckles turn white against the cool glass.
“One mint julep,” a portly man in a lime green suit yells out, “and make it good this time.”
The green man wraps one fleshy arm around the waist of a blonde haired faux-southern belle. He whispers something in her ear and she laughs, a harsh nasal noise. Her hands flutter weakly in the air to catch the sun on the gold rings that line her fingers, and she licks his ear as she mumbles something back. Judging from the hungry look that crosses the green man’s face, I guess her response was a lewd suggestion that almost overrode the desire to watch horses run.
I watch the crowd mill about in front of Churchhill Downs. Down the street come the raucous catcalls and hoots of the local revelers. Adopted locals, every one of them, as no self respecting Louisvillian would actually attend the Derby. It was an unwritten rule, like nodding to complete strangers on the street when meeting their eyes. The actual citizens, those born and bred on the too-small streets of Kentucky’s largest city, were at home watching the race on TV, placing their bets in small pools, drawing horse names from a hat as they drank heavily with close friends and not in close quarters with heavy people.
“Heigh-ho Silver, away!” the man in the green suit brays a foot away my steps, flinging his arms into the air so violently that his julep splashes over the side of the silver cup and smacks wetly onto the sidewalk, a mixture of booze and crushed ice.
The suit is glaring in this crowd, a beacon of poor taste and too much money. Lime green, so bright that it looks as if it belongs in the window of a seedy bar advertising a second-rate beer in flashing neon, it’s the sore thumb of a gaudy circus. The color isn’t found in nature, isn’t found anywhere down here except on tiny, old black men headed to church or on the backs of pimps down in Portland. It’s a hustler’s suit, a hustler’s color, what money would look like if a madman with a box of markers designed it, and this guy thinks it makes him fit in. What he doesn’t want to say, the loathing and superiority that brought him south to view the sport of kings in a neighborhood of peasants, is shouted by that garish color. It says, very simply, that he has the money and ability to dress this way anytime he wants, that his status lets him pull it off.
“Jackass,” I mumble, taking another sip of iced tea.
The horses would run later in the afternoon carrying their miniature riders. Every breath would be held as the first leg of the Triple Crown played out in a town that, the rest of the year, was considered a backwater city in a backwater state. By the end of the week these people would be in their homes telling tales of rednecks and hillbillies as they dined over tiny portions of overpriced food. While swigging martinis and ignoring strangers they would laugh uproariously at the simple folk of the south, of Kentucky, and swear that they would never come back.
What I’ve never understood is why they even bother to make a pilgrimage down here. Was it to bask in the decadence of a city they knew nothing about, or just to get drunk like the green suit and his whore? They could just have easily stayed home, these two invaders, watched the race on television and placed their bets with some high class bookie in a quiet little bar where a she-he that looked like Marilyn Monroe crooned Ella Fitzgerald in front of a small jazz trio. If they hate us, our city, our people, our way of life the rest of the year, then I don’t see why they should embrace the worst of the state for a few days in May before going back to treating us like the redheaded stepchild of America.
His face goes blank as the julep is swigged, then twists into a mixture of disgust and perverse delight at tasting something that, no doubt, he thinks is a true delicacy of a backwards people. His whore laughs again, a nasal sound that slices into the very core of the skull and dances on the bone. She wants a drink, tugging the cup from his hands and spilling a mixture that no Kentuckian ever really touches down the front of her dress. Even from here I can see her makeup, placed so carefully on cleavage, start to run down the fabric. Any self-respecting woman would have started crying, screaming at the injustice done to such an obviously expensive outfit. Her response is to grab the green man and force his face between her breasts, to lick the offending alcohol off her body. He goes to work at his new job with vigor and determination, sliding his tongue furiously over exposed skin.
Now the mob continues in its movement, pushing along the man in the green suit and his painted bride-for-a-night, a rolling river of decadence surging through the gates of the Downs. I sip the last of my tea, set it on the rusted metal porch table. In an hour it would be time to go to the bar and settle onto a corner stool before the race was run. Once the drunks had lost their money and gone to draw out more they would flood the Rose Bar with their foreign accents and noxious, whiskey-fumed breath. Any longer than an hour’s wait and it would be impossible to find a seat after these invaders on my peace found out there was a bar within walking distance. I heft myself out of the chair, slip my hat over a balding scalp, and decide to brave the crowd in favor of a quiet drink away from this madness.