Sunday, May 10, 2009

Joe and Clemente at Suffolk Downs

     Something's been a bit wrong with me all winter. I've been working hard, but not going many places (except to take Joe to various appointments.) I'm a bit better this spring, but still I haven't gotten back to the track. I missed the Derby Day opening because it was Gloria Hellmann's celebration and then fussed all this week with various doctor/nurse practioner appointments. By the time Saturday came, and I had programmed myself for the Bagel Bards in the morning, I almost forgot that my Saturday afternoons are always spent at the track.
      I really didn't care if I went. I'm not sure why, because I'm always happy (a state I rarely attain) when I'm there. When I first moved up here, to teach at MIT in 1974, I desperately missed my scrappy life in the Lower East Side and found that going to Suffolk Downs and the Grayhound Bus Station were the only places that soothed me. The bus station provided that semi-exhausted, possibly drugged state of folks lounging in the waiting room and the racetrack had a lot of guys milling around, some of them drunk.
     In New York, our block, 5th Street, between A & B, always had junkies, not all that many, but some, leaning against cars, going into a nod, catching themselves. There was an atmosphere of slight danger that meant never walking home when it was very late (I, who had no money, took a taxi from Second Avenue), having a police lock on the door, and being very watchful. I still remember walking across the MIT bridge, soon after I'd moved up here, and whirling around when I heard footsteps coming up behind me. A runner. How odd.
     When a friend, a dog trainer, claimed a Thoroughbred, I got onto the backside and back into going to the races. That was almost five years ago. Maybe six. After she retired her horse, I stayed. The first person who talked to me, as I stood watching the exercise riders at six or seven in the morning, was Joe, a Cuban, whose father brought him to the states when he was fourteen. In order for him to work at the racetrack, his father had to add five years to his age, so over the last year, I've been able to go with Joe to various places while he's straightened out his real age. 
      I never imagined, when he first talked to me, that we'd end up friends and that there would be any way I could help him out. But, he's a talker, thank god, cause I'm not. And when Clemente rode by, they'd yell at each other and then Joe would tell me stories. One was about the time Joe was standing with his owner, and Clemente rode by on a white horse, a very white horse, the whitest, white horse, and the owner commented on how beautiful they looked, and Joe said, "Yeah, looks just like a fly in a glass of milk."
     They've known each other for years, since Clemente was a jockey on some racetrack, somewhere, some place, up or down the coast. After he had a really bad accident and was in the hospital for months, he stopped riding in races and became an exercise rider. This meet, he's walking hots because he decided it was just too dangerous to keep riding. He's already in a lot of pain and there is always the inevitable spill some day or other.
      Clemente used to sing when he rode in the mornings and after I got to know him through all the harassments they passed back and forth, he sang to me as he rode by, "You are my everything....."
     Anyway, I haven't see Clemente since he got back from Puerto Rico where he spent the winter with his family after his mama died. He used to talk to her every morning, five, ten minutes. After she died, he'd call me every now and then, just like he called the ladies who work in the Clubhouse, his white mama, Jean, and his white sister, her daughter, Brenda. Sometimes all of us go to breakfast at House of Pancakes....          
     Clemente likes to sneak up and scare the bejesus out of me, but I can never catch him out. I creep behind and grab his neck and he turns, "Oh, sweetie heart." Well, he gambles. Every penny he gets, he gambles away. He has a great time and says that this way no one's going to argue over his money after he dies. So, yesterday I see Clemente sitting downstairs, talking to some guy about some horse, and try to scare him, no luck, and he says we should to try to find Valdez. This involves seeing Mama, who sells Off Track Betting, finding out where Brenda's working, talking to various women taking bets and finally finding the Brazilian waitress. Of course, Clemente always introduces me as his private photographer and talks about all the money we're going to make since he's so handsome. Sometimes he tells them about the x-rated video I'm going to make, but sometimes it's just that my photos are going to get him to Hollywood So, we wander around, me following him like a pig in heaven. He's small, fast, talks with a high, loud vice, with a heavy accent and he's a scrapper.
     When I'm looking around the Legend's Room, where Joe usually sits, I hear him call me... He looks terrific. I haven't seen him look so good all winter. The picture I took of him does no justice, though it does show his beautiful eyes. The pass-o-port photograph he showed me, himself as a fourteen-year-old, allows a glimpse of this haunting kid with those huge, sincere eyes. I never saw Joe without a hat for the first three years, so i had no idea that he has thick black hair. He also has long eyelashes. He was, as he sometimes says, quite a fellow in his youth. He did have a good time.
     Joe tells the waitress not to bring Clemente any free coffee, and she says she would never do that and then brings him one with lots of cream after she puts Joe's dinner down....two pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and four rolls. Joe says he's not getting any when Clemente eyes his food, but the waitress brings a small plate and Joe ladles food onto it. 
     Clemente takes out his teeth when he eats because they are new, and ivory, from his relatives in Africa, made from elephant tusks, and they might break. He also has a twin, a bad twin who made whatever trouble there was, and an airplane that Mama, Brenda and I are going to Puetro Rico in, and a gold mine. 
     Usually I understand anyone speaking with a heavy accent, but I have to admit that I sometimes lose track of what he's saying -- like the time he was telling me a long story that involved cigarettes (he was bumming one just then), something, something, something, and his sweatshirt with the pouch in front. I did understand that I was supposed to wait until he'd finished galloping horses and drive him somewhere. I did. 
     When he got into the car, he was groaning and moaning in pain, but after I'd driven him the short distance to the Grandstand, he got out like a bolt of lighting. I was slow following him and only got there after he'd rushed through the building, out onto the back tarmac, climbed a fence, was walking along the track, climbing another fence, and was out in the dirt to -- picking up a pack of cigarettes he'd dropped when he was exercising a horse early that morning.
     Joe kept offering to buy me something to eat, but I just hate him using him money on stuff like this. But I was extremely hungry since I've been taking these endless antibiotics at timed intervals with no food before, after, a lot of waiting to eat. I almost ate one of the rolls that Clemente was waiting to eat later, after he'd gummed the chicken and eaten the corn and put his teeth back in.

1 comment:

  1. Happiness at the track: what a change from academe!