Sunday, May 22, 2011

As Close to Heaven

 Clemente is a rascal from Puerto Rico who rattles on in a high-pitched voice. I often don't understand him, but K. always gets what he's saying. He was a jockey for many years, riding at tracks all over the country, then an exercise rider when I first met him, and now a hot walker and a groom. He was badly hurt in a fall and didn't stay in the hospital long enough, so he's often in pain, sometimes complaining, endlessly joking. Often I've spent an afternoon at the races, following him from one place to another, as he wanders here and there, taking to this person, to that one, introducing me and laughing, laughing, laughing. For some inexplicable reason, I find his face just fascinating. He's one of the people I'd never tire looking at. And never tire photographing.

I met him through my friend Joe who used him as an exercise rider. Joe told me about one day when Clemente was riding by on a white horse, a very white horse, and he yelled to Joe, "Look at me, a black man on a white horse," and Joe said, "Yeah, just like a fly in a glass of milk." Clemente says he was once white, but he's drunk so much coffee that he's turned dark brown. And he says he has a twin brother, the one locked in the basement, or the one who was in a bad mood yesterday. His family has gold mines, he says, and air planes and he's going to take us on one, to Puerto Rico. And he says Puetro Ricans no lie, no cheat, no do drugs. He's always laughing.

 When we first moved up to this god forsaken place, Boston, I used to take K, who was only nine, out to Suffolk Downs. I found it as comforting as I found the Greyhouse bus station...both places that reminded me of the relentlessness of New York as I knew it. K missed NY as much as I did, but she found the track frightening. Too many drunk men. And I soon realized that I couldn't take her with me. I was never interested in the horses, but in the people, and since she wasn't interested in the horses, it was more torture than pleasure for her.
 At some point, I got used to my new life, more-or-less, and stopped going out there, though I did take a class from MIT once. A very quiet young woman took the most marvelous photographs by just turning around and photographing those old guys checking their programs, yelling at the races. Back then, the grandstands were crowded on race days and she had a Rolei, a camera that you look down into to focus, and they didn't notice what she was doing. I'd hadn't been able to photograph there since as far as I was concerned, the earth would open up to swallow me if I took pictures of strangers.
 K. is quite horrified by the amount of money Clemente bets, but he says he doesn't want to leave anything for anyone to fight over and besides, if he gave his money to someone to save, what would happen if that person died? His money would be gone anyway. For instance, if he gave his money to me, and I died, would I have told K. where I'd hidden it? Well, she says, she'd buy a lot of clothes with it and he laughs, laughs, See? Loose my mon-ee.
We went out to the opening day of the track and to watch the Preakness. Usually Suffolk Downs opens on Derby Day, but the legislature in this state won't allow increased gaming, refuses to let slot machines into the track, or a casino to be built there, watches as all the money goes to the big casinos in neighboring states, pretending that lottery tickets sold by the state aren't gambling, etc., etc., so Suffolk Downs is going to hell in a hand basket with losses and didn't open when it usually does. I don't like chronic gambling any more than I like alcoholism, but obsessive gamblers bet on which rain drop will fall down the window pane faster. And I do like the people who make their livings, such as they are, in horse racing. They work endlessly hard to earn very little, most of them, at least.
This is as close to heaven as I'm going to get. We bet two dollars on four horses to win, not on any of the favorites and not on the one that won the Derby who Clemente said won that race because the jockey is from Puerto Rico and would win this race. Even I knew that would never happen. So, we bet on the long shots and nothing came in even though Astrology, the horse K. chose, came in third. We bet to win. K. said we should have bet on Shackleford, but that's just because the young woman sitting in front of us was telling someone about a horse named after a Russian writer and I looked at the Preakness listing and only found Shackleford, an explorer, and mentioned that to K., but we didn't put two dollars on it.

We had a great time.

I am well behind in blogging and hope to catch up with some photos of the wonderful dinner with Claire Benyon...that was a remarkable treat, meeting a wonderful New Zealander. I learned that good bloggers read faithfully and even read all the comments on the blogs they follow and realized that when I'm capable of keeping up with the blog reading, I never read the comments because, to me, that's like reading other people's mail...   obviously I've carried over my scruples into the wrong place. And I learned that I should answer every comment on my own blog...  oh, dear, apologies all around...and thanks for reading this!!


  1. Greyhound bus terminal in Boston? Wasn't that a trip!? I used to take the bus from there to the Port Authority in Manhattan. Soon as I stepped off the bus into the PA I felt at home, but now I don't mind some quiet.

    The pictures of Clemente and K. interest me. Those jokes? I'd have to be there. Even then . . .

    Glad you got back to the track!

  2. i used to hang out at the old greyhound bus terminal in Boston when i was in....high school!

    this is a wonderful evocation of the track, melissa. i can smell it! (that's a compliment...)
    and so nice to see clemente's wonderful face.

  3. thanks, Mim and Susan, for thinking about the greyhound!!!!! xxo

  4. Reading the first two comments, I realised that you have triggered happy memories in two other bloggers, and that alone is worth the wait of your next column. Many thanks for that snippet of your life.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Hello Melissa, unsure how else to reach you ...
    Just wanting to stay a big thank you for bostones and for captured graffiti. I'm enjoying both a lot. Pam x

  6. The places and things that call to us call so insistently. I am happy to know you got to the track, that Clemente is, it would seem, as ever. I have great affection for people who seem to be forces of nature. Clemente appears to belong in that category. It is as though they emit more than ordinary heat, derive more than ordinary pleasure from being alive. A most enjoyable combo, story and photos.