Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It's Post Time

Perhaps my recent return to Facebook is behind this sudden resurgence of vivid childhood memories. I guess I should have predicted this would be kind of a mind fuck. For several years, I had zero contact with anyone who knew me before age 12 (even then, it was just my friend M; my pal S has known me since I was 14; every other friend met me after age 21). Suddenly I find myself swapping photo comments with people who knew me when I was in the first grade.

Given that I was an unhappy kid, this might seem like a bad thing, but (thankfully) it isn't. In fact, I'm pleased to see that some of the other unhappy kids turned out well, which reminds me that I've come a long way, too. I guess I've also found the strength to look back at those bad old days without bitterness and just see it for the nutty zoo that it was. In the spirit of remembering bizarre stuff from kidtimes, I would like to relate an experience that might seem unusual for someone like me, whatever that means.

From the time I was about 10 years old until I was about 12, I would spend many Sunday evenings at the racetrack with my father. He bet on horses at the Ladbroke Detroit Race Course at least once a week (usually more often) and sometimes he would take me along on the night they let ladies in for free.

I think the most unusual part of this arrangement is that he bothered to bring me at all, because we were never close and he certainly didn't need to. Being the sixth of seven kids, I never required much parental supervision or a babysitter, as there was always someone at home to keep me company. Also, I imagine that, aside from satisfying one of his great extracurricular pleasures, my father's racetrack visits were an escape from our crowded home. So I felt both honored and confused that he wanted to bring me.

This was not the only time that we spent alone together. Sometimes I would join him for an early Sunday morning acccelerated mass for the elderly (20 minutes tops - no homily!). I was totally happy to get up for church at 6am so I could knock out that obligation and enjoy the rest of a leisurely Sunday. Oftentimes on the way home from early mass, my dad would take me to breakfast at a Big Boy or a Coney Island. Going out to eat was a very rare treat (in fact, he discouraged me from telling any of my siblings, which was easy because we got home long before anyone woke up), so I appreciated the opportunity even though it was an enormously awkward experience. We simply had nothing to discuss. Especially in the summer, when he couldn't fall back on the default, "How's school?" I can't recall how we filled that space between ordering and eating. I do remember sipping my tiny can of grapefruit juice in a very slow and deliberate manner.

But the racetrack visits were completely different. For one thing, we weren't always alone - one of my siblings or my mom may have been there. But even when it was just the two of us, my father could spend almost every moment between the races imparting wisdom on how to handicap the horses. It's important to know that for him, this activity transcended mere gambling (and he defintely loved mere gambling). This was his greatest passion. He proudly displayed handicapping trophies around our house. He wrote freelance articles for horseracing magazines. Triple Crown races and the Santa Anita were holidays in our home, each accompanied by a spendy spread of culinary treats rivaled only by Christmas Eve dinner. During those trips to the track, he taught me how to read a form and predict odds. He explained how winning on slimmer odds led to bigger payoffs. He showed me how to place a bet, and then he would give me a little bit of play money and place bets for me.

Other parents took their kids to Chuckie Cheese or amusement parks, but I spent long summer evenings in the company of hundreds of surly, cigar-smoking men. I loved it. My strategy was to place relatively safe bets (pick the favorite to place, for instance), because even a meager three dollar return on my one dollar investment was enough to get me a slice of pizza. And I was allowed to spend my winnings however I wished. I ate a lot of pizza and nachos and peanuts and popcorn and soda. Between races, I would study the form and map each horses's lineage, trying to figure out which ones were half brothers or sisters and imagine what they looked like when they were babies. At least a couple times a night, I would run down to the paddock and pat the horses or just stare at their bright, silky saddle towels.

But that was all just lead-up to the races themselves. I loved the energy of the crowd when the horses came around the bend to the final stretch. It didn't matter if your horse was running first or last, you were more or less obligated to jump out of your seat and scream, "Come on, so-and-so! To the wire!" or something like that. Other than when he was angry or frustrated, which was often, I never saw my father get as excited about anything ever. In fact, I was frightened during my first few races because his yelling voice had scared me for, well, my whole life and I didn't understand that it was a happy kind of yelling. Oddly, even when he lost, he didn't seem to get bummed out. I guess that even a gambling addict understands that losing is an essential part of their supposed "plan".

At some point when I was 12 or 13, I stopped going to the racetrack with my dad. I can't remember exactly when or why. But again, I think the better question is, why did he invite me in the first place? Like I said, we were never close. He wasn't close to anyone. But at that age, I also didn't judge him and I think he may have seen me as an ally. This was at a point in my family's history when all of my older siblings were coming of age and at various stages of rejecting my father's repressive Catholic nonsense. There was so much tension in our house that I used to get blinding headaches and scratch my skin raw. But I didn't blame him. I didn't know what was going on, I just thought god was mad at me or something. Maybe it was pleasant for my father to have a child on hand who didn't think he was a complete jerk. Perhaps that's why my racetrack visits ended shortly after my four oldest siblings moved out of the house.

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