About 500 of us are huddled along the homestretch rail at Mountaineer Park in Chester, W.Va.—a lower rung of Thoroughbred racing. It’s late into a chilly September evening; we’re waiting for the horses of the ninth race to be loaded into the gates. The racing card is almost exhausted. I’d arrived earlier, before Race 1, to handicap the Daily Racing Form over a cup of coffee. One question had flittered through my brain on the 45-minute drive from Pittsburgh: “What the fuck are you doing here again?”
The distance, for the ninth is short, five and one half furlongs on the dirt, so the race starts opposite the grandstands. Some of us watch with binoculars as the horses are loaded into individual chutes. At five and one half furlongs, speed is king. Yet, I’m forecasting results similar to the rest of the evening’s card: Shabby talent will be competing against its absence. Under such circumstances, only unpredictability is assured. A distant bell—then over the P.A., the track announcer shouts one word: “Racing!”
How did we get to the ninth so fast? Where has the evening gone?
The pack gets away from the gate with no incidents. Speed shows up. Front-runners head three wide down the stretch. They tighten, fighting for position to enter the far turn. They look fast heading in but post a dismal pace for the quarter.
Thoroughbreds are sophisticated animals—usually specialists— sensitive to the point of success or failure, based on a particular set of conditions. Its a rare and remarkable horse that wins on dirt and grass, in sprints or routes, with the wet as often as the dry. Divining which horse the conditions favor is the key to productive handicapping. Luck counts, too; sometimes, fate.
“Watch that stretch runner,” I say to Francisco Garcia, the jockey of my horse. He responds by moving Rebel’s Mission, the nine horse, back within striking distance. I like this little Dominican. He is a good man, right and true, intelligent, just. In this light and from this distance, Garcia’s silks have shimmering qualities.
Mountaineer is lit by bays of enormous hurricane lamps. They cast eerie quasi-daylight over the track. Each lamp is contained inside a high-polished cowling affixed to a frame. The frames are attached to massive poles encircling the track. That’s Mountaineer’s draw: year-round, nighttime racing. The light becomes perverted farther from the source, filling Mountaineer’s backdrops with elongated shadows.
It’s not uncommon to hear men howl underneath this light, the booze or lycanthropy taking hold. It affects people like an eclipse rolling through the Middle Ages; it puts things askew. Yet, rarely do people look up for the source of their unease; they seem either aloof to it or mildly afraid.
The horses enter the turn, and someone tugs at me. I lower my binoculars and look to both sides. I can’t figure out which one of these bastards it was: the old drunk struggling to stand to my left or the teenage punk trying for my wallet? The old man is holding the railing, yelling at the seven. He has a scar that runs from underneath his ball cap, continuing to his shirt collar and possibly far beyond. How far does that scar go? The horses are midpoint in the turn. I turn and glare at the teenager. There’s no way that fucker did it; he’ll never be that hard. He averts my stare when I give it to him, turning instead to the horses. This kid has target written all over him, and I wonder if he’ll see 20.
My people. At this hour, I can almost smell them. I want to lead them out of here to start anew. But we aren’t going anywhere. Nothing exists but the race. I’d take short odds that I could find five cars in the parking lot with babies locked inside.
The finish is close, a moment away, but my eyes drift behind the backstretch, extending over the makeshift palisades of tour buses that encircle a sea of vehicles. My gaze unwinds, until gleaming from the darkness is the source of all the tugging. Finally, it makes sense.
The state-of-the-art Mountaineer Gaming Resort fills my field of vision. It’s a newly constructed, pristine acreage of neon glitz and grandeur—Vegas, here in the hills. IVe seen it before, but it’s never looked like this. Tonight, it’s an oasis, a genie in a bottle, three wishes come true: feather beds, a harem, skinned grapes to boot. I hear the far-off pounding of hooves. Maybe I should check out that casino? Maybe I should try my luck? My vision begins blurring.
The announcer’s reports draw my attention back to the horses. The leaders are around the far turn, heading for the wire just 900 feet away. A chill wind brings me to shiver. The horses have finally picked up the pace. It’s a stampede to the finish.
Rebel’s Mission is an overlay, a horse receiving better wagering odds than the natural odds-making process should allow. Mission went off at 5-to-l when he should have been 3-to-l, 9-to-2 tops. The overlay is the meat and potatoes of the educated horseplayer. There are myriad reasons why the tote board can be askew from what the natural odds should be, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say that being able to distinguish this discrepancy is an imperative skill for bettors.
I yell to Fran to let Mission go. Again, the amazing Dominican hears me, finding another gear in the horse. Rebels Mission, who’s been moving up in class his last five races, hitting the board in three of them (twice for outright wins), begins his closing drive at the three-sixteenths pole.
I picked Rebel’s Mission with the knowledge my old boss Paulie taught me. He loved the sport, owned partnerships in a few horses. Paulie had a pool hall, and I worked there. When it was slow, Fd ask him to teach me handicapping. There was something alluring in its nostalgia. As my peers went to Lollapaloozas, I went to the track. Paulie taught me how to read the Racing Form and design my own system around its oceans of data. He taught me how to inspect a horse’s physical appearance and translate its mood into demeanor. I acquired better research skills from handicapping than I would in graduate school.
Individual yells come up around me but are garbled. We desperate, clinging few, we hang over the top of the waist-high fencing that bars us from the track. We’d stand on it if we could. My brain begins to quiet from the clattering data stream of a time-tested betting system. There’s only the growing rumble of hooves over a freshly dragged track.
Phantasmagoria under lights as the jockeys urge speed. Their polychromatic silks flutter. Individually, they’re smooth and repetitive, yet the scene en masse—the rattle and slap of tack, the coaxing whistles, the jeers and shouting, the dust and dirt jettisoned from churning legs—makes a turbulent composition. Some jocks flail their whips, attempting to unearth a store of energy. Others barely use it. The jockey of the old drunk s horse, Derby Drive, lets his frustration bubble over. He reaches forward and hammers his 4-year-old roan squarely in the head, which does nothing to motivate the ironically named son of Two Punch and Quality Gal. He lurches toward the rail instead, attempting to dismount his rider. Each successive whip strike inversely slows Derby Drive. The jockey has lost him. No beating in the world will generate another ounce. Derby Drive’s official running line in the nightly result charts will say this: “Wide back-stretch, 5-6 wide in lane, hard ridden, no response.”
But the signs were there. I saw them. Derby Drive was listless in the paddock, ornery when saddled and disinterested during the post parade, never venturing from a trot. That was enough for me. It was all there in the pre-race inspection. The intangibles of racing are the horses. Their personalities are as different as those of any two people you’d meet on the streets—their fates, as well.
Racing will twist your guts. It’s hardened with brutal irony, sweetened by brief but unbelievable grace. A miniscule number of racehorses are retired into stud, coddled as million-dollar investments. Others get to stud and a stall. Most, however, arrive at a bleak lot: injured then re-injured, raced at lesser and lesser levels, passed from one trainer to another in claiming races, which goes on until no one can patch them up or they can no longer walk. The lucky are injured badly from the start—say, a compound fracture—and euthanized on the track. When racehorses go to retirement, it is sometimes a terrible show of the crippled to the slow-walking, horses that lack the ability to attain even a trot. Some of these animals are adopted by good families and finish their days in Kentucky alfalfa; some are shot point-blank behind barns.
They pass the eighth pole in the push for home. The announcements are short and staccato, as if the announcer is calling a prizefight: “Rebel’s Mission moves sharply.” “Sixth Formal breaking out.”
Maybe this moment is the reason why I frequent the track. I’ve found this weightlessness only in heavy drinking and its ubiquitous ancillary, drug use. Here at the track, I have only one responsibility: pick the finishing order of races. I am good at that. My whirring home computer can tap into betting accounts that run straight to my bank. It takes nanoseconds. Yet, I do not find much thrill in computer betting. Something has been drawing me to the track.
At the track, I have no aging mother whose sole latest interest is reminding me how to distribute her “estate” when she “expires.” This “estate” consists of some land, a 900-square-foot ranch house and a mongrel dog, sold dubiously as a Labrador, which, full grown for years now, has achieved the height of only 12 inches. Also, my mother is quite healthy. At the track, I have no ailing father, a man with whom I barely speak, but whom I want badly to know. His recent heart attack has reduced him to 48 percent of his former self. He and I seem set against a speedy clock. He, too, is a fan of the track. Maybe it’s a bridge I’m looking for? At the track, I have no family at all: no half-sister in a wheelchair, no cousins locked in county or to factory-rat occupations, no abused aunts, no kindly uncles, no problems at all in this moment, no mortgage payments, no cars to be gassed or refrigerators needing filling. Here, I barely recognize the world at large.
Then again, maybe it’s because I’m successful here. Not Bill Gates successful, just not the loser I’ve always seen in the mirror. Here, I have a status and a set of skills. I say the phrase “I’m a winner” at least twice a visit. As a matter of fact, I’ve gotten quite good. I win at a substantially high rate and have considered the outlandish: going professional.
My life at the track is opposite the one I inherited from my family. They pass on wreckage as if it were an heirloom. Dodging that reality has fueled my drinking life, and my drinking life caused my implosion. There was the decline in physical health then in mental sanity, until hospital visits for paranoia, insomnia, palsy and body-wide numbness suggested only longer and longer stays, antipsychotic meds (which I also abused) and further observation. There is a criminal record more laughable than hardcore. There is a $60,000 bankruptcy from which I can produce only fuzzy memories, a Kenwood receiver and a Cuisinart blender that I’ve never used. I drank away $60,000: two nice cars or one expensive one, a starter home, a college education. … I could run the list out for miles. But I’ve been sober a few months now. The life I’ve lived seems frozen in stasis, waiting for a judgment either to begin again or end it. How does one do this life thing? The qualities of normal human existence are terrifying. What comes next? Yet, all this dissipates at the track. I’ve been told by my addiction counselors to be wary. They say cross-addiction is a common occurrence in early sobriety. They tell me a person in recovery finds other things on which to shift his focus. We move from fixing ourselves to overeating, rampant sex, compulsive shopping, whatever. We’ll do anything to nullify pain. But I’ve always loved the track, haven’t I? I ponder cross-addiction for a moment, but then the universe clicks back to one paramount issue: 10 horses running toward a point in space.
It’s a photo finish, too close for a sight call. The racing stewards somewhere review a photograph that will assign the horses rankings. There will be order in it: win, place, show. Chaos into order—maybe that’s why I’m here? Meanwhile we, the betting public, attempt to sort ourselves. Are we winners? Were we close? We mull about, pleading our case to the worst sorts, people who can’t do shit. We break into two groups: those who think they’re winners and those who know they’ve lost. The racing stewards need only confirm our suspicions, and we can do the rest. We could put our lives back in order if they’d make this race official. It can take some time before a decision is made—minutes, not seconds. Determining which nose of two broke the plane when only a microsecond separates them or judging a rider’s objection: Right takes time. In the interim, let’s talk about jockeys and betting.
For most riders near the basement, Thoroughbred racing is not the Rolex world of equestrian show jumping, the sherry-swilling hunt clubs or the barbeque-and-beer of Western events. For most jocks, horse racing is rotgut tequila and knife fights, blood, muscle tears and sweaty clothes. Most jocks ride 10 races of nags, all season long, looking for some fluke to take 10 percent of a pittance. From that, they’ll pay an agent and a valet. Greatness and nothingness are often separated by chance. Skill counts, but so does the bob of a head, a spooky rabbit trackside, a deep spot along the rail, whipping left instead of right. The greatest of jockeys always defers to luck instead of acknowledging skill.
Rebels Mission will pay nicely if he wins. Let us say you bet him $2 across the board: three bets—win, place and show—placed on one horse. Two dollars times three bets equals six bucks. Reach into your pocket or purse; see if you have six bucks. If he wins, you get the full-price payout for each finishing position. For place, it’s normally half of the win; for show, half that again. If number 9 is on top when the race goes official, you’ll have won $20.80—$12 from the win, $5 and change from place, the remainder from show—in 1 minute, 3.6 seconds.
This money won’t put you in paradise, but imagine doubling your bet: $41.60 on $12. It can add up. Let’s say you really liked the number 9: his improving form, the pre-race inspection, his warm-up. Imagine you said fuck all and bet him heavy.
There’s a tremendous amount of latitude when wagering on horses: One-dollar bets can pay thousands; third place can pay better than first. Exotics—bets outside of the basic win, place and show— are also available. The famous trifecta is an exotic. The elusive super-fee ta, the pick six, the daily double—all exotics. However, the industry standard remains $2 on the nose.
Horse racing’s betting system originated in France, a system known as the Paris Mutuels, shortened to pari-mutuel, meaning “mutual stake.” Unlike a Vegas casino, the house of the pari-mutuel is a disinterested third party. Wagers are collected in a pool called “the handle,” from which the house subtracts taxes and a little for itself called “breakage” or, more commonly, “the break” (hence the phrase “that’s the breaks”). What’s left in the pool is split among the winners. When betting horses, you and I are playing against each other, not the house. Our knowledge of the game is the fulcrum.
I’m a handicapper. I study racing to win your money. There are endless questions to confront on a race-to-race basis. Is there a track bias? Will it rain? Has rain made a difference on track bias? What are the effects of youth vs. experience? Grit vs. skill? On and on. It’s an iceberg.
There are also the mystical aspects to consider; left unaccounted for, they can destroy lesser folks. An example: You use the numbers of your childhood address as your trifecta bet. The tri is a common exotic (sometimes called the sucker bet) whereby the finishing order of the race is picked, first through third. It pays well, sometimes astronomically well. You have played your address for years and never hit. You believe that eventually something good must emerge from that address. Sooner or later, you have to hit.
This is a novice fallacy. Numbers don’t owe you shit. These numbers of yours might hit every day, but nothing—especially not statistics—says they’ll come in for you because you haven’t won with them yet. Numbers don’t owe you shit. Racing doesn’t owe you shit. And here’s one that’s hard to learn: The universe doesn’t owe you shit.
You lose another one to this house number of yours—this address of loss. Finally—after losing maybe tens of thousands over the years—you decide, fuck it. You’ll never spend another cent on that number. Tomorrow, you’ll begin the study of statistical handicapping. You’ll research tens of thousands of races. You’ll acquire a deep comprehension of pedigree and commit to the comparative analysis of track surfaces. As soon as you make that decision, horses 5,1 and 9— your childhood address—will hit three different races in a row, right in front of you. The payouts for each will be $432, $248 and—the one for which you actually get up to bet but say, It will never hit again—a whopping $9,976. On two-dollar bets.
This is why I love racing. It is a mirror of the universe bigger than irony or coincidence. If you watch long enough, you will come to believe a higher power is driving things too coincidental to be coincidence, too ironic to be irony.
This game will teach you something: Unless you bet it both ways, you can’t have it both ways. It’s the bet, not the knowledge, that codifies your genius or stupidity. Tom Ainslie, a legend of handicapping and author of tomes on the subject, has a poignant observation on the matter. It’s from “Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing”:
I make these observations about the personal, non-scientific nature of handicapping for several reasons. The first and most urgent is that the reader should harbor no illusions. No matter what theory of handicapping may seem most plausible, the handicapper will be attempting to predict the future by interpreting past events of uncertain character and inexact significance.
Maybe that’s why I’m really here. What is the future? Where do I fit in it? A win clarifies things.
Back to Rebels Mission. You’re smart. There’s no reason why, today, you don’t place your normal bet. Normally, if you’re not sure about a hunch, you’ll spread it out across the board. You believe in insurance and acceptable risks for comparable losses. But instead of your no-frills 10,10 and 10 bet, today, you watch the horses warm up then walk to Window 6. You usually place your bets at Window 3, but today, fuck superstition. You stroll up to the blue-hair waiting blankly for your bet. You stun her by saying, “Good evening,” to which she nods her head. She’s unaccustomed to anything besides the manic rattling of track, race, amount, bet and horse.
“Race and bet?” she inquires.
“In the ninth,” you say, calmly, “I’d like $30 on the nose of number 9, please.”
She punches it in. “Thirty to win on 9,” she confirms then continues with a drawl and smirk, “Good luck.” She points to the Autotote voucher resting in the machine directly at your chest.
“Thank you,” you say, but she’s already preparing for the man behind you, who’s blurting out his bet.
You realize something. This is the first sincere gratitude you’ve uttered in decades. You’ve survived something, come out a different side. You watch two venerable men in line for Window 8. They have matching green O2 canisters on matching little carts. They compare hunches then inhale from plastic masks. You can’t help but stare. It’s been a long time since you’ve felt grateful. Here it is—petty—a simpleton’s gratitude. You are grateful you’re not them, not that stupid or old, not bound to Earth by over 30 pounds of metal encasing something so free as oxygen and trace pollutants. If you tried right now, I bet you could fly.
In Mountaineers official result charts, the footnotes for Rebels Mission will say this: “Well placed from the gate, tracked 3 wide while in hand going into the far turn, dueled from upper stretch to the finish, inched clear in final strides.” If you bet that entire $30 to win, Mission paid you $183. Well done, Sport.
But that’s not what I did. I liked number 9 so much that I keyed him in a trifecta partial wheel with horses 2, 3, 7 and 8 underneath. How the bet works isn’t important—just that number 9 had to win and the others had to hit. My payout on a $24 bet? $372.80. That’s handicapping. That’s fucking betting.
Then the high is gone. Dread returns like siege equipment as we prepare for the next race. Post time for the 10th and final is announced as 10:49.
The trifecta puts me way over the top, erasing a nag named Tainwell from the first and a gushing loss in the third. I stopped the bleeding with an $11 stalker, Higher Gear, followed in the next race by the $13 upset-minded Blue Angel’s Echo. Though I’m cashing tickets, I’ve bet too many races, sitting out only two. Betting every race is the only surefire way to lose everything. You have to pick your spots, load up on good handicapping and not simply action. Often you must just sit, but watching racing without betting has always seemed ludicrous to me.
There’s a madness—perplexing energy, both kinetic and potential—20 minutes prior to the 10th. Heading past the winner’s circle, I notice Mountaineer’s lighting has changed. Everything now is stark and opalescent, bolder than any daylight I’ve ever seen. Packs of roving children whisk feral past my legs. They must see the horse in the winner’s circle. Some good old boys howl nearby. Rebel s Mission, a 4-year-old black gelding, stands proud in the winners circle. I want to look this horse in the eyes. I owe him that. He gave me all the signs before the race, including (no shit) a wink. But Mission stares past me, past us all. His nostrils flare and collapse, still breathing hard. The owners, trainer and jockey alike—everybody smiles for a picture. The flash accents the plumes of steam rising from the geldings back into the chilly evening. If the photographer, noticeably drunk, ever develops the shot, he’ll see he’s captured something rare: the spirit of a being slipping away, floating forever into night.
Rebel’s Mission is given a few pats then led away. Hell get oats, water and medicine in the interim. He’ll be loaded on a trailer, one of many, and whisked home by morning. He won’t be around when the children are punched, when someone doubles this win on roulette, when the inebriated speed into trees or when the strippers are gratuitously tipped. This evening, more than one person will visit the pokey, and in all these events, the participants will credit or blame Rebels Mission.
The children surrounding me at the winners circle jet away like a school of fish. They have seen enough and are bound toward some greater interest. One of the good old boys slugs another in the arm. They head to the outdoor patio bar, virtually empty in this chill. Of all things, piña coladas are on special, two for $5. These men look absurd with drinks harboring unskinned pineapple, but they get two each, quickly craning to nibble at the foreign fruit. We all head toward the paddock to inspect the entrants for the 10th. I wonder if any of us, besides these fucking horses, has an ounce of honor left.
The track attendance is announced as 8,159, which doesn’t account for off-track betting and the Internet. We’re all hardwired into dry-humping the perverse American myth of a last, bold leap— fuck it—to upend our meager fates. The clear-cut distinction between winners and losers, from just moments ago, is gone. We’ve been reset. As I move to the paddock, Mountaineer’s odd lighting draws me out: tiny, little body; huge fucking shadow.
Again, the kids scatter. I know these children. I have been one of these kids. They want nothing more than for time under the odd light to slow into a crawl. This is the heart of their Saturday night, the joy of their week. Has been for years. Might be forever.
I make my way inside, where mothers abound, policing husbands and children. The women gather gear from both groups: empties, jackets, coolers, Legos. Younger children are sent to gather their older siblings. Kin know kin. The rushing and commotion spook me, convince me I shouldn’t bet a dime. Drive the fuck home.
I see a child strapped into a harness on a leash. This isn’t some spongy, soft, feeble, plastic phone cord developed for 30-somethings to keep their progeny close. This is a leash, a leather strap for restraining dogs. The boys mother has it crossed around her fist like Mexican boxer wraps. She’s a big woman, early 20s, with a bleached, two-tone shag that would cost hundreds in Los Angeles. In West Virginia, it’s cheap; it costs only the gas to get to her mother’s. Her in-laws razz her about the leash, but she doesn’t break stride while cleaning up the table. She jokes with them that they don’t know the half of it, that she keeps J.R. in a cage when she can’t get a sitter. J.R. takes up no slack on the leash; he stares at the lights of the far-off casino. The sight gives me a numbing chill that I need to get away from.
I head to the saddling area to verify some hunches. There’s an urgency hanging over me as well as over Mountaineer’s oldest children. Mine is for a bet; theirs is for something different. Soon, they’ll have to leave Neverland. At 13 and 14, they exist in a helpless stasis between pedal bikes and junkers. Their freedom is so close it gives them acne. Yet, there’s time enough still, if they hurry, for one last kiss near the paddock; time enough to sneak a smoke behind the grandstands; time enough to sprint down to the slow, silting Ohio, touch the water then run back. They can make one more pass by the betting windows in search of dropped bills or by the garbage drum near the outdoor bar for half-full beers. Maybe there’ll be enough remnant booze to change their lives, if not forever, then for the drive home.
Time won’t spare them much longer. A kiss from a tall, heavenly 14-year-old, name of Claire, from Wheeling, could possibly be the best it’ll ever get. I find packs of kids nestled near the starting gates as I return outside. I’ve lost track of something. Ten Thoroughbreds burst from the gates as the bell issues them into the last race. They’re off to meet their ends, and I didn’t get in a bet.
These kids remind me of my youth, of growing up in chunks too fast for comprehension. I’d bounce between my mother’s custody and my father’s strained visitations. I was 7 or 8 when they separated. At my mother’s, rules were hard and unbending. Tough love was all the rage. I developed an internal world, hiding in my imagination from a terror that wouldn’t take form just yet. There were thousands just like me—scared, weird kids on the outskirts of Detroit’s Northeast ‘burbs.
My father’s bimonthly custody was an escape from that routine. Seeing his rundown Celica through a classroom window on Friday afternoon sparked surges of freedom. He tried hard on our weekends—zoos, ballgames, whatnot—but things were changing. Defeat and fatigue settled into his routine after the divorce.
Years of making the commute from the East Side, where we lived, across town to Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport, along with the freedom of the initial separation, had convinced my father to move closer to work. He moved again the spring of his divorce. The distance to me seemed extreme. We were now on opposite ends of the earth. Things looked bleak for my family, yet I held onto the visitations as my break from discipline and rigidity.
Rules were different at my fathers. He was lax when it came to policing me. And since he didn’t have the seniority to muscle people for shifts, his visitations never jived with his work schedule. Invariably, we’d end up at Detroit Metro on Saturdays, the enormity of the L.C. Smith Terminal transformed into a playground. The airport was my Mountaineer.
My father worked for Trans World Airlines, a red and white beacon between the drabness of Delta’s brown and Baniff’s creepy pastels. There was still hope at Detroit Metro. There were miles of walkways connecting open-spaced concourses and stories-high ceilings with humanity busy underneath, coming and going. There were escalators, a conveyor walkway, baggage claim carousels, security checks and, of course, airplanes. More importantly, maybe most importantly, there were three separate game rooms that beat the shit out of a regulated hour a day of Atari at my mom’s.
It was a different time then—more unsafe maybe than anyone was aware—but I was allowed to roam Detroit Metro as long as I checked in every half-hour. The airport held magic, like a realm I went to where none of my classmates roamed. This public domain felt personal.
My father and I would get up before dawn on Saturday. On the quick drive in, we’d have coffee and a slice of toast each—jelly, him; no jelly, me. We’d park by airfreight and take a truck across the tarmac. It was always Christmas down there: blinking wing lamps, yellow flashers, red pulsating bulbs from fuselage tails, the uniformity of blue taxiway lamps. Pungent but sweet fumes of aviation gas filled the air, swirling in plumes like mirages on warm summer dawns. The noise? Unbearable, around 130 decibels, but I loved it. My father was sure my mother would freak if she found out my Saturdays were spent as a part of all this chaos, so the airport was where I learned to keep a secret.
Roger Bernier, a kind and well-liked man. My father and I would make our way through the underbelly of the terminal. At some point, we’d pass where the skycaps gathered to smoke. To me, the skycaps—mostly black guys—were the coolest around. I was growing up in a mixed neighborhood, so these guys were normal to me, understandable, likeable. These guys gave me high-fives and long, elaborate handshakes. They called me Little Man and jived with my pops. They’d pull massive rolls of tip money from immaculately pleated uniform pants. They’d play a round of liar’s poker with my pops. There was all this motion in these cats. Some guys worked their knees—”Be-bopping,” my dad would say in private.
One skycap from Delta, DeWayne, would break me off a couple of singles from his tip roll. DeWayne’s bills were always faced, crisp, uniform. My father would switch gears into his other self, a man whom I was not so fond of, a man who was trying to teach me things instead of just being my dad. He’d tell DeWayne not to give me money, that I had no concept of what a dollar was worth. DeWayne would reply, “For the game room, Roger Dodger. Give Little Man a break.”
“Give Little Man a break” became my credo in life. One incident from adulthood is all I’ll tell; it does the work of maybe a thousand stories just like it. It exemplifies the nature of my dysfunction. A Detroit police officer stopped me. Thankfully, it was one of the few times I was not driving drunk. I’d done a high-speed merge across four lanes of the Lodge Freeway coming off Interstate 94.
I was 31 and slipping into a stagnancy people could smell, see. My car was a wreck. My girlfriend, who seconds earlier had been yelling, now sat silent in the passenger seat of the old Regal. A 24-year-old, drug-addled stripper, she had animal sense when it came to danger. After a preliminary check, the cop, a tall, black kid in his mid-20s, returned with my paperwork. He asked me to step from the car. Once outside, I actually begged, “Come on, Officer. Can’t you give a kid a break?” He got a sad look in his eyes. He asked me about two unpaid tickets then instructed me to assume the position. He gave me a pat-down, but I was carrying nothing. We took a walk to the back of the car. Shame came over me. He showed me broken lamps and different extinguished lights. I had a clear plastic garbage liner taped up as a rear window. He was not impressed. He asked me to take a seat on the trunk. I did. “Craig,” he said, “you’re 31 years old. You’re not a fucking kid anymore. It’s time to grow up, bud.” A blow to the solar plexus from his Mag-Lite would’ve been less stunning.
Still, like countless times before, I got a break. He wrote me a seat belt ticket, gave me warnings for the rest. Walking back to his car, he added, “You’re lucky I didn’t pat her down,” then, “You two should clean up.” He drove off, leaving me at the side of the Lodge. I was dumbfounded as to what “clean up” meant or how it was done.
Give Little Man a break. The other skycaps agreed. My father gave in. My man DeWayne would say, “For the pinball, Little Man.” He’d hand me two bills. I’d slip into a dream world, obsessing about the change machine, pushing bills into the flat tray, the tray sticking for a second, then the electric jolt when four quarters crashed into the concave, metal deposit as if shot from a gun.
The world was easy and well-defined in the game room across from the TWA counter: play games for as long as possible. If I had to, I’d beg quarters from travelers killing time. My father was right: I had no idea what a dollar was worth. I began to believe it was worth a lifetime of escapism through pinball, video games, drinking, whatever. Turns out, it was only worth a dollar.
DeWayne would come to the game room during his breaks. It was dark in there, so he’d sip from a flask while playing pinball. He’d work a game called Frontier, which was next to the one I liked. Frontier had a cowboy theme and would simulate rudimentary sounds of the range. I can distinctly remember that crickets chirped during the pauses. DeWayne would disappear into the Old West, the machine always popping a free game or two. He’d turn to me at some point, almost surprised to discover me there. He’d say, ‘“Sup, Little Man? You wanna finish these games?” That’s exactly what I wanted. I’d play De¯Wayne’s free games, every so often looking up to place my father. He’d always be there, across the concourse, working diligently. I would draw the plunger back, waiting to start another game. I’d hold on, watching my father check bag after bag, ticket after ticket, keystroke after keystroke. The electronic crickets chirped as I insulated myself from the world and hoped. But by then, my hopes were selfish ones: Letting go of the plunger, my only hope was for a free game. I was 9 or lO.
Different people looked out for me at the airport: not only the skycaps but also the Wayne County sheriffs who patrolled Detroit Metro and the security staff that ran gate checks and the metal detectors. People recognized me as Roger Dodger’s boy, and with that, I’d get a pass, a break. My conceptualizations of cool were coming from two sources: Arthur Fonzarelli and how people viewed my father. My mother had a great picture of him as a young man, driving this killer ‘63 Corvette on the beach at Daytona. He had yet to remove his BSA motorcycle from my mothers garage, and I sat on that bike constantly I’m sure it’s why I own one today He listened to Motown and was far more like the skycaps than his fellow ticket agents, bloated and white. Flight attendants always stopped to talk to my pops. They’d laugh with him, smile at him, and some would write their numbers on boarding passes for him. He was plain and simple but Hkeably so. He smiled when it was warranted, nodded when it was right. He listened to people and answered back something comforting, generally funny, a little soft. Yet roguishness clung to him the way it does to a thief. He had a stoic confidence to match. In retrospect, I see that my father patterned his demeanor after one of his favorite actors, Steve McQueen. Few things are cooler than Steve McfuckingQueen.
My father was also a bootlegger. He’d take quick trips out West on his TWA pass, returning with four small suitcases of Coors cans. This was before you could buy it out East. He’d bring it back to a Detroit inundated with Stroh’s, PBR and Gobel. His buddies thought they were drinking Murnm.
He was also a gambler. No matter the bet, he usually won it: football, March Madness, poker nights or the track at Detroit Race Course. I rarely remember a loss. When people paid him off, he’d instill a feeling that he’d just been lucky, that they’d get him next time. But they never did. My father took people to the bank.
Can the route of addictive turmoil be found in any of this? Is there one place it starts? Many? For me, I think it begins about a year or so after those airport Saturdays. I am 10, maybe 11. My father now lives in a jinky apartment complex and is courting a kind woman who’ll soon become my stepmother. It’s after one of his shifts on a Saturday. Forced to stay with his fiancee, I’m no longer allowed at the airport. My father comes home after a long day and moves to the pool. He wants to barbeque—steaks, I think—with acquaintances from the complex and a few folks from work. Everyone is drinking. His fiancee is reading poolside, uninterested in the drinking.
I want to be seen, heard, acknowledged by my father, but it’s Saturday and he’s beat from work. Everyone is gathered by the dingy pool and rundown concrete patio. Willow leaves float on the calm surface of the pool and spot much of its bottom. The weather is humid, becoming overcast. A storm is far off, but I can see the front creeping this way. There’s still time to swim. The grill is smoldering to a start. My dad is downing Coors after Coors, an unusual occurrence. He gets glassy-eyed quick and is still uninterested in me. We have to swim before the storm arrives. I’m out here for my dad, not to sit with his fiancee while he works and be ignored. We get two weekends a month, which are becoming no more than a drive on Friday afternoon and a return trip on Sunday.
I want to swim. That’s what we do when I’m here. We sit by a dingy pool, swim and make like everything’s OK. And that’s OK. It’s worthwhile, but lately, my father has taken to spells of exhaustion.
So I want to swim. He clearly does not. He’s bullshitting with his buddies. The sun is subsumed by the creeping front. I will not take no for an answer. “Take me swimming, Dad. I want to swim.” On and on like that for minutes: “Dad. Swim. Dad. Swim.” Maybe tens of minutes, as my father works the grill, puts steaks on, talks to his buddies, drinks a beer.
The wind picks up, and something happens. My father turns from the grill, sets down his beer. Like lightning, he closes on me where I’m standing, repeating, “Dad. Dad. Dad.” He latches up my arm, adds a tough shake to the end. Like an umpire, he leans into a detached, calm crouch. He gets close to my face. The beer is pungent. His eyes are glazed. He gives rny arm a powerful, downward jerk. “You want to go swim?” he asks.”Fine. We’ll swim”There’s a shove. The water encompasses. I’m upside-down, unexpectedly short on breath.
Sweet. We’re swimming. That was fun. My dad threw me in. We should do that again. I make my way to the top, find it impossible. I’m being held under. I see trunks—gray Members Only. They look like my fathers. That looks like his silver identification bracelet. I’m having trouble getting to the surface. Air is scarce. Panic sets in. What’s happening? I struggle. Not getting away. Breathe soon. Something has me. Breathe. Now. Nope. Water rushes in. Choking. Sight blurs.
Could that be my father holding me?
At this point, there’s a rumbling down here, some stark truth that vibrates the underworld. I can’t see it just yet; it won’t assume physi-cality, but it’s going to manifest itself for decades in my habits, in the women I will love, the toxins I’ll ingest, the danger I’ll court. It occurs to me that maybe things are not going to be OK; maybe that’s a lie. I’m fighting now for something weak, intangible, like a puppy’s spirit, eyes shut, fresh-born,just as easy to feed with an eye-dropper as to smash lifeless against a wall.
I’m away. I paddle for the ladder at the deep end. People are yelling my father’s name. All kinds of questions fly above the water. I get to the ladder, wrap an arm around it, and steady myself. I want a calm, waterless breath. I need to assess.
That’s when I see him. He’s moving through the water like a crocodile, eyes and forehead cutting through the surface. He leaves no wake. He’s got Vietnam in his eyes. The refraction of light makes it seem like he’s smiling. I don’t get out because it’s not quite real. He closes the distance, and now I make a break. I’m up the ladder, clear, when something lashes my ankle. There’s a powerful jerk. The ladder I’m clutching comes off its moorings. From here on out, the world is torrent.
I am pulled to the surface, and he says exactly this: “You want to swim? We’ll swim. Hold your breath.” The world becomes a struggle to escape an otherwise kind and gentle man in the only moment of insanity he ever broke on the world. It’s a straggle to escape the unthinkable: My father is trying to drown me.
Then it’s done. There are 10 or so people around the pool, disoriented from the mayhem. I believe some try to address me after I rocket from the pool, but I run toward the gate. There’s still yelling: some at me, some at my father. I can smell the steaks burning on the grill. I don’t know what it is, but suddenly I’m sure I’ve misplaced something. My towel? LD. bracelet? What is missing that I can’t seem to find? Could it be the dollar in quarters I was saving for Defender at the party store? I had them tucked into the useless nylon pocket of my bathing suit lining. They are gone, but that’s not it. I’ve lost something bigger than a dollar. What’s that worth? I am disoriented and coughing in spurts.
I realize whatever is gone is at the bottom of the pool, but I’m not going back there for shit. I make for the wrought iron gate. My soon-to-be stepmother catches me. She’s kind beyond belief. She tries to calm me, to make excuses, to cope with the madness exposed on this dingy patio. Drops of rain begin sporadically pelting us. Terror hits, then—of all things—embarrassment.
I run for the freeway just a half-mile away. I don’t know what I’ll do when I get there, but there’s an overpass. I usually stand there for hours on Saturday, waving to cars and making the air-horn sign to truckers. It’s the only safe place.
There’s one more thing.
I stop for a second to look at my father. He’s still in the pool. The surface begins to pop with raindrops. If memory serves me, he stays, makes no attempt to get out. A flash electrifies the sky; there’s a roll of thunder. He watches me from the water. I back past the rudimentary iron fence. My father starts to swim, moving through the pool like a frog man below the leafy water. He prepares, in his mind, for some battle of his own, some struggle of coming life that has been bubbling to fruition for years now. Its here—whatever it is— and with that, he dips below the surface, swims to the bottom.
The tragedy of all this is not his action, not the insanity of his breaking, not my being broken. It’s that with inaction we become the same, he and I. We will spend decades running from some dark, primeval force brushed under a rug. We’ll both harbor a sickness born in the contaminants of that pool. Truth—one that no father and son of modernity should unhinge in this civilized place—peeked out for a moment among those waves. That man, for an instant, wanted to kill me, and for a very long time, I’ve wanted to be dead.
Social Services does not come for this. It’s still a different time. Different moods prevail. People mind their business to extremes. If you’re shocked, then you’re lucky; I could tell you some stories. If you’re not, then you know exactly what I mean. I am found in a driving rain, in my swimsuit and soaked towel, standing on the overpass, waving to cars. I am unaffected by the deluge as I have, by then, grown a calcite shell. It is impervious to entry, heat or cold. It allows nothing in. Ever.
My father is kind, back to the person I’ve always known. He apologizes, says things have been difficult. I accept his apology. I say something like, “Me, too, Dad. Things have been rough for both of us.” At the apartment, he adds a caveat. My mother won’t understand. She’ll use this incident to end his visitations. He asks me not to mention the pool, to keep it a secret. I see he is both sorry and ashamed. I say OK. I can keep a secret. I do.
On Sunday, I am blank. We drive back to my mother’s, but something inside me bursts. My afternoon plays out in my mind. My mother will be gone so as not to deal with my father and his fiancee. The house will be empty; the key, above the light in the garage. I’ll force a wave to them then watch television, ignoring my homework. At some point, my mother will return. She’ll have been drinking and will be tired. Her coming Monday as a single mother and a General Motors secretary will have already crushed her—even hours before she has woken to that reality. In the car, I realize I want to be someone else, anywhere but here.
My black classmates at school were the closest examples of difference I could find, and that Monday, I began to emulate them. But because of my shallowness, I could not see how much alike we really were. White trash and working-class blacks differed only in skin color and the culture of particular things. The music, food and vernacular may have differed, but the feelings were the same: hand-me-down embarrassment, looming dread of tomorrow, fear of success—not of failure, because failure we knew and success was unheard of.
I grew stunted, damaged. On the outside, I was this weird but straightlaced, white-boy hick. A crew cut and a juxtaposed rat tail were the only features that distinguished me from the sea of everyone else, and even that was not an uncommon look among my Caucasoid peers. The inside, however, housed a carpe-diem, death-machine motherfucker who found an M.O. somewhere between the dying sphere of punk and the alienation I garnered from loving what was then called only rap. I continued to slide, leaving my house in turtlenecks and arriving on more and more stoops. I drank Qs and carried a .22-caliber pistol—no real kind of gun but enough to kill a man. My mother knew none of this as I left the house on a bike for friends’ homes and pedaled farther and farther toward the city.
I became unreachable. Though my father’s visitations continued, he and I became estranged. He began doing well again in his second marriage, bought a house even farther away in Canton. There is no story here outside the fact that I gave up inside. A million things can be said, but only one sentence really fits: I quit. I’d set a course on escape—on driving age and on drinking every weekend then, ultimately, every day. I won’t elaborate on the destruction of rny adulthood. It could fill a book of its own.
My rage and confusion, my lack of identity (or the multitudes of them)—all of this should’ve tripped alarms. But no one knew. The calcite shell I created on the overpass was really the skin of a doppel-gänger. I became the best of liars, a charmer capable of assuming identities at will. I had a social life and a secret one. If I said I was OK, then I was OK whether that was the case or not. In denial, I was able to create a coping mechanism of masterwork proportions. I acquired success in multiple fields and careers while drowning inside. I amassed the paperwork of praise and reward while planning exactly how to execute a murder/suicide for maximum effect. Recently, I’ve been told I have an impressive Curriculum Vitae, but I’m sure that at my core there’s only a daft man on my best day, a boring one on all others. Underneath anything I’ve ever done, there was always something else: the secret life of loathing who I was, the reprobate, the malcontent. Near the end, I could snort crushed pills and drain a gallon of bourbon before taking a calm drive through the Cass Corridor at 1:00 a.m. to get a hooker on the way to the casino, where I’d continue drinking from flasks until 5:30 a.m., when I’d make a call to the boss’s answering machine to tell him I was going on vacation and wouldn’t be in that day, or next week, so let’s score Ice and make some waves, a week’s worth, a month. Fuck it. This is not some half-assed escapade; let’s make a life of this. This was how my brain functioned, where it would go, if someone simply asked me, “Hey, want to go get a drink?”
It takes a precise mixture of circumstance and choice to end up here. You have to do a lot to tap into alcoholism, dope addiction, degenerative gambling, whatever. Addiction is genetic, showing predisposition but not predetermination. It’s like a dormant mine floating through the oceans. It can go on like that forever, never being triggered.
Yet, for some of us, addiction is like a script we’ve been reading from, our motivations written in. We play the same roles night after night, a classic show, until, like all things, the play exhausts its run. We are left with stark conclusions: same play or something different? Death or recovery? How will it end?
This whole reflection has not been meant to blame my father. It’s mine. That’s all. The point of this is ownership. This story is me. It’s about claiming some of my fucked-up life for the good, putting an end to the drama, which is almost epic at this point. I have spent a lifetime dodging responsibility, culpability, therapy to achieve my lifelong mission of stoic isolation. And when finally alone, I realize it’s not what I wanted at all. Everything I believed in was a lie to insulate myself from hurt. Today, I want a family. I want a goddamned picket fence. Give me the chance to sell out. I’ll pay for it,whatever the cost.
Still, I’m finding out it doesn’t work that way, either. I have to live my way out of this. No more quick fixes. A million victories at the track won’t erase my history, won’t do the restoration needed for things to be right.
Which brings us back to the 10th. It’s almost over now. The horses hit the backstretch. I had a hunch but didn’t bet it. Looks like I’d have been right, too. The horses trudge along at a lethargic pace. “Who cares?” I ask.
But there’s something else: children of all ages. They abound, pushing up toward the fence, taller lifting smaller. They bounce and shove in playful ways. It seems like I’m the only adult among them. Is this a school tour? Where did they all come from? The horses hit the home stretch. The kids scream and shout at alarming levels. They don’t look stupid, naive or childlike at all. They just look right. Maybe they have the answers. The light at Mountaineer now seems natural, devoid of its dreadful shadows. The children cheer, not because they’ve placed bets but because they want their horses to win. The jockeys bring them home; some riders laugh and yell to each other with smiles. They look happy at the end of another day of work. The track announcer makes gleeful rants. As the pack of 10 aged but noble equines finishes the race, the children cheer, proud of both winners and losers.
Another racing card is over. I make my way toward the gates. The drunks wander back to the bars and the gamblers back to the slots. I am sure, for once, that I can go with neither group. I must follow the families out. From the P.A., we are thanked, asked to drive safely and informed of the post time for tomorrow’s first race.
The drive back to Pittsburgh is ordinary—except for one thing. A Geo Metro in front of me on Route 30 launches something the size of a lug nut from around its tire. It strikes my windshield, creating a burst of tiny glass flakes. They cover my jacket and catch the light with prismatic quality as if a sprite has sprinkled dust. I am afraid to brush at them for fear of breaking the spell. The windshield has several cracks already,but this strike has punched through. It gives off a faint whistle. I admit now that it must be fixed.
I drive back with the radio off, the windows down and the heater on. I listen to the wind and crickets. Soon, I’m passing through tunnels, over bridges. There are Highs from tall buildings. It’s late, and Interstate 376 has more cars than is normal for midnight. The park is still lit, so the Pirates game must have gone long. I think about a drink but stay the course, heading for home. Trucks, destined for the Turnpike, stream past me. They’ll continue eastward from here: Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, the sun.
I arrive at my tiny home, purchased only a month ago. It is a fixer-upper with a bad foundation. A ton of work is adding up on 3-by-5 cards, but I got it for a song. There is hope in your first home. I am eight months clean and sober today. I pull to the curb, where my neighbors have left me a spot. They’ve never seen the man I was before. A thug’s Monte Carlo rumbles by as I reach the stoop. His system is loud; it rattles the back windows of his car and the front ones of my home. He passes into the night, the Monte’s thumping soon subsumed by crickets. The world returns, not so bleak as when I left it. I fish for a key deep in my pocket.