It began, earnestly enough, over a course of thick vegetable soup. It was loaded with vegetables, time-shifted into this early May lunch through diligent, or at least dreary, work from cross-national food conglomerates, and chunks of a well-cooked slow roasted chuck roast. Between greedy mouthfuls and long sips of sweetened iced tea he alternated story telling and dips of dripping grilled American cheese sandwich. He talked of how much it reminded him of his grandmother's version of the vegetable soup, only that it needed fresh okra and good Kentucky lima beans so big that they qualified as steaks in some countries, and so juicy that eating one was its own mini-bowl of soup.
The place was packed and at a general level even more excited than he was. It was a pharmacist's lunch counter, grade A Americana, spelled with a capital Kitsch, and filled with a couple of college students and a huge gathering of "horse people"; jockeys and trainers and contingent staff. People that were making huge bonuses this week, compared to their generally meager blue collar lot in life, but they did it for love and they did it for fame and they particularly did it for Derby.
It was obvious that the couple, even amongst his stories of nearly blue collar grandparents and actual blue collar relatives, could be seen as disparate objects in this place. He suggested it, a known haunt from his own college days, because it was "quaint" and "real" and miles away from celebrité, even as it stood under the shadows of that weeks' most important place. She wasn't well enough known that the blue collar crowds would recognize her outside of her act, and she was happy to accompany him, to have a native guide on this small vacation in early May.
She interrupted his rambling to point out that she had only a passing knowledge of okra. He finished drinking the tomato broth remaining in his bowl, stared at her for a few minutes, lost in thought, and then stood up, pulling on his light jacket, proceeding round the table to help her do so. He walked with her to the pharmaceutical counter to pay for what she took to be an astoundingly cheap meal. He asked for a 750 of Woodford Reserve, which was both a good bourbon on prominent display behind the counter and a shared luxury amongst the classes. He inquired as to a flask, having none on him, and acquired one to add to his tab.
He stashed the bourbon in their rental car, but not before pouring some into his flask and stashing the flask in a pocket, and with that he invited her to walk with him a few blocks. She hesitated for a few moments, not too inclined to walk in her heels, but with his insistence and the plain beauty of a sun-drenched afternoon she relented. Almost immediately she nearly slipped upon the gravel in the few feet between the car and the sidewalk, but he was a perfect gentleman, both keeping her upright and simultaneously feigning ignorance of her stumble.
The walk was nearly a block too long for her, she huffed. The walk having been a nearly depressing one as they passed a mixture of churches and nice houses betwixt awful rotting ones and dubious businesses, the sun brightly illuminating both unkempt and well loved buildings equally. Nestled just before an ugly train aqueduct and just across from an abandoned and equally graffiti-ed gas station was a blue and white colored fried fish restaurant that filled the air with the smells of fried temptation. He joked about nearly leading her to the better, hole-in-the-wall fish place five or six blocks further north.
The counter was staffed by a couple of low income high school aged kids, but they were relatively quick with the simple order of fried mushrooms and fried okra. He requested a container of the restaurant's carefully hoarded cocktail sauce and they sat down at a boring, and to her startlingly clean, fast-food booth. He had ordered another sweetened iced tea, and to this one he added a splash of bourbon from his flask. Her curiosity got the best of her and she took a small sip of now alcoholic tea. At which point he introduced her to the wonder of fried okra. He warned her about the hot bursts of water contained in the fried foods after nearly burning his mouth in his impatience to eat one of the fried mushrooms he had entirely coated in cocktail sauce. At first bite of the okra she was a little unimpressed, but he coaxed her to notice the sweet undertones of the vegetable versus its tangy exterior and the fish-tasting fried batter.
Once they had finished she let him know on few uncertain terms that she was not prepared to walk the full length to the car. He assuaged her worries and suggested using the bus. He lead her out of the fish restaurant and west into the afternoon sun. As they walked the single block to the nearest major bus stop he further suggested they take it in the opposite direction of her rental car to spend a few hours at a good pub. She look at the slender gold watch around her wrist, shrugged, and then agreed. Already waiting at the bus stop was a low income man heading to some afternoon job blocks away from his home and a homeless man getting ready for his own late shift haranguing the club-hopping rich for spare change.
The stop was in front of a chain drugstore, contrasting with lunch's mom and pop shop. Across the street they had just followed from the fish place was a dingy looking chain discount shoe retailer. A gas station anchored the diametric corner and he pointed out the pizzeria beside it as a great place to get Chicago-style deep dish. Houses in various states of repair and negligence filled up much of the rest of the view as they waited, just as they had seen on the rest of their walk.
The bus ride was a rather uneventful journey over a dozen blocks north. He pointed out a local coffee shop and Central Park and the main library branch brushed past just prior to their arrival at the stop he warned her they were getting off at, Broadway. She watched in fascination as nearly all of the people on the bus lined up to exit at that intersection with nearly half that many people waiting patiently to get onto the bus.
The pub, a local micro-brewery, was just across Broadway and past a large business building across from a major hotel tower. They sidled up to an outer bar and he ordered a beer, receiving it in a larger mug reserved for the bar's patrons. She wondered at his barfly nature given that this mug was chosen based solely on recognition of him by the bartender. He encouraged her to try a Mint Julep and she found herself intrigued enough to try one. She found the mix of fresh mint and bourbon too heady and strong and he suggested she temper it with a little bit of club soda.
He informed her that some considered the sparkly club soda verboten in a "real" mint julep, but in his own well regarded opinion just enough club soda to suit an individual's taste was perfectly warranted. The club soda-infused Mint Julep would prove to be her undoing that afternoon.
A few older ladies staying at the hotel across the street had wound up at the bar near to the couple and it was shortly after that when the ladies recognized her and begged her autograph. Hearing the commotion the manager on duty happily comped the couple's next round and before long the afternoon had passed over the course of several more rounds and evening proceeded much the same with brief intermissions for bites of pub food. A small crowd of onlookers, fans, and soon to be fans gathered around the couple, hanging on to every word and laughing at the opportune moments in the conversation. Every now and then word would be passed that some larger star had been spotted further north unto the depths of crass commercial clubs and sections of the hovering crowd would break away to follow those rumors, only to be replenished by newcomers.
Following pressure from the surrounding crowd the couple even relented to join in a few pub games, including the suggestively named "cornhole"; the couple displayed an admirable mixture of lack of skill and loss of skill due to increasing alcohol consumption.
The temporal and spatial disparity between the pub and the delivery of breakfast at precisely half past ten the following morning, as requested, led the couple to speculate on which one had driven the distance to the hotel drunk. In addition, a morning Mimosa and breakfast Bloody Mary had been thoughtfully provided by the hotel, and that led only to further suspicions of how drunk they must have been upon arrival. Neither had much remorse for having driven drunk for the rest they had received, but were particularly remorseless given the wonderful outlook for the coming day provided by waking up to eggs and champagne.
It should be noted that drunk driving is not to be condoned in any manner and that conveyance had been obtained via the wise counsel of the microbrewery that involved a combination of taxi cab and scooter-based designated driver service, both of which were handsomely paid in tips for their services.
Upon the slow activation of communication devices her publicist finally managed to get a hold of her and insure that she was well versed in the days activities. The publicist also managed to drop the word that her concerted effort in schmoozing the management at Churchill Downs had finally paid off into throwing in Millionaire's Row access on top of their already acquired last minute seats at the track. The publicist let them know to expect the passes to be left by courier at the hotel's front desk sometime prior to them setting out the next day.
A taxi had been requisitioned by the publicist, under the publicist's budget of funds, to get the already inebriated couple to the days activities upon the Bardstown Road area. They ate a wild smattering of worldly appetizers at a local café for a simple late lunch. At his behest they then walked the block to a well-regarded local bookstore. Having been well introduced to his pedestrianating ways the day before she had wisely worn flats and refused to complain any further about his wandering.
At the bookshop he stumbled into a relative, whom he introduced to her and by whom he was introduced to the store's owner. That lead to discussions of his humble published work, which the owner had stocked a surprising number of as something of a local curio. A few customers leaked into the discussion and soon he found himself roped into an impromptu signing session as the bookstore sold several new copies. The adjoining local coffee shop offered free caffeinated beverages to the couple.
Following the impromptu signing event they managed to be a few minutes late to her scheduled appearance at the local music store several blocks south. Her publicist had done her job admirably and there was precious delay between her timely, albeit late, arrival and her short solo acoustic set. A few of the pub-goers from the night before had wonderfully thickened the crowded reception. Stacks of her group's recent album seemed to disappear.
A few in the crowd may have noticed the looks the couple shared as she sung. She sung with great emotion and given the ear and the heart for it, perhaps there were those that caught the undertones of the real emotions, the raw chemistry at work upon her vocal chords. Even those that did catch fragments of that emotional core to her work that afternoon would not catch as well as he did that most of the words she sung that day were his. She had kept the set list from him, and his smile was all she needed in reception to her choice. It was something of a gift to him, for him and his hometown and a small but attentive audience in a small, intimate venue. It was just the right sort of set for such an audience. The few that recognized her would not be the sort of fans to clamour for her to cover more of her group's more recognizable songs. It was enough that she fill the space with her music and her emotion.
An employee that helped her set up approached him and gently tapped his shoulder. This employee introduced him to an unusual but well regarded guest to the store standing discreetly out of the crowd, someone that would have been recognized if it weren't for the rapt attention the audience paid to the singer before them. This guest, a wealthy twin of some local renown, shook his hand and chatted with him between breaks between songs. This twin noticed at least some of how he reacted to each new song and dared not disturb such a beautiful rapport. But slowly the twin spun from him enough of the couple's story to satisfy curiosity. With that as her token, this twin, wove for him an invite to the party she co-hosts, a charitable ball of worldly wonder and a vast cross-roads of celebrity, where she should have been embroiled in last minute planning rather than visiting a small musical set nearby. The twin insisted upon conveying them from their hotel at the right hour via an available limo service. Somewhat flustered he did his best to politely accept the invitation and then asked his leave to place more attention on the closing songs of her set.
Immediately as the publicity agent's workers set to their arrangements to get what equipment needed to travel to its next destinations he pulled her out from the fracas and enveloped her in a warm embrace, a tender kiss, a whispered nothing. She looked into his eyes and saw his wonder and inquired as to what had happened. He explained the party invitation, and then he explained the party's significance, and then he explained the need to hurry back to the hotel to change.
On the taxi ride back to the hotel she reminded him to call his mother and postpone their earlier dinner plans. His mother wasn't exactly ecstatic, but she was poor at hiding her lack of disappointment. He assumed that some small neighborly work may have gone into that invitation. Louisville can be small town for such a large city and he couldn't shake the impression that what was made to appear an invitation upon a belated lark had in fact been an orchestrated plot by his friends and family. But he couldn't press his mother on the subject. He knew well enough that she would tell him in her own way sometime later, and he didn't really care to know definitively.
What followed included the general haze of a rush to change clothes while simultaneously attempting some small decompression and take a quick breather in the middle of a hectic day. The limo arrived in time and the couple was generally resplendent in attire, as they were expected to be.
The party followed in a somewhat relaxed manner, a night of warm toasts and good wine and a handful of diverse conversations and a million introductions, including many celebrities and individuals of much "higher status" than the couple. She was gently coaxed into joining in several impromptu and wild jam sessions, including a few with her musical idols. She pressured him into joining into a gentle duet on one of the songs he had written for her.
They drank like fish and spoke of charity and celebrity. They danced in the hall and under the stars and with each other and without. The couple laughed there way through the evening and into the limo appointed to convey them back to the hotel and into to bed, regaling each other with stories of the night before dozing off.
In the morning he drove their rental car to the track, having a few ideas of where to find cheaper parking. He lead her to the track and she marveled at how different the area seemed from only a few days prior. She barely recognized the pharmacy as they passed it, so she verified it with him.
Just about every lot was packed, even as early as their ten o'clock arrival, and local residents hawked precious lawn space as parking lot space. Police maneuvered walls of pedestrians and walls of cars around each other. Street vendors further cluttered some of the streets, promoting memorabilia and foods of dubious value, just as street vendors attempt to ween cash from tourist throngs everywhere.
They watched a few races and visited Millionaire's Row with the pass her publicist had procured for them. They had gotten over their shock of rubbing elbows with bigger celebrities in the drunken camaraderie of the previous night's party, but they made small talk and posed for a few photos and were pressured into making a few bets. They contemplated wandering back to their other seats, but stayed for the amazing food, most made with local ingredients by a talented and enthusiastic five-star chef. She drank club soda-tempered and he stayed relatively sober sticking to a few glasses of expensive wine. They lost just about all the money they bet on the horses, but they whooped and hollered with everyone else during the races...
The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
Hunter S. Thompson, is of course, entirely correct, the Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved, but there is a certain majesty to it, nonetheless. Being a native to Louisville I have a much different view of the sporting event than non-natives. Most obviously, I know what so much of the area looks like during a more normal week, and thus the story germinated just about where the story begins:
I was eating lunch in the mentioned fish place on a dirty intersection both a few blocks from Churchill Downs and a few blocks from campus. It was finals week and Derby Week, a University of Louisville experience probably hard to match. (An amazing intersection of hectic class schedules, crazy events to partake in, and then the normal Spring finals celebration running headlong into wild Derby partying.) I was listening to a few low-ish class diners complain about ordinary struggles and thinking about Derby tradition and royalty and how I was merely days away from the huge crowds that would be centered on the track only blocks away...
I meant to finish this story by Derby Day, but obviously that plan fell by the wayside in all the other activities that happened. The story is better for it as I think I plugged some obvious gaps it had needed. Maybe next Derby I'll think about posting an annotated "Special Edition" to explain some of the in-jokes and provide a map of some the places visited in this tale...
Interestingly this story is a lot longer than I intended, which is neat because I used to have such a hard time inflating short stories.