Every year, opening day at Del Mar brings out the beautiful people. Handsome, well-heeled (or at least trying to look that way) young men and women get dressed to the nines and parade around the track, seeing and being seen. It is a classic San Diego moment: shiny happy people in an elegant place on a perfect summer day.
Not a trouble in the world.
Until they start betting and losing and betting and losing. And, eventually, if you look away from the glamorous women in their fabulous hats, you’ll start to notice them–the old-time track denizens in not chic shabby clothes. Their rolled-up papers and grim expressions, their studied disdain for the loud crowd of novice gamblers.
A dying breed to be sure.
In summer’s past, Doug Porter has written ably about the melancholy beneath the PR glitz of the race track: the horrifying sight of dying horses in a declining sport as the hard-drinking, chimney smoking machismo of the old school crowd at the tracks fades away. Hence the concerts, beer fests, and other spectacles designed to draw in new blood who might croon along with Bing Crosby, singing “where the turf meets the surf in Del Mar” ironically before the rock concert.
Despite all of this, I have a small place in my heart for the old guys. Back when you could bring a cooler of beer in the place and drink for free and study the races on a half-deserted weekday, it was a different scene. I can scarcely remember seeing my father happier than after he hit a big race and used the easy money to buy a round. Mostly he lost, like everyone else, but there was always the dream of a better, bigger, life-changing outcome that never came.
Then there was the sad drive home.
It all makes me think of Charles Bukowski at Del Mar with his legendary scowl, surveying the paper, looking for a long shot winner. And losing.
That’s why I prefer his poem “On the Train to Del Mar” to Bing Crosby. It captures that precise mixture of suffering, anticipation, and failure that give the race track its deep melancholy. With a pint already in hand, walking to the bar car, the speaker sees the sun flooding in through the window and that “the bartender sees that I am feeling good/he smiles a real smile and/asks/”how’s it going?”:
how’s it going? my heels are down
my shoes cracked
I am wearing my father’s pants and he died
ten years ago
I need 8 teeth pulled
my intestine has a partial blockage
I puff on a dime cigar
“Great!” I answer him,
“how you making?”
glory glory glory and the train rolls on
past the sea
past the sand and
down in between the
But sometimes, even the losers get lucky as Bukowski notes in another poem, “Out of the Arm of the One Love”:
it is much more pleasant to make love
along the shore in Del Mar
in room 42, and afterwards
sitting up in bed
drinking good wine, talking and touching
listening to the waves …
I have died too many times
believing and waiting, waiting
in a room
staring at a cracked ceiling
Those are the times, notes the poet, you go wild inside. And there’s nothing you can do about it except place your bets and hope for the best.
ABOUT THE SUMMER CHRONICLES – In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”