The Way It Used To Be: 1957

Toronto -- Old Woodbine Race Track.

There's never been enough emphasis on horse racing. If it were only so simple, so quick to the quick, but only in stories. Just getting to the track was sometimes almost beyond him. Let him tell this story.

So there I was in Toronto at this apartment on Bathurst Street above a shoe repair, Arnold's, a big neon blinked this fact into my front room 17 times a minute. I look out the window and I see a VW bus parked in a lot across the street. It's July in the city, tar melts on the streets, the sun is out and I'm low on funds, no prospects and I just finished off a stale beer. I'm grumpy. I see the hippie van and its license plate is four sevens: 7777 Cal.

Hey, that's me, I want to go to California, get out of Toronto and here it was. Four sevens, my lucky day. Arnold shoe repair sign blinked me up to reality. Arnold these days is a Chinese guy who does a brisk trade in dried turtles on a stick; they seem to disappear from the front window with rapidity. Anyway, this neon sign blinks on, my head snapped to reality, no money. There's a woman on the radio singing Let the mystery be. No way, how do you think we got out of the swamp, out of the foothills, the tundra, with mosquito bushes and black bear berries. I need the racetrack today. Let the investigation begin.

I move down the street rapidly, post time is 1:30 and past noon now and it's a half-hour on the streetcar, out to Woodbine racetrack, Sherbourne and the bleak alley. I go into the Foxes Corner, a little bar, dark with red candle ashtrays, half of them smoldering. I peer around in the murk, nobody, back to sunlight. I drink two espressos from the guy on the corner, on the tab of course, and time is passing. I know now what has to be done. Mr. Organmaster loans money out of the Bridge and Social Club above the bicycle store.

Mr. Organmaster is a very large man with glasses thick as coke bottle bottoms. His people were dangerous I'd heard, but he, himself always seemed to be enjoying some private joke.

I see him. He is frowning at me. I back off from the 50 and now begin to tell the truth a little bit. I say about the VW bus and all. He snorts, his lips chatter like a racehorse. I take this as a good sign. He wants to know if I want to sing with some group he's putting together to do sea shanties out in the suburban bars. I can sing. Yes, yes of course I will sing sea shanties out in any soulless place, just put me in your book. Ten bucks? Okay, okay, I gotta go.

I'm squared up at the streetcar stop waiting for the King streetcar. Larry Bird says you play defense with your feet. I'm squared up, there's a bunch of us, all waiting for the King streetcar, all headed for an afternoon of horse racing, a day to fry under a sun that loved little white heads and their friends. I'm at the front of the mob that's waiting. The crowd's beginning to build. We are jutting out into the street by now. Here comes the King streetcar. I can see it's already jammed with mamas and poppas and guys who want to move to California. Whiz, goes right past, clinging its bell. We'd surged forward, expecting at least a slowdown, but no, zoom right by me. The last guy in the thing is jammed by the door. He's wearing a beige wool jacket, perhaps too warm for this time of year I thought. Here comes an empty car up the track. I can feel the excitement building behind me but I know something's wrong. Sure enough, it turns right up Colleridge Street and goes off empty. The nitwits who run the transit think it's funny to watch us expectant money winners lean forward only to fall back. I can feel a briskness of intent just below knee level. I can say with surety, without fear of contradiction, that people who are waiting at a streetcar stop for the thing to come and take them to the race track where they will undoubtedly have more money than they do at this instant, these people don't want anything unlucky to happen to them on their travels. Already a guy has said, next car will be the third, three is a lucky number for me. And he gave a kind of wink, all right. Three wasn't the favored number of everybody there though.

We need music. No problem, immediately four boomboxes open all with different tunes, if it wasn't a melange, at least it was malevolent. I was humming sea shanties, it might become my thing. "Oh I grabbed up her skirt and much to my surprise…" That sort of thing.

A car is approaching. It's full up and its clangs past us followed closely by a frazzled looking woman shouting, My kid's on that car, she's wheezing and running off the tracks and the King streetcar goes on sailing toward the race track. Christ, imagine that — you're going to slip out of the house for a few minutes, grab the kid, hot foot it down to the track, catch a couple of races and be home to have supper on the table by six. And the streetcar runs off with the kid who must be jammed in there somewhere. Meatloaf is really going to be underdone tonight. You see lots of stuff, none of it unlucky.

I'm squared up, my feet are light. Here comes another car, time is passing. Pow. It's empty for us, the nitwits have put an extra car on the line, way to go man. Then we pile on. I sit where I want, right-hand side at the back but close to the rear door, facing the window which I jerk immediately open. We're not going to make the first race; the daily double players are impatient. It's going to be close. We fill ’em up and go off.

We now fly by other streetcar stops, all with people running a bit late. Being philosophical about every fly-by was beginning to wear thin. I could tell cause we stopped for a light, I could see ’em all. They're tapping their feet, Larry Bird's advice was not limited to men. Taxis are becoming more evident as we get nearer the track. Yellow cabs with black writing, "Call Phoenix 7777 for quick dispatch." Hey, I'd a went for it if I wasn't in here with the sweaters and heavy breathers. But it takes two to tango and that's what makes horse racing, so opinions are expressed vox soto. and we are wall-to-wall in a tin streetcar, the temps about 92, no breeze, except when a car passes and dust flies in every window that is open which is every one, and a film of dust covers us all within three blocks. And it sticks to those who are sweating, not necessarily unlucky though.

So vox soto people talk, to the newspaper racing form close to their vests. Except for those who don't. They're saving their money for the big hit, after all admission was something, and if all you've got's ten bucks well, you can cop a boo at the next guy's form when he's not looking. Only the next guy has been in your position and he hates you so, Get your own form pal, and he curls around his, but screw you for making him feel uncharitable, which could be unlucky. What you want is a neutral trip, a bland cast, and no hassle trip over to the track.

So the guy three rows up says to his racing form, "Philistine, good leg there." We all go to the charts immediately. Philistine, out of Morg by Templeton. Early, late and middle leg. I saw what he meant and passed on.

Finally, there's the track. Old Woodbine bandstand, a pre-second war structure, open steel beams and concrete painted in pastel colors. It loomed and cast its shadow over the working class neighbors. There's a mob headed in, time to get off. We pile out, I've wiggled to the front of the backdoor pile and I'm waiting on the top step to get off first.

I learned how to slide and dodge early, as a kid from the boxing lessons my grandfather inflicted. So I'm through the crowd, got my admission in my hand and I'm heading for the ground floor, finish line spot, where the horse trainers tout the hookers at marketing their programs. My girlfriend's sister, Nicole, will be there, maybe she's got a winner.

OldWoodbine

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