On Wednesday, May 1st, 2:23 in the morning, I am awoken by the chirping of a mockingbird.
They say it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, but I disagree with them. When did it become a thing, that mockingbirds should be held in such high regard? I’m writing this a month after the fact, and that bird remains chirping outside my window all hours of the night. Doesn’t have the decency to start at 5:30 like all the other birds, no, it starts at two or three. Madness. Thus I found myself fairly sleep-deprived leading up to Derby weekend, spending my early mornings groggily shambling about a parking lot, shaking trees so that I could follow the bird to the next tree to shake until they got the idea that I wouldn’t leave them alone.
This Derby day started with disappointment, setting the mood. I awoke to my alarm (the weather had temporarily muted the dread bird) and prepared myself to be collected bright and early as discussed. The first text from Dan reminded me that a Johnson 7:30 really means more like 8:10. Nice. Cool.
The gang shows up eventually and it doesn’t take us long to start the old routine. Powdered eggs at Wagner’s, nice. I get a mimosa with it, but the bar is cash only. Dan buys my drink. Next we pass Beef O’brady’s, not stopping in like we had done last year, but moving along down the strip mall to a liquor store. They don’t have any Heaven’s Door, I worry if it will ever pop back up again. Buying online is such a hassle and they won’t deliver whiskey to Kentucky anyway. Dan buys a pack of cigarettes, but they’re not the ones he smokes, so he goes to the adjacent Kroger and buys a pack of the kind he does smoke. Both of those packs would be left on my coffee table where they remain to this day as I don’t know what to do with them.
We did stop at a restaurant for a couple beers but I forget what it was. I wasn’t really paying attention, but I did get a White Claw. I’d tried one the week prior in New Orleans and they were pretty good, especially one flavor which tasted exactly like a muted red Ice Pop, the kind of popsicle in the plastic tube (not not the ones we have today, the ones they had when I was 12; most of the flavors are still good but somehow they’ve ruined the red, my favorite).
Next, Beer Depot. So one of the first things that happens is the Beer Despot (Anyone who runs the Beer Depot must surely be the Beer Despot) gives us all hats. A benevolent dictator indeed. They are promotional straw hats for White Claw. I put on the hat. I guess I’m a White Claw guy now? I mean, I have the hat. I haven’t had any since that day but I guess I wouldn’t mind having more. The hat combined well with the sunglasses Zach gave me in New Orleans to give me a mild Hunter S. Thompson look. Very mild, but it was there, at least it was when we were in Derby times.
Next I go outside (which involves stepping about twenty feet over, the entire Depot is an L-shaped hallway around an elevated platform) and hang out by the dumpster, because that’s where trash like me belongs. Dan is already out there, and after a brief greeting I vomit into the aforementioned dumpster. I wasn’t sober, but I wasn’t drunk, so I blame the powdered eggs. An ice cream truck comes by and, newly cashed by an ATM, get some Batman ice creams for me and Dan.
The last stop on our ritualistic circumnavigation of Churchill Downs was the VFW, where I was disappointed to find no truck giving out free burgers, something which I had become accustomed to the very instant I had seen it two years prior. They did have barbecue and I ate of it most heartily.
Our long walk back to the gate opposite Wagner’s was interrupted by strange traffic and a graciously accepted invitation to shotgun a beer, but was more or less direct. I bought my ticket on my phone and proceeded into the line. At the ticket scanner, you put your phone into a device face-up. Or face-down. Wait. Here, let me flip it over, fuck, oh no, shit… the screen is cracked. Nice. Nice going, Richie. Real nice.
We take the tunnel in. Find a spot on some grass. It’s raining now. Only a little bit but it is. Tired of walking and even more tired of standing, I sat down. Not satisfied, I laid down completely. I held my phone over my face and started writing some of this. Bored, I put my nice new hat over my face and just waited a while.
I put on my rain poncho but it tore open due to being a small, the only available size even days prior to the event. My cracked phone mocked me like the bird, not just present but proudly suggesting it was nothing too temporary. At this point I was more or less sober again to my disappointment. I didn’t want to be sober. I had waited two years and expected my patience to be rewarded but it seems that this platitude, like so many, just wasn’t that accurate. I wished I was in my bed, or at least on my couch playing Titanfall 2.
I looked up but didn’t see any familiar faces. An overturned chair was one I had sat on, but I wasn’t strictly certain that it belonged to our group in the first place. I got back on my feet and started wandering in small circles, seeing if any of my party was around.
The people around me in the infield were like any other ticketed bring-your-own-chair gathering, if but better dressed. I wondered why my coworkers were so insistent on telling me the derby was Decadent and Depraved. I get that it was, once. And it was its own kind of wild. But not crazy.
It wanted to be. You could tell that. All the guys in their wacky bright suits wanted this to be wild, and they’d tell their friends that it was. At work the day before one of my coworkers was insisting to me that the Derby was Gomorrah, that clothes would be few and far between and drunken acrobats would climb port-a-johns, dashing across their rooftops to show their triumph over order and decency. “No,” I had responded. But he was still pretty sure that’s what the Derby was like. I guess I missed that part.
So I left. Money well spent getting in, I turned around and walked out. Someone was running a shuttle service with their van. “Free Shuttle,” it said in marker, “Gratuity a MUST!!” No, man. That’s not how that works. So I walked on until I hit an area from which I could grab a rideshare home. Bob Dylan was on the radio, and sang all seventy-eight verses of Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.
We had a nice breakfast the next day but that doesn’t count as Derby day stuff so I’ll end here.