A couple of years ago, Pat and I held Spencer’s Birthday Party at the Santa Anita Racetrack. This I that story:
It is Spencer’s birthday and we’re between checks again. It’s foolish to spend our scant resources on a big party. We cannot afford laser tag or Medieval Times. But what we can afford, Pat announces one evening from his station at the computer, is, “The Santa Anita Racetrack. Children get in free.”
“That’s because they are in the business of creating lifelong gambling addicts,” I say, folding laundry on the dining room table.
“No. The kids won’t gamble. We’ll take them to the infield and set up a picnic. They get to see the horses race around them. It’ll be thrilling. And it says here that there even have booths set up for kids. Ring toss. That kind of thing.”
“Kids love ring toss,” he says.
“I hated ring toss.”
“That’s because you never won.”
“Ring toss is a set up for failure,” I say, dumping loose socks onto the table. “The odds are with the house.”
“Of course the odds are with the house. Otherwise the house would never make any money.”
I snatch all dark socks, put them aside, and allow myself to think about the possibility of the racetrack. Spencer loves watching horse racing on TV which is what inspired Pat to look it up. But what will the kids’ parents say? I’m still living down Murphy’s birthday two years ago. On the morning of the party, I realized that we hadn’t gotten party favors for the kids. So I ran across the street to a cooking store, thinking that I might find cute cookie cutters. Instead, I found darling little snow globes in individual boxes for four bucks a pop. At the end of the party, in the crush of handing out the snow globes to eager sticky hands, a parent said to me, “Brett, did you know that the globes are wine stoppers?”
I start with the white socks.
“So we would make it clear on the invitation that there won’t be any gambling?” I say.
“Of course,” says Pat, turning around in his chair to look at me. “All we are gambling on is the weather. The only shelter is inside near the betting windows.”
We borrow a friend’s minivan to transport all of the children to the track. Within minutes of our departure, Kevin Wu says that he’s going to throw up. He isn’t getting enough air in the back, he says, and Pat rolls down the window. I’m not too worried, because Kevin Wu is a first class complainer. He knows that if he really throws up, it will be the talk of the fourth grade. It takes an hour to get to Santa Anita with six boys swatting each other and Kevin Wu periodically dry heaving for effect.
Spencer makes quips from the center seat next to me. He’s in fine form and doesn’t seem fazed by Kevin Wu’s theatrics since they are routine. He is excited to be the center of attention. Unlike me, he expects to be loved. He also expects everyone to be as excited as he is about seeing a horse race up close. I’m not so sure they will be and I muttered my fears to Pat two days ago.
“Kids expect so much these days,” I said. “All the other parents drop five hundred to a grand on some pre-packaged party that provides non-stop entertainment, all the crappy food they can cram into their faces, and a party favor that’s a neat-o light-up, whirly, plastic weapon of some kind that they can take apart and reassemble into something else.”
“We aren’t ‘other parents’,” Pat said.
Like Spencer, Pat expects to be loved. He doesn’t know that you have to work at it. You have to study what other people do and at least attempt to fit in. Otherwise…Otherwise, what? I ask myself.
I don’t want to find out.
When we get to the track and tumble out of the van, I am struck by how accurately the movies depict racetracks. There is a constant swirling of activity. People pouring in and out of the gates. Noonday sun sharpening the color so it looks like a Doris Day picture. From the parking lot we can hear the announcer calling out the places of the horses in quick succession as they round a bend. Their names are like titles of noir novels: Last Hope, Fancy Girl, Ruby Ruby. Spencer bounces up and down with excitement. I do a quick head count of the boys and as we wind our way through the crowds, past vendors, I quickly realize what my greatest challenge will be. Keeping track of everyone.
Giovanni wanders off to a cotton candy concession to buy one with his own money. While Max zips ahead of us, disappearing into the crowd.
“You stay with Giovanni,” I yell to Pat, hightailing it to the entrance.
I catch up to Max who has dragged Murphy along to the turnstiles, “Guys, wait with me here. Where’s Kevin Wu?”
I spin around and spot him heaving into a garbage can with Young-Jae standing next to him, eyes rolled heavenward, like he’s praying for aliens to beam him out of there. To be fair, this is what Young-Jae always looks like. Childhood is something he’s barely enduring until he can make a ton of money at a high-powered job he hates and blow it all on coke and prostitutes. Spencer has known Young-Jae since first grade and invited him out of a vague sense of waning loyalty.
I watch Pat, Spencer, and Giovanni catch up to Kevin Wu. Pat parks the cooler, squats down, and puts his hand on his shoulder. Kevin Wu nods at Pat. Hee looks down and kicks the ground. Then Pat turns to the group and says something that appears to pull them all together, since they all bunch up behind him as he picks up the handle of the cooler.
Max and Murphy run up a tiny hill next to the turnstiles. I watch them out of the corner of my eye while Pat pulls the cooler with the boys, looking subdued, stumbling in step behind him. I suspect that he has spoken to them sternly. Pat is a loving parent. But he has absolutely no difficulty taking command and laying out his expectations to children. I abdicate this duty all the time in favor of being liked.
Pat waves to me as he approaches, “All accounted for.”
“Great,” I say. I look down at the boys and say in my best, most warm, mommy voice. “This is going to be fun!”
Pat pays for the two of us at the window and we shuffle the kids through the turnstiles. On the other side, he amasses the children and says, “Keep your eyes on me. We’re going to go through the main building to the infield. Follow me and don’t stop to look at stuff right now. I can take you back in later, if you want.”
The boys start to follow Pat and I bring up the rear, obsessively counting them over and over again. In shocking contrast to the whirl of color and noise outside, the inside is muffled, moody, and gray. It’s like we took an elevator down to purgatory. I look around hoping that the kids aren’t seeing what I see. A sticky cement floor. Men sitting at Formica tables, hunched over betting forms, with foggy plastic cups of flat beer in front of them. Fast food containers littering the floor and tables. Grimy TVs circling the cavernous hall, showing stats and the track.
Giovanni turns back to me, cotton candy residue lining his lips like mishandled lip liner on an old lady, and says, “What can we buy here?”
“What?” I say, before I can stop myself. “We’re not buying anything.”
Curse his parents for giving him money. I had expected the other kids to clamor for cotton candy after Giovanni bought his, but I think they were too dazed to figure out what was happening. Perhaps they assumed they’d get theirs later. I square my shoulders in anticipation of the begging to come. Maybe we should have written on the invitation, “To keep things even, please don’t send money with your child. He will be provided with juice, sandwiches, and cookies from our cooler. Each kid will get five tickets for the booths and no more. If your child requires anything further, tell him to place a bet.”
We make our way to the exit where light pours in like the opening of a tomb. I touch Giovanni on his shoulder and say, “If you want to spend your money later, I’ll bring you back here.”
I don’t know how I will negotiate this, but I don’t want to get a phone call from his mother this evening. I quite like Giovanni. He told me earlier that he had been to the track with his uncle a few times and this doesn’t surprise me. He has the wheeler-dealer air of a man who wears a vest over his shirtsleeves and runs a craps game.
We emerge like emigrees from a dank land into a new world. The Santa Anita infield. Where colors are their true selves – the green of the grass, pure blue sky, the reds, yellows, and purples, of peoples’ clothing as they mill around buying souvenirs, programs, and snacks. Pat strides ahead, pulling the cooler over the grass like he knows where he is going. The passel of boys dutifully follows him. They glance around furtively, but appear determined to keep in step. What on earth did Pat say to them?
We walk further into the field and away from all the action. Did Pat look at a map before we came? Where are we going? We keep walking over the soft grass until Pat stops in the middle of the field and declares, “This is it.”
This is it, I think? Where are the horses? Why are we so far away from the rest of the people?
But the boys are relieved to stop walking. Kevin Wu complains that his shins hurt and he sinks into the grass. Spencer, Murphy, and Max chase each other around. Pat offers the kids juice boxes from the cooler and Giovanni and Young-Jae take one.
I hear a bugle call and the announcement for the mounts to post. From watching horse racing with Spencer on TV, I know this means that the horses are moving into their stalls and getting ready for the race. But we can’t see the race? Isn’t that what we came here for? The race is the main activity. Without it, we’re just in a field with cranky kids who would rather be playing video games.
Now that the cooler has been opened, the boys gather around it, pulling out sandwiches and bags of chips. Dear God, I think, they are going to wolf down all the food within the first ten minutes and then ask what’s next. The thing about a successful kids’ birthday party is to pace activities. If you speed through the food, games, cake, and gifts within the first hour (and I have done this) you end up with pandemonium. The outsiders – and there are always one or two (I glance at Kevin Wu) -- beg you to call their mothers to come and pick them up early. They know what’s coming. And the rangy pack of other boys become so hyped on the food and freedom that they start running in circles throwing spiky objects at each other, until one of them is wrestled to the ground and starts wailing.
“Boys are born warriors,” a new-agey friend of mine once told me when my kids were little. She shrugged, dipping her chamomile teabag in a mug like, what can you do?
And at the time, I said, “No. That can’t be. Boys aren’t born warriors. Warfare is taught. And I will teach my sons the way of the Tao.”
My new agey friend whose son was a holy terror, simply smiled and said, “It’s what they do. They must fight.”
Then she lit up a joint.
I look at the boys circling the cooler and I can feel the thrum of anarchy in the air. They are gearing up, like the horses we can’t see at the starting gate. Except for Kevin Wu, who is picking at the grass. He was not born a warrior. He was born a systems analyst.
“Pat,” I say. “Do you want to take the boys over to the track so they can see the actual horses?” I had promised myself that I wouldn’t interfere when I handed Pat the task of planning the whole party. I’ve planned most of them in the past and, seriously, the stress of each one has shaved a respective year off of my life.
Pat smiles, “Oh we’re going to see them any minute.” He points to a fence half a field away. Then I hear the announcer call for the race to begin and there is a shot.
The crowd roars in the distance and I glare at Pat. We’re nowhere close.
He points to the fence and yells to us all, “Run!”
He starts running and we all take off after him. The noise of the crowd intensifies. I hear rhythmic pounding. Is it the crowd stomping their feet? I bound across the field behind them, Kevin Wu at my heels. Every breath hurts my throat. But I don’t care. I can barely stand it. I want to yell. Maybe I do yell. What am I running toward? I don’t know. Who the fuck cares? This is the most thrilling thing I’ve done in years. I feel like picking up a rock and hurling it into the air. But I can’t stop. The noise of the crowd drives me on. I have to make it to the fence.
Pat gets there first and climbs up. The boys do the same. And just as Kevin Wu and I clamber up next to them, we see massive thoroughbreds baring down on us. Jockeys’ colors glinting in the sunlight. They race by in a flash. So close that I can feel the steam from the horses’ nostrils on the hairs of my arm.
We keep our eyes on the horses until they turn the bend. The crowd gets even louder. The announcer amps up his patter.
Atta Boy. Dora’s Prize, One Fine Morning.
We hang on the fence waiting. Listening. Gasping.
The announcer intones so fast that I can’t make out the horses’ names. It’s a chant, building, building to a crescendo as we hang onto the fence. And finally a cacophony.
Announcer. Pounding hooves. Crowd.
And it’s over.
Pat, the boys, and I look at each other’s red faces. We jump down from the fence, raise our fists in the air, and whoop. The boys race around with no particular purpose and I run over to Pat and throw my arms around him like I haven’t seen him in years.
You cannot buy moments like this. Or, yes, you can buy them for little more than the price of two adult admissions.
I would like to have more money. I long for a time when I don’t feel the mounting tension of waiting for the next check to arrive. But there are times like these when I think that our inability to pay for distraction has brought us here. To this bare moment of crazy joy. I do not aggrandize financial hardship. But it has shown me how very little I really need.