The 1970 Hunter S. Thompson article about meeting Ralph Steadman for the first time and covering the drunken madness of the Derby, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” stands alone as the seminal work on Derby culture and marks the beginning of Gonzo Journalism. This article before you probably won’t mark the beginning of anything. But I love HST, I love Bourbon, and I love Churchill Downs. The key to loving all of these things is timing. Go to Louisville during Derby week and you are crushed by bucket listers and infield guzzlers. You become a behind-the-velvet-rope spectator of those who dress (or are dressed) better than you ever will and enjoy the comforts of paradise suites reminiscent of Jeanie’s bottle. Don’t get me wrong; I would certainly go if someone else were paying and driving and I could get in a special entrance and then be ushered into a cool place to sit with a never-ending flow of drinks and food. And Barbara Eden is there.
In the meantime, I will continue to celebrate Opening Day, exactly one week before the Kentucky Derby. All the excitement, drinks, gambling, and food, without the crowds or feelings of inferiority. We are kings and queens of Opening Day, strutting in clearance aisle jackets and Chinese shoes, Amazon Prime dresses and hats generally available at wig shops. We looked just great, by the way. Style doesn’t require money–just taste. Usually it is L and I alone; this year we recruited a crew of 7.
Opening Night is the uglY cOUsin Derby.
The Friday before Opening Night we piled in an Explorer and hit the road armed with moonshine, a small bag of Jolly Ranchers, and high spirits. By 4:30, we arrived downtown Louisville with a dangerously low buzz level. What seemed initially to be too much moonshine, became too little–and we made the error of soaking up the alcohol with McDonald’s hamburgers while talking about how much we love White Castle. Compromises must be made to satisfy the bladder, so availability always trumps preference when a bathroom break is needed.
As we approached Louisville, we knew drinks had to be purchased. And quick. Only check-in and some minor tasks stood between us and that important goal. One of us had to shower. No, we don’t know why. One of our seven had to get a race packet for the half marathon she was running the next morning. No, we don’t know why. We respectfully left those tasks to the needy and their spouses. After all, such intimate affairs like showers and packet pick-ups shouldn’t be experienced with gawkers in tow. We are a considerate bunch.
So two went away to check in to a race; two went to shower; the remaining three of us had only to check in. We would win the race to alcohol. Bet on us, we say. We are the trifecta. And as winners, we deserve the upgraded suite that a text informed me awaited. As I approached the front desk, I began to worry. The “woman” there seemed bored and uninterested in my presence. She never looked at me or talked to me, other than to ask my name or answer a question in as succinct a manner as possible.
“I got the upgrade, right?” I asked sweetly.
“Yes. You have a parlor.” She announced, as if recording a train arrival announcement.
“So, there’s an extra bed in that room?”
“You have a parlor.” She handed me my key and went back to other business on the computer. Perhaps she was recharging her battery. By this point I was convinced she was a poorly programmed robot.
When we opened the door, we realized that the animatronic entity was correct. We had a parlor. Just a parlor. The room contained a formerly gold colored loveseat and matching chairs, a couple garage sale end tables decorated with drink rings and a couple cigarette burns from the good ol’ days, and a card table with chairs. Ghosts of 1970s Rotarians and Odd Fellows greeted us and pointed out the moist carpet by the table. A broken Styrofoam cooler outside the door may have originally caused the wet spot. Or it could have been the ghosts. It was hard to tell upon first inspection. What wasn’t difficult to comprehend, though, was the absence of anything to lie upon.
Another trip down to the front desk with a different, slightly more human employee (still with far-away eyes), netted me another set of keys. “Whoever checked you in [only one other person was at the front desk] should have given you the key to the adjacent room. You get both.” OK. Then we realized that we still lacked a bed for our third party and a means of traveling from one room to the next. The door between the parlor and the room was locked with a real key. Another trip downstairs and two calls to housekeeping later, and we had a suite with a gurney sort of spare bed and a way to access both rooms. As a side note, the washing machine with hair that I first talked to repeated the expression “You have a parlor,” when I was blessed with her service a second time.
Kafka was taking notes in heaven.
We were finally able to get in our room and down to the bar just after the showering people and just before the drive down the road and back to get a race packet people. We ignored the shower folks “What took you so long?” Stories would delay the goal. Bourbon. At last. And we drank and then walked to places to drink. That is the beauty of the Fourth Street area. Nothing more significant calls your name. Smell something good? Eat it or drink it. Very primal.
Many of the conversations dealt with the future that night–we better not drink too much so we don’t ruin tomorrow, I can’t drink too much because I’m running tomorrow, I need to shower–and the future is never the best drinking companion. Alcohol is never as effective when sharing drinks with ghosts from the past or phantoms of the future. Drinking must be done completely in the present with an eye for whatever is happening around you, on whoever happens to wander by, to pick up a random piece of conversation and turn it into a weekend in-joke, to hear a suggestion and turn it into a morning regret.
We managed to ditch the ghosts after the second stop with the assistance of the Wienermobile parked around the corner. Wherever it travels throughout the United States, it brings sheer joy to its observers and acts as a catalyst to the purity of the moment at hand. It must be touched, experienced, recorded. Nothing else matters when the Wienermobile is around. If I were a robber, I would follow it and rob everything left unattended in its wake. We ran to the giant wiener and embraced it like an old friend who had left town and become a celebrity. Our spirits were at an all time high.
At some point we also learned of a family tradition of two of our group, in which they yell some sort of word like “safety” when passing gas. If someone doesn’t and another notices, everyone is able to hit the family member hard until the gas passer reaches a doorknob. At least I think I have the details right. All I know is that as we stood in front of the wiener, someone yelled “safety” and I didn’t know if I could hit someone or not. I am easily confused by family traditions and games with more than two steps. Once I went into a seizure trying to understand craps.
Nothing could be a better follow-up to the surprise wiener than a visit to my favorite dive bar. I have no idea what the place is called, but I had managed to make it there every year. Everyone was on board. Somehow we picked up a local in our group, a man with a long gate named Terrence. He asked where we were headed, so I explained. “The place called Dive Bar is the other die-rection,” he said. I vowed to pronounce the word direction in his manner for the rest of my life. It was like a song.
“No, it isn’t called Dive Bar, it is a dive bar. It’s this way.” He shook his head and for some reason continued to follow us for the three blocks to the telltale awning next door to my favorite place. The atmosphere was dusty and unpretentious. Everything was cheap, and you could tell they weren’t counting on tourists for money. Like every bar, even the worst, in downtown Louisville, though, it had lots of bourbon choices. As we approached the door, I regaled everyone with tales of nearly dying on the street and passing out in Guy Fieri’s after drinking at this gem last year. I couldn’t wait to sit back down on their comfortable bar stool.
But it was closed. The door said it closed at 10. “What bar closes at 10?” I asked. “I’m sure we were here later last year.” The rest of the party looked down to politely not call me a liar.
L began trying to pronounce Fieri, and didn’t give up until morning. She never got it right.
“I told ya nothin’ was here,” said Terrence.
We did manage to sit and drink another time and then move up to the parlor for loud drinking and a game of cards that lasted less than one hand. I’m pretty sure no one even decided on the game we were playing. Some were playing the “safety” game, though. It didn’t matter. Tomorrow would be Opening Night. No one got too drunk. And at some point, someone secretly gave Terrence five dollars for his services, so he wasn’t asleep in our parlor. All was well.
Races were run, and giant breakfasts eaten, and forgotten rules to the game resulted in people (well, me) knocking on the table yelling “nature” rather than “safety.” By some miracle, all of us wound up in the same place and with the same desire–to find hats. A short stroll up Fourth street in the opposite direction of the designated late-night drinking section netted us a wide variety of discount clothing and wig shops. Half the population of Louisville must be bald to support the number of wig shops on that street alone.
All of the places had fantastic varieties of wildly colored suits, dresses, hats, belts, hair, at bargain prices. I was particularly impressed by the discovery that superhero looking jumpsuits were a thing. I wanted one badly, but knew, due to a stomach filled with French toast rather than alcohol, that I couldn’t pull it off. We bought cheap sunglasses rather than hats, but vowed that next year we would come to town completely naked and outfit ourselves right here.
The rest of the day was spent sampling beer and bourbon at the Pig and Swig festival outside our hotel and walking great distances to find more of my favorite bars closed. “We have to go to the Galt,” I declared. “There’s a great bourbon bar in the middle of a dark hallway there. It’s all wood paneled walls and strong drinks.” So, we walked past many bars to get to the Galt Hotel, historic Louisville landmark and home of the cool jockey statues. Once there, we asked an information desk person where the bar was that I was looking for. I said something about wood panels. He didn’t know much about bars in the hotel. Another, older, employee stepped in. “I know which one you’re talking about. It’s closed for renovation. Only bar open now is right around the corner.”
I’m no business person, but closing a bar in Louisville during the busiest time of the year for them seems odd. Greater minds. The bar we were pointed toward appeared to be sucked out of an airport and plopped on the walkway connecting the two Galt buildings. It was sterile and depressing. So, we walked through crowds of people in ten-year-old tight designer jeans and tank tops (a body building competition was in town) and back onto the streets, now thirstier than ever. I could sense that people were beginning to blame me for their tired feet. I didn’t dare suggest another destination.
Our suitemate, the one sentenced to sleep on the parlor gurney, said nothing with his mouth, but made strong comments with his feet. He began to limp in such a way that he appeared to be trying not to limp. His “toughing it out” made me feel more guilty than if he had simply collapsed to the ground.
Off to the Races
Finally it was time to make ourselves pretty and hit the track. And pretty we were. One couple was pink, one yellow, one blue, and our limping suitemate brought all the colors together in one outfit. Genius. After the required posing on stairways and recording the evening that might soon become foggy, we arrived at the storied twin spires of Churchill Downs.
There people mill about in colorful clothing. Serious gamblers with Fedoras, corduroy jackets, and tons of stuff shoved in their front shirt pockets, serpentine through the crowds to get to the betting booths. We pick up Lilies and Julips right away so our hands don’t get lonely. Cigars follow closely behind. Horses circle the paddock as people lean over the rails trying to look inside their souls. Bands play in the courtyard, and nervous children in dance troops make final preparations in tiny clusters before their performances.
Our seats on the track come with an all-you-can-eat buffet and an all-you-can-drink bar. Some try to drink all they can. We wander from trackside to the buffet area and back throughout the evening, placing bets, eating turkey (and big carrots that were actually good), grabbing drinks, and yelling for horses we’ve never met. The bartenders remember us. “We’ll be here until we die,” they say–but not in a way that makes me think they will soon drop dead.
One group of guys is having a bachelor party. The bachelor himself has been dressed by his friends: each chose and purchased one item of his ensemble. So he wears a purple shiny shirt, orange pants, a coat of many colors. He is fantastic. His mood matches his clothing. We drink with the whole party and invite them to the parlor afterward. We invite the bartenders back to the parlor. We invite everyone back to the parlor. The evening and its festive atmosphere should last forever.
Do we win? Not money, at least. Most of us have the luck of picking horses that I have of finding open bars. We’re happy when our choices finish and cheer for them like the parents of the kid that always gets distracted in the outfield but once almost catches a fly ball. If a person could bet last place, we would get that every time. Maybe there should be more exotics–horse that fusses the most getting in the gate, horse that goes backwards, that sort of thing. At any rate, betting is just something to do between drinks.
I finished the night at the track with a glass of Woodford Reserve. I was minted out. By that point, after ten races of putting up with me, the bartender was sort of hiding underneath the bar, but I was able to coax her into pouring one last glass.
The mood carried us to the parlor and another hand of unplayed cards and jokes about nothing at all and shouts of “nature.” Our suitemate sat by himself, worried that his ankles had swollen so badly from walking that he wouldn’t be able to get his pants off. He had recently lost weight, so his pants were simultaneously falling down and stuck on. His giant ankles were a source of much amusement from the rest of us who were too rude and too happy to leave him to peace on the gurney in the rear of what had become our afterhours party club. We overstayed our welcome by hours watching him try to sleep, betting when the lower seam of his pant legs would start to give, and determining whether the floor by TV was getting wetter.
In short, Opening Day at Churchill Downs is a glorious uglY cOUsin event. Come see us next year in the parlor.