got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I
crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick
and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people
hugged each other and shook hands...big grins and a whoop
here and there: "By God! You old bastard! Good to
see you, boy! Damn good...and I mean it!"
In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who
said his name was something or other--"but just call me
Jimbo"--and he was here to get it on. "I'm ready for
anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you
drinkin?" I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn't
hear of it: "Naw, naw...what the hell kind of drink is that
for Kentucky Derby time? What's wrong with you,
boy?" He grinned and winked at the bartender. "Goddam, we
gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey..."
I shrugged. "Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice." Jimbo
nodded his approval.
|"Look." He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was
listening. "I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year,
and let me tell you one thing I've learned--this is no town
to be giving people the impression you're some kind of
faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they'll roll you in a
minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you
|I thanked him and fitted a Marlboro into my cigarette
holder. "Say," he said, "you look like you might be in the
horse business...am I right?"
|"No," I said. "I'm a photographer."
|"Oh yeah?" He eyed my ragged leather bag with new
interest. "Is that what you got there--cameras? Who you work
|"Playboy," I said.
|He laughed. "Well, goddam! What are you gonna take
pictures of--nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you'll be workin'
pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That's a race
just for fillies." He was laughing wildly. "Hell yes! And
they'll all be nekkid too!"
|I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for
a moment, trying to look grim. "There's going to be
trouble," I said. "My assignment is to take pictures of the
|I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. "At the
track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers." I stared at him
again. "Don't you read the newspapers?"
|The grin on his face had collapsed. "What the hell
are you talkin' about?"
|"Well...maybe I shouldn't be telling you..." I shrugged.
"But hell, everybody else seems to know. The cops and the
National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They
have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They've warned
us--all the press and photographers--to wear helmets and
special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect
"No!" he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered
momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was
hearing. Then he whacked his fist on the bar. "Those sons of
bitches! God Almighty! The Kentucky Derby!" He kept shaking
his head. "No! Jesus! That's almost too bad to
believe!" Now he seemed to be sagging on the stool, and when
he looked up his eyes were misty. "Why? Why here?
Don't they respect anything?"
|I shrugged again. "It's not just the Panthers. The FBI
says busloads of white crazies are coming in from all over
the country--to mix with the crowd and attack all at once,
from every direction. They'll be dressed like everybody
else. You know--coats and ties and all that. But when the
trouble starts...well, that's why the cops are so worried."
|He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not
quite able to digest all this terrible news. Then he cried
out: "Oh...Jesus! What in the name of God is happening in
this country? Where can you get away from it?"
|"Not here," I said, picking up my bag. "Thanks for the
drink...and good luck."
|He grabbed my arm, urging me to have another, but I said
I was overdue at the Press Club and hustled off to get my
act together for the awful spectacle. At the airport
newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned
the front page headlines: "Nixon Sends GI's into Cambodia to
Hit Reds"... "B-52's Raid, then 20,000 GI's Advance 20
Miles"..."4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension
Grows Over Panther Protest." At the bottom of the page was a
photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey
ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The photographer had
snapped her "stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount,
Fathom." The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war
news and stories of "student unrest." There was no mention
of any trouble brewing at university in Ohio called Kent
|I went to the Hertz desk to pick up my car, but the
moon-faced young swinger in charge said they didn't have
any. "You can't rent one anywhere," he assured me. "Our
Derby reservations have been booked for six weeks." I
explained that my agent had confirmed a white Chrysler
convertible for me that very afternoon but he shook his
head. "Maybe we'll have a cancellation. Where are you
|I shrugged. "Where's the Texas crowd staying? I want to
be with my people."
|He sighed. "My friend, you're in trouble. This town is
flat full. Always is, for the Derby."
|I leaned closer to him, half-whispering: "Look, I'm from
Playboy. How would you like a job?"
|He backed off quickly. "What? Come on, now. What kind of
|"Never mind," I said. "You just blew it." I swept my bag
off the counter and went to find a cab. The bag is a
valuable prop in this kind of work; mine has a lot of
baggage tags on it--SF, LA, NY, Lima, Rome, Bangkok, that
sort of thing--and the most prominent tag of all is a very
official, plastic-coated thing that says "Photog. Playboy
Mag." I bought it from a pimp in Vail, Colorado, and he told
me how to use it. "Never mention Playboy until
you're sure they've seen this thing first," he said. "Then,
when you see them notice it, that's the time to strike.
They'll go belly up ever time. This thing is magic, I tell
you. Pure magic."
|Well...maybe so. I'd used it on the poor geek in the
bar, and now humming along in a Yellow Cab toward town, I
felt a little guilty about jangling the poor bugger's brains
with that evil fantasy. But what the hell? Anybody who
wanders around the world saying, "Hell yes, I'm from Texas,"
deserves whatever happens to him. And he had, after all,
come here once again to make a nineteenth-century ass of
himself in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with
nothing to recommend it except a very saleable "tradition."
Early in our chat, Jimbo had told me that he hadn't missed a
Derby since 1954. "The little lady won't come anymore," he
said. "She grits her teeth and turns me loose for this one.
And when I say 'loose' I do mean loose! I toss
ten-dollar bills around like they were goin' out of style!
Horses, whiskey, women...shit, there's women in this town
that'll do anything for money."
|Why not? Money is a good thing to have in these twisted
times. Even Richard Nixon is hungry for it. Only a few days
before the Derby he said, "If I had any money I'd invest it
in the stock market." And the market, meanwhile, continued
its grim slide.
|The next day was heavy. With only thirty hours until
post time I had no press credentials and--according to the
sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal--no
hope at all of getting any. Worse, I needed two
sets: one for myself and another for Ralph Steadman, the
English illustrator who was coming from London to do some
Derby drawings. All I knew about him was that this was his
first visit to the United States. And the more I pondered
the fact, the more it gave me fear. How would he bear up
under the heinous culture shock of being lifted out of
London and plunged into the drunken mob scene at the
Kentucky Derby? There was no way of knowing. Hopefully, he
would arrive at least a day or so ahead, and give himself
time to get acclimated. Maybe a few hours of peaceful
sightseeing in the Bluegrass country around Lexington. My
plan was to pick him up at the airport in the huge Pontiac
Ballbuster I'd rented from a used-car salesman name Colonel
Quick, then whisk him off to some peaceful setting that
might remind him of England.
|Colonel Quick had solved the car problem, and money
(four times the normal rate) had bought two rooms in a
scumbox on the outskirts of town. The only other kink was
the task of convincing the moguls at Churchill Downs that
Scanlan's was such a prestigious sporting journal
that common sense compelled them to give us two sets of the
best press tickets. This was not easily done. My first call
to the publicity office resulted in total failure. The press
handler was shocked at the idea that anyone would be stupid
enough to apply for press credentials two days before the
Derby. "Hell, you can't be serious," he said. "The deadline
was two months ago. The press box is full; there's no more
room...and what the hell is Scanlan's Monthly
|I uttered a painful groan. "Didn't the London office
call you? They're flying an artist over to do the paintings.
Steadman. He's Irish. I think. Very famous over there. Yes.
I just got in from the Coast. The San Francisco office told
me we were all set."
|He seemed interested, and even sympathetic, but there
was nothing he could do. I flattered him with more
gibberish, and finally he offered a compromise: he could get
us two passes to the clubhouse grounds but the clubhouse
itself and especially the press box were out of the
|"That sounds a little weird," I said. "It's
unacceptable. We must have access tp everything.
All of it. The spectacle, the people, the pageantry
and certainly the race. You don't think we came all this way
to watch the damn thing on television, do you? One way or
another we'll get inside. Maybe we'll have to bribe a
guard--or even Mace somebody." (I had picked up a spray can
of Mace in a downtown drugstore for $5.98 and suddenly, in
the midst of that phone talk, I was struck by the hideous
possibilities of using it out at the track. Macing ushers at
the narrow gates to the clubhouse inner sanctum, then
slipping quickly inside, firing a huge load of Mace into the
governor's box, just as the race starts. Or Macing helpless
drunks in the clubhouse restroom, for their own good...)
|By noon on Friday I was still without press credentials
and still unable to locate Steadman. For all I knew he'd
changed his mind and gone back to London. Finally, after
giving up on Steadman and trying unsuccessfully to reach my
man in the press office, I decided my only hope for
credentials was to go out to the track and confront the man
in person, with no warning--demanding only one pass now,
instead of two, and talking very fast with a strange lilt in
my voice, like a man trying hard to control some inner
frenzy. On the way out, I stopped at the motel desk to cash
a check. Then, as a useless afterthought, I asked if by any
wild chance a Mr. Steadman had checked in.
|The lady on the desk was about fifty years old and very
peculiar-looking; when I mentioned Steadman's name she
nodded, without looking up from whatever she was writing,
and said in a low voice, "You bet he did." Then she favored
me with a big smile. "Yes, indeed. Mr. Steadman just left
for the racetrack. Is he a friend of yours?"
|I shook my head. "I'm supposed to be working with him,
but I don't even know what he looks like. Now, goddammit,
I'll have to find him in the mob at the track."
|She chuckled. "You won't have any trouble finding him.
You could pick that man out of any crowd."
|"Why?" I asked. "What's wrong with him? What does he
|"Well..." she said, still grinning, "he's the funniest
looking thing I've seen in a long time. He has
this...ah...this growth all over his face. As a
matter of fact it's all over his head." She nodded.
"You'll know him when you see him; don't worry about that."
|Creeping Jesus, I thought. That screws the press
credentials. I had a vision of some nerve-rattling geek all
covered with matted hair and string-warts showing up in the
press office and demanding Scanlan's press packet.
Well...what the hell? We could always load up on acid and
spend the day roaming around the clubhouse grounds with bit
sketch pads, laughing hysterically at the natives and
swilling mint juleps so the cops wouldn't think we're
abnormal. Perhaps even make the act pay; set up an easel
with a big sign saying, "Let a Foreign Artist Paint Your
Portrait, $10 Each. Do It NOW!"
|I took the expressway out to the track, driving very
fast and jumping the monster car back and forth between
lanes, driving with a beer in one hand and my mind so
muddled that I almost crushed a Volkswagen full of nuns when
I swerved to catch the right exit. There was a slim chance,
I thought, that I might be able to catch the ugly Britisher
before he checked in.
|But Steadman was already in the press box when I got
there, a bearded young Englishman wearing a tweed coat and
RAF sunglasses. There was nothing particularly odd about
him. No facial veins or clumps of bristly warts. I told him
about the motel woman's description and he seemed puzzled.
"Don't let it bother you," I said. "Just keep in mind for
the next few days that we're in Louisville, Kentucky. Not
London. Not even New York. This is a weird place. You're
lucky that mental defective at the motel didn't jerk a
pistol out of the cash register and blow a big hole in you."
I laughed, but he looked worried.
|"Just pretend you're visiting a huge outdoor loony bin,"
I said. "If the inmates get out of control we'll soak them
down with Mace." I showed him the can of "Chemical Billy,"
resisting the urge to fire it across the room at a rat-faced
man typing diligently in the Associated Press section. We
were standing at the bar, sipping the management's Scotch
and congratulating each other on our sudden, unexplained
luck in picking up two sets of fine press credentials. The
lady at the desk had been very friendly to him, he said. "I
just told her my name and she gave me the whole works."
|By midafternoon we had everything under control. We had
seats looking down on the finish line, color TV and a free
bar in the press room, and a selection of passes that would
take us anywhere from the clubhouse roof to the jockey room.
The only thing we lacked was unlimited access to the
clubhouse inner sanctum in sections "F&G"...and I felt we
needed that, to see the whiskey gentry in action. The
governor, a swinish neo-Nazi hack named Louis Nunn, would be
in "G," along with Barry Goldwater and Colonel Sanders. I
felt we'd be legal in a box in "G" where we could rest and
sip juleps, soak up a bit of atmosphere and the Derby's
|The bars and dining rooms are also in "F&G," and the
clubhouse bars on Derby Day are a very special kind of
scene. Along with the politicians, society belles and local
captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had
any pretensions to anything at all within five hundred miles
of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and
slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious. The
Paddock bar is probably the best place in the track to sit
and watch faces. Nobody minds being stared at; that's what
they're in there for. Some people spend most of their time
in the Paddock; they can hunker down at one of the many
wooden tables, lean back in a comfortable chair and watch
the ever-changing odds flash up and down on the big tote
board outside the window. Black waiters in white serving
jackets move through the crowd with trays of drinks, while
the experts ponder their racing forms and the hunch bettors
pick lucky numbers or scan the lineup for right-sounding
names. There is a constant flow of traffic to and from the
pari-mutuel windows outside in the wooden corridors. Then,
as post time nears, the crowd thins out as people go back to
|Clearly, we were going to have to figure out some way to
spend more time in the clubhouse tomorrow. But the "walkaround"
press passes to F&G were only good for thirty minutes at a
time, presumably to allow the newspaper types to rush in and
out for photos or quick interviews, but to prevent drifters
like Steadman and me from spending all day in the clubhouse,
harassing the gentry and rifling the odd handbag or two
while cruising around the boxes. Or Macing the governor. The
time limit was no problem on Friday, but on Derby Day the
walkaround passes would be in heavy demand. And since it
took about ten minutes to get from the press box to the
Paddock, and ten more minutes to get back, that didn't leave
much time for serious people-watching. And unlike most of
the others in the press box, we didn't give a hoot in hell
what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch
the real beasts perform.
|Later Friday afternoon, we went out on the balcony of
the press box and I tried to describe the difference between
what we were seeing today and what would be happening
tomorrow. This was the first time I'd been to a Derby in ten
years, but before that, when I lived in Louisville, I used
to go every year. Now, looking down from the press box, I
pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track.
"That whole thing," I said, "will be jammed with people;
fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk.
It's a fantastic scene--thousands of people fainting,
crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with
broken whiskey bottles. We'll have to spend some time out
there, but it's hard to move around, too many bodies."
|"Is it safe out there?" Will we ever come
|"Sure," I said. "We'll just have to be careful not to
step on anybody's stomach and start a fight." I shrugged.
"Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as
bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks,
getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more
money. By midafternoon they'll be guzzling mint juleps with
both hands and vomitting on each other between races. The
whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to
shoulder. It's hard to move around. The aisles will be slick
with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to
keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the
betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to
stoop over and pick it up."
|He looked so nervous that I laughed. "I'm just kidding,"
I said. "Don't worry. At the first hint of trouble I'll
start pumping this 'Chemical Billy' into the crowd."
|He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn't
seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for
a lead drawing. It was a face I'd seen a thousand times at
every Derby I'd ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the
mask of the whiskey gentry--a pretentious mix of booze,
failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable
result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant
culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs,
horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close
inbreeding tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline
as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for
instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast
horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will
likely be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in
breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and
filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so
wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society
where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and
acceptable, but far more convenient--to the parents--than
setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for
their own reasons and in their own ways. ("Goddam, did you
hear about Smitty's daughter? She went crazy in Boston last
week and married a nigger!")
|So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that
weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed
atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.
|On our way back to the motel after Friday's races I
warned Steadman about some of the other problems we'd have
to cope with. Neither of us had brought any strange illegal
drugs, so we would have to get by on booze. "You should keep
in mind," I said, "that almost everybody you talk to from
now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at first
might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all." He
nodded, staring straight ahead. He seemed to be getting a
little numb and I tried to cheer him up by inviting to
dinner that night, with my brother.
|Back at the motel we talked for awhile about America,
the South, England--just relaxing a bit before dinner. There
was no way either of us could have known, at the time, that
it would be the last normal conversation we would have. From
that point on, the weekend became a vicious, drunken
nightmare. We both went completely to pieces. The main
problem was my prior attachment to Louisville, which
naturally led to meetings with old friends, relatives, etc.,
many of whom were in the process of falling apart, going
mad, plotting divorces, cracking up under the strain of
terrible debts or recovering from bad accidents. Right in
the middle of the whole frenzied Derby action, a member of
my own family had to be institutionalized. This added a
certain amount of strain to the situation, and since poor
Steadman had no choice but to take whatever came his way, he
was subjected to shock after shock.
|Another problem was his habit of sketching people he met
in the various social situations I dragged him into--then
giving them the sketches. The results were always
unfortunate. I warned him several times about letting the
subjects see his foul renderings, but for some perverse
reason he kept doing it. Consequently, he was regarded with
fear and loathing by nearly everyone who'd seen or even
heard about his work. Ho couldn't understand it. "It's sort
of a joke," he kept saying. "Why, in England it's quite
normal. People don't take offense. They understand that I'm
just putting them on a bit."
|"Fuck England," I said. "This is Middle America. These
people regard what you're doing to them as a brutal, bilious
insult. Look what happened last night. I thought my brother
was going to tear your head off."
|Steadman shook his head sadly. "But I liked him. He
struck me as a very decent, straightforward sort."
|"Look, Ralph," I said. "Let's not kid ourselves. That
was a very horrible drawing you gave him. It was the face of
a monster. It got on his nerves very badly." I shrugged.
"Why in hell do you think we left the restaurant so fast?"
|"I thought it was because of the Mace," he said.
|He grinned. "When you shot it at the headwaiter, don't
|"Hell, that was nothing," I said. "I missed him...and we
were leaving, anyway."
|"But it got all over us," he said. "The room was full of
that damn gas. Your brother was sneezing was and his wife
was crying. My eyes hurt for two hours. I couldn't see to
draw when we got back to the motel."
|"That's right," I said. "The stuff got on her leg,
|"She was angry," he said.
|"Yeah...well, okay...Let's just figure we fucked up
about equally on that one," I said. "But from now on let's
try to be careful when we're around people I know. You won't
sketch them and I won't Mace them. We'll just try to relax
and get drunk."
|"Right," he said. "We'll go native."
|It was Saturday morning, the day of the Big Race, and we
were having breakfast in a plastic hamburger palace called
the Fish-Meat Village. Our rooms were just across the road
in the Brown Suburban Hotel. They had a dining room, but the
food was so bad that we couldn't handle it anymore. The
waitresses seemed to be suffering from shin splints; they
moved around very slowly, moaning and cursing the "darkies"
in the kitchen.
|Steadman liked the Fish-Meat place because it had fish
and chips. I preferred the "French toast," which was really
pancake batter, fried to the proper thickness and then
chopped out with a sort of cookie cutter to resemble pieces
|Beyond drink and lack of sleep, our only real problem at
that point was the question of access to the clubhouse.
Finally, we decided to go ahead and steal two passes, if
necessary, rather than miss that part of the action. This
was the last coherent decision we were able to make for the
next forty-eight hours. From that point on--almost from the
very moment we started out to the track--we lost all control
of events and spent the rest of the weekend churning around
in a sea of drunken horrors. My notes and recollections from
Derby Day are somewhat scrambled.
|But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all
through that scene, I see more or less what happened. The
book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages
are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears
to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory
flashes, the notes seem to tell the story. To wit:
|Rain all nite until dawn. No sleep. Christ, here we go,
a nightmare of mud and madness...But no. By noon the sun
burns through--perfect day, not even humid.
|Steadman is now worried about fire. Somebody told him
about the clubhouse catching on fire two years ago. Could it
happen again? Horrible. Trapped in the press box. Holocaust.
A hundred thousand people fighting to get out. Drunks
screaming in the flames and the mud, crazed horses running
wild. Blind in the smoke. Grandstand collapsing into the
flames with us on the roof. Poor Ralph is about to crack.
Drinking heavily, into the Haig & Haig.
|Out to the track in a cab, avoid that terrible parking
in people's front yards, $25 each, toothless old men on the
street with big signs: PARK HERE, flagging cars in the yard.
"That's fine, boy, never mind the tulips." Wild hair on his
head, straight up like a clump of reeds.
|Sidewalks full of people all moving in the same
direction, towards Churchill Downs. Kids hauling coolers and
blankets, teenyboppers in tight pink shorts, many
blacks...black dudes in white felt hats with leopard-skin
bands, cops waving traffic along.
|The mob was thick for many blocks around the track; very
slow going in the crowd, very hot. On the way to the press
box elevator, just inside the clubhouse, we came on a row of
soldiers all carrying long white riot sticks. About two
platoons, with helmets. A man walking next to us said they
were waiting for the governor and his party. Steadman eyed
them nervously. "Why do they have those clubs?"
|"Black Panthers," I said. Then I remembered good old "Jimbo"
at the airport and I wondered what he was thinking right
now. Probably very nervous; the place was teeming with cops
and soldiers. We pressed on through the crowd, through many
gates, past the paddock where the jockeys bring the horses
out and parade around for a while before each race so the
bettors can get a good look. Five million dollars will be
bet today. Many winners, more losers. What the hell. The
press gate was jammed up with people trying to get in,
shouting at the guards, waving strange press badges: Chicago
Sporting Times, Pittsburgh Police Athletic League...they
were all turned away. "Move on, fella, make way for the
working press." We shoved through the crowd and into the
elevator, then quickly up to the free bar. Why not? Get it
on. Very hot today, not feeling well, must be this rotten
climate. The press box was cool and airy, plenty of room to
walk around and balcony seats for watching the race or
looking down at the crowd. We got a betting sheet and went
|Pink faces with a stylish Southern sag, old Ivy styles,
seersucker coats and buttondown collars. "Mayblossom
Senility" (Steadman's phrase)...burnt out early or maybe
just not much to burn in the first place. Not much energy in
the faces, not much curiosity. Suffering in
silence, nowhere to go after thirty in this life, just hang
on and humor the children. Let the young enjoy themselves
while they can. Why not?
|The grim reaper comes early in this league...banshees on
the lawn at night, screaming out there beside that little
iron nigger in jockey clothes. Maybe he's the one who's
screaming. Bad DT's and too many snarls at the bridge club.
Going down with the stock market. Oh Jesus, the kid has
wrecked the new car, wrapped it around the big stone pillar
at the bottom of the driveway. Broken leg? Twisted eye? Send
him off to Yale, they can cure anything up there.
|Yale? Did you see today's paper? New Haven is under
siege. Yale is swarming with Black Panthers...I tell you,
Colonel, the world has gone mad, stone mad. Why, they tell
me a goddam woman jockey might ride in the Derby today.
|I left Steadman sketching in the Paddock bar and went
off to place our bets on the fourth race. When I came back
he was staring intently at a group of young men around a
table not far away. "Jesus, look at the corruption in that
face!" he whispered. "Look at the madness, the fear, the
greed!" I looked, then quickly turned my back on the table
he was sketching. The face he'd picked out to draw was the
face of an old friend of mine, a prep school football star
in the good old days with a sleek red Chevy convertible and
a very quick hand, it was said, with the snaps of a 32 B
brassiere. They called him "Cat Man."
|But now, a dozen years later, I wouldn't have recognized
him anywhere but here, where I should have expected to find
him, in the Paddock bar on Derby Day...fat slanted eyes and
a pimp's smile, blue silk suit and his friends looking like
crooked bank tellers on a binge...
|Steadman wanted to see some Kentucky Colonels, but he
wasn't sure what they looked like. I told him to go back to
the clubhouse men's rooms and look for men in white linen
suits vomitting in the urinals. "They'll usually have large
brown whiskey stains on the front of their suits," I said.
"But watch the shoes, that's the tip-off. Most of them
manage to avoid vomitting on their own clothes, but they
never miss their shoes."
|In a box not far from ours was Colonel Anna Friedman
Goldman, Chairman and Keeper of the Great Seal of the
Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. Not all the 76
million or so Kentucky Colonels could make it to the Derby
this year, but many had kept the faith, and several days
prior to the Derby they gathered for their annual dinner at
the Seelbach Hotel.
|The Derby, the actual race, was scheduled for late
afternoon, and as the magic hour approached I suggested to
Steadman that we should probably spend some time in the
infield, that boiling sea of people across the track from
the clubhouse. He seemed a little nervous about it, but
since none of the awful things I'd warned him about had
happened so far--no race riots, firestorms or savage drunken
attacks--he shrugged and said, "Right, let's do it."
|To get there we had to pass through many gates, each one
a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the
track. Emerging from the tunnel was such a culture shock
that it took us a while to adjust. "God almighty!" Steadman
muttered. "This is a...Jesus!" He plunged ahead with his
tiny camera, stepping over bodies, and I followed, trying to
|Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the
track...nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting
windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on
the big board, like a giant bingo game.
|Old blacks arguing about bets; "Hold on there, I'll
handle this" (waving pint of whiskey, fistful of dollar
bills); girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, "Stolen from
Fort Lauderdale Jail." Thousands of teen-agers, group
singing "Let the Sun Shine In," ten soldires guarding the
American flag and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football
jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand.
|No booze sold out here, too dangerous...no bathrooms
either. Muscle Beach...Woodstock...many cops with riot
sticks, but no sign of a riot. Far across the track the
clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.
|We went back to the clubhouse to watch the big race.
When the crowd stood to face the flag and sing "My Old
Kentucky Home," Steadman faced the crowd and sketched
frantically. Somewhere up in the boxes a voice screeched,
"Turn around, you hairy freak!" The race itself was only two
minutes long, and even from our super-status seats and using
12-power glasses, there was no way to see what really
happened to our horses. Holy Land, Ralph's choice, stumbled
and lost his jockey in the final turn. Mine, Silent Screen,
had the lead coming into the stretch but faded to fifth at
the finish. The winner was a 16-1 shot named Dust Commander.
|Moments after the race was over, the crowd surged wildly
for the exits, rushing for cabs and busses. The next day's
Courier told of violence in the parking lot; people
were punched and trampled, pockets were picked, children
lost, bottles hurled. But we missed all this, having retired
to the press box for a bit of post-race drinking. By this
time we were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun
fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general
dissolution. We hung around the press box long enough to
watch a mass interview with the winning owner, a dapper
little man named Lehmann who said he had just flown into
Louisville that morning from Nepal, where he'd "bagged a
record tiger." The sportswriters murmured their admiration
and a waiter filled Lehmann's glass with Chivas Regal. He
had just won $127,000 with a horse that cost him $6,500 two
years ago. His occupation, he said, was "retired
contractor." And then he added, with a big grin, "I just
|The rest of the day blurs into madness. The rest of that
night too. And all the next day and night. Such horrible
things occurred that I can't bring myself even to think
about them now, much less put them down in print. I was
lucky to get out at all. One of my clearest memories of that
vicious time is Ralph being attacked by one of my old
friends in the billiard room of the Pendennis Club in
downtown Louisville on Saturday night. The man had ripped
his own shirt open to the waist before deciding that Ralph
was after his wife. No blows were struck, but the emotional
effects were massive. Then, as a sort of final horror,
Steadman put his fiendish pen to work and tried to patch
things up by doing a little sketch of the girl he'd been
accused of hustling. That finished us in the Pedennis.
|Sometime around ten-thirty Monday morning I was awakened
by a scratching sound at my door. I leaned out of bed and
pulled the curtain back just far enough to see Steadman
outside. "What the fuck do you want?" I shouted.
|"What about having breakfast?" he said.
|I lunged out of bed and tried to open the door, but it
caught on the night-chain and banged shut again. I couldn't
cope with the chain! The thing wouldn't come out of the
track--so I ripped it out of the wall with a vicious jerk on
the door. Ralph didn't blink. "Bad luck," he muttered.
|I could barely see him. My eyes were swollen almost shut
and the sudden burst of sunlight through the door left me
stunned and helpless like a sick mole. Steadman was mumbling
about sickness and terrible heat; I fell back on the bed and
tried to focus on him as he moved around the room in a very
distracted way for a few moments, then suddenly darted over
to the beer bucket and seized a Colt .45. "Christ," I said.
"You're getting out of control."
|He nodded and ripped the cap off, taking a long drink.
"You know, this is really awful," he said finally. "I
must get out of this place..." he shook his head
nervously. "The plane leaves at three-thirty, but I don't
know if I'll make it."
|I barely heard him. My eyes had finally opened enough
for me to foucs on the mirror across the room and I was
stunned at the shock of recognition. For a confused instant
I thought that Ralph had brought somebody with him--a model
for that one special face we'd been looking for. There he
was, by God--a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden
caricature...like an awful cartoon version of an old
snapshot in some once-proud mother's family photo album. It
was the face we'd been looking for--and it was, of course,
my own. Horrible, horrible...
|"Maybe I should sleep a while longer," I said. "Why
don't you go on over to the Fish-Meat place and eat some of
those rotten fish and chips? Then come back and get me
around noon. I feel too near death to hit the streets at
|He shook his head. "No...no...I think I'll go back
upstairs and work on those drawings for a while." He leaned
down to fetch two more cans out of the beer bucket. "I tried
to work earlier," he said, "but my hands kept
trembling...It's teddible, teddible."
|"You've got to stop this drinking," I said.
|He nodded. "I know. This is no good, no good at all. But
for some reason it makes me feel better..."
|"Not for long," I said. "You'll probably collapse into
some kind of hysterical DT's tonight--probably just about
the time you get off the plane at Kennedy. They'll zip you
up in a straightjacket and drag you down to the Tombs, then
beat you on the kidneys with big sticks until you straighten
|He shrugged and wandered out, pulling the door shut
behind him. I went back to bed for another hour or so, and
later--after the daily grapefruit juice run to the Nite Owl
Food Mart--we had our last meal at Fish-Meat Village: a fine
lunch of dough and butcher's offal, fried in heavy grease.
|By this time Ralph wouldn't order coffee; he kept asking
for more water. "It's the only thing they have that's fit
for human consumption," he explained. Then, with an hour or
so to kill before he had to catch the plane, we spread his
drawings out on the table and pondered them for a while,
wondering if he'd caught the proper spirit of the
thing...but we couldn't make up our minds. His hands were
shaking so badly that he had trouble holding the paper, and
my vision was so blurred that I could barely see what he'd
drawn. "Shit," I said. "We both look worse than anything
you've drawn here."
|He smiled. "You know--I've been thinking about that," he
said. "We came down here to see this teddible scene: people
all pissed out of their minds and vomitting on themselves
and all that...and now, you know what? It's us..."
|Huge Pontiac Ballbuster blowing through traffic on the
|A radio news bulletin says the National Guard is
massacring students at Kent State and Nixon is still bombing
Cambodia. The journalist is driving, ignoring his passenger
who is now nearly naked after taking off most of his
clothing, which he holds out the window, trying to wind-wash
the Mace out of it. His eyes are bright red and his face and
chest are soaked with beer he's been using to rinse the
awful chemical off his flesh. The front of his woolen
trousers is soaked with vomit; his body is racked with fits
of coughing and wild chocking sobs. The journalist rams the
big car through traffic and into a spot in front of the
terminal, then he reaches over to open the door on the
passenger's side and shoves the Englishman out, snarling:
"Bug off, you worthless faggot! You twisted pigfucker!
[Crazed laughter.] If I weren't sick I'd kick your ass all
the way to Bowling Green--you scumsucking foreign geek. Mace
is too good for you...We can do without your kind in