By the end of the fifth race I started to believe I stood in the place of a legend. I was at the historic Saratoga Race Track, the place of racing greats like Man O War, Sea Hero, Gallant Fox and well, somehow, Joe fit into the tradition.
Not Injun Charlie. Joe. Just plain old Joe. Everyone – and as a writer I know never to use the extremes like never and every, but I’m not exaggerating – everyone asked me where Joe was. They assumed I knew. Few know that there are over 200 security personnel at the track. Everyone (oops) assumes we know each other. It’s kind of like assuming everyone (oops, again) who comes to the track knows who Sea Biscuit was. Anyway, I began to pretend I knew Joe too, rather than I look like a fool. Turned out it was easier to pretend than to explain I didn’t know.
My assignment was on the fourth floor of the Clubhouse, the upscale seating a horseshoe toss from the finish line. Table linens, waiters dressed in black and white, over priced shrimp cocktails, and stray pigeons in the rafters. But a great view of the green turf courses, the infield lake speckled with geese and a heart stopping vantage to see your horse miss by a nose. Perched at this elevation are the race stewards, the press and Tom Durkin calling each race. My duties: keep out the riff-raff, the impostors and anyone violating the long standing rule – no short. It’s hardly enforced accept when you’re going to eat and I’m on the job.
It began as soon as they stepped off the elevator. “Where’s Joe, the guy who was here last year?” I politely shrugged a reply as I opened the gate for a couple fire marshals with the tough tour of hanging around the air conditioned hallway leading to the announcer’s booth.
The wait staff, his pants rippled over the top of his shoes like the neck of a Shar-Pei and his shirt hung like a sail without wind offered an explanation, “He said he wasn’t coming back. Said it was his last year last year.”
“Gee, imagine that,” responded one of the fire marshals. “Joe finally got sick of the place.”
“Good for him.” His companion said, like Joe just robbed the mutuel bay, made off to Florida, sticking it to The Man.
I settled into my post to find out more about Joe. "Been here for three years." "Been here since 2001." "Been here ever since I was here. 15 years." Throughout the afternoon, I wove pieces of information together and later bounced my theories around when asked.
“What happened to Joe?”
Deciding to offer some good news about Joe I said, “Retired to Florida.”
The man dressed in a yellow plaid jacket grabbed his heart. He staggered, but looked relieved, Fred Sanford style. “Whew, I thought maybe he died. Joe has been here for 28 years.” That number increased as the afternoon's card dwindled. I finally pegged the number of years Joe sat outside the elevator door at thirty-two. I would be lucky to be back there the next day. When asked if I would be Joe’s replacement I said, “For today.”
I bet Joe knew the details of each person who worked there. Kid’s names. Spouse. Where they had gone to school. Where they lived in the off season. Medical ailments and other aches and pains. Whether they voted for Nixon. Yankee or Red Sox fan. Joe had been on a personal detail gathering mission of 32 years. Yet, only the kid with the shirt tail knew Joe wasn’t coming back. Only he paid attention to what Joe had said.
After all the inquiries about Joe, I felt a little like the last race’s losing ticket crumpled, tossed and trampled beneath humanity's driving urge to continual move ahead. They accepted Joe’s absence too easily. A few shook my hand, introduced themselves with an expectation that I was to remember them. After all, they will be back tomorrow.
I walked through the grandstand after the races. No more crowds, stewards, or wait staff. Tom Durkin had jumped on his yellow scooter and headed off for a cold one. Spanish conversations accompanied the swishing sounds of brooms. Dust rose in the air. Tree tops captured the long afternoon rays. I thought about Joe. Thirty-two years sitting outside the elevator. I wasn’t going to come back this year. Two had been enough for me. But here I was. Could that be me three decades from now? Well, I like to be alive, but not be a security guard.
I hope you got a new dream now Joe. Good luck, where ever you are.