It seemed like everyone knew everybody. Obviously, that wasn’t true. I was new and so were many others. I recognized some from my training class, a cursory explanation of duties and responsibilities, the dos and the don’ts, some legal stuff and the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. Totally useless stuff. The day had been mostly a rambling tale of incidences that had happened at the Saratoga Race Track. It could have taken ten minutes to summarize what they really wanted us to do. Above all else, as a security patrolman all situations are handled in the following manner. Call your supervisor. On my own I discovered what I needed to know. Where the phones were to make this call. And all the other needed stuff—where the bathrooms, the ATMs and the Customer Service booths—were located. Other than that, amuse yourself for a security guard is nothing more than a uniformed information booth to assure patrons have a good time, don’t get hurt or destroy any property.
When I showed up to my station everyone was settled in. I started later than others so introductions already had been made. And even if they were in my class, they were already working, learning the ropes. They had the basics…your name, where you were from, what you did before the track, how long you had been here and who’s that?
Yeah, everyone knew everybody. But at the end of the six weeks, I was part of the family of track hires saying goodbye to co-workers who dispersed to engage in lives beyond the red and white canopies set between Nelson and Union Avenue.
Yesterday ended my third year. We didn’t count down like we had previously. Sure Peter, the on-track judge, came down the horse path waving three fingers, then two, then one indicating the last races- The Hopeful, The Glens Falls and a conglomeration of maidens trying to leave Saratoga broken.
And then it was over. The goodbyes and the hugs almost taken and given as an obligation. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. I’ll see you next year. As casual as “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Taken for granted.
But then this year we missed several who never came back.
There was John Salerno, the overweight ticket taker at the restaurant called At The Rail. For two decades he serenaded beautiful women with his charm and his voice, breaking into song for any good reason. And there were many. His rendition of the Star Spangle Banner filled me with great pride and humbled my patriotism. And yet he could growl to reminded me that I was just a security guard, I had a place, and it wasn’t to casually mingle with the big shots that he could surround himself with. John died a day before Thanksgiving. Heart Attack.
There was Security Guard Dave, who become known as my Boy Friend. He would mysteriously appear at the gate coming out of the crowd like a Gila monster out of the desert. He carried the poison, a hot tip on a horse. Yet his tips were good as gold. If I wasn't there when he showed up, Dave never gave the info to anyone else. The other guards teased me, “Your boyfriend was here.”
“Who?” I would ask.
“The guy with two teeth and three missing fingers.”
Dave would return later, staying just long enough to stick five dollars in my hand and relay the info, “the five horse in the next race.”
I never knew how Dave knew. He just knew.
He and his wife changed their shifts and I never funded my retirement this year.
There were the Mount Rushmores, the name I gave the two old stone faced maître d’es. Slip them a fifty and you could enter their domain. Be dying of thirst and they would invite you to drink out of the bucket left for the outriders’ ponies. And there was the guy I called Joe Montana, because he looked like Joe Montana. He was the maître d' at the paddock tent of fine dining. It was replaced by the Blue Smoke and Shake Shack, the two hot snack venues flanked by a mutuel bay and a tented bar with beer on tap and no bathroom. Economic times took this Centerplate crew out.
And there was Lois, a sweet lady who quietly played the horses, something her husband had done years earlier. She came alone. Occasionally she came with her son who looked nothing like her and was engaged to a person not interested in horse racing. Lois watched all the races except the steeple chases. To watch the horses and riders sail over the hedges made her too nervous, afraid of the consequences should one hoof not clear the hazard. She sat away from the fence at the clubhouse horse crossing in a little blue chair tucked in the smallest space by the oak tree. I coaxed her to the fence to watch the post parade. We shared picks and hunches. At the end of last year’s meet she gave me a gift card from Target. "For making my time so pleasant." I used it in Hawaii this January. Lois never returned to the track this year. I never saw her son either. I may never know what happened.
On Friday afternoon I stood outside the Main Gate watching the race enthusiasm fizzle through the wrought iron. Yet I wished good evening to all and bid them good bye. There wasn’t much else to do out there, so I assumed myself, just like I had been taught. I asked a few if they funded my pay check.
A middle aged couple (okay, about my age) passed through the gate speaking French. At the last second, he turned and asked in English, “What time do the races start tomorrow?”
“And on Sunday?”
He was delighted with this information. I learned they were from Quebec. By then his wife was taking a photo of the entrance. I offered to take their picture. While doing so I continued to wish the other patrons a good evening. More times than not, my bid was briefly acknowledged.
As I handed the camera back to the woman she said, “You know everyone.”
I laughed, “Just about.”