Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
1. In the 18 months since Kyiv’s Maidan protests have moved on, flared up, and fizzled in the cities of the east, Ukraine has managed to lurch into geopolitical purgatory -- not as hot as Damascus, not as cool as Prague. The city has settled into the importunate schizophrenia of the post-structural, where monetization serves as antidote for nearly anything -- civility, representative government. That is code for this: though no person directly responsible for the government-ordered sniper attacks of January and February 2014 has been prosecuted, Kyivites no longer have to concern themselves with actual cross-hairs of actual rifle scopes. And the money’s starting to flow again. The IMF is around, gobbling up transitive verbs: forgiving, restructuring, forecasting. Yet, for a place that is supposedly peaceful, consumed with reform, the hoi polloi have seen little forgiveness, less structure, and a forecast that is, at best, stormy. We spend, rather, a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop. I do. 2. My first encounter with Ambrose Akinmusire -- the liner notes of his 2011 Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening -- left the barest of impressions: late-20s, Oakland-born, LA-based, studied with Terence Blanchard. That biography matched with the implausible maturity of the music and my aesthetic’s nitpicking evil twin was off to discover what the trick was. Something was up. What was the true ontogeny of this most recent messiah -- the one who would coax America back to jazz? Twenty-nine-years-old: Who was he trying to fool? Trying to be -- Miles? Dave Douglas? Erik Truffaz? Clifford Brown maybe, mercifully back among us, moved on from bop? All the markers were in place: the Blue Note pedigree, the technical agility, the burnished phrasing, the seemingly unconscious feel for the very note the room needs to hear and when. Faith comes so dear, and the commodified -- and, admittedly, the local situation -- world has been hell on any generosity of spirit I may have once possessed. 3. Not that Ukraine hasn’t seen results -- it has. Annual inflation has stabilized (sic) at 140 percent. In the capital, a U.S. dime and nickel (equivalent) will still buy you a ride anywhere our subway goes. The Parliament refuses to repeal, or modify, its privilege of universal criminal immunity. And there are Russians -- two kinds: the kind who have been here for hundreds of years with their language and culture and few see any point in calling them Russian any longer; and the other kind. The latter group -- here with its tanks, sophisticated mobile rocket-launchers, and deliveries of lethal aid masquerading laughably as humanitarian food and medical supply convoys -- is both thankfully in the minority, and largely restricted to a territory in the east of the country about the size of the State of Rhode Island. And with the Kremlin-financed war they prosecute there, we have nearly 8,000 dead and another 1,000,000 “temporarily displaced” in the reductive patois of the political sophisticate. Ukrainian society, battling to make even modest inroads in the realm of cultural reform, is stuck with the leftovers of that distinctively post-Soviet borscht whose core ingredients are moral exhaustion, brutal cronyism, and arriviste contempt posing as sophisticated optimism. 4. Into this mess comes a young man with a horn, on tour with a new album entitled The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, and perhaps it is only by me, but neither the metaphysical nor the political significance of this Oakland, Calif., musician’s presence in Kyiv goes unmarked. Brutal cops, poverty, disenfranchisement, and an empowered class that refuses, largely, to address itself to the question of dignity in identity: this black man from the East Bay has more in common with Kyiv than he probably imagines. With the written word, baseball, and jazz about all there is left to believe in, I need to find out who he is. But if my confession is honest, the truth is that Ambrose Akinmusire had me long before he ever traveled to Kyiv. From the opening phrase of “Confessions to My Unborn Daughter,” the first song on Heart Emerges, he had me. He starts out alone, a student running through some badass warmup intervals in a practice room of a Saturday, and then a series of Perfect 4ths and a drop echoed by the piano and a forlorn Do-Sol-Fa interval that screams theme music from a '70s TV police procedural. Followed by a concatenation (I’m going to insist) with tenor sax Walter Smith III of such virtuosity that, well, if these two don’t put you in mind of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, you're not even trying. From that point on the man is relentless -- melody after melody where the American sublime riffs on songs not unrelated to those from the old country that your grandmother sang to you both to bind you up and to break your heart. He that hath ears to hear. Ambrose Akinmusire isn’t just one more modest variation of every other one; his horn is the one thing needful. In a hard world, where moments of authentic revelation, of unsoiled, uncompromised, and uncompromising human achievement, and unimpeded self-examination are so seldom encountered, so elusive, he is the rara avis. And even if he weren’t, even if he was just another product of the genius of American marketing, there is, arguably, no place on earth more conducive to passing off the derivative as innovative than stylishly intellectual, post-Wall, East-Central Europe. Still, finally, with jazz, hearing -- live -- is believing, and I would have my chance to see, to hear, to judge. 5. No rain since May, peat bogs that ring the city have been smoldering for weeks. The air has a bite to it, like the inside of your country uncle’s smokehouse after a three-day cure of roadkill wrapped in bicycle tire. As he locks up and heads out on his walk, a neighbor pulls on a surgical mask. He sees me and quips that he hopes the burn doesn’t reach the toxic mystery piles the Soviets buried out there in the '50s -- waving a hand at some undefined coordinate the way Kyivites do when giving directions. It was right after the War, before the city began to spread. I tell him I’m going to see an American trumpet player that evening and he disappears back into his flat and comes out with two more masks and hands them to me -- one for me, one presumably for the horn player. It’s a crisp October evening, and in Kyiv -- where Sting or Alla Pugacheva constitute a hot ticket -- Ambrose Akinmusire has a big gig in a small hall. The venue is a retooled warehouse a short walk from home, and the chill and the smell of smoke distract from a gimpy lower back and the moral pressure of the task ahead, a task that begins with getting his name right. His website is solicitous, complete with a phonetic rendering that shows the emphasis is on the MU -- AkinMUsire. MU, the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet, the world’s tiniest bittorrent client, and, way back, something akin to the Phoenician word for water. Get the name right -- at my age I may not see his like again. When your quotidian is shreds and tatters and the hurly-burly your daily bread, it is too easy at times to shut down the frontal cortex and just let the pituitary take over. And when the horn player is late, late, late to the stage, my old man’s brain struggles to conjure up anything but the worst. And when the worst turns out to be just that he is late, and he appears intact, I exhale. The crowd of mostly under-25s is jammed, maybe 300 in all, into a room holding half that. Overheard conversations put a lot of them as music students, conservatory types, slender boys with the slightly fey posture of those who have spent untold years under the tutelage of some humorless piano instructor. When they clap they hold their hands as if preparing to feed an apple to a horse – fingers arching back delicately, tightly. Bored-looking girlfriends, a few haircuts, and a very few from Kyiv’s emergent economic powerhouse -- the IT class. There is also a fair representation of a category of Eastern European city-dweller of whom space prohibits adequate description -- the gorodskoy sumashedshiy, the urban crazy. That, and four young Americans who are here for all of us. By 20 minutes in, the quartet has managed to tear even the most device-dependent up from the glow of the screen. The moment comes with the song "Regret (No More)," a fatal blow-- if ever there be -- to the unexamined life. Whether he has succeeded in corrupting any of the youth in the room to the joys to be discovered in a deliberate study of, and an even more deliberate departure from, the cultural legacy left to us, only time will tell. But for those minutes Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Sam Harris bewitch the room -- the moment never to be repeated, never needing to be. It gives me no end of joy to see that this tune, so confessional, so idiosyncratic -- all doits and lip-slurs and half-valving -- is such a crowd favorite. The song ends and the room howls. Ambrose smiles. The Savior has not left the building. Two hours and two encores later and it’s 11:30, and before I can convince myself that it’s not going to happen I’m introducing myself to the man in a room off the main stage. When I ask if he’s got time to talk at the end of this very long day, he is grace in action, and agrees. Then I, who can barely talk to him about music, ask what he’s reading and Ambrose Akinmusire treats it as if it’s the question he’s been expecting all along. Ambrose Akinmusire: Ta-Nehisi Coates, right now. And James Baldwin. I had a period there where I was reading a lot of Chekhov. Those stories over and over. All that anger held me for a long time, then in the end… My heart is racing. Chekhov? Jesus. He breaks off, distracted, perhaps recollecting, certainly tired. He is soft-spoken, deferential -- qualities that appear again and again in the music -- an ear for the quiet tones, a respect for voices other than his own. The Millions: How does the reading -- Chekhov, Baldwin, Coates -- inform the music? AA: You have to define your own morality. Good writing helps but it’s not something to follow unquestioningly. You work through it, it’s internal, it has to be, or it’s just formalism and not your own; you just end up doing what everybody else is doing. Personally, you end up carrying around mistakes that you can’t change and it’s paralyzing. We’re all going through that. All the time. TM: So that’s where “Regret (No More)” comes from? Confronting yourself. A state of confession. The lament, the wail? AA: I wrote that at a time when I was working on some things. I understood that I had to get past them, let them go. You can’t dwell on the past. It blinds you. And I want the music to lead, not follow, if you see what I mean. I do, but I’m a little star-struck. The tone he achieved on stage had me in tears. He goes on. AA: So it is a cry, yeah, but not in sorrow so much, but liberating. Discovery -- in the abstract or in the particular -- it’s personal at first, until, in time, you begin to see how universal it is, how everybody is experiencing it. The cry starts out tentative, grows more confident as the story starts to tell itself…” TM: Stories. The ornate song titles, album titles -- from out here it feels like there’s some literary process going on. I’m just standing there listening, but I’m looking for ancestry -- Miles, Dizzy, Terrance, whoever. And with Sam (pianist Sam Harris), I’m hearing Bill Evans and then Kenny Barron and then nothing at all. Who am I hearing? AA: It’s impossible to say. I listen to everything. We all do. I read everything I can and it all has its intended effect. Everybody in the band is always reading something. The great work, work that lasts, it’s never coercive. You can’t force resolution, meaning, on an audience. You have to respect their intelligence; they’ll take it where they need it to go. They decide -- or not -- how it all resolves. So, there’s a risk there every time, and that’s freeing for everybody. Bassist Harish Raghavan has been part of the -- let’s call it -- ”interview” the entire time, but silent. What strikes me at first as poise -- these are, after all, men of international reputation -- now is revealed as kindness. We talk about personal things: family, Indian, Black, White, Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, and my old heart lifts. Harish Raghavan: I’m reading the Coates, too. And Devil in the White City. The Erik Larson book. I’m from Chicago, so I’m really into the history. I’ve been listening to that Hardcore History podcast a lot. Man, that stuff is just incredible. Really challenging. But I’m an idiot. I am Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. I suck. He says Chicago and I blank on the Cubs. I consider, briefly, showing them the surgical masks, telling them about the air, the fires. But sometimes Kyiv, it seems, is just too much to process. The fugue passes, common sense intervenes, and we talk about the tour. ”Why Kyiv?“ I ask. Harish looks at Ambrose, who defers. HR: I don’t know. We had this trip to Poland and the agent calls and tells us we’re going to Kyiv. We didn’t have any idea what to expect, I mean, with what you hear in the news. With what you hear in the news. The lateness of the hour hits me -- how tired I am, how tired they must be. You can taste the outskirts burning at the back of your throat. The crowd is mostly gone. I’m halfway to asking how he could stand to play in all this stink. Somebody with an American accent calls for a gin and tonic. Three shaved heads stand near the exit, watching. No neck tattoos. Security, I pray. We shake hands all around and again I’m struck by the decency of these men. I shove the masks deeper into my pocket and head out into the sour night. Whatever they may have expected, what the Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet got was a night onstage before this cloud of witnesses, most of whom had, in all likelihood, known them previously only via the Ukrainian duality of a Facebook post and an illegal download. An otherwise unimaginable crowd in a country in the grip of a rumored war stopping to listen to a black man from Oakland and his band testify while the city burns away its edges. Ukraine heaves, working to purge itself of ideologies long dead and new injustices turning gangrenous. But for one night, here stands a man channeling James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Anton Chekhov to lead them. He that hath ears to hear. Image Credit: cultprostir.ua.
All over Book Expo America, the country's largest book industry trade show, were signs of the major trends in publishing and bookselling. Environmentalism was the order of the day, and everywhere I went there were signs of the industry "going green." At the American Booksellers Association's annual Day of Education, Ed Begley Jr. gave the keynote address on how he's shaped his and his family's life around notions of conservation, and how independent businesses, particularly indie bookstores, carry on the rich tradition of independent thinking in America. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, followed this with a luncheon address that stressed the independent bookselling community's importance as a bastion of intellectual and political freedom. This set the stage nicely for ABA's major new initiative.Hours later, the ABA made the long-awaited announcement that Book Sense is no more. It has been replaced by IndieBound, a hipper, younger brand that will attempt to involve independent businesses of every ilk - from independent bookstores to independent dry cleaners to... well, you get the point. I think most everyone would agree that Book Sense had served its purpose and needed reinvigoration. Whereas Book Sense hoped to present a unified front of indies in the face of competition from Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, IndieBound represents an effort to return to the idea of the neighborhood bookstore and the importance of shopping locally. While the initiative definitely has its share of skeptics (I don't particularly see how it will help bookstores compete in the online marketplace), it is an infinitely better brand than Book Sense. If the locavore movement can gain traction, maybe this can, as well.Having BEA in LA was something of a mixed blessing. While it was nice to sleep in my own bed at the end of the night, the stress of everyday life added to the stress of being in 24/7 mingle mode can be a bit much. I did my best to partake of the many parties around town, but eventually I ran out of gas. Edan made it to the Skylight Bookstore party, where she ran into Pinky, some cool people from McNally Robinson in NYC (including Jessica from the Written Nerd), Kelly Link and the folks from Small Beer Press. While she was mixing it up there, I went to the Disney Books dinner at Patina. The guest list included some of the major authors in children's and young adult books today: Eoin Colfer, Jonathan Stroud, Kevin Carroll, Ann M. Martin and Brian Selznick, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson, Rick Riordan, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. At first, I was profoundly uncomfortable, as I seemed to be the only person in the room who didn't have strong opinions on every kids' book published in the last five years, but after a while (and, let's face it, a few drinks) I felt more and more at ease. You might think a kids' book dinner thrown by Disney would be tame. You would be wrong. I didn't go to every dinner at BEA, but I feel safe in saying this was among the raunchiest. Robert Kennedy told a joke about sexual congress between a leprechaun and a penguin. 'Nuff said. I laughed throughout dinner and learned a pretty good amount about the authors as well. The evening ended with me convincing a group of booksellers that it would be a good idea to forgo a cab and take the metro to their hotel. The metro only runs until midnight here in LA, and I was warned several times that if we missed the train and ended up stranded in scenic downtown LA, then I would have sold my last book, so to speak. Thankfully for me, we caught the last train out of downtown and everybody lived to see the trade show the next day.The BEA trade show floor, like most large conferences, can be overwhelming without a plan. Mine was fairly simple - spend Friday in panels and meetings, visiting a couple of priority booths in my spare time, then use Saturday (and Sunday, if absolutely necessary) to see the rest of the show. After attending a meeting on the future of the IndieBound webstore, I ducked in to hear Thomas Friedman's keynote address. He read from his forthcoming book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. While I waited for him to take the stage, I chatted with my neighbor about a Thursday panel I had missed about the future of the e-book. She told me I hadn't missed much, but that Adobe, Palm, Microsoft, and the others had finally agreed on a single format, making it much easier to compete with the Amazon. Friedman's address focused again on environmentalism and America's need to lead the way to finding clean, sustainable sources of energy.After a day of meetings, planned or otherwise (I ran into Nam Le and did a bit of catching up) and a couple of cocktail parties (drinks with Alec Baldwin in support of his book about divorce (Stephen Baldwin was there!), followed by the Ecco Press/Book Soup party at Palihouse, where I drank a sickly sweet champaign cocktail), I was back at BEA early Saturday morning to hit the booths. I put in appearance at McSweeney's, which was easily the least conspicuous booth there. Just Eli Horowitz and Andrew Leland sitting behind a card table. I made the rounds of the major publishers, guided for a brief bit by Mark Sarvas, who happened to be walking the floor with Jim Ruland of Vermin on the Mount. We hit the Grey Wolf Press booth, where I picked up a copy of a new story collection by Jeffrey Renard Allen called Holding Pattern.Rather than laboriously describe each booth and every galley I got (I got too many), I'll just touch on the highlights. It seemed I had something nice to say about every book that Da Capo brought with them - I had positively reviewed Des Wilson's Ghosts at the Table for Publishers Weekly, I had been a long-time vocal advocate of Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, and I've been dying to read David Browne's biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, of which I snagged a copy. I had a great time talking to Gavin and Jedediah at Small Beer Press, and walked away with a copy of John Kessel's The Baum Plan for Financial Independence. Early on Thursday morning, I'd run into Amy and Janet, two women from Athens, GA who are opening a bookstore there called Avid. They introduced me to Eric and Eliza Jane from Two Dollar Radio, a really cool small press publishing bold, innovative fiction by Rudolph Wurlitzer, Amy Koppelman, and others. I did my usual bit of groveling at the feet of the New York Review of Books, where I thanked them for introducing me to J.F. Powers. They were sweethearts and gave me a pin. At the Tin House booth, I talked up Jim Krusoe's upcoming event at Vroman's, which resulted in me snagging a couple of books, including Krusoe's new Girl Factory and a novel by Adam Braver called November 22, 1963. And finally, as the day wore on and my feet swelled to twice their original size, I spotted somebody in the FSG booth pulling ARCs of Robert Bolano's 2666 out of a box. I grabbed one. It's 912 pages long, weighs several pounds, and looks better than 90% of the paperbacks published this year. On Saturday night, I slept.For a complete rundown of BEA from the bookseller's perspective, check out the Vroman's Bookstore blog.
1. A Friday morning in mid-July: opening day at the Saratoga Race Course. We’re in the final throes of a heat wave that’s been smothering the entire Eastern Seaboard for days on end, and this morning the thermometer reads 97 — with the humidity, it tops 100 in the shade. I’ve worked days like this before, and it’s daunting, thinking of the eleven sticky races that will stretch on into early evening. I head across town, following the long dip of East Avenue down and then up again, and as I pass the Oklahoma training track, the festooned iron gates of the main race course blossoming out before me, I worry absently about the temperature and the safety of the horses. If the crowd inching towards the admissions gates looks diminished, perhaps it’s because they’re drooping beneath the punishing sun. A good number of them will give up by the sixth race or so, throwing out a rash of perfunctory bets for the rest of the card. “I’m melting out here,” half a dozen men tell me, soaking through their tank tops, beads of sweat colonizing their upper lips. “You guys got air-conditioning in there?” I manage to bark out a laugh every time. “Don’t worry, honey, you still look good,” one woman assures me — without provocation — and I am surprisingly relieved. We’re all melting, outside and inside the Paddock, the converted barn in which two long rows of pari-mutuel clerks sit taking bets and counting cash. Sweat collects in the corners of my eyes, blurring my vision as I punch out $2 exacta boxes. The heat eventually breaks after dark, when a series of violent thunderstorms sweep in and knock the weather into submission. Half the town loses power. Finally, maybe a little inexplicably, it really feels like summer to me; I throw open the windows and listen to the thunder retreating, the gentlest rumble now beneath the steady pulse of the rain. 2. I’d returned to Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, four days prior. My hometown had seemed largely unchanged as I drove in (as if I were coming home from the war or something — in fact I was here at Christmas), though the sidewalks are now littered with enormous disembodied feet encased in ballet slippers, each one individually painted and nearly as tall as man. It’s some sort of project to showcase local artists, but the freestanding feet are perhaps creepier than anyone probably intended, like the collected crime scenes of a giant serial killer. I’m happier with the track’s anniversary logo, a red oval with a golden horse blazing through it, which has been plastered all over town — affixed to front doors and printed on flags and at the track itself, on banners and t-shirts and tote bags. The Saratoga Race Course opened in August of 1863, though it hasn’t quite been 150 consecutive seasons since — it was shuttered a few times, like when gambling was outlawed in New York state in 1911, and during the Second World War. Still, it’s billed as the oldest continually running thoroughbred track in the country. The track is a constant in this town, the six-week season an anchor around which the year rises and falls. Saratoga is humming in anticipation, the population visibly swelling as crowds collect and loiter along Broadway. It’s hard for me to avoid sentimentality when it comes to the racing season, but I can almost feel a sort of romantic momentum picking up as the town sails towards August — the ornate Victorian mansions, thrown open for six weeks of garden parties, or the bars, heaving with tourists flush with winnings from the big race, waving cigars and spilling beer in the streets. We all cast our glances backwards a bit when the races begin, and before long the real world ebbs away, at least for a few weeks. I’ve always found it a little funny, though, that for all the nostalgia and the celebration of tradition, at the track you have to take it one race at a time. Thirty seconds, a minute at most — if you’re lucky, a tight, dramatic finish, and if you’re luckier still, a winning ticket — and then it’s on to the next race, just twenty-eight more minutes to post. 3. I join the crowd trudging through the stultifying heat on opening day and it all seems to be the same as it ever was: the admissions gates give way to a long, broad footpath and a sea of red-and-white-striped awnings, and there’s the Dixieland band, wailing away, and there are the hat sellers, the boys hawking the Daily Racing Form, the stands charging obscene prices for lemonade — it feels like nothing so much as the distillation of summer, everything lazy and affable beneath the unrelenting sunshine. The park stretches out on both sides, swaths of patchy green covered with picnic tables and banks of televisions displaying the morning odds, and the back of the grandstand looms ahead, white lattice and flowers and ushers standing guard at the entrances. A ribbon of gravel flanked by a pair of white fences cuts a sharp channel through the park: the route along which horses are led from the stables to the paddock. Security guards pull chain-link barriers across a gap in the fences as the horses pass, and they are an astonishing sight up close, sleek and muscular and so much larger than I ever expect they’ll be, tongues lolling out, nosing slightly to one side or the other as they are led with what appear to be the lightest of touches at their reins. Today they pant a bit in the heat. I won’t see another live horse for the rest of the day. Eventually I reach the grandstand, and as I walk inside I am greeted by a blinding expanse of white: maybe a few hundred people milling around, greeting each other after eleven months away like it’s the first day of school, clad in white-collared shirts and toting lunch boxes and already a bit weary, as if the first race has gone off and some angry drunk is shouting that their mistakes have cost him a huge trifecta. These are my people: these are the pari-mutuel clerks. 4. We take bets. It’s the simplest explanation for a job that’s more nuanced than I’d ever have guessed, before any of this, before the track was something more than a disruptive abstraction on the east side of town. I learned the basic logic of horse gambling ten years ago, hovering over a keyboard as seasoned tellers called out sample bets, struggling to understand the terminology and the different combinations, exactas and doubles, keys and partial wheels, ten-ten on the eight horse, Seabiscuit in the fifth. I’ve learned a lot in the intervening decade, like how to harness the patience to explain the fundamentals to a novice, or how to decipher the ramblings of a drunk. I work hard to be effortlessly adept when professional gamblers come to the windows, printed stacks of racing stats clipped together, the carefully-calculated permutations of a morning spent handicapping printed at the top in neat pencil. Each series of bets, each exchange is a single moment encapsulated: beneath the numbers, horses and dollar amounts, it’s flirtation or anger or joking banter or the drudgery of playing a game only the very lucky can seem to crack. I am assigned a window in the Paddock, a self-contained bay of sixty betting machines populated by cheerful crowds on both sides of the windows. The customers are a mixed group, but on the weekends, it’s a lot of picnickers, juggling their programs and Miller Lite tallboys, cigarettes dangling from their lips. I draw the first bills of the day, close to $1,000, and as I count my money and the reunions continue around me, I feel unexpectedly out-of-place. It’s been three years since I worked a regular season at Saratoga, and I have lost both my seniority and my points of reference. I’m not eager to talk about how it’s been just a few days since I left behind my entire life in New York City. In the slow minutes before the first race, I am eager for the steady flow of customers, for the grounding effects of a long, impatient line of gamblers. Eventually a nondescript man saunters up and leans in against my window. “I’ll take a dollar tri box: 1, 6, 8,” he says distractedly, laying a pair of bills across the top of my machine. I punch the ticket and as he plucks it out I wish him luck. It’s extraordinary how quickly everything slots back into place; taking bets is mostly habit by now. By the time the horses are called to the post, I’ve travelled back across the past decade, suddenly deep in a long stretch of late summer spent sitting behind the betting windows, fingers working in a sort of rapid, monotonous variation, rote transactions punctuated by the most genuine human interaction, when then entire world narrows to a fine point, just me and my customer, exchanging cash and one-liners and the smallest slivers of each others’ lives. Another man comes to my window, and then another, and then another. 5. Once the heat breaks, the threat of rain hangs over the rest of opening weekend. It’s around the seventh or eighth race on Saturday and the strip of sky I can see is growing murky. A customer is lingering at my window, checking over his tickets, and I ask him if he thinks it’s about to rain. He leans in, eyebrows raised. “Why?” he asks. “You got a tip for the mud?” It does rain soon, a few quick, furious downpours, sending the crowds sprinting for cover. A woman wanders past my window in polka-dotted cowboy-boot galoshes. They’re just flash storms; the track isn’t sloppy yet. A supervisor once described a steadily rainy afternoon as a “telephone-number day,” when track conditions made things so unpredictable that the only way to pick a winning combination of horses was to toss out random numbers, an address or a birthday. “Little old ladies will be cashing ’em in like crazy,” he said. I know the type — women who come up and tell me, slightly abashed, that they’re here to “play my numbers.” We’re not quite there yet: the professionals are still hard at it, betting slightly too much in the heady rush of opening weekend. “Will you be my lucky girl?” a few guys ask, and I assure them that I am an especially lucky teller, but this weekend, the lie feels more barefaced than usual. I sell a lot of tickets, but I cash next to nothing. I collect tips in dimes and quarters rather than bills, relegated to weary offers to keep the change. Men are down hundreds, thousands already, and it’s only day two. A large, ruddy-faced man with a Boston accent cashes a big ticket — a few dollars bet, more than a few hundred won back — and as he’s about to pocket the stack of money, he pauses. I do my best to avoid looking too eager. Then he holds up a hand and indicates I should cup my palm, and when I do, he drops forty cents into it. “There you go,” he says. “For your scholarship fund.” 6. I like the little dramas of the racetrack, the smallest fortunes, rising and falling from one race to the next. I like the completely bizarre cross-section of people, the brusque and the flippant, or the guys that lean in and tell me their life stories. They wear shirts unbuttoned too far and masses of gold chains resting on curling chest hair, or white linen suits with matching pocket squares and straw boaters, or the blandest suburban dad uniforms, khaki cargo shorts and neatly-tucked-in polos. When the rain begins, the lines dry up, and in the slow stretches, I watch people walk by — groups of women in dagger-like platform heels, hunched in on themselves for balance; groups of women strutting past in flip flops beneath super-short dresses; a woman wearing a tiny top-hat fascinator, feather jutting from the band, maybe something swiped from an enormous bird of prey. A man hollers across the pavement, “I gotta use the can!” He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt open over a red t-shirt that reads THING 1. There is no sign of THING 2. The Monday after opening weekend, the weather has settled into something spectacular, mid-seventies and sunny, fluffy white clouds and a light breeze; the track is fast and the turf is firm. Early this morning, an essay I wrote about leaving New York was published, and it is hard to think about all of that as I key out dollar pick-3 part-wheels, but I do think about Joan Didion a little bit — my essay is partly a meditation on her famous leaving-New York essay, “Goodbye to All That.” There is a line in there that gave me pause, something about New York, like the rest of it, but a phrase that followed me up through the Hudson Valley to Saratoga Springs: “...the trees just coming into full leaf, the lament air, all the sweet promises of money and summer.” Didion is on 57th Street; I am at the betting windows, but the phrase turns perfectly here. It’s only money, some of my customers say. But it’s only money, for a lot of them. Across the park, through the grandstand, past the bleachers and out on the dirt, the horses are being led to the starting gate. I walk up and down the long row of tellers, catching dozens of single moments encapsulated, people handing over cash, people calling out combinations, people laughing, shaking hands, fist-bumps for luck. It smells like sunscreen, and the cloying heaviness of cigar smoke. I return to my window and flip open my money box, and a customer appears out of nowhere, bets scrawled across the top of his program. “Are you ready for me, sweetheart?” he asks. I look down at the screen, the simple architecture of a bet laid out and waiting — dollar amount, type, horse, and the tiniest stroke of luck — and then back up at him and nod. “Go ahead.” He squares his shoulders and begins to rattle off numbers; I begin to take his bet. Next: On Luck Images courtesy the author
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Two weeks ago, I finished school, packed it up, and returned to San Francisco after a three-year hiatus. My first event as a Californian reborn was Saturday's "Tumbeliever Party" at the Makeout Room, a dark and venerable joint in the Mission. The party, built around Sheila Heti's book tour for her new novel, How Should a Person Be?, was a dual effort between Tumblr and The Believer and featured readings by several local writers. Presiding was Rachel Fershleiser, an energetic person whose job at Tumblr (Literary and Non-Profit Outreach) seems to be using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology by having parties -- so, the best job in the world. The Makeout Room is designed like a bottle, with the entryway and bar area its neck. Trying to get a drink to dull the pain of feeling like everyone knows each other except for you was a minor trial, solved by Black Star beers in cans. The Booksmith ran the book table, and there were drink tickets (thx TumBelvr!). Isaac Fitzgerald, of The Rumpus, began the readings with a vignette about his first tattoo, an expansion of his bio on Pen & Ink, the tattoo tumblr Fitzgerald runs with Wendy MacNaughton. His tattoo, "Forgive Me," is an apology to a particular young lady for his fickle heart and the freckled charms of the other young ladies with whom he spent one New Hampshire summer. Fitzgerald and the main event, Sheila Heti, formed a sort of bracket to the proceedings in that they did not read pieces about San Francisco. The artist and writer Joshua Heineman, of the site Cursive Cities and the joint New York Public Library project the Stereogranimator, had been instructed by Fershleiser to make it "dirty or funny." While he told the assembled that he was accustomed to being neither in his work, he made a strong showing toward the latter with a true-life tale about being clubbed by a mentally ill fellow wielding Mickey Mouse statuary in a Mission Street bagel shop. Before giving up the stage Heineman took the opportunity to read a poem, not funny or dirty, but heartfelt, about Abroad. While San Francisco is commonly held to be a city of transplants (cf. the recent burn on 30 Rock), Melissa Graeber, tumblr proprietress and world's youngest English Department Chair, is a fifth-generation San Franciscan. She read a lovely piece about her family, parents who grew up in adjacent houses, and a box of dirt -- a literal interpretation of Fershleiser's charge to be dirty. She was followed by crowd favorite and genial presence Mills Baker of Aporia (where you can also watch his performance). The San Francisco vibe peaked with this reading, because Baker read from an iPad, indicating that it is the future, and relayed another story of a San Franciscan who marched to the proverbial beat of her own drum (this is the long way to say crazy). Then came a brief meditation on the bougie guilt and writerly predation and color-line anxiety of one city dweller for another. Sheila Heti took the stage last, and told us that she would be dirty. And how. Reading from her new book about a divorced feminist playwright, Heti selected what can only be the dirtiest bits, an extended sex party between the protagonist and an artist named Israel (a name which sometimes made the passage seem like very oblique comment on the Israel-Palestine conflict, e.g., "She thinks she can go around...not having known the humiliation of being fucked by Israel"). It was a funny and provocative passage to mark the end of a rousing evening in the golden West. The Millions's #LitBeat is an occasional report on readings and other real life literary happenings all over the world. You can read them all on our tumblr.