Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Another Race, Another Country

Monday was, besides the 15th anniversary of the diplomatic protocol which united East and West Germany, the last day of racing out at Hoppegarten. All week, the weather forecast had been for rain -- and there'd been a lot of rain all week -- but when I woke up on Monday, that had all changed: a cloudy, but dry, day was forecast. Blaise had been asking about going to the races, so I got in touch with him and told him it was on.

I bought a three-zone day-pass (weekend) for five Euros, and we headed out, almost to the end of the public transportation system. We got there about 30 minutes after the first race, stood in the usual interminable line, and paid seven Euros to get in.

That's when it started to go wrong. The shed where the programs and racing forms are sold -- and there's only one -- only had a dozen programs left and no racing forms, which had already sold out. This was a problem: without the statistics in the racing form, there's no way to accurately attempt to pick a winner. Without that, there wasn't much point in making any bets. And without making bets, there wasn't much point in going to the track.

But we were there, so we stood in line for a sausage, it being that time of day. It was a very long line, twenty or more people, but it was the shortest of the lines at the several sausage stands. Germans, of course, love to stand in lines, it being a favorite pastime, but the closer we got, the more obvious is was that they were already running out of food. At 2:30 in the afternoon!

Finally, somewhat refreshed, we headed over to the paddock area to watch the horses for the next race -- all 15 of them -- being led around. There was really no way to tell which was which, just do the usual check for kidney sweat and obvious drug mania, so I just picked a couple at random and played them. Surprisingly, they did pretty well, although they didn't win. The next race was a much smaller field, but again, I had no idea what was going on. This time, I got lucky: I not only picked the favorite, but the one I liked went off at 10 to 1, and won. Paid for the whole day.

The next race had a field of four, and was the big €50,000 BMW German Unification Cup, featuring the unbeaten Horse of the Year from 2004, Manduro. Here, I was tempted to place an exotic bet, boxing three of the four. In other words, if they came in, in any order, I'd win. These kinds of bets can pay off in the thousands, but not in a four-way race; at best I'd double my money. But I chickened out and only boxed two, and then watched the one I'd eliminated come in second. Ah, well: I still came out ahead.

But the racetrack was a mess, the whole day through. Lines everywhere, like I've never seen them. Food concessions running out, drink concessions running out. And, although I'm loath, 15 years on, to blame this on the usual East-versus-West thing, the inevitable conclusion is that the bad planning was simply down to the stereotypical Lazy Ossi way of doing business: the forecast was for rain, so we won't buy enough sausages, enough racing forms, enough beer, because nobody's going to come. Never mind that the sausages would eventually get grilled and the beer drunk, and I'm sure the newsagent takes returns.

Ah, well, there's always next year, although I don't think I'll be around for much of the season. And the nearest races to where I'm moving seem to be in Toulouse, which is a pretty far piece away. This gorgeous racetrack out in the countryside is one thing I'll miss about Berlin.


The past, they say, is another country. I know: I've been living there all weekend, courtesy of a combination Christmas/birthday present I bought myself, The Complete New Yorker. Every page of every issue of the magazine has been scanned and transferred to eight computer-readable DVDs, and a complete search engine, along with abstracts of every single article, cartoon, poem, and piece of fiction, can find you anything they've published.

And, while it's nice to be able to find all four parts of Truman Capote's original publication of In Cold Blood, save them to a custom reading list, and read them later, or to read Janet Flanner's mysterious Letter from Paris, which had become a total relic of another era by the 1960s, or to find, as I did just randomly flipping around, a great two-part article from the '60s by the previously unkown-to-me John Brooks (who seems to have mostly covered business) on the history of the New Jersey meadows with an emphasis on muskrat trappers there, or to come upon a piece by the great Joseph Mitchell I'd never read before, what's really astonishing is the ads.

And it's not just the prices. Sure, I was amazed that you could get the best seats at a hit Broadway show for $6.35, or fly Pan Am from New York to Paris and back in 1965 for $400, although someone who knows about such things reminded me that $400 in 1965 was equivalent to $2300 and change today. But the things being advertised amazed me. Lots and lots of liquor. Lots of it, and a high percentage was what most people today would consider pretty down-market stuff, particularly the Scotch. There was a really weird ad for California wine which basically said that foreigners drink it, so how bad could it actually be, huh? There was glassware to serve drinks in, martini recipes galore, a company in Maine offering oranges in syrup (oranges in Maine?) for use in Old Fashioneds, and, of course, stuff to eat in canapes while you drank: cheeses and the inevitable Vita Herring Snacks.

In case you didn't want to do your drinking at home, there were ads for nightclubs (Lena Horne! Benny Goodman!) and restaurants, two of which, Emily Post's and Peter's Backyard, I vaguely remember eating at as a kid. There were ads for travel urging us to "See Beautiful YUGOSLAVIA!" and to travel Russia with Intourist, both of which rather surprised me. A bit closer to home, Jamaica was putting on a major promotion, as was a group of hotels in Barbados where you could stay for as little as $16 a night, double, which, even with inflation, is a damn good bargain. And even closer to home, there were ads for the Greenbriar Resort in suburban Washington (illustration of a co-ed target shooting group), and hotels in Boston and Philadelphia.

Flipping through all of this at fairly high speed, looking for goodies or just randomly wandering through a bunch of issues, the cumulative effect eventually gave me several weird dreams. It's not like this is the return of the repressed, really: I never saw these magazines when I was a kid. I did have a best friend whose parents, I think, got the New Yorker, and for certain they had the cartoon collections, which my friend and I would race through looking for Charles Addams. It's more a case of being thrown into a random barrel of pop culture and consumer goods from a long-vanished era, and that serves as some sort of abrasive to loosen things long thought gone in my subconscious.

And not so long gone: my friend's parents had pinned up in the house somewhere a New Yorker cartoon that stayed with me. A couple is leaving a cocktail party, and she turns to him and says "Why do you have to mention that you're a Democrat and cause those long silences?"

Thing is, if I had the New Yorker software fired up at the moment, I could actually find that cartoon by typing "Democrat" and "long silences" into the search function. No question about it: this is the biggest time-waster I've found for the computer since Marathon. And, for all its equal power to disturb, more intellectually enriching.

No comments: