Ain’t no use in complainin’
When you got a job to do
Spent my evenings down at the drive-in
And that’s when I met you
And now the times are changin’
Look at everything that’s come and gone
Sometimes when I play that old six-string
Think about you wonder what went wrong
Oh when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah, I’d always want to be there
Those were the best days of my life
It was the summer, the summer, summer of ’69
Unlike Bryan Adams in his song, I didn’t start a band and I didn’t buy my first six-string at a Five and Dime. I did however, , ,
meet a girl, just not at a drive-in but in an afternoon art class at West High School in Phoenix, not in the summer but in the spring of ’69. One month later, it was time for me to leave for Arlington Park to meet up with Dad. Leaving Phoenix was exactly the opposite of what I really wanted to do for that summer even though Arlington Park is the finest track in the land.
Although she wasn’t my girlfriend in any sense of the word, leaving now would leave me absolutely no chance in getting to know her better even though somehow I knew it would be okay, I just knew. I was worried that without me in town, another guy might grab her up and then I would return without even the slightest chance of winning the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Love at first sight actually is true for some but at that time, I really didn’t know what love was as I do now. All I know is I adored the hippie girl with all my heart.
I finally asked if she wanted to do something the next weekend with me and some of my friends. She said, “Sure.” That was the moment it hit me. The Friday Night Feeling, the feeling you get when on Monday your date actually does say yes, instantly causing your stomach to churn with a nervous excitement that eventually covers over you like a cool and welcome mist on a hot summer’s day. I liken the sensation to the first drop on a rollercoaster you’ve never ridden before. A weeklong rodeo of good feelings, breathless anticipation and mountain-high goose bumps. Simply said, , , it was the start of a something better than all those feelings combined.
Never before with anyone else had the Friday Night Feeling entrenched so deeply in my mind. Each time she spoke to me the numbness attacked my legs and I’d have to lean on something to steady myself but she and that time is whole different story. A story of a particular adventure that took me more than 40 years to write although without knowing it I actually penciled it on a 5×7 lined notepad paper while sitting on a groom’s bandage box in the body of one old and forgotten message known as The Arlington Love Letter. The letter will be headlined in the upcoming Blog in the WiseGuy Diaries called, ‘The Summer of ‘69’. But like I said, that’s a whole different story.
Yes-Siree! If I could write with a snicker, this would be where it would be because I did leave for Arlington at the start of the summer and I did come back afterwards to go back to school. Once I returned I knew I had finally won a bet, scooped the pool, and took home the purse, all at the same time with her. My life’s exacta had come in, precisely in the order I had wanted it to finish.
The excruciating heat of the desert summer had left us months ago and the sweater weather of Halloween was just around the corner. Things in my life were going well. The next few years brought an abandonment of the track without even knowing it had to be done. I had no reason to ever go back I guess. Mom and Dad’s edgy relationship ended in a very nasty and brutal divorce. I had decided I was to disown the family and I would do it cold turkey.
I was outside on the small back patio of my Mom’s single level apartment sitting with my legs crossed, smoking a Marlboro as Mom and Dad screamed at each about the split. My little brother, ten years younger was inside.
Months before he had dropped me off in Chicago on the Eisenhower Expressway after we had an argument about pizza and the twenty bucks he took from me the night before but never returned with the food. He looked at me in the passenger seat of the Chrysler and said, “If you think you’re big enough, then we can stop.” I said, “Pull over.” I thought he and I were going to duke it out or something like that. A slap fight at the least, but then again now that I think of it, he was always a little on the quiet side. The white Newport pulled over to the side of the toll way and slowed down to a stop in the gravel. I opened the door and got out. He reached over and shut the door then pulled away. Never saw a brake light as the long car vanished.
I jumped the guard rail and went down the embankment to the street below. I walked for a long time to Grandma Volk’s place and she gave me a couple of hundred bucks. With that for food, I caught a ride in a horse trailer out of Sportsman’s Park and made it all the way to Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. The rest of the way was a one-ride with the Thompsons, down to I-10 into Tucson and up to the Phoenix neighborhood where my Mom lived.
Nearly a year had gone by and I hadn’t see him or heard from him since the Eisenhower incident. After school, I had walked into Mom’s apartment and there he was with her fighting about his stuff he had left in the closet. I walked straight through the living room, into the kitchen pass the chrome legged dinner table and out the backdoor. There I sat, legs crossed. An hour passed and the brass knob turned slowly then the door opened part way and the man I had worshipped for so long squeezed into the doorway. Looking down at me sitting on the concrete his last words to me before he walked out were, “Are you coming?”, insinuating it was time to travel back to Illinois if I wanted to go with him.
I told him, “No. I don’t want to leave her here.” He could tell somehow it wasn’t about Mom staying behind but about the girl I had met in school.
He looked at me with frustration and spoke through his clenched jaw, “There’s a lot of fish in the ocean. You’re either coming now or your never coming again.” He waited for a moment staring at me. I didn’t blink as he turned away and went back inside. He had gotten his answer. I watched as the door closed with a tug from the inside and called him an asshole under my breath. I waited thinking he would leave but the heat drove me into the cool. I opened the back door to go in and caught a glimpse of him leaving with a gray suitcase in his hand as the front door slammed shut. I blamed him for years not knowing the real story of the split as parents in those days never let the kids know the real truth of the problem.
Although I spoke to him a couple of times in the next few years, one being when Mom sent Ned Warren Junior’s goons after him at Hialeah trying to get more alimony, he said they said they were going break his knees if he didn’t pay more. He didn’t. The next time we talked was when he had seen a movie I made of my daughter as a baby and sent the tape to my Grandma’s. He knew about Dan my son so this had to be a surprise as she was already two years old. Grandma said he cried as he left the house and went home. I felt bad for a while but not too long, other than that I never saw or spoke to him again. The idol had left the building.
After that I never had any real reason to go to the track or even be involved. If my memory is right I never did anything of the sorts since watching Secretariat on TV in 1973 partly because of the situation with my Parents and partly because of the girl who now was my wife. I thought to myself many time, “Man you’re in Paradise.”
Well the time is the present but I have to give you a little background so let’s fast forward to somewhere between 2001 and 2003, in the fall. This was the time I returned to the track after 27 years of instinctive abstinence. I re-met The Mayor, an old childhood tracker friend on a September afternoon either by chance or by luck.
My work was at an office filling in for a long-time friend, Omer and the day had gone by without boredom. The Mayor came into the small office and sat down across from the temporary desk I had taken ownership for the last three weeks while my boss was on vacation.
“Hey,” he said as he plopped down in the steel framed green Naugahyde office chair positioned near the only window. “Are you the guy from the track?”
“Are you the, (my last name ), from the track?”
“Yeah. What made you ask that?” I paused a moment and before he could answer the question, his last name flashed to me like magnesium powder of a photograph. “Are you the, ( his last name ), from the track?
That small conversation, in a small office, in a small world was the beginning of a close, no, that’s not true, it was the start of a very close yet tumultuous relationship filled with excitement, confusion, walkabouts and frank disorderly conducts. All of which is destined to last a lifetime.
The Mayor, as he is known at the track will remain anonymous for a variety of reasons. He knows everyone, knows something about everyone, and knows about every story of everyone at the track. His memory is spotless and spot on. I’ve won wagers betting on the accuracy of his memory even if it was only a lunch at some fast food joint. Hey, a win is a win. His handicapping is thorough and opinionated. He can name every horse, jockey, jockey agent, owner, trainer, breeder, and track record with the exactness of a micrometer even though he cuts through his life with an axe. He is one of my all time great friends and will always be a part of my family ever since that day in the office. He is, (drum roll please ), The Mayor.
“Why don’t we go to the track sometime?”
I said, “That sounds good. I haven’t been back for years.” The next Monday we were sitting in the Grandstand at Turf four rows up from the rail and all I could say when I smelled the dirt in the track in the air was one small two-letter quip to him, “I’m home.” I thought I had gone to heaven and with a beer in hand while sitting across the concrete aisle in the Grandstand, the Mayor leans over in a draft-beer stupor and muttered with clear distinction, “You’re in Paradise.”
Then as the meet at Turf Paradise went on over several years and The Mayor and I sat in the Grandstand twice if not three times a week, the realization eventually came over us like a slow weeping infected wound. The pain and the reality of this ill-forgotten track reared up like a one-eyed stud on a leaf-covered shed row on a windy day, and kicked us dead center in our sternums. . .
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
It’s not warm when she’s away
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
She’s gone much too long
Any time she goes away
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
I wonder if she’s gone to stay
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
And this house just ain’t no home
Any time she goes away
Any time she goes away
Did anyone see Bill Withers at Turf Paradise just before he wrote this song in 1971? He had to be there because he has to be talking about our lady, our ‘Jewel’, our Turf Paradise. Right? Guess not, she’s still here although barely in some aspects. So in the usual Paul Harvey cliche-ic beginning, , , “Now, the rest of the story.”
Turf Paradise all started in 1954 when a businessman by the name of Walter Cluer bought 1,400 acres of Arizona desert just north of the bustling city of Phoenix and began to build a first-class race track in Phoenix. Cluer was a millwork founder, a manufacturer and a horse owner, but still even after all the success he had earlier in his life many felt he was destined for failure and the project was ill-timed.
The 260-acre race track at Bell Road and 19th Avenue in Phoenix sits on one of the Valley’s largest privately owned commercial real estate parcels and has benefited over the years from the area’s growth. The seven-month “meet” at Turf Paradise is one of the longest in the country. The approximate 135 race days compare as a giant to the 37 days at Del Mar north of San Diego.
Everyone including my Dad felt the property was too far from town being 25 miles north of the Valley of the Sun, not to mention the only access to the track would be a badly maintained dirt road named 19th Avenue. Still, my Dad came to the track to work as Cluer fortunately never gave up and in just two years, Turf Paradise racetrack opened it’s doors to the public who immediately took the track into their homes as family. The “meet” was an overwhelming success and filled to capacity almost every day. Cluer remained head of the track for nearly 25 years until 1980.
Herb Owens, the new manager takes over and adds a seven-furlong infield turf course with a 1 1/8 mile chute to the existing one-mile oval circuit. Owens also enlarged the clubhouse and added a Turf Club, described as a penthouse-like Directors’ Suite with an outdoor patio. I should put a smily face right about here but back in those times the shoe fit.
The tracks next owner in 1989 was Robert Walker. He has the credit of adding off-track betting in 1991. At the time the track had managed to accumulate significant debt and the move to off-track gambling proved to be just what was needed to help carry the track through those recessive years.
This place changes ownership faster than a bee stung stallion. Here comes 1994 and Hollywood Park Racetrack under the chairmanship of R.D. Hubbard buys the whole kit and caboodle. Although I’m sure there was improvements, I can’t find squat about what this setup of owners did for the ‘Jewel’. Hubbard’s group holds onto it for 6 long years and then sells it to its patriarch today, Jerry Simms for 53 million. Some of the money came from Simms’ brother, Ron, but the majority came right from Simms’s own pocket.
God bless Jerry Simms as he saved this track from the ultimate doom as a scheme had been hatched prior to the sale that the area would be leveled for development. The Department of Racing granted Simms a license in May 2000 despite evidence of possible bribery. An investigation revealed a $2.2-million series of loans from Simms to former casino owner Allen Glick, whom federal authorities have called a front for Mafia interests. He immediately made plans for a 5 million dollar facelift. So what? He’s our Don and we love him to tears.
“When I bought the track, we re-did the Turf Club and Clubhouse…we haven’t done much to the Grandstand. If you go to the Turf Club and the Clubhouse and go into one of the carrel areas, you’ll see a lot of the work that was done.” Numerous other renovations have been made over the years and perhaps the most notable in the media was the addition of an equine swimming pool in the stable area. In those days the pool alone cost $125,000 to install and contains a massive 140,000 gallons of water.
Uh oh, , , Do you hear that? Shhhh, listen. You don’t hear that at all? Listen again. . . There it is. Sounds like trouble coming to me. I’m leaving, , , don’t want to be found ‘sleeping with the fishes’, so to speak.
Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble
Trouble been doggin’ my soul since the day I was born
Worry, worry, worry, worry
Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone
She’s good to me now
She gave me love and affection
She’s good tell me now
She gave me love and affection
I said I love her
Yes I love her
I said I love her
I said I love…
She’s good to me now
She’s good to me
She’s good to me
Ray Lamontagne sure must have known our lady of the desert when he sang Simms’s fight song on an early September day right before the “meet” started in 2004. Jerry Simms, who purchased Turf Paradise in January 2000 for a reported $53-55 million, sold his stake in the Phoenix racetrack on a Tuesday. Simms was forced to sell the track by state regulators after the Arizona Department of Racing revoked his license in October 2001. In early 2002, Simms sold, actually transfered his majority stake in Turf’s managing general partnership to his beloved brother, Ron who is a big time Los Angeles real estate investor based out of Beverly Hills, California.
He was the obvious choice since he had already been approved by the State to operate the track and heck, he already owned 32% of the Phoenix dirt oval. Jerry’s equity interest fell into a irrevocable trust to benefit both he and his brother’s kids. Jerry owns 100 acres of the property which is a parcel with barns and stables in residence.
“This is a heartbreaking decision because I love the sport and pageantry of horse racing and had devoted my efforts to improving the quality of Turf Paradise,” Simms said. “The dedication and loyalty of the employees, trainers, breeders, and fans at Turf Paradise dictate that I place their interest ahead of mine for the sake of continued successful operation and growth of the track and horse racing in Arizona.” Simms continued with the canned response. “Turf Paradise will forever have a soft spot in my heart,” Simms said. “I have total faith and confidence in Ron’s ability to operate this race track in the highest traditions of this great sport. Facility improvements are expected to continue.”
Stop! Stop right here in the story and shake your head like a dog whose has water in each ear and when done say, “WTF?” Now, do it again just to make sure you rid yourself of any of the plugging and very uncomfortable liquid.
When I heard this, I slammed my foot down so hard on the brake pedal that it left an impression on the floorboard. My bleeding right hand was gripping the emergency brake so tight two finger nails popped off and the vulcanized rubber peeled off both back tires like homemade Sagnarelli pasta. But still with all precautionary thoughts, the concrete abutment on the Black Canyon Freeway is coming at me at the same deadly speed! Shake your head harder, there’s still water in your ears and ask yourself as you look skyward, “What was that last statement? “Expected to continue.” Continue what? Continue to let the lady age and wither into nothingness would be more like it. She hasn’t been shopping for a new dress for over ten years and she’s wearing different colored shoes for Christ’s Sake.
I don’t know anything about cosmetic surgery but a good rule of thumb is, it’s time to stop when you look permanently frightened. Ask Joan Rivers. The trouble is that our Lady never had any procedures done that I know of. Holy crap, take a look at the grandstand Jerry, I mean Ron, my mistake, especially on the second floor as it sure can use a facelift. The ground floor looks even worse, check out the paddock room, the tables are broken, the chairs are broken, everything is broken as well. The Lady is broken!
In the pre-summer months the AC is awful in the Clubhouse and Turf Club. In the winter when it’s freezing cold outside and the inside temperature is like the air conditioning is on. The two swamp coolers and swamp porta-coolers are on but theres no water going to them as the crustaceous formations haven’t grown in size for over 6 years. There’s a couple of old fashion heaters in the Grandstand but the hot water pipes aren’t opened till ice start forming on the pipes and the patrons are slowing down with some of them frozen in space and time.
In the clubhouse you have to ask if they will turn the lights on in the restrooms. Simms already turns all the lights, television sets, bar signs, betting machines, exit signs and any other electric consumption devices off in the Grandstand on Mondays and Tuesdays to save on power bills. Boy, that ten bucks is helping. Actually its a preventative measure as the wiring in the old Grandstand is just waiting for the evil wire to start an insurance claim.
The Men’s restrooms, yep you guessed it, all of the Men’s restrooms are a disgrace to the male genital region as when I try to go there I shrink up involuntarily in fear like I’m a member of the Polar Bear Club of Coney Island in New York, except its 98 degrees outside and I’m not planning to take an ice swim. In the men’s, the water faucets have no water pressure or you find them running relentlessly. Here’s the good side of the problem. The water appears, and I say ‘appear’ with not a lot of comfort, to be clear. They have no towels to wipe your hands and the dryers they have to dry your hands with blow cold air. I once caught a groom relieving himself behind the public restrooms in the barns and told him in a concerned public tone, “Hey dude, the doorway is on the other side.” He looked at me with a mind-your-own-business glare and deep latino accent and informed me, “You go in there, not me Amigo.” I have some comfort is one thing. All the regulatory maintenance check-off forms are plastered on each door so you know this room has been deemed safe by the Arizona Department of Health Services and is signed personally by the guy or girl Simms has cleaning the joint.
The Ladies’ lavatories are better but I’ve never been in one and was lucky enough to get a picture inside the forbidden zone by a more than helpful female patron. I asked, “Are there any, you know, like things on the wall, like dispensing things on the wall?” Okay, okay, , , are there any,” I cleared my throat from the phlem of discomfort of what I was about to ask. I softly blurted if that is possible, “Kotex Dispensers. You know, like available for you or anything else you might need from this establishment, like,” I stammered again, “If you like, , , uh, had an emergency?” I asked. She grinned, as she snugged her purse over her shoulder as if she was protecting it from the purse snatcher she was conversing with by the swinging doorway. She walked away without a word of atonement. Then two conflicting urges took over me. One was to peek inside, the other was similar to panic as I had to hurry and make a decision. I was holding back my own physical need and made a fast walk to the Men’s where I could see the Mayor in the same perdicument making a straight and determined path to relief. I never went back to the other side, the ladies side.
Jerry, we love ya but enough is enough. Ron, whoever you are, plus I’ve never seen you before, enough is enough. The Arizona Department of Health, well you should be ashamed of yourself for letting the patrons and workers of our beautiful race track go through what they go through daily, the whole governing body of Phoenix who allows this tragedy to continue and not force the ownership to help our lady, I have no good words for you. Then there’s The Arizona Racing Commission, well, that’s a whole rant in itself, we’ll get to that some other day.
So the end of this story is near as many might think, right? You are right in one way and maybe you just plain don’t give a . . . But, I’m not in paradise anymore as the Mayor once said from across the concrete stairs in the Grandstand and this WiseGuy spiel is coming to an agonizing finish frosted with a disgusting yellowish spoiled butter cream.
The Mayor and I stood quiet while relieving ourselves keeping the year-old broken urinal between us. Normally we abide to the strict rulings of the ‘Urinal Code of Ethics’ which dictates no man is ever to gaze at, look upon, or worse, speak to another man while finishing the dribble and subsequent shake-off. I couldn’t help break the law as I tilted my head looking slightly to my left and downward below the blue tarp covered veteran latrine labeled ‘Out of Order’. We had earlier in the year suspected the need for labeling the obvious was to alert those who took it upon themselves to moisten the plastic unknowing of the need of repair. We calculated it would take somewhere between 5 and 7 Bud Light drafts from the lower bar to impede such judgement and both agreed a saved splash-back was well worth the expense.
The Mayor, who is as keen as mustard noticed my movement to his right and followed my lead as he peered squintingly over his glasses, turning to his right and peering downward. Our heads came up and our eyes locked together like a come bet. I was first to break the silence. One brow raised as I questioned my longtime friend, “Did you know that stuff grows into an living and breathing organism?”
The Mayor looked at me committing another malicious offense of the code. With hands clutched at groin level he asked, “What?”
I motioned my eyes downward and glanced between us directly below the two-year-broken urinal at the baseboard filled with dried pee splashed there from years of misdirection. “That. That thing. I really think it’s moving,” I said, nodding toward the floor without loosing my hand-hold.
The Mayor stood up straight after confirming the discovery He faced the wall with a distinct and proud urinal code-worthy stand of attention. I could see movement myself as he shook off the last drop. I waited in awe of what was about to become legend. With an affirming nod of his head the Mayor slowly closed his zipper and as the last inch snapped shut with a slight jerk of his hand, he backed away a step then turned toward me and said in an exacting logic,
“The best part of life starts at the top of the stretch.”