Saturday, November 22, 2008

Our First Lesbians (That We Knew Of) - Part 1

When my best friend Starr Ann (hi, Starr Ann) and I were about 12 and 14 years old, we went horse crazy. Riding a horse, or even getting to touch one, was our big dream. That was the summer we learned how to be gone from the orphanage for hours at a time without getting in trouble by telling the nuns we were spending the day in town at the library. But we really spent all those afternoons at the racetrack. Starr Ann and I still call that our Churchill Downs Summer.

We of course didn't bet the races, partly because that wasn't the goal and partly because we didn't have any money. Nope, we found a weak spot in the grandstand fence and learned how to sneak right in without spending one penny. From there, the days gracefully unfolded themselves across the evenly spaced intervals between races.

We'd get there in time to see the horses come over from the backside for the first race. As the grooms led their horses through the tunnel and back to the paddock, we watched them go, but didn't follow. Instead, we secured our spot on the rail out front, where the lead pony riders would sit casually on their quarter horses and appaloosas waiting to escort the horses and jockeys in the post parade and warm-up. During our Churchill Downs Summer, we got to know all the lead ponies and their riders by name. They got to know us, too, and the riders would pull up real close to the rail where Starr Ann and I could pet the amazing velvet noses of Cochise, Brandywine, Red, Billy Boy, Juanita, Dynamite, Hickory Butt, Pothole, Big Blue, and Dandy Girl. I swear, I could still tell you where each one of them liked to be scratched, which ones particularly liked having their nostrils blown into (Dynamite loved chocolate breath) and which ones you had to be on the lookout for taking a nip at you once in a while. I'm sure Starr Ann could tell you all that too.

Anyway, once the horses came onto the track and our ponies had to get to work, Starr Ann and I had to amuse ourselves among the humans. Sometime, we'd go up to an empty box way up in front of the grandstand, where there was a drop-off in front of you looking down on the tops of people's heads. We'd find a man wearing a brimmed hat and drop popcorn down in it until it was just about full. Then we'd go downstairs and find him and follow him around, watching him look around every time he turned or bent his head and a piece of popcorn dropped around him. Hey, we were 12 and 14, okay?

Then we discovered Brownie and Brownie's Friend. Brownie was short and wiry, with a huge toothy smile. And he always wore the same shiny brown suit, white shirt, and brown tie. At the time, we didn't know the shininess meant it was cheap and old, and that suit just fascinated us for some reason. Brownie was named for the suit, and Brownie's Friend was named for being secondary to Brownie in every way.

Well, it didn't take long to notice something real systematic and suspicious about how Brownie and Brownie's Friend operated. They'd walk up to a couple they obviously hadn't met before and start talking real confidential to them. Then Brownie would get the woman off to one side, talking the whole time, while Brownie's Friend worked the same way with the man. In just a few minutes, they'd join up again and the four of them would go over to the betting windows together, where the man of the couple would usually pay for some bets and then they'd all walk off to the side, where they'd give Brownie some of the tickets. Then everybody would be smiling as they went their separate ways.

Real quick, we figured out that if there were six horses in the race coming up, this little scene got played out six times. If there were eight horses, eight couples got taken to the windows. Basically, Brownie and Brownie's Friend were hustlers who were able to hold a ticket on each and every horse in each race of the day, without ever putting up a cent of their own money. They must have had a pretty persuasive story to sell their phony inside tip so many times and with such success.

Once in a while, one of the couples would spot Brownie and Brownie's Friend in the crowd and come up to them looking less than pleased. But Brownie would smile real big, then get real serious, and talk all confidential again, until the couple left again, seeming satisfied that these things happen.

Toward the end of Churchill Downs Summer, Brownie and Brownie's Friend approached a couple that didn't fit their usual mode. It was two women - one with shoulder length brown hair, wearing a sleeveless pastel pink blouse, light blue jeans, and pretty white sandals, and one with short blonde hair, khaki pants and a black tailored shirt. Needless to say, Starr Ann and I took a special interest, even before we realized this couple was about to become prey to Brownie and Brownie's Friend.

There was nothing for Starr Ann and me to do but break up the scam somehow.