Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Being From Kentucky

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Why not celebrate your heritage? Mexicans have Cinco de Mayo. I have Derby Day. I always mark it one way or another, usually with a couple shots of Wild Turkey and a look at the race on TV.

You've got an hour of mostly white women clutching their big hats in the breeze, and the newscasters doing feel-good stories. This year, some jockey's kid was overcoming an incurable disease, and two immigrant owners that escaped the camps in Castro's Cuba so they could celebrate God and freedom, bought a bargain basement horse that turned out to be good enough to enter the race, if not win it.

In bourbon-laced Kentucky, the sun shines bright, the people are gay. Hard times may come a'knockin', but they always go away if you hold enough steamboat jaunts and dogwood festivals and barbeques. After the two-minute gallop, the governor gives some kind of speech about how the Derby is always a glorious day for "the Commonwealth, the horse-racing capital of the world, and a great place to play (and work)." Maybe he also remarks how Abraham Lincoln lived there.

And after all that patting themselves on the back, playing out a pageant of the newly sanitized South, I can still only manage a thin-lipped smile, an expression that a fox might wear staring at the gleaming trap it escaped from after chewing off a leg.

I don't know exactly where the pain comes from. The things I miss most are mixed up with childhood: the leisurely pace, words stretched out and crumpled with a regional accent, slow-cooked food that was already being replaced by McDonald's, fitting in. You can't go back home.

Mine is a peculiar nostalgia, watching Kentucky embodied in an event I've never been to. The only time I ever went to Churchill Downs was with my grandmother who took me one grey summer day when the place was mostly empty and only the regulars were scattered here and there in the stands. My grandmother didn't hold with gambling, or drinking or smoking for that matter, but she and my grandfather worked there sometimes as retirees running the elevator to the owners' boxes to pick up a little extra cash. It sure beat the factory and the farm.

Besides that, my only other connection to the track was that for a while I had a crush on the daughter of a jockey, this Panamanian girl on my high school field hockey team whose brother ironically had a crush on me. I think they were the only Latinos in my school which was mostly white and black with a few Asians thrown in. Their parents were evangelicals and prayed over me once, rubbing holy oil on my knee where I needed surgery. It would make a better story if I were actually healed. But the only thing that happened was my skin was nicely conditioned before they cut it up.

On Derby Day, my neighbors mostly held parties at home instead of going to the track, and I'd spend the day sneaking the disgusting dregs of mint juleps and watching tourists get lost in my suburban neighborhood which I never understood because it's not anywhere near Churchill Downs.

Maybe that's what's peculiar, watching all those tourists grinning and laughing at some authentic Kentucky experience I never had, and reducing the rest to chicken and horses and lurking fundamentalists. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is just across town, though Louisville's downright liberal compared to the rest of the state if you don't count my mother.

Or maybe they hear the word "darkies" linger behind the replacement word, "people" in "My Old Kentucky Home," though it was a Northerner, Stephen Foster, that put it there, and despite the objectionable word, he meant the song as a lament for what a slave lost when he was sold down the river.

As in most things, we were split down the middle in the Civil War. Some of us rename streets to honor native son Mohammed Ali while the rest tear the signs down. We're rural and urban. A fundamentalist Christian gave birth to me. Things are complicated, which you only understand when you live there surrounded like most Americans by fast food, flat screen TV's, and a fading schizophrenic culture.

In exile, all I have left is the Kentucky Derby pageant where the crowd snickers as they sing "The sun shines bright ... the people are gay." I look for signs and portents. And on Saturday, the winner Big Brown kicked equine ass from the 20th post position, which hasn't happened since 1929, the year of the stock market crash. And Eight Belles, the only filly, broke both front legs after she finished second in the race. It doesn't bode well for the economy, or Hillary either.

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