Tall Al's Last Race

It’s a gorgeous, blue sky mid western summer day. Around 2:30. I am overlooking the balcony of Arlington Race Track yet again. How did he get me here? Stuck, of course, until the last race, we never leave before the last race, even while the scent of my grandmothers spaghetti and meatballs lingers in my nostrils from coffee with her this morning, we will not make it home until six. I hope that with a few hundred dollars more than when we started forced to eat our dinner in microwave shame while the rest of the family eats dessert. And it is only the third race!

Promise of father daughter time coaxed me here this morning, but Pops ignores me from the minute he gets his binoculars out till the time he falls asleep-forcing me to drive in the traffic- on my one day off from work no less-hopefully not having had to spot him a few dollars for gas. I kick my feet up and attempt to ignore the banter of “Mother Effer” next to me.

I have no sympathy for my father when he talks in this rabid like fashion. I just laugh and tell him to get a real job and start paying some fucking taxes. The race ends and the tickets are shred to bits and thrown into the stands like confetti. Pops looks over at me and we both laugh. But the laugh is bittersweet. There is something missing from our day at the races.

Al. I picture him in the straw hat with the bristles coming unwove at the top. A cowboy, in Wranglers belted up to his chest with a pair of worn-in boots. If he was crashing at my parent’s house during racing season and the weather was still cool then he would add a wool sweater to the ensemble, snagged on the bottom, and a light jacket. Tall Al: a simple man, with simple needs and simple tastes.

He liked black coffee. Didn’t say much, didn’t even curse.

Al: sweet, sensitive and mysterious. Good luck at any track. His last name was Lamoreaux-French by blood- a bona fide Louisiana Cajun. Shrimp Remoulade was his favorite. My mom, a fellow rebel, used to make him Key Lime Pie.

How a man grows up to spend his life living in fleabag hotels and boarding houses following the horse circuit, I have no idea. You have to love it, I guess, and have a lot of patience. Never heard the man feel sorry for himself once, even if he lost, which believe me, was often.

I recall only three occasions where I came close to see behind the surface of this great man.

First, was at the dinner table. Tall Al was way over six feet tall and weighed maybe a buck thirty or forty – on a good day. However, when you sat a plate of food in front of him he tore off a loaf of bread with such enthusiasm, that sitting beside him, you enjoyed your own food that much more. Al showed the world what eating should be like. And he always said after he ate that it had been a good meal. - always. That is because he made it a great meal.

The second chance I had to glimpse the inner life of Tall Al was when he suggested a Mexican restaurant on the corner of Chicago and Damen Avenues that had great Huevos Mexicanas. Tall Al, my Pops and I went there after the track one day. Scared, I felt, driving up to the restaurant located in a notoriously dangerous neighborhood: no gentrification, just graffiti. Al lived in a four flat tenement building, with immigrants having just crossed the border wallpapering the rooms. Al did not mind this, however. You see, when you live on the road, it is the road that is your home, the vast expanse of America, and not the small room, cot and neon light outside your window in a Hispanic ghetto in Chicago.

So, we walked into the restaurant, sweltering from the heat and humidity, and find it empty. The radio sings to us in Spanish, but very modestly. Al, uncharacteristically assertive, leads us to a booth to sit down at.

“The food here is great. I come hear all the time.” Al announced. He used eleven whole words to express himself. I was astonished. He could camp on my father’s couch for weeks without uttering more than a hello and nodding when fed. Eleven whole words! Moreover, his voice had a tone to it I had never heard before. Some little boy had infected the scarecrow body of our Tall Al putting a twinkle in his eye that I thought came to him only when presented with a plate of food or a pile of cash from a teller.

At the time, I was not very hungry, still nervous about the neighborhood, reassuring myself that Pops would take care of me in case some speed-induced gangbangers ransacked this little cucina in frenzy.

Al started tapping his feet in anticipation. Tap, Tap Tap….

Then SHE walked in. With the smile and innocence of an angel, no makeup, just a plain peasant dress and some silver jewelry - a woman of about thirty, her hair up because of the heat. This pretty lady soon rushed over to our table, assuming she may be in trouble for not seating us promptly. Spotting Al and recognizing him caught her off-guard and she slowed her pace towards our booth. She finally makes it over to the table and the two speak softly to one another, both blushing. Then she walks away. Never asks us what we want to eat. She just nods and smiles at Tall Al and that was enough.

This was his moment - a romantic moment. This is Tall Al we are talking about here, remember? I was shocked. Tall Al, with his sandpaper face and Camel Unfiltered smoke smell, glowed. Yes, glowed. I learned later that he ate here ritually just to see the beautiful, non-judgmental Maria. Then he would walk upstairs to his Spartan room and little cot and dream of this woman and dream about her food.

I looked to my father to see if he had noticed this revelation or not, but instead he sat slumped in his chair reading the next day’s racing form. For the first time ever, I noticed the dynamics between my father and Tall Al change. Al became the powerful one, the energy source, and let me tell you, he looked wonderful! I never fathomed that Al even cared for women, belittling his capacity as a man. Never once had I seen him with a woman or heard about him with a woman. Or, for that matter, even raise an eyebrow if something provocative was ever said or a set of knockers passed his eyes view. It is not that I thought he was homosexual, just asexual, that when he committed his life to the racetrack he gave up the idea of having a wife or family. It’s as if he had to be completely disciplined and devoted to his passion, his work, his life, in order to win, the formula or Manifesto he concocted in his head as a young man on the Bayou after petting his first Filly and cashing in his first winning ticket one bright Louisiana day.

The man was a saint to me, the only vice he had were those Camel Unfiltered, I told you he was simple. Always let me sit in the front seat of the car while my Pops was driving. Making money at the track to buy a big house or luxury car did not draw him. No, Al merely needed enough "cheese" so he could stay on the road, make it to the next town for the next season, for the next batch of horses that would keep him moving, dreaming, striving…Movement was his life, and stopping anywhere for too long was no good.

The third memory I have of Tall Al was the night in Hot Springs Arkansas when we went out to dinner to celebrate the big score -20G’s- the two of them -Al & Pops- had achieved together after chasing a big score for at least twenty years. Pops ordered fat steaks oozing with blood and started getting really cocky and orders a bottle of Dom Perignon. Anyway, Al wasn’t saying much, as usual, and I remember getting drunk with my girlfriend from the glasses of champagne Pops kept filling for us. Al just sat there, while Pops jabbered on loudly, with a smile on his face and look of inner satisfaction and accomplishment that lit up the room. Al was patting himself on the back now, telling himself “A job well done, young man.” That day gave birth to a story that would be retold, elaborated & remade for many years to come, as I am doing right now.

Shortly after our Mexican lunch, Al had a stroke, and because he had no family, of course, my father nursed him at his house, which would always be a refuge for hustlers and road men who had no where else to go. My father took care of his dear friend and tried to bring him back to life. It was to no avail, unfortunately, and Al’s one vice got the best of him and he was diagnosed with lung cancer and sent to the VA hospital for treatment. His friends would bring him spy novels over there, for another secret was revealed, Al was an avid reader, those long hours on the bus and train developed his interest.

I remember hearing the telephone ring while I slept, the morning that he died. I knew, laying in bed upstairs that it was the hospital informing Pops that Al had gone in his sleep during the night. I could hear the crack in my father’s voice when he said “thank you” and hung up the telephone. Then I walked downstairs and found him in that solemn state. The VA hospital would bury him, for he had no family, and as much as my father would have liked to, there was barely enough money for that month’s mortgage, much less a funeral. There would be a rich, Italian dinner he would make for all of Al’s pals, to reminisce and toast him, but that would be it.

I was sad when he Tall Al left us, for he was a character that floated in and out of my childhood and I loved him dearly. I felt better knowing that he had at least that one big win in Hot Springs to brag about, a meal he could feed on when malnourished for confidence and a smile, that I had the pleasure of witnessing. That I got to be a part of what was perhaps the greatest day in this mans life. I felt better that he had the vision of that striking waitress to keep him warm at night.

Now days, Pops plays the track with a vengeance. He is obsessed with it now more than ever. I keep telling him, it doesn’t matter how many handicapping books you read or how many numbers you program into a computer, you can’t bring that mystical selflessness about horseracing that Al had back.

Every once in a while I join my father at the track. As much as I know he loves me, and likes having me there to sit beside him and sarcastically mock him, I know he wishes Tall Al could be there instead, and I wish he could be there for my Pops, too.

Popular Posts