Ever since I got stuck in traffic several years ago while a crowd was trying to catch a glimpse of Kato Kaelin going to the Barnstable Brown Gawkfest, I’ve vowed never to be sucked into the yearly spectacle we call The Kentucky Derby.
I’m not a radical, or even a hippie for that matter, but something about the Kentucky Derby tends to raise my wannabe iconoclastic hackles. I’ve never been to the Derby, despite having lived in Louisville since 1985. The desire to be “different” and something of a holdout has become a matter of twisted pride for me. At this stage of the game, to go to the Derby would be like selling out to big tobacco, never mind that big tobacco has pumped so much into the local economy that I’m actually able to AFFORD calling myself a wannabe iconoclast.
The one Derby ritual I do have is reading an essay of one man’s brave attempt to crystallize his personal Joseph Conrad vision of what happens to Louisville this time every year. It’s called “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” and was written by the late great enfant terrible of Ransdell Avenue, Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson, who went to Male High School until he was led away in handcuffs, wrote the piece in 1970 as an assignment for a short-lived sporting magazine called Scanlan’s Monthly. The article was widely heralded as a stroke of brilliance and a breakthrough in modern journalism, but what actually happened was that Thompson wrote most of the article, then hit the wall and couldn’t write for two days. He shriveled away in his bathtub while he contemplated failure and eventually fed his notes – raw, unedited observations – over the wire to his editor. Something like a new form of underground cinema was born and Thompson grew into a counter-cultural icon.
In the article’s more disciplined cadences, Thompson warns his partner, British illustrator Ralph Steadman, to “just keep in mind for the next few days that you are in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a very weird place.” It goes on to call then Governor Louie B. Nunn “…a swinish neo-nazi hack” and details Thompson’s struggle to find what he called “the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”
I love to read this article out loud to my friends, and as a result am invited to fewer and fewer Derby parties. Yet, despite alienating my friends, I actually look forward to this time of year. Why?
Because the days of the Oaks and Derby (at least until the race is over) offer one the rare occasion to actually OWN Louisville. Outside of Churchill Downs, track side and several bars, there are no crowds. The malls are pleasant and relatively quiet. You can get great seats at your favorite movie theater. You can walk down the middle of just about any local road for several hundred yards without having to move out of the way of any kind of traffic, and then, it’s usually just a bicycle. It’s wonderful.
Perhaps Thompson’s vision put the fear of God into me, but every year, I find myself looking forward to another weekend of relative peace and quiet. Provided, of course, that I’m willing to not follow the madness.