No people, it seems, are as determined to have fun as Americans. The things a people do tell much about their times; consider the vanity and resolution of old architecture or the frigid, sterile lines seen climbing through a new building. There is a certain grimness to what we do for some of our amusement, an implacability that will not be stayed, and at no time is this more engulfing, more stark, than at a big race.
A big race, of course, is the Preakness, and as a social event it is quite distinct from the Derby. The two splash about in the same frenzy, but that is the only common ground. The Derby is primal, a homing for vast sections of humanity looking to shake the cold of winter from its bones, the monotony of life. In a sense it is a renewal, and its music is ragtime.
Last week, looking down on the infield of Pimlico, nearly every inch of it filled with a body, a chicken bone or a beer can, the afternoon did not seem visually distant from that in Louisville, but it felt very far from there in mood and tempo. For the Preakness is a lace doily of an event, a throwback to customs from a more insular era; it is solidity, and its music comes from a bustled figure at a piano in a dim living room at evening time.
Neighborhoods have always been at the bottom of the character of Baltimore, torn into fragments now. The airtight communal life blocked off by the city's maze of streets got lost in the thicket of neat lawns in the shade of the counties. But the fondness for what was, the sounds and smells of a neighborhood, still remain in the lonesome yards of suburbia when evening dies. What once was explodes on Preakness Day.
Orderly and like stoic nesters looking for something they left somewhere back in time, they come early to this shrine to continuity that began in 1873. It appeared then to be a routine day in May for a period of national life thick with the gilt of new fortunes and piracy in commerce. The Sun was only four pages, and cost 2�. Its front page told of the first Preakness, and elsewhere it said that at the Baltimore stock board gold sold one-half lower, closing at 118�; said that credit was the poor man's worst enemy. The ads promised suits for $11; one in the classifieds by F. C. said, to friend Ida: "I want you immediately."
Now on this day, far from when ice cream was the social staple for the genteel and commoner alike, when the streetcar was the trip to Xanadu and a dance was at the end of every line, on this day there would be a singular Preakness: a horse for the ages, if anyone cared about horses; a farewell to its oldest and most silent of heroes ( John Unitas, waving in a car) that would be lost amid a thousand distractions; a picnic that seems to be conducted with flaming urgency.
None of this could be sensed at the track early in the morning. It was 6 a.m., and it was not an hour that belonged to public habits and customs. It was an hour for work as the sun, pallid and soiled as a poor girl's yellow dress, started to burn the chill from the ramps and infield of Pimlico. It was the best time: a symphony of snorting horses barreling down the stretch with puffs of ghostly, faraway vapor coming from their mouths; the used faces of stable hands who have spent too many winters in tack rooms: a world alien to the language of promotion and cosmetic con.
For those in the stable area, it was just another day at the track. Look for them later, when the light starts to swallow up the dark interior of the grandstand, and you will never see them. They are there, of course, sending in their money just like everyone else, but they look oddly at the trappings of the day, at all those people who, like tons of torn paper, are floating onto the infield with their picnic tables and their thermos jugs, the paraphernalia of the charcoal grill life.
Most of the largest crowd ever at a Preakness could not have cared less if the races began. They were there for other things: the sun and the music, which included a barbershop chorale group, a Virgin Island steel band, a number of high school drum and bugle corps and a game of lacrosse. They were there because only there on this day can they be so loose. They are there because they know they are the event.
It is a free place, a congregation of solid citizens, maybe just home from church, an extension of the club-basement atmosphere that pervades Baltimore. Even the older people seem to delight in the homey discomfort, and they have a chance to bring their education on the young up to date. The old just stare, and chew on chicken while smiling warmly. It is a sedate group, conscious of its own behavior, and nowhere else do people seem to be as together as those who sweat and laugh and scream and gawk on the Preakness infield.
That is how it was in all the neighborhoods back in a less acrylic time, back when you could take an idyllic cruise down the Chesapeake and then come home late at night and sit on the steps and listen to the street sounds of the hot-heavy night and watch for and see what strangers would pass by.