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On the far side of Churchill Downs, beyond the backstretch and the barns and the chain link fence that guards the track from the world outside, lies Longfield Avenue. Those who drive to Churchill Downs on Derby Day are familiar with Longfield Avenue—or at least a lot of them are. Much of the mass of traffic that crawls south from downtown Louisville or north off the Watterson Expressway funnels onto Longfield, where it creeps bumper to bumper before turning into the track's big parking lot.
On one side of Longfield are the barns, separated from the traffic by a cool stretch of grass inside the wire fence. On the other side of the road are houses. They are small frame dwellings for the most part, and all but a few are single-story. On Derby Day the people in most of these houses come out front and nail hand-lettered signs saying PARK HERE to trees and posts, or they hold them up to invite the people in the cars to forgo the Churchill Downs' lot with its crowds and instead swing out of the traffic and onto Longfield's front lawns—for a parking fee of $5 or, sometimes, $10.
Among those offering parking spaces last May was Mrs. Walter Letcher, a small woman in her mid 60s. Her house is only 100 yards or so from the gate to the parking lot. "When we got up at six," she said, "the cars were already lined up. Some of them had been there since 4 a.m." A man at the wheel of one of the first cars in line, waiting wearily for the gate to open, said that the next time he came he was going to park at the Fair Grounds a couple of miles to the east, and take a special bus from there to the track. Mrs. Letcher said, "People who used to park with us tried that once, but they said that you had to wait for the bus to fill, then after the race there were drunks on the bus getting sick and everything."
The line of cars eventually extended all the way down Longfield, and more and more drivers accepted the invitation to park. "When they park down there to the right," said Mrs. Letcher, "they come walking by here. It's fun watching them. Last year Artis Gilmore came by. Orchid pants. Shirt with an orchid design. And, can you imagine, platform shoes!" Mrs. Letcher smiled at the memory. "Some of them look so nice going in. But when they come out, they're all slumped and tired. It's changed, though. There aren't so many people fancy dressed as there used to be."
Mrs. Letcher said she got started parking cars some years ago, when her husband was alive. He usually tended to the chore of guiding the motorists to the proper places in the yard, but one year on Oaks Day, which is the day before the Derby and also draws a big crowd, she and a neighbor joined forces while Mr. Letcher was at work. When he came home, Mr. Letcher was astonished to find the yard full. "Who parked these cars?" he asked. "Now who do you think did?" Mrs. Letcher said. "Why, I thought you'd be too shy," he said admiringly.
After her husband's death, Mrs. Letcher supervised the parking by herself, but last year her daughter Brenda, her son-in-law Jim and her four grandchildren were staying with her, and they helped out. All up and down Longfield, people of all ages were out front, waving cars in, yelling amiably, making jokes, laughing. "This is about the only time members of the community see one another," one man said. Mrs. Letcher had Brenda park several cars on the lawn of her next-door neighbor, who was ill, and Brenda took the money she received to the neighbor.
With the parking lot filled now and the gates closed, business was booming on Longfield Avenue. A teen-age boy, asking $4, snared a couple of cars and guided them around the corner of Cliff Street. "He's taking them two, three blocks away," Brenda said. It was not the price-cutting that bothered her. It was the principle. It was false advertising, and it reflected on all of them. Earlier in the day a truck with a cherry picker had been parked on Longfield. It bore a sign saying STOP FORCED BUSING—a volatile issue in Louisville. Brenda had looked at the truck with disapproval. "They figure they can raise that thing high," she said, "so when they show the Derby on TV, the cameras will pick it up, and the whole country will see it. I'm not against stopping forced busing, but I am against that cherry picker and the sign. It brings down the Derby and Louisville."
That feeling for the Derby, warm and intimate, was common on Longfield Avenue despite the curious remoteness of the famous race, which few of the residents have seen. Mrs. Letcher, who has lived on Longfield Avenue since 1942, has never seen any horse race. "I don't like gambling," she said, although not at all primly. Her eyes glistened with amusement. "If I did bet on a horse," she said, "they'd have to hang a lantern on his head so's you could see him when he finished, because it would be about midnight."
The money the residents make from parking cars certainly comes in handy, but it seems almost secondary to the excitement of the day. The people who live on Longfield Avenue are part of the show. They are having fun. Mrs. Letcher's 10-year-old grandson James, spotting a police patrol on horseback moving slowly along the fence on the opposite side of the street, called out, "Park your horse?" And the entire street lit up when, early in the afternoon, motorcycles with sirens screaming led a caravan of big cars swiftly down Longfield to the gate, which opened to admit them. "It's the governor," someone said. "It's a senator," said someone else. James, who had been in the street when the caravan swept by, came running back, shouting, "Hey, Grandma, that was John Wayne in the first car! He had on a big white hat. We waved at him, and he waved back!"
Late in the afternoon, long after their yard was filled, Mrs. Letcher and her family went inside to watch the Derby on television. When they played My Old Kentucky Home, Brenda, holding her 18-month-old daughter Katara on her lap, mouthed the words silently at first, then sang them softly. When it was over, she and Katara applauded.