5 am the air is moist. The energy from the horses slowly building in anticipation of the first feeding. Walking down the shed row stopping at each stall to put a mixture of oats and sweet feed in tubs. The horses come to the front of the stalls like they are greeting an old friend.
Back in the tack room I look over the training chart and start setting up the saddles and bridals for the horses that are going to the track in the first set. Down the shed row I see Mr. Quick, taking down the hay racks from the front of his stalls to refill them. The barn area of a racetrack is a very bad place. So bad in fact that woman are not allowed without a Pinkerton escort. Seventy percent of the guys that work in the barn area are black but they don't scared me. The white guys were the ones full of hate. Looking into Mr. Quick's wrinkled face, his big pop brown eyes floating in yellowish pools shows a man who has been around and has learned how to get along. All the other black guys, Youngblood, Big Foot, Lighting, Sam, Scotty, Scar and Piano Man respects him. The white men have no respect for blacks, but they do have fear. Mr Quick got his name because he has a short temper and is very easy to piss off.
Every morning after the horses are trained, bathed, cooled out and returned to their stalls. Before the races start we all go to the barn area cafa. There is a railing right down the middle, whites on one side blacks on the other. I always eat with Mr Quick and the rest of the black guys. It makes me feel guilty because even tho they accept me, to take one of them with me on the other side of the rail there would be blood, buckets of blood.
Everything was in full preparation for the morning training by 6:30 am when the Boss, Leeland Krick showed up with Kenny the jockey. The Boss is a well known trainer around the racetracks, a few years before he had a horse named Swept Wind who finished 3rd in the Kentucky Derby.
The Boss ask where is the Hangman? The Hangman is one of those people that sticks in your mind. He must be six and half feet tall and as skinny as the handle of a pitch fork. He didn't talk much and his face is etched deep with a sadness that makes him look like he is crying.
In the dormitory I open the door to his room. He is laying in a twisted heap on the floor. Dangling from the bend of his arm is an eyedropper with a needle stuck on the end. A small lazy river of blood slowly wanders it's way to his hand. His mouth opened as if screaming at the last indignity that life has shoved down his throat. His chin and neck covered with a white frothy foam mixed with blood. His lightless eyes staring straight up like he is searching for a future.
They came and picked up the body and at the barn things went on like nothing happened. That afternoon we won the fifth race and the owner came back to the barn and spread some money around.
Mr.Quick sends Lighting to town who comes back with chicken and rice, corn on the cob, a couple of bottles of Old Grand Dad and a bag of what the boys call sweet smoke. My mouth waters while Lighting makes his famous New Orleans White Hot Dirty Rice. I like when we get together and cook big pots of food. I will be fifteen in a couple of months and I am always hungry. In fact Mr. Quick calls me the boy with the hollow legs. Sitting around listening to Piano Man with his harmonica sing bluesy songs about women doing wrong by their man, he calls it his bad bitch rep-a-taw, we pass the whiskey and the sweet smoke among ourselves.
I don't like the whiskey much, it makes me feel sick and gives me a headache in the morning. But the sweet smoke make my mind wander. When the chicken and rice come out, no talking just eating. I look around and think about my new friends. There is a mystery to the blacks that I haven't figured out yet. These guys are as tough as any cowboy I've ever met, but they have a kindness, quick with joke, always laughing. It seems that they are just on the other side of the reality in which they are trapped.
Now Big Foot, he is a real piece of work. Always has this big smile that covers the whole bottom of his face. He spent some time in prison for carving some guy up in a bar fight. They say with Big Foot it's always about a woman He has a woman that has a couple of his kids living right outside the stable gate. I go home with him sometimes after work. Miss Mabel is always happy to see me because I help her son Marvin who is nine and daughter Sally that's seven with their homework, because Big Foot and Miss Mabel can't read or write. She always pushes them hard about their school work. She tells them that there is a better life coming down the road for black folk and education will be the key for equal rights for all God's children. I have never seen more strength then when i look in that black woman's eyes, when she talks about the dreams she has for her children.
The rest of the guys all have their own story. Sometimes after all the work is done they will take me with them to the Jump N Jive. The hottest spot on their side of town. There is a big difference between a cowboy bar and a black joint. A cowboy thinks a good time is drinking until you get punched in the face. With blacks it all about the party, dancing, laughter. There ain't no Jim Crow segregation that can keep their imagination from running wild. The Piano Man sits at his keyboard in his bright green coat and orange shirt, fingers dancing across the keys. His feet encased in alligator shoes pounding the peddles. Youngblood always sits at the end of the bar looking pissed off as usual. I never can figure him out. I like him well enough, his problem I think is he didn't like himself. Mr. Quick never came to the bar, he never left the barn area, the man preferred to drink alone. The women in the place mother me and Miss Camille who owns the bar always calls me Paddy Boy because she says I am as white as a fish paddy. She always hid me behind the bar when the cops would make their nightly stop by.
Sitting among my friends I can't understand why the whites believe that these people some how don't measure up. I think of Miss Mabel and hope she will get to see her dream come true.
We all have eaten our fill. Piano Man again starts to softly play his harmonica. The horses stick their heads outside the stall doors as if they are interested in listening as the bullshit starts to flow. The conversation goes right to stories about the Hangman. Everybody has a Hangman story.
One of the things that surprise me most is he was only forty five years old, to me he looked over sixty. Also he was a horse trainer who won a bunch of races and was known to be able to cash the big bet. He trained mostly for the mob guys who all lived in Howard Beach right outside of Aqueduct Race Track. He was always showing up with a busted head or a broken arm. Them mob guys are all a bunch of sore losers.
Bigfoot talks about knowing Hangman when he first showed up on the backside of Belmont Park up in New York. A gambler' addiction took over that poor boy's mind.
The stories are absorbing. This is proof positive that you can't judge a book by its cover. The adel minded old man I worked with every morning was legend that inspire stories that will live forever intwined in racetrack lore. I admire Hangman as I think of my own future while wondering what I will leave behind.
Piano Man tells a story about when he worked with the Hangman back in forty five in Chicago, the year Hoop Jr won the Derby in the slop going away. The trainer was Max Johnson and the Hangman was his assistant. There was this horse Black Kitchen that Max and his jock Pat May were pulling for at least three months trying to get his price up. That poor little jock had to do everything he could think of, keeping that horse trapped on the inside, taking that horse wide to keep it from showing a good effort. Now a week before Black Kitchen's next race Hangman had interest in how the horse was eating and his over all condition. He knew that Max was going to be out of town in Texas visiting his family the day Black Kitchen was to race.
The day of the race Hangman told that jock that today's the day, let him run. You got a fist full of action, just don't lose. The jock said Max didn't tell him anything about this. The Hangman said that's just the way he wanted it. Do as your told, just let him run.
He won by 10 and was 30 to 1. The Hangman bet a grand, came back to the barn gave Piano Man five hundred, packed his bags and headed for the West Coast. When Max came back he wanted to kill him. After a few months old Max cooled out and could laugh about how the Hangman fucked him over. Dirty deeds melt away fast on the racetrack. Life is all about keeping your eyes peeled for the next opportunity.
When Mr. Quick says he has a Hangman story that not many people know, all pay attention. He starts his story when he first meets the Hangman who was not yet twenty, up in New York at Aqueduct Racetrack. He tells us that boy always had his face buried in the Racing Form and he would be in the grandstand for every single race every single day. He knew how to handicap a race and had a very good eye for the horses. He had seen him up $1000.00 by the fourth race and be begging for eating money after the ninth. It did not matter how much he won, that only meant he could bet more on the next race. He could win himself ten grand and not even buy a new shirt. When he ran into a bit of bad luck he could always get a sprinkle of cash from Fat Tony T a local lone shark with a heart of stone.
When Lady Luck turns her back on that boy, Fat Tony T was eager to feed his addiction. To be a gambler you hold on to the dream is all you need is to cash one good bet. He started betting on long-shots. It started out with him showing up with some lumps and bumps. They say he owed Fat Tony T $10,000 the fig on that kind of money alone was a grand a week. It got to the point where you would see the Hangman running through the barn area with Fat Tony huffing puffin sweating like a pig trying to catch him. The only way he would get his hands on that young boy was to shoot him first.
A week went by and nobody saw the Hangman, figured Fat Tony killed him. A couple of days later he showed up and man oh man did he have a story. He went to his mothers house, she lived in Brooklyn to lay-low. He was in so deep to Fat Tony that he could hit nine races in a row and it wouldn't even cover the fig. He reached the end of the line. All of his options held no hope. He went to his bedroom which was in the back of the apartment. He wrote a note to his mother, telling her he was sorry. He pinned the note on his sweater took a fistful of pills and drank a pint of Southern Comfort. He was setting up his own famous final scene. He thought about Heaven, looking back upon his life he figured that would be one hell of a long-shot.
Fat Tony was frantic with fear as he searched every barn and every nook and cranny of the whole racetrack, searching for the Hangman. For if that boy took a powder it was going to be him who was stuck on the hook for the money and the fig. He fears nothing, he was a murderous thug, but he worked for Dominic who was a monster. They say Boss D killed his own brother over a bad debt and slapped his mother when she complained and cried. Even the fearless feared Boss D.
Somebody gave the Hangman up to Fat Tony telling him that he was hiding out in Brooklyn. When he knocked on the door the Hangman's mother told him Francis, that was his real name, was in his bedroom in the back. When Fat Tony saw him lying peacefully on the bed and read the note he screamed at the woman to call an ambulance and started shaking and slapping the Hangman violently. He had to bring him back because he was looking at his own death, but his would be a lot more painful. He grabbed that boy pulling him on to his feet and walking back and forth. He had to save that boy's life. That big fat slob was so scared that he even gave that poor boy mouth to mouth.
The eruption of laughter even have the horses dancing at their stall doors.