From Tuesday May 1, 2007 through Sunday May 6, 2007, I played no poker whatsoever. This was my longest poker hiatus in at least a year and a half. The reason for the break was a gift my sister, brother-in-law and I gave to my parents last Christmas: a vacation to Nashville, Tennessee and to the Kentucky Derby. We selected Nashville because it was the birthplace and childhood home of my paternal grandfather. We selected the Kentucky Derby because it seemed fun.
I’ve been really uninspired blogwise lately, so I will just provide some short snippets of information about the vacation, broken down by day.
Tuesday: The vacation hadn’t started yet, but it was my birthday. In November, I managed to secure a reservation for four at Rao’s, an old Italian restaurant up in East Harlem. After hearing a bunch of lukewarm reviews, I was very happily surprised. It is a true old school experience. There is no menu, the manager comes out and tells you what he has that night. There are only two seatings per night. The food is simple but delicious. Almost everyone in the place is obviously a “regular,” and throughout the meal several of the proprietors come over to introduce themselves. Around 11:00, they turn on a jukebox and a bunch of old mafioso types sing along to the doo-wop songs. It’s a totally authentic, unique experience. I can’t recommend this restaurant highly enough. Good times.
Wednesday: the crew consists of my parents, my sister, my brother in law, my 10-month old nephew, Janeen and I. The evening flight goes off without a hitch, but when we land and go to the rental car counter, it occurs to me that this vacation will be reminiscent of the old childhood stationwagon tour: we’ve rented a massive Dodge Caravan, and the seven of us (and our luggage) fill the entire thing to the brim. Ezra (my nephew) has an ungodly amount of accoutremont: a stroller, a car seat, a bunch of other stuff. I’m a bit apprehensive about the trip, as I have not spent four consecutive days with my parents (or anyone, for that matter) in many, many years. Partly to minimize the amount I’ll have to interact with everyone, and partly because I like driving, I unilaterally decide that I’ll be the family chauffer for the entire trip. Once we’re inside the truck, I discover that my father has brought his GPS, which is an amazing invention. On the vacation it ends up saving us countless minutes and a lot of aggravation.
Thursday: Time to explore Nashville. First stop was Andrew Jackson’s plantation. To the curators’ credit, they didn’t sugarcoat anything: we learned that Andrew Jackson was the largest slaveholder in the region, and a generally nasty one. His mansion has no bathrooms. He shat in a pan then called upon his house slaves, who dumped it out back. I also learned that our forefathers bathed only 3 or 4 times a year. We had a nice steak dinner at Ruth’s Chris.
Later on, everyon except Ezra and my parents decided to grab a beer in Nashville’s famous nightlife district, which is nothing more than 2 blocks of bars. Living in NYC really skews one perspective of what constitutes “urban.” By my standards, Nashville is tiny. It is also, quite apparently, the place where many Southern musicians migrate to “make it.” We discovered this by stumbling into a karaoke bar, where any thoughts of performing were quickly squelched by a long string of pro-level performances of country hits by struggling Nashville singers. I have to give the local karaoke mavens credit. They were all blasted and having a good ‘ol time. Some of the performances were quite memorable in both their quality and hilarity. Here’s a snippet of video from a guy we called “Soggybottom” singing something about his boogie-woogie choo-choo baby, or something.
[janeen’s video goes here]
From there, we bounced around from bar to bar. Suzanne (my sister) wanted to see line dancing, but there was no line dancing to be had. Just a string of very large places, all featuring stages, live country/rock music and patrons of all ages drinking one of the three bottled beers available: Bud, Bud Light, or Coors Light.
Friday: Janeen and I got up much later than everyone else (I was still on poker time) and discovered that everyone else had consumed a big southern breakfast in the hotel. This was not a problem, as there were at least six fast food places within a half mile of our hotel. At noon, each one had a drive thru line over 10 cars long. People in Nashville–and, I suspect, the entire South–love fast food in a way northeastern Americans don’t. Maybe it’s because they have fewer options, maybe it’s some other reason, but the fast food joints in and around Nashville were always packed. So if you’re gonna open a Wendy’s franchise, do it down South.
Next, we toured Nashville. We took a bus tour, which took us all over the city: past the bars we had frequented the night before, past all the run-down country music studios, past an area which was virtually all hospitals (Nashville is the health care capital of the South), and through the park where my grandfather rode his horse every weekend as a child. Once the bus tour was over, we hit the Country Music Hall of Fame. While I am not a fan of America’s favorite genre of music, I was able to appreciate the musem, which had a lot of cool listening stations. I confirmed what I had already suspected: I like bluegrass, I like Johnny Cash, I like old ratty steel guitar songs… but I despise modern country music. We had some authentic BBQ at some dirty little place after the museum.
The next stop was the Grand Ol’ Opry, but we had a few hours to kill and no hotel room, so we drove to the mall at Opry Mills and did nothing. After successfully killing the requisite time, it was Opry time. To put it bluntly, the Grand Ol’ Opry is a place for geriatrics to hear old country music by old washed up country stars in a genteel environment. The most interesting thing about the Opry is that it is a live radio show, with live commercials read on the air in between songs. We were subjected to the same commercials for Cracker Barrel, U.S. Bank and Vietti Chili (“it’s a kick in a can!”) over and over again. In between the commercials, crusty old country crooners were trotted out on stage, and they sang, as best they could, their old hit(s). It was all very subdued: the only time the crowd got a little rowdy was when an old dude called Mel McDaniels impolored them to “stand up for America” accompanied by a video of Old Glory waving in the breeze. The absolute lowlight was a group of white men in traditional Mexican attire doing a cheesed-up set of mariachi songs in “honor” of Cinco de Mayo.
Thus ended phase one of the trip. It was around midnight, and it was time to hightail it to rural Bardstown, Kentucky, where we had booked a bed & breakfast for the remainder of the trip. The trip took us up Interstate 65 and then some very dark highway, and it was longer than expected. It didn’t help that we passed from the central time zone back into the eastern time zone on this journey, so an hour of sleep got flushed. The GPS also screwed up for the first and only time, and we lost an additional half hour driving in a circle in the middle of nowhere. By the time we pulled up at the bed & breakfast, and fumbled our way into our hostess’ house, it was around 3:00 AM. Breakfast was going to be served at 8:45. Crash.
Saturday: Derby Day started off with a southern breakfast, consisting of a lot of eggs and pork, served by the owner of the quaint bed & breakfast. The hostess made things significantly less quaint by gratuitously mentioning that she was no longer married, had buried both of her children, and was only running the bed & breakfast because she needed the money. Gulp. Pass the butter.
We were about 40 minutes away from Louisville and left for the Derby bright and early. My father, my brother in law and I were dressed in jackets and ties. My sister, my mother and Janeen wore dresses, heels and big goofy hats. I had heard numerous reports on both Louisville and the Kentucky Derby, so when we got to the Derby, none of the following facts surprised me:
-Louisville, Ky. is a DUMP.
-Churchill Downs is massive. Over 150,00 people show up. Over half this many drink heavily.
-Various small industries spring up around the Derby. Louisville residents charge Derby-goers to park on their lawns, and residents turn their cars into cabs for the day, as your parking spot is unlikely to be anywhere near the track.
Our day at the races was pleasant enough. Our tickets were for a pavilion off to the side of the track (literally built on top of the parking lot), so we had a private seating area in a tent, open bar, and our own mutuel windows. While this setup was away from the action, it was perfect for Ezra and my parents. In any event, being away from the “action” was all right by me. At the Kentucky Derby, “action” entails standing in unbearable crowds, avoiding fistfights and vomit, and pondering exactly who these trashy people are, so it was all good. It’s not that I have a huge problem with drunk rednecks, I really don’t. It’s more about my rather NYC-centric idea of partying, which is at direct odds with Kentucky Derby partying. I like to have my fun late at night, when the rest of the world is asleep. This preference is likely honed from years of living in New York. In my world, the days are for working or relaxing, they’re not for getting fucked up. That’s what God made nighttime for. The sea of trashed humanity on display at 2:00 pm at the Kentucky Derby does not appeal to me.
Anyway, I hit a nice exacta in the fourth race, but lost thereafter, having picked the horse that ran second in the Derby.
Leaving the track and getting to the car was the lowlight of the trip. I’m not providing any details. Suffice to say it was a major pain in the ass. When we finally got to the vacationmobile, we drove back to the bed & breakfast, ordered pizza, ate it, and crashed.
Sunday: The last day of the trip was a quirky haphazard tour of rural Kentucky. First stop was a down-home Civil War museum, which featured a lot of authentic artifacts and interesting information about the battles in the western theater. Next, we made a stop on Kentucky’s “Bourbon Trail,” which is a series of bourbon distilleries. Think wine tour, but with whiskey. We went to the Maker’s Mark distillery, where we saw each of the various stages of bourbon production. Then, headed for the highway, we came upon a small parking lot on the side of the road, behind which sat an old log cabin. The sign said “Lincoln’s Childhood Home.” Okay, why not. We stopped for 10 minutes.
The last stop was for food at a Cracker Barrel. For those unfamiliar, Cracker Barrel is a peculiar little chain of diners that serves Southern comfort food and always has a general store attached to it. Here is Ezra, the world’s happiest baby–he didn’t cry for the entire trip, enduring a full four days in the back of a minivan–having some fun at Cracker Barrel.
[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.youtube.com/v/lteQIv36nuQ” width=”480″ height=”360″ /]
And that was more or less it. Griswald adventure complete. Back to poker!