Saturday, May 7, 2016

My Old Kentucky Home, Far Away

My friends were crazy. This benedictine looks delicious!

I’m pretty sure it was the Benedictine that did it. Sent me straight into that downward spiral.
It was my third year in New York. I’d fled Kentucky right out of college, running from a crazy family and a crazy breakup and the crazy idea that my life would be filled with mediocrity if I stayed here. 

I’d finally formed a ragamuffin group of friends from various theaters and the internet startup where I had my day job, so I decided to share the experience of watching the Derby. I thought it would be a good idea to bring them all together. In the 400 square foot apartment I shared with a horrible roommate.

Although these friends were worlds apart, they all shared one thing: an adoration of my “making-fun-of-Kentucky” schtick. New Yorkers suffer from a major superiority complex and they love nothing more than hearing about how insufferable a home-state could be, and how much better life is in New York.

And since I was starving for camaraderie, I played right into this, reinforcing every negative stereotype Kentucky has to offer: inferior intelligence, ridiculous accents, a penchant for neglecting to wear shoes and shirts, global use of tobacco. My friends ate it up.

So, although I legitimately loved (and still do) the Derby, I knew my party had to be kitschy and quirky. I made mini-hot-browns, Derby Pie with bourbon-spiked whipped cream, mint simple syrup to make juleps, and Benedictine with extra green food die, for good luck. 

Immediately, we were crowded in like sardines. I hoped this would work to my advantage, that one of the guys I had crushes on might accidentally make out with me, but it just made everyone uncomfortable. 

So, it was time to get them all drunk. I made mint juleps and passed them around. Now, this was a hard-drinking group of people, but they universally choked and sputtered on my juleps. I grew up Southern Baptist – no drinking allowed – except for that bottle of Maker’s Mark my mom kept in the cupboard. 

Somehow, that was different, that was BOURBON, and I’d grown up on in the bourbon balls at Christmas, starting at the age of four. So when everyone – EVERYONE – asked for seltzer to water their juleps down, I felt as offended as a French person who must serve a wine cooler. But, dammit, I wanted this to be a good party, so I watered down their drinks.

Then, the food. Nobody wanted the hot browns. Many folks were either vegetarian or kosher, and the ones that weren’t thought the béarnaise sauce looked “gross.” The Derby pie was eaten, of course, although people kept saying, “Isn’t this just a pecan pie with chocolate?”

But the Benedictine put everyone on edge. “What is THAT?” “Is it supposed to be that color?” “Do people in Kentucky really eat that?”

Despite the color, I naively thought the Benedictine would be a hit. It’s vegetarian, it’s kosher, and it’s basically a cucumber sandwich, something that was kind of hot at that moment back in 2001. Nobody touched it. Except me. I began to shove Benedictine sandwiches down my throat at an alarming rate.

I’d had maybe three mint juleps by this time – the real, non-watered-down ones, and I was getting angry drunk. There were too many jokes. Jokes about hats, jokes about the in-fielders, jokes about the D-List celebrities.

The party was buzzing, people were finally meshing and mingling, but I sat on my dirty hard-wood floor, glued to the TV. There, in that little box, was home. The gentle blue sky, the puffy clouds, the twin spires and the bare shoulders of people enjoying a REAL Spring day. New York’s April had been rainy and cold, and the buds on the trees were just starting to open. I could see that, in Kentucky, everything was in bloom. People smiled easily. They didn’t seem worried about money, they didn’t look taunted by constant noise, they appeared as if no crazy people had accosted them on the subway that day. They reminded me of how lonely I’d been, how hard it had been to make friends, how much of a desperate struggle each and every day was.

“My Old Kentucky Home” began to play and I sang at the top of my off-key lungs. My friends thought I was being ironic and laughed. Then came the call to the post, and everyone laughed at the jockeys and their “costumes.” The race began, and I watched as my chosen horse lost. And when the race was over, more than a few people said, “That was it? That’s what all the fuss is about? I thought it would be longer.”

One person told everyone else that every single horse that ran would be shot – that that’s the dirty little secret of the Derby. When I countered that that might ruin the Triple Crown, they asked me what a Triple Crown was.

People took last swigs of drinks, and after-parties started to form. I declined all invitations, saying I had a lot of cleanup ahead.

When they left, I sat in front of the TV and cried my heart out as Dan Fogelberg sang “Run for the Roses.” I realized that, despite living in New York City, my life WAS mediocre. Lonely. Struggling. Empty. I realized that my Old Kentucky Home was a part of me, maybe the good part of me, and no matter where I lived I was going to be a Kentucky Girl who liked Benedictine. Unironically.

The above text is from a Moth story I told a few years ago. The theme was "Derby," of course. I ended up forming an amazing group of NYC friends who loved the Derby UNIRONICALLY with me, and those parties ended up being one of the highlights of our year. When Dave, Stella, and I moved from NYC in 2010, we had friends who sincerely asked us how they were going to celebrate Derby now. 

Happy Derby Day, to all who celebrate!

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