Strawberry Hill is Decadent and Depraved

by | May 17, 2010 | POLITICS

A Richmond response and inspired by Hunter Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

I awoke. There was no time to consider exactly how I made it into my bed the night before. It was 9am and I was already late getting to Joe’s Inn to meet up with my ride to the Brown Distributing building, where a bus was waiting to take me to my first Strawberry Hill race. At Joe’s I ordered a cup of coffee and a beer, and contemplated the implications of the impending binge.

A Richmond response and inspired by Hunter Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

I awoke. There was no time to consider exactly how I made it into my bed the night before. It was 9am and I was already late getting to Joe’s Inn to meet up with my ride to the Brown Distributing building, where a bus was waiting to take me to my first Strawberry Hill race. At Joe’s I ordered a cup of coffee and a beer, and contemplated the implications of the impending binge.

Having lived in Richmond for 8 years, I had of course seen the stumbling hordes of sweaty and sunburnt frat boys in pastel shirts, their skin vaguely similar in hue to their popped collars (strangely analogous to “rednecks”, if not simultaneously antithetical) while they steadied themselves on street corners and pissed down the sides of buildings on Main Street in the early evening.

These were the mindless minions of chauvinism and entitlement, beery-eyed fraternizers of casual luxury and khaki personality, spilling beer and holding plastic beads, slurring out “titties!” with a glazed enthusiasm.

I was drunk by the time I got off the bus, chewing over new words like “Preakness” and the bizarre creativity of racehorse names. Our tent was right in front of the clubhouse, and they immediately turned us loose on ice cold kegs of Budweiser Select.

This was not the Richmond I am accustomed to. I felt like some quietly unwelcome intruder, long hair and radical ideologies like feminism unconcealed by the collared shirt I slipped on that morning, and the beer wasn’t contributing to tactful inconspicuousness.

I wasn’t watching the horses. I wasn’t even pretending. I had slipped into the ritualistic excess of the day, making ill-advised text messages I was under the impression were flirtatious, and generally talking my way around any filter of decency or self-respect. I remember at one point feeling an inescapable terror upon realizing that not only was I stuck there, out in bumfuck New Kent County until the bus left, but that I wasn’t in control of my actions. What kind of cruel trick were the gods of booze playing on me? How was it possible that I was too drunk to even pronounce the word “decency”, but not fucked up enough to relax? I stumbled through the crowds, the sun beating its head against an unending circle of easy-ups and porta potties and dust like some outer circle of hell willingly populated by oblivious and animalistic affluent white people.

Had the race started? Ended? People yelled and staggered around with red cups, but none of the guttural exclamations seemed to have anything to do with horses. A girl put her mouth on the sweat and hair covered nipple of a guy with his shirt unbuttoned while their friends counted to twenty. I shuffled into the clubhouse past fat middle aged couples with vulgar hot dogs who meandered around in the air conditioning.

When I walked back outside it hit me. There was no time to find a trashcan. My God, I thought, I’m puking my guts up in public. The realization was less than inhibitive, and I walked in circles vomiting until I decided to sit on a bleacher. When I finished emptying myself like a pitcher of Bloody Mary on Sunday morning, I decided I’d have to drink more.

I made it to the Brown tent and jumped in on a game of cornhole. I remember thinking You know, for all the shit I talk, these dudes know how to have a good time.

I awoke. This time in a lawn chair. The sun was at a different angle, the day had shifted on me. Gone were the exuberant exclamations, the warping static of mass excitation, the electric satisfaction of the race veterans who would never expect themselves to be anywhere else. The same attitude that gave me a strange sense of captive alienation earlier had been diluted by so many hours of sunshine and beer. There was an eerie quiet, like when the passengers on the Titanic started to freeze to death in the water after the ship sank. Men with Polo shirts made clouds of dust rise as they trudged through the draining keg of the day. Now it was a matter of maintaining consciousness. I decided to finish strong, downing some water and hitting the keg again. That last beer was cumulative, and all the day’s drunk came rushing back like my blood alcohol content percentage points were Strawberry Hill attendees and my veins were giving away Abercrombie duds by the bag.

But for all our stylistic, political, and philosophical discrepancies, I wasn’t so angered by these sons and sluts of privilege. Maybe the whore of Babylon wears a sundress and a straw hat, but in so much booze and captivity, I began to develop some inebriated and convoluted approximation of the Stockholm Syndrome: I kind of like these people.

It was an incredible celebration of all things Southern, a lush gathering around the timeless spectacle of man conquering beast, man becoming beast, moving like magnificent machinery of shimmering muscle. Thousands and thousands of dollars worked into the bouncing hands of hunched jockeys and horseshoes , a sport played by the rich with wagers and spurs. My mutt lineage and middle class upbringing in Maryland and Northern Virginia wouldn’t allow for me to convince myself that I could ever truly fit in, but I decided to lie to myself anyway. And I was off to a pretty good start. Get drunk, play cornhole, act like a jackass, all seemed to be par for the course, and I was slinging beanbags and offensive adjectives with the best of them. It occurred to me that I didn’t even earn a second glance while I was puking, and as I contemplated that fact, it occurred to me that this is as completely similar to as it is dissimilar from another anticipated Richmond tradition: Slaughterama.

This was the Slaughterama of the aristocracy, its morality proportionately diminished by how much more money was involved, and made all the stranger for the age range of attendees. People may have been interested in the sporting event, but the primary purpose of the thing seemed to have been the social occasion, and the reckless indulgence it engendered. Like it or not, last month’s bicycle extravaganza on the river wasn’t so different.

As the day started to slip away and the crowds thinned, I realized that there was something anti-climactic about my experience. I had been waiting for a moment that hadn’t come, that point at which I would be seized by the mob mentality of the place, where I would become a part of the event rather than the detached observer I had been, and self-awareness would magically fade into the stuff of epic stories and shared experiences. Had I slept through it? I stared off across the track, waiting for some sign that I was fairly certain would not come. A group of horses galloped by. Someone threw a stack of Mardi-Gras beads around my neck and I thought, Why not? I tried to stand up, which was proving to be a problem, when I heard my name in a feminine drawl behind me.

I turned to see my one friend who sincerely uses the words “best day of the year” when describing Strawberry Hill.

I greeted her and we swayed back and forth in a reasonable attempt to express our unreasonable inebriation.

I didn’t even think about it. I reached up and pulled off one of my strands of silver beads, my eyes beery, slurring with a glazed enthusiasm “titties!” as I spilled beer on myself. And a boob popped out. And the horses rode by.

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work:

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