Out on the infield at Pimlico Race Course, where the beer flows and anything goes, Paul Awalt fit right in with the Preakness Day crowd. In a setting where a Martian with purple hair and a turquoise antenna could land his spaceship and mingle freely without raising an eyebrow, who's to notice a guy wearing old jeans, work boots, a derby and black tails?
But Awalt did attract attention today as he pushed his way through this grand festival of legs and kegs, outerspace characters and heavenly bodies. Nobody cared about his elegant coat. In close proximity, after all, were a man dressed as a blue lobster and a comely young woman wearing nothing but blanket, which was falling off. What turned eyes was Awalt's flowers.
He was clutching a large bouquet of black-eyed susans, which were really daisies that had gotten their black eyes from a Magic Marker. There are no real black-eyed susans at the Preakness, because Maryland's state flower does not bloom until the middle of June. No matter. People stopped Awalt every few steps and asked if they could buy a blossom.
He wasn't selling, although the capitalist ethic tempted him.
"I bought two dozen of these for $3 at the Giant, and I'm sure I could get a dollar apiece, easy," said the affable young Baltimorean with the jacket a symphony maestro could envy. He bought that for $3 as well, at a used clothes store in Ellicott City, he said proudly. His derby came from Louisville and was emblazoned, appropriately, "Kentucky Derby."
"I went to the Derby this year, and they were selling roses there for a buck apiece. I could make a killing. But these aren't for sale. I bought them for my girlfriend," he said.
Ah, it was good to know that chivalry was alive and well amid the bacchanalian reveling on the infield, where much of the action was racier than that on the track, and most folks were interested in human rather than equine anatomy. What pray tell, was the lucky lady's name?
"I don't know," Awalt said with a sly grin. "I haven't met her yet."
From the staid and well-heeled clubhouse to the come-as-you-are infield, where it all hangs out, Preakness Day is a wonderful swirl of sights and sounds, characters and colors. There is infinite variety, but the predominant shades are yellow and black: the color of the black-eyed sysan.
Ladies of leisure wear them as corsages on their splendid summer dresses. Gentlemen affix them, live or in facsimile, to their lapels. Guys and dolls sport them on the bands of the plastic skimmers they buy to go with their T-shirts.Mutuel windows are decorated with crepe paper "susans" and matching pennants, part of Pimplico's prevailing color scheme.
Concessionaires in every part of the grounds peddle trays of "Black-eyed Susans," a concoction of rum, vodka and fruit juice in a souvenir glass costing $3.25. The glass, empty, sells for $2. The drink is really a "brass monkey" using an alias for the occasion. It comes straight from bottles of Heublein preprepared coctails.
It is unfortunate, given the fact that the Preakness is a genuine occasion, that all the black-eyed susans here are bogus. Even the floral blanket draped over the thoroughbred that wins the "race for the black-eyed susans" is created from 3,500 daisies whose centers get worked over with black shoe polish.
"It's a wildflower that just doesn't blossom out of its season: mid-June to mid-August," said florist Jerry Geary, who operates a greenhouse and shop on Park Heights Avenue, six blocks from Pimlico, and has supplied the track's floral arrangements, including the winner's blanket, for more than 25 years.
"You can't get a real black-eyed susan anywhere at this time of year. We tried for four years to produce some for the Vanderbilts, and they just wouldn't take. We tried everything. We chilled 'em, we froze 'em, we heated 'em, but you just can't force them to bloom," added Geary, who is resigned to forever growing daises and painstakingly smearing them with boot black.
Not to worry. The myth goes on, cutting across the various social strata of those who flock to the Preakness.
In the clubhouse, Vanderbilts sip liquid black-eyed susans even though their ample money can't produce the real thing. In the grandstand, patrons drink black-eyed susans as they listen to the big band sounds of Zim Zemarel between races. In the infield, where a number of local rock bands (Smooth and Company, Otis Bond and Paradise Ave.) blare forth, the far-out people quaff a few black-eyed susans along with their beer and spirits.
"I come here to get drunk and get lucky. I never see the horses and I con't care," said Mark Spell, 31, a computer analyst from Middletown, Del., who was heading to the mutuel windows with his $625 refund check from the Internal Revenue Service.
He was not atypical. But should he get bored, which seemed unlikely, there were plenty of diversions all around Pimlico, and especially on the infield. For instance, a couple was doing body painting, "using nontoxic, washable paint," they assured.