They come slouching through the door of the Club Charles near Penn Station on a soggy Saturday night, stinking of fear and alcohol vapor and broken hope. The mortgage money gone. Ready to drink their last 20 bucks before catching the Amtrak back to Philly and Jersey and Gotham.
Beneath the white-noise technopop throbbing from the jukebox like a dull headache, shards of disconsolate conversation drift.
"Lost 800 dollars today," mutters one mope at the bar, gulping a final amber slosh of Maker's Mark from a trembling gimlet glass.
"Five hundred bucks I don't have," says another.
"Broke even, thank God."
"Who needs a drink?"
No one at the bar has the strength to answer.
Hunched over their cocktails in the universal posture of the desperate and ashamed, the out-of-towners want only to remain anonymous. To pick up their mud-splattered souvenir tote bags at the appointed hour and disappear down Charles Street toward the trains.
To go home. To forget again. Until next year.
For now, the very walls of Club Chaz mock them.
Looming behind them, inescapable, a blood-red mural rises 15 feet to the ceiling. Bathed in the milky refraction of the house footlights, soaring on golden wings, nostrils flared, is a painting of the mythical flying horse of Grecian lore.
Pegasus. Namesake of that morning's one-to-five Preakness favorite.
Fusaichi Pegasus. Winner of the Kentucky Derby. The most heralded Triple Crown contender since Spectacular Bid in 1979. Heir apparent to the title last won by Affirmed 22 years before. The only sure bet in the million-dollar, 125th Preakness Stakes in Baltimore at 5:28 that afternoon.
Pegasus. Beaten in the buttery mud of Pimlico like a three-legged carnival pony with a belly full of hook worm.
"The intriguing question about the Preakness is not whether Fusaichi Pegasus will win, but how he will win," proclaimed legendary stakes gambler Andrew "The King" Beyer in the Washington Post the day before the race, adding for good measure: "Red Bullet is worth betting against."
Not knowing any better, the amateur players wagered the Beyer line in droves.
Tax refunds, tuition loans and car payments littered the rain-sodden grounds of Pimlico in the form of 7-6-4 trifecta tickets -- Pegasus, Captain Steve and the underrated Bullet -- in that moment when fate lashed the big red horse to a 4-7-3 finish, with Pegasus sucking his mud and Impeachment bringing up the rear.
"I gotta get something to eat," gasps the mope at the bar, "before I pass out."
THE SIGNS of the coming apocalypse were everywhere that day, if you were paying attention. But few people were.
In the vast, open sewer encircled by the racing oval and known as the infield, the proceedings started early. Unbridled youth skidded in the slop, stripped to the waist, drinking their breakfast from six-hose beer bongs in the annual rite of post-pubescence.
As the first of the day's races got underway, horses occasionally ran by, but no one seemed to notice.
By noon, the Port-o-Pots overflowed and cops started whacking people in the kidneys for peeing in public, ignoring far more vile breaches of criminal and Biblical codes occurring nearby.
Stoned out of their minds on laughing gas, reefer smoke and a seizure-inducing miracle drug dubbed "Green G," more than a few youthful pilgrims learned the awful truth about gravity. Others, distracted by 40-plus acres of naked breasts, were mowed down by flying cans of Budweiser, spilling the day's first blood.
Everywhere, barely legal youngsters humped and bumped and ground their butts to the heavy-metal thunder rolling off the 98 Rock sound stage.
"I'm TNT, I'm dyn-o-mite!" growled Aussie headbangers AC/DC, inducing several more young ladies to peel off their shirts for the adoring, groping, caterwauling mob. As steroidal males angled for a better view, jostling like bulls in a 4-H pen, the ominous musk of testosterone hung heavy in the damp air.
"I am truly enjoying my time here -- and, of course, all the half-naked women," testified Matt Myatt, 22, a beefy business major from Elon College in North Carolina, with a can of beer in each hand for balance." I am gaining a great sense of fellowship with all my new friends and future colleagues. And I am so !#$% drunk, I can barely stand up."
Prowling the crowd, cameras at the ready, professional lizards wound off frames of film that will fetch a tidy sum on such Internet sites as "Hooterhistorians" and "Publicnudity.com" that peddle moments of innocent fun at Mardi Gras and spring break and Woodstock to dial-up sex freaks.
"The Internet?! Ohhhh, my God!" slurred one perky 19-year-old freshman from Frederick Community College, moments after climbing down from an impromptu striptease atop a muddy cooler. "I didn't even think about that! My mother will kill me!"