The following essay was originally published in the Louisville Courier-Journal on May 4, 2018.
When I was 19-years-old and buzzed out of my mind in the infield, I saw a Josephine leaning over the grandstand rail. This was the moment in the Zac Efron comedy where the frat guy covered in his own barf meets the love of his life, only to lose her the next minute.
Unfortunately for me, this was the real world and I never even learned Josephine’s real name. But what I do remember was how she looked: a long, flowery dress that rippled across her in the breeze, kind of like a lazy flag at the end of a pier on the lake. She had a broad-brimmed hat with a pink rose tucked in, and she wore those bug-eyed sunglasses that were cool back when men could still wear cargo shorts in public.
Josephine is what I called her in my imagination, and when I saw her face, I was struck by one of those bolts of clarity that God reserves for drunks who are tumbling downhill from their buzz. I was a shepherd watching my flock by night, and Josephine had stepped down from a star in the east to teach me the Gospel of Kentucky — to show me the elegance that symbolized our way of life to an outside world that spends exactly two minutes a year contemplating it. She was the Derby. And the Derby was Louisville.
But now I’m older and I realize that though my logic was unassailable, my conclusions were all wrong. Yes, the Derby is Louisville. But Louisville isn’t Josephine. No matter what you see on NBC this Saturday, you should know, all those people in big hats and seersucker suits aren’t really Louisville. They’re actors in my hometown’s greatest work of fiction, and everyone, including us, has fallen for it.
We’re Louisville. And as much as we’d like to be a people born in Lilly Pulitzer dresses and who sip juleps on verandas, we’re really the people in the fields who sweat. We’re the ones who floated down the Ohio River on flatboats and cut a path through the Cumberland Gap to found the American West. We’re the sharecroppers and Freedmen from Virginia who got tired of starving on their boss’s land and came to Kentucky to find their own. We’re the Yankee carpetbaggers who set up shop on the Ohio River and built fortunes shipping crops, tools, and yes — whiskey — from the frontier to the cities; and we’re the German and Irish immigrants who worked their docks and their mills to assemble Manifest Destiny one screw at a time.
That story continues to this day. The flatboats are gone from the river but the airplanes have invaded our sky. Louisville remains one of the world’s most important shipping centers, thanks to UPS Worldport; and it’s a manufacturing hive that still draws migrants from rural America to the good-paying jobs at Ford and GE, as well as the countless small businesses that feed their supply chains. And of course, on Derby Day, we shouldn’t forget our most recent migrants: the workers from Mexico and Central America who groom the horses, harvest the crops, and lately, win the Triple Crown itself — thank you, Victor Espinoza.
Louisville is too far north to whistle Dixie but not far enough west to ride a bull. It’s too blue collar for the South and too ham-and-biscuits for the Midwest. It is what it always was: an American gateway, a place where things come and go while we mostly stay the same. The Kentucky Derby tells part of this story. It valorizes the Bluegrass and the belles, but it misses the larger truth: that no matter what the julep man tells you at Churchill Downs, we are not a leisurely people. That’s not our history.
But why should anyone care? After all, most holidays indulge in fiction. Jesus Christ came to earth on Christmas, though that night in a manger almost certainly happened in the spring. And on Easter, kids chase after eggs hidden by a rabbit, despite the fact that no bunny on earth is biologically capable of laying one.
On holy days, the truth doesn’t matter as much as the spirit. They’re times when old legends are retold, where families are together, and someone, somewhere drinks too much. So it is on Christmas Day — and if you’re lucky enough to be in Louisville this Saturday — at the Kentucky Derby, too.