Picture a boy walking down Esplanade Avenue
in New Orleans on his way to meet the streetcar.
Strapped to his back is a metal thermos of coffee,
a sleeve of paper cups tucked under his arm.
He is there as people head to work, their hair
fixed with curls or grease, their hats carefully stuck
to their heads. They pay him next to nothing for a cup
though their nothingness adds up and it is what he brings
home to his mother. She waits for him in the kitchen
with the jockeys, who board in the back spare bedroom.
Their tiny, wiry bodies huddled around the table
for breakfast. Her son is her treasure, pulling
his weight in work before school. He is old enough
to keep a secret and watches as the men sneak
the doped horses into the racetrack through the
Mystery Street Entrance. Their eyes wide
and glassy from the cocaine and morphine
pumping in their blood, lucky if their hearts
don’t explode before the finish.
Their faces are unlike the other racehorses’
and they make him sad. He wishes
he could set free every last one of them.
That was old New Orleans, the way it used to be
when our family lived on a street
lined with French families, a place of true beauty
in a country so green. Anything seemed possible
but so much was tolerated. One account
from 1892 has a man named Rankin being suspended
for ordering an injection to a colt named India Rubber.
After the race it was announced that the injection
given was not the usual mixture, but one of water,
and that it had seriously hurt instead of helped
the poor horse. The racetrack is still here
though the horses are better protected, and the streetcar
no longer passes in front of the houses on Esplanade
which stand before us like ghosts from another time.
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