Give me the Hill People.
Find me sunburned and stumbling when the starter sends them speeding in the 71st running of the Iroquois Steeplechase on Saturday. See me squinting in my seersucker, pret-a-porter, following the jumpers and their jockeys in vignettes — at the start and then again not until the backstretch and then again when they come round to the big jump — the champion’s test — and then as they cross the line.
Don’t look for me in the boxes with their ancient money and their ancient names and their catered lunches, the tickets handed down in wills, the invitations hand-written in calligraphy.
Seek me on the Hill, instead, my face behind sunglasses and pimento cheese sandwiches. Look for me among the rednecks and ne’er-do-wells and eastside hipsters and 12South singers and suburban wannabes; find me with the families on their quilts: the little girls twirling in matching sundresses and the little boys craning their necks to see the Hillsboro Hounds and the sometimes-fox-hunters in their bright red coats with the shiny gold buttons.
Don’t call my name in the trackside tents where deals are made and struck, where faces are spotted and greetings mouthed across the crowds, everyone watching each other through their commemorative glasses of bespoke bourbon. No one watching the race, not noticing the grace and power of pounding hoofs and the magic of the jockeys’ timing, leaping over timber, undaunted by the water.
Instead I’ll be smiling, stretched out — and sitting, blissfully sitting, my feet on my cooler, full of cans of beer and liquor in plastic and juice in boxes and bags of ice bought for $1.49 where West End becomes Harding, before it curves into Belle Meade, her police backed in to every driveway. Designate a driver or call a cab or sleep it off on the Hill as long as they’ll let you, because they’ll let you longer than you think. Make picnic chicken and cold-cut sandwiches and bowls of fruit, and pack chips and candy.
And find me with the Hill People — with long-timers and first-timers, with college kids playing dress-up and railbirds in ball caps and folks in French cuffs and men with no sleeves. I’ll be people-watching and joke-cracking and bumming drinks and swapping food and telling lies and jokes and talking about horses and everything else with my new friends and my old ones.
You can walk the infield, row after row of lifestyle-brand pickup trucks and SUVs bigger than a bus stop. But you won’t find me there among the heirs to the boxes and their downtown-living friends, the ones we’re apparently and unfortunately calling “affluents.” You won’t hear me singing along to “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Rocky Top” or “Wagon Wheel” or whatever the nearly country anthem of the moment is among the SEC Fraternity Row crowd. You won’t see me there in Croakies and Top-Siders.
I’ll be fine in my go-to-hell pants and bow tie on the Hill, singing along with the national anthem and “The Tennessee Waltz.”
The Hill gets smaller every year — they find more places to sell more expensive tickets than the $15 they get from us. The Hill gets squeezed.
But the Hill People were here before you — when it was just us and the boxes. And you can try to shrink us with your New South boosterism and your fresh entrepreneurial money and your It City enthusiasm.
You can keep it.
Give me the Hill People.