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The Summer Place to Be

The crystal ship is being filled,

A thousand girls, a thousand thrills,

A million ways to spend your time;

When we get back, I’ll drop a line.

—Jim Morrison

I am standing in front of a sign that says “Crystal Ship.” The sign is hanging in front of a—well, a crystal ship. One made out of the sparkling teardrops that hang off chandeliers.

I think of my daughter, Linnea, so devoted a Doors fan that when I told her I’d once interviewed Ray Manzarek she gave me the kind of look all parents only dream of seeing on their children’s faces: sheer and surprised admiration.

I texted her: I’m standing in front of a crystal ship.

I didn’t get a response, but she was in New York with friends. Who wants to text their mom at a time like that?

Later, as I wandered some more, I came upon a woman dressed up—convincingly—as a human cupcake. It made me want to have a dress like that. Not for everyday, of course. But for special occasions. Ones calling for pastry attire.

I just saw a woman dressed like a cupcake, I texted my daughter.

She didn’t respond. But then she was in a city where the naked cowboy is de rigueur viewing.

At a late brunch on a restaurant patio, I overheard two of the gas-baggiest people pontificating about art. One brought up the tomato soup can guy and how much money he made off that kind of thing. Then the other one of them started going on about the impressionists. They were in the last century, he said. Well, the other last century, the 1800s. They caused quite a stir, those impressionists, he said.

Let me get this right, the other guy said: Were the impressionists considered modern in their day?

Were the Impressionists considered modern, I texted Linnea, in their day?

I was in a shop that catered to everybody’s tastes: Barnes & Noble. My companion was dawdling over the DVDs. I’d already paged through a well-thumbed volume of this year’s best erotic short fiction and checked out the cookbooks, too. I was on my way to the military history section when I happened to pass an end cap full of craft kits. What caught my eyes was this one: The Zombie’s Guide to Cross-stitch.

I texted Linnea, I just saw an embroidery kit for zombies. But I got no response.

Later that night she called me. She was having a great time in New York. It was good to see her friends. But she was a little worried about me.

“I couldn’t tell what was going on with you and all the texts you were sending. I started thinking maybe you were sick. Or maybe even stoned.”

No, I said, I wasn’t stoned. I was just in Saratoga, I said. During racing season.

For reasons obscure and inessential to this column, I end up spending a lot of time in Saratoga during July. And as the month progresses, the town gears up for the start of racing season. A kind of paradigm shift takes place.

There is the gearing up for the expected infusion of shoppers and diners. Sunny days bring people to crowded sidewalks and crowded cafes. Horse-themed merchandise becomes ubiquitous, as if somehow a chocolate horsehead on a stick or a high-priced sweater with a horseshoe insignia will bring better luck trackside.

But there is a simultaneous sense that the town is also bracing for impact. Racing aficionado tourists are a different breed than civic-minded citizens. Along with August’s fortune comes intimations of a certain level of mayhem.

Last year, mid-July, we ate a great meal at a family-style Italian place not far outside of town. Our waiter insisted on ordering everything for us, gave us a good deal on a bottle of wine and insisted we pay cash even though the cash we had was less than the cost of the meal. It’s easier this way, he said. Don’t worry about it.

We’ll come back with friends, we said. We really enjoyed dinner.

Don’t come back during the next six weeks, he told us, adamantly, in his thick accent. It will be filled with crazy people and not a good time.

In a day or two, I’ll be leaving Saratoga, venturing up now and then in August for the tamer pleasures—depending on your taste—of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Sure, I’ll spend a day at the track, too, though I know nothing about horses. But when we tuned in five minutes before post-time, I called the winner of the Belmont Stakes this year: Drosselmeyer. He’s the dark and suspicious magician from The Nutcracker who transforms the ballet’s eponymous instrument into a dashing prince—kind of the way that Saratoga is transformed during racing season.

—Jo Page

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