He looked out on the crowd, the howling, screaming, hooting wonder pounding beers and clustering with pitchers and mugs around the shallow, topless plywood box covering the pool table for a night.
Someone handed him a ping-pong ball. He read off it.
“Number 5! Jolanda!” the man shouted into the mic. “And we all know what Jolanda is!”
“The slowest! Fucking! Turtle! In the world!” the crowd screamed back as one.
Turtle races. Races of turtles.
Every Friday night, Big Joe’s 2 & 6 in the Bowmanville section of Lincoln Square, a classically divey joint with pitchers, shots and sports on the TVs, goes turtle for the night.
They push the pool table over by the dartboards, slap the plywood racetrack on top of it and, amid sports-themed neon, ads for beer and turtleana, ready themselves for the races.
Each drink purchased on a Friday brings you tickets. If one of your ticket numbers is called, you go up and pull a ping-pong ball from a bucket. Each ping-pong ball has a number on it and each number matches the number taped to the back of a turtle.
That turtle is then your turtle for the race. If your turtle wins, you get a T-shirt. If your turtle is dead last, you get a drink.
There are six turtles, although on our night Lucky Dan was scratched before post time, leaving only Chucks, Doozy, Lola, the massive Jolanda (TSFTITW) and Swisher. Six races. Five turtles. Only 30 shots at winning that turtle night T-shirt.
“I want that T-shirt more than I want anything,” I said with increasing ferocity throughout the night.
My friend Andy nodded.
We chatted, of course. Everyone did. It was a nice, loud sociable night that would stop the moment the turtle emcee announced it was time for the next round. Then the flurry of checking tickets, some tables lined with the little yellow stubs, other hopeful racers clutching their tickets on the hush-hush, as if afraid their shot at immortality and a T-shirt would be swiped away from them if they removed their hand from the bits of paper even for a moment.
I have probably been more excited to hear four numbers called, but I can’t remember when.
“Here!” I yelled, jumping up to make my way through the crowd to the sacred racetrack.
I was the last called for that round, so the only ping-pong ball that was left was for Doozy, a bomb-proof mudder about an eighth hand high and other stuff I’m copying down from a Google search of the phrase “horse terms.”
The racetrack was a large circle, since pointing a turtle in a straight line would be pretty fruitless. There’s a red circle in the middle of the larger circle, the red circle about the size of a glass cake cover.
Exactly the size of a glass cake cover. They used a glass cake cover as a 360-degree starting gate, putting the turtles under it until the dramatic moment.
With an audio of one of those bugle guys they have at horse races, the cake cover is lifted and the turtles are off!
Sometimes they head straightway for the edge of the larger circle, the finishing line that surrounds them in all directions. Sometimes they just sit, look around a little and do a slow turtle blink.
During my race, Jolanda simply stood motionless as the man who had selected her ping-pong ball yelled in dismay. She finally turned her head and, I know this is ridiculous, but I swear she shot him a look.
Doozy came in the middle of the pack, netting me neither shirt nor cocktail.
The attraction of the night wasn’t the turtles. Turtles are turtles, awesome little pets that, once a week, absently wonder why their natural turtle crawling and blinking is done in a different room with a much larger group of people.
The attraction was the audience, that subtle mystery of crowd psychology that makes us cheer for sports teams, political candidates and turtles we honestly wouldn’t care much about were we alone.
I hooted and screamed for Doozy in the group when, were we alone, I would just feed him (her?) a bit of lettuce and sniff the cage every now and again to see if it needs to be cleaned.
But that night, amid neon, beer ads and a charming form of group hysteria, what would have been my pleasantly boring pet became my champion. And I yelled, screamed, cheered and plan to go back for a shot at a T-shirt I wouldn’t have bought from a dollar bin.