Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Abracadabra: the Magical Horse of Logan Circle

I moved from Kentucky to the Logan Circle/U Street area around 1990. Logan Circle back then was a very quiet neighborhood caught between two turf wars; the crack wars that had ravaged neighborhoods to the east and AIDS which was decimating the neighborhoods to the west. Not all the houses were occupied, grocery and restaurant options were limited but despite its sketchy reputation the streets weren't exactly teaming with gangs of drug pushers or crack whores either. Okay, my block did have it’s own ho but she was always kind to my dogs and usually let me know if the mailman had left a package under my porch. It was sort of like having a one-woman 24 hour Concierge staff since she was omnipresent.

As May 1991 approached I decided to test the limits of my quiet and/or nonexistent neighbors and throw my first Kentucky Derby Party in DC.

Partner: "What's a Kentucky Derby Party?"

Herb "It's a chance to get all dressed up and watch a two minute horse race on TV."


Herb: "Oh and you can get really trashed on Mint Juleps and everybody gets wild."

Partner: "I'm in!"

Plans were made and soon RSVPs poured in via the land line telephone (not that we had many options yet for non-land line phones). Partner's best friends, long-time couple Frank and Steve asked the question that was on everyone's lips:

"What’s a Kentucky Derby Party?"


At this point I had learned to downplay the "Greatest Two Minutes in Sports" angle and instead emphasize the bourbon soaked fun and authentic Derby prizes. Friends like Frank and Steve, who recently discovered that Steve had sero-converted within their relationship, needed a break from the endless days of doctors, AZT and guilt.

One day as Partner and I were reviewing the final party day checklist I joking said, "Wouldn't it be funny to have a pony enter the backyard after the race and present it as the winner of the Kentucky Derby?"

Partner: "That's the best idea since acid washed jeans!"

Herb: "I was kidding, KIDDING! In our tiny back yard? Well it better be a SMALL pony."

Yellow Pages in hand, Partner started looking for pony rentals.

"I think you look under Children's Birthday parties" Partner mumbled.

In a frenzy of Yellow Pages blur, Partner masterly worked The Book. Watching Partner thumb through the Yellow Pages was like watching Leonardo da Vinci sketch or Liza propel her right arm a few times before hitting the money note. No one owned the Yellow Pages like Partner. Years later Google would never have gotten off the ground if everyone had Partner's mastery of the Yellow Page snap.

The next day he called me from work where apparently while billing clients for corporate tax advice he had been successfully Dialing for Ponies.

"I found a woman in Fredrick, Maryland. She has a kid's birthday party in Bethesda the same day and can be here at 6:00 pm. "

The day of the party arrived and everyone seemed to be having a pleasant enough time although neither the bourbon nor the tunes of the circuit DJ had yet to loosen up the uptight Washingtonians. During the actual race there was dead silence as the guests confused the "Greatest Two Minutes in Sports" with the "Quietest Two Minutes in Sports." Even Patrick, unsteady on his feet since his first bout with Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) who had drawn the Derby winner in the pool seemed rather blasé about his prize of an authentic Kentucky Derby Tee shirt and genuine Derby Festival Pegasus pin.

Much to my annoyance guests continued to stroll in many minutes AFTER the race.

"Is the race still going on?" they inquired.


Instructing the bartender to pour heavy and hold the damn mint I waited by the Pony Phone for the call and within minutes received the news.

"How much space do you need do you need to park the Pony Mobile?"

"Oh the horse van is about 25 feet long" said Pony Mama.

"Horse van? For a pony?"

"What pony? Abracadabra is a full sized horse."

"No there must be some mistake" I argued, "We ordered a pony. A cute little pony."

"Nope. Partner said he wanted a horse for the children to pet. We will see you in about 20 minutes."


Giving looks that would kill a less pickled and now not so permanent Partner, I grabbed one more increasingly flammable no-mint-and-mostly-bourbon Julep and headed out to meet the horse deliverer.

Finally the large horse van arrived after weaving through the narrow side streets. As I helped Pony Mama unload the handsome and very large Abracadabra I noticed he was wearing a saddle.

"I left the saddle on in case any of the children want to sit on him for pictures" said PM.

"The children definitely do not want to sit on him! Pictures only while standing in front of the horse!" I ordered.

Partner immediately broke my rule and climbed onto Abracadabra to make the Grandest entrance by horse the neighborhood had ever seen. After the crowd got over the initial shock and realized it wasn't a mass induced bourbon hallucination, everyone rushed the horse and began petting him. Abracadabra was very friendly and seemed to enjoy the adult attention as guests lined up to have their picture snapped with party's new star.

Returning to the back yard after a little break inside I was disappointed to find that Abracadabra had already left. Didn't we pay for at least an hour?

Wait, where were all the party guests?

Following a trail of plastic mint Julep cups and some leis brought by a very confused caterer, I traced the crowd down the back walkway and discovered that the party had moved back to the street. The "children" were not posing in front of Abracadabra for pictures. The "children" were gleefully riding Abracadabra up and down the streets between 13th and 14th St as Pony Mama and neighbors I had never seen before, black and white, gay and straight, young and old roared with laughter and lustily cheered.

"I didn't know you had a horse back there all this time" said our block ho who seemed for the first time in months to be questioning her hobby, her vocation and perhaps her eyesight.

Abracadabra was extremely gentle with the guests who required special assistance. Patrick, our Derby prize winner had doffed his shirt in exchange for the the Kentucky Derby Tee shirt and you could see how much weight he had lost to the virus. Abracadabra turned his head around and patiently waited until Patrick had been helped into the saddle before taking off on a gentle gait, bringing a huge smile to Patrick's face.

The Horse Happy Hour extended to three hours as guests and neighbors rode the ecstatic Abracadabra to and fro. No police. No PETA. No worry of lawsuits. The burdens of the world and retroviruses temporarily forgotten. Sadly as it became darker Pony Mama and Abracadabra had to finally get back into the truck and to much applause, waves and a few tears, departed for Frederick.

Everyone agreed it was the best Kentucky Derby party they had ever attended!

When people discover that I have lived in the Logan area for almost 20 years, they ask me about all the changes that have occurred. I know the expected smug answer involves restaurants, shopping options and through-the-roof increased home values. However, I think back to a sad and scary time when all looked bleak and hopeless yet for one evening all was forgotten thanks to a magical horse named Abracadabra running freely through the streets of DC.


Patrick moved back to Buffalo, New York in December 1991 to be nursed by his family. His obituary listed his cause of death as “Cancer.”

Partner, blind and no longer able to walk mercifully passed away in 1993 at Washington Hospice surrounded by friends, family and pets.

Based upon the postmark on their annual Christmas card, Frank and Steve have retired to Rehoboth. I'm ashamed that I can't open their card but I think they understand.


Velvet said...

I loved this so much I read it twice. Winds of Change. Humor. End with Winds of Change. Amazing.

I love stories of old DC. I love hearing what the neighborhoods were like. My building is filled with this sort of "history" from 20 years ago. It's totally fascinating.

I love the street ho thinking you kept a pony in your yard. I was ready for you to say, "Those were the days you could keep a pony around without anyone complaining..."

urban bohemian said...

This story has just made being at the office this morning worthwhile.

Gilahi said...

At the risk of you thinking that I missed all of the pathos and the entire point of this story, what's up with those shorts?

Malnurtured Snay said...

Dammit, I hope these Kentucky thingy-ma-jig with you are an annual event!

lacochran said...

Great story! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing and touching story on so many levels. Your description of the day created the perfect tableau in my imagination, so the picture was just an added bonus.

Scenic Wheaton said...

Incredible story, Herb. I also read it twice. I'll probably read it a few more all the favorite things I read.

Anna said...

I randomly found this while googling "magical things about d.c." and I think I found exactly what I needed to find. Had a good cry and now am feeling even more fond of the Logan area where I am now living. Thanks. You're an amazing writer.