Lyrical John

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I stop every year, sometimes in a hurry, sometimes on a stroll. Sometimes with Miles and Annie, sometimes on my own. Sometimes, I buy something. Most of the time, I browse, looking for nothing and always finding something. This year, it was the first dark Tuesday, after a haircut, I walked up the incline of Phila Street and into Lyrical Ballad, the timeless bookstore that has served the town of Saratoga like an old guard, an old friend.

Janice DeMarco, hovering over a book, barely looked up, I said hello, she said hello and then I paused and she paused. The shared moment of grief, a long, slow hug, a bereaved wife and a summer standby, both wishing for another day. John DeMarco, Janice’s husband and my friend, died in March.

Lyrical Ballad will never be the same. Saratoga will never be the same.

John began collecting books in college and he never stopped, opening Lyrical Ballad in the early 1970s. He always said, “I had a lot of books and no money.” There must be books there today that were there on opening day. The store expands room-by-room, winding into nooks and crannies, burrowing under Broadway, it’s the Watership Down of bookstores.

There are hardbacks, paperbacks, classics, signed first editions and cookbooks at half-price. There are books in a vault, there are books neatly stacked on shelves and there are books strewn on the floor. There are books about baseball, sailing, poetry, poker and a whole section of horse racing, everything from Damon Runyon to Joe Palmer. And John knew every book in the place. You could ask him about any subject and he would know where to find the perfect book like a bibliophilic hound dog on a mission, always with soul and savvy. Earnest, forthright, self-deprecatingly funny but shrewd as a city mouse, John cherished books and he cherished Saratoga. He stood for the arts, open spaces and quality of life.

We met in the early ’90s when I was riding jumpers and made our first business deal in 2000 when I crutched into his store with a backpack of my self-published book, Saratoga Days. I had broken my ankle before the meet and had 5,000 copies of a book stacked on a porch on Union Avenue and in my brother Joe and his wife Sam’s garage in Maryland. I began to explain the book, the situation, stammering and stuttering, more or less begging. John bought 10 copies and wrote me a check, planned a booksigning, wished me luck. That was John DeMarco.

Eighteen years later, the book is out of print and Janice and I let go, teary but better in a way. We talked for a bit, about John, about Saratoga, about life. And then I did what people do best in Lyrical Ballad. I wandered and lost time. Lost the thought of a deadline, lost the pressure of life.

I found a book about DiMaggio for Miles, a handful of old postcards with an original photograph, hand-colored by George S. Bolster in 1975, I thought I’d mail one to Dad, to Mom, to Hovdey and to Fernando Abreu at Gulfstream Park. Underneath a photo of Secretariat and four copies of the book, Legacies, I found a pile of programs. You know the ones, the old-school, skinny ones with the iconic photos on the front and the Marlboro Man on the back.

This is so John DeMarco, the consummate collector, a pile of old programs, in no order, of no particular merit, sitting on a stool in the corner by the horse-racing books, near the vault but worth next to nothing. Well, next to nothing to some. Worth everything to a man, trying to collect his thoughts about a life gone way too soon.

The first I open is from Tuesday, Aug. 24, 1976. It cost 35 cents, well, it cost 33 cents plus 2 cents sales tax. Thomas J. Fitzgerald was the NYRA president. The board was made up of icons named Bostwick, Dreyfus, Phipps, Schiff, Vanderbilt and Whitney. Tommy Trotter was racing secretary and handicapper. Mike Venezia won the opener, Braulio Baeza completed the double.

I open another and another and another.

There’s Stop The Music in an allowance race at even money for Greentree, John Gaver and Vince Bracciale Jr. There’s Christopher Elser on Happy Intellectual in a $10,000 hurdle. There’s Queena in a two-other-than. Quick Call in the A Phenomenon. Fio Rito winning the Albany. King’s Fashion winning for Allen Jerkens and Mike Rujano. Glowing Tribute winning the Diana. George Martens with the bug. White Star Line, Newstead Farm’s daughter of Northern Dancer, winning the first division of the Test and Tingle Stone, a Christiana bred daughter of Cyane and Thinking Cap, winning the second division.

There’s one with notes, cursive and pencil, on the masthead page. Attendance 14,492. Hot and humid all afternoon. Thunderstorms after 7th race. Raining and sloppy. Good day for betting. Hit exactas in 3rd and 7th races. Another, the same hand-writing. Rain early morning, clearing before noon. Track muddy. Sunny and warm all afternoon. Only one (1) winner. Bad betting day all around. And another, same hand-writing. Sunny and hot. Not as warm as the first three days of the week. Very bad day for betting. Poor luck all day long. Better luck for tomorrow.

For a moment, I wonder if it’s John’s hand-writing and then I remember, he was a man about books, not about racing. I liked him just the same.