The big winner in Saturday's Preakness was Hansel. You could find him by following the bread crumbs. The big loser was civilization. You could leave it behind by following the beer cans.
A friend, who has spent her entire sheltered life here, tells me Saturday morning that she's never been to the Preakness.
"A blessing," I say.
"You're kidding," she says.
"A zoo," I say.
I am being kind. But my friend implores and we go to the track. Approaching on foot from Northern Parkway, with the gutters already littered with empty beer cans and the racetrack infield already filled with alleged humanity, my friend gazes in and happily declares:
"It looks like Woodstock."
She was there two decades ago. She remembers it fondly. Maybe, 20 years from now, she'll remember her first Preakness with the same warmth.
But not without a frontal lobotomy.
"Gotta be with the people," I tell her, as we pass through the pedestrian tunnel leading to the track infield.
Did somebody say people? My friend does not notice the guy urinating against a tunnel wall, though she does notice a competitive chorus of belches from a couple of other sophisticates trying to impress their dates.
Coming out of the tunnel, the first thing we see are two guys holding up a sign aimed at women: "Show Us Your [Bleeps]."
"What a surprise," I say. "They spelled [bleeps] correctly."
A few feet away in this crowded swarm of humanity is a guy with a beer can in each hand. He is drinking from each. Not one at a time, but simultaneously, head back, a can at each corner of his mouth, pausing only for belches that split the air like trumpet blasts signaling post-time for the porcine set.
Nearby is a beer-bellied guy with a towel wrapped around an area where his waist should be. He's wearing nothing beneath the towel. We discover this when he turns around. The towel does not reach entirely around him. Someone should issue a new global warning.
Behind him are two guys holding yo-yos and staring at them. It's hard to tell if they're playing with them or trying to figure out how they work. The beer has had its way with their minds.
"Still look like Woodstock?" I ask.
We're both feeling a little uncomfortable. Most of these people are the age we were during Woodstock, which we remember as a moment of innocence, a time of warm tribal instincts. Have the years turned us cranky, or would this be offensive to anyone capable of walking erect? Or is this just a different kind of a tribe, one with not only its inhibitions down but its taste, too?
All around us are people who are screaming but saying nothing. It is screaming for the sake of screaming. This cramped, half-dressed, half-crazed (a conservative estimate, at that) crowd seems to have studied Cro-Magnon Man and figured, "From him, we could learn."
"Yee-hah," a guy whose tattoos out-number his teeth is screaming in our right ears.
"Far freakin' out," comes a mating cry on our left.
"Makes you proud to be a mammal," my friend notes, with perhaps a touch of sarcasm.
She is shouting into my ear to be heard above the bedlam of human beings who have willfully stripped away their thin veneer of civilization.
"Paaar-ty," comes another cry, or a dozen.
My friend, who is a social worker and thus a student of odd bits of behavior, glances about and immediately sizes up the situation:
"If I say the word 'inbreeding,' how many people would step forward?" she asks.
We leave after one race. On the other side of the infield tunnel are two city police officers, stationed there to keep some semblance of calm.
"Don't let anyone out," we tell them, "until our passports are in order."
"I've been doing this 11 years," one cop says. "It's a new world in there, isn't it?"
"Like recess at the mental ward," the other says.
On Pimlico Road, a third cop, surveying trash lying all about him in the street, notes, "We were told to make no arrests, you know, unless somebody really gets out of hand."
Out of hand? Listen, I don't mind noise and I don't mind a good party. I remember the airport crowd when the Colts came home from New York in '58, and it warms me still. I was in the crowd at the stadium in '83, when the Orioles came home from Philly after winning it all. I'll treasure the reruns in my head.
I've been in the City Fair crowds when they numbered a million, and I'm there in Fells Point every autumn when the neighborhood invites everybody in for a drink. I'm no prude, and I'm in favor of good cheer, even when it's expressed loudly.
This is different. You walk through the Pimlico infield and sense a holiday for slobs. They've checked their civility at the door. If every dog has his day, then Baltimore's is Preakness day.
Thank goodness the TV networks don't look past the traditional black-eyed Susans. If they looked at the infield, it'd be a black-eyed city.