Doing some circles outside the velodrome to keep my legs moving between races during a recent installment of the Twilight Series, an old-timer approached me and asked, "Hey, do they have any of these kind of races out in Jersey?"
"No," I said, "This is the only track around. The nearest one is out in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania."
"So, not out in Jersey?" he repeated.
"They used to have these races out in Jersey, I can't believe they don't have them anymore."
"Well, this is the only track around, these days."
"Do you win any money at these races? Any money in them?"
"No - I guess we just do it for bragging rights or something," I replied.
"You know, I used to race. Not anymore. I'm ninety-three years old! And back then if there was any mention of money they'd take away our racing card!"
We chatted for a while longer and he told me that he used to race at the old New York Velodrome (that would be the old one in Inwood, not the hopeful/future New York Velodrome), they Coney Island Velodrome , and the Newark Velodrome, out in Vailsburg Park. He even raced at the old Madison Square Garden, home of legendary six-day races. "Before the six-day races," he said, "there would always be amateur races, and I'd enter those! I'd come in third place, fourth place. Madison Square Garden was the only place you could earn money as an amateur, and I'd win fifteen or twenty bucks, which wasn't bad back then..."
I introduced myself and he gave me his name, Gimelli, as I shook his arthritic hand. He reminded me of my grandfather, who passed away a year and a half ago - not because of similar looks, but it was his baseball cap, his skin of wax paper and wrinkles, and the creaky enthusiasm in his voice that congealed into a sort of familiarity. He was racing this sport in the 1920s, and it just seems fascinating and somehow supernatural for me to converse with somebody who, as a kid, could very well have been in my shoes, talking with somebody who lived through the Civil War. I had a million questions for Gimelli that I didn't get to ask - how'd you start riding? What was the bike like? Why did you stop? What were the crowds at Madison Square Garden like? Did you train? Did you smoke? What was the building like? What were the people there like? What did you feel, think, see? What was the city like? Who did you talk do?
I felt like I was in a Utah Phillips story, knowing that the past didn't go anywhere, that it's with us if we find it. It reminded me of sitting with my grandmother at her kitchen table, clutching cups of tea when we weren't holding each other's hand, me writing down recipes that she was reciting off the top of her head.
But it's a tenuous process, ties to the past, which I learned the next time I lined up on the rail. He walked over from the bleachers and leaned on the rail next to me, across the fence. Maybe he came up to me because I was familiar to him from our last conversation, but maybe there was only a faint recognition picking in his mind, because when he leaned on the rail he asked me, "Hey, do they have any of these kind of races in New Jersey?"
"No," I replied after a moment. "This is the only track in the area."
"Do you win any money at these?"
"No. I guess we just do it for ourselves... or for bragging rights..."
"I used to race. I'm ninety-three years old, and back then, if we mentioned money, they'd take our racing card away!"
The race began and I threw myself into a 15 lap Devil's Scratch, properly exhausting enough to make me nearly vomit at the end, so it was a while before I was able to give this man the proper amount of thought. I enjoyed talking to him, and missing the old people who were in my life that I loved to much. And I gave thanks that my grandfather and grandmother lived out their days with continued mental acuity, though the discomfort of progressively diminishing health.
The past doesn't go anywhere.