Friday, March 19, 2010

You Say Pilates, I Say Pelotas by Pelota Políte

Can you beat this price for a fun night out? Parking was free and admission only a dollar last Friday night at Orlando Jai Alai. Heck, I pay twice that much when I visit mom at prison every Christmas.

Nobody knows who president and long-time owner Hort Soper sold the FRONTON to, but LIVE jai alai continues through mid April. The FRONTON has been open since 1962 when it was a glorious palace in a Casselberry cow pasture.

Jai Alai is more than a bunch of Spanish guys whipping a goat ball back and forth at a concrete wall. Well, maybe that is it, but the ancient Basque sport defies expectations. For one, it's multi-cultural and multi-national now. And for two (am I on two?), there is grace and poetry in its motion. The large wicker CESTAS they wield make one think of a cornucopia. It's like, you keep waiting for the goat ball - called a PELOTA - to transmogrify as it reemerges from their basket. You might see a pumpkin or gourd come out and smash against the wall. Maybe that's just me. Fronton etiquette suggests that tripping is appreciated but not necessary.

Each round is twelve games with eight teams. They play Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. How can they possibly maintain their enthusiasm, you ask? The roar of the crowd. Some roared with the aid of their Stephen J. Hawking boxes, but the love comes through nonetheless. If you were like most who attended, you were over 55 and therefore got in free. And for $2.50 you get a beer or some Paul Masson Chablis. College students? Dollar beers with I.D. Bring the kids. Relax in the dimness and snooze. Bring a Snuggie.

I didn't gamble Friday. I'm broke. But I could still treat myself to a cheap date. I went stag. Soaked in the local color and sucked in a few Coors Lights.

But plenty of gamblers covered for me. Post time lines were long and pari-mutuel satisfaction can be had if you are looking for that. I saw several ATM machines in the place, one on each level. There are three: the Conscious, the Sub-Conscious and the Id. Where I parked my car, there were two empty envelopes from SunTrust Bank. I checked them both hoping to find an overlooked twenty. Empty. Somebody's HOT tonight.

Near the ticket window, you can get an Official Program. It costs $1.25. The big fellow selling them saw the camera on my belt and told me: "No flash photography. It distracts the players. When the ball's going 180 mph you don't want to mess around."

His left eye was tightly cinched shut. He appears to have a hollow eye socket. I tried not stare. Perhaps in his past, a shutter bug got the better of him. But I don't think he played jai alai. His largesse belies frequent inactivity. But he might have been, who knows? My eye nervously gave a sympathetic twitch, and I assured him I would turn off the camera flash.

He pointed to ticket taker. "Check with that guy if you're going to take pictures though. Let him know what you're doing."

Taking tickets is Dale A. Gray Smoke, a big dude with a gray pony tail. His menacing appearance is offset by a kind and ingratiating manner, but you just know he could easily free your body of limbs if he wanted to. Seeing I was some sort of scribe, Smoke offered that he was a card-carrying Cherokee. He pulled out his wallet and proudly showed me his Native-American Identification. He smiled and conceded some French and Irish lineage as well. Getting his approval to take snapshots, I was eager to stay on his good side. I smiled big, and again, tried not stare at a unique growth bulging off his right eyelid. Criminy! Everybody got FUBAR eyes around here? Tell me where to get some protective eye goggles, please. Of course, I just thought this. I liked my limbs and had a mental flash at an angry Sasquatch. He said it was OK to take pictures and told me to check with Hollow Eye over at the programs counter. I had a feeling these two weren't talking to each other much these days.

Retired from a 35-year career with Seminole County Public Works, Smoke traded in his gear from the Roads-Stormwater Division to man the fort at the turnstiles. With a slight beer belly poking out of his calf-skin vest, his blue jeans were now faded white. And the turquoise Cherokee bauble hanging from a leather strap around his neck gave me a nice feeling that all was right with this place. He added some Indian gambling legitimacy to visitors. I thought that might be why he worked the door - that and the Sasquatch abilities. He gets about 25 hours a week at Jai-Alai. "Retirement is not much," he says. "This helps out."

Irate race book fan Stan Paul joined our conversation to ask Smoke who I was. "Who is this guy?" Looking at my crowd photos later, Paul seemed to be primarily interested in the horses. My crowd photos reveal him intently studying the program and sitting at the Simulcast Race Book viewing tables. They're downstairs near the escalators. Smoke gave me his blessing and a red-faced and possibly tipsy Paul continued. He seemed keen that I share a growing frustration.

"I handle about $200,000 minimum."


"Handle. Bet. And these damn Seminole County government guys are keeping us from gambling. I got friends who have to drive 50 miles to place a damn bet. It's all about losing jobs. If we could get gambling here, people could get some damn jobs."

With that he shook my hand, told me I was a real "character" and went outside for a real smoke.

Seminole County prohibits Vegas-type gambling and poker rooms. Volusia County (Daytona Beach) is the nearest oasis for people like Paul. Orlando Jai-Alai offers pari-mutuel gambling. Times are tough. Their existing patrons can't keep it bouncing back for long. Competition is fierce. There's the other gambling outlets, the Internet, the TV show "LOST", general housecleaning and personal grooming to contend with.

It's definitely fallen on hard times. The linoleum is dull. The place needs a paint job. The trophy case has a fluorescent light that flickers on faded pinups from the past. You feel a vague emptiness when you walk through the place, like some department of motor vehicles in an Eastern Block country. And with the vagrant appearance of many of the regulars you get the feeling you've stumbled into some land of the dead at a post-nuclear Mall of America. Some of these people look like Los Alamos test subjects. Hey look, there's the cast from The Hills Have Eyes going up the escalator. And going down the other escalator are what appear to be retired strippers from nearby coochie-joints like Club Juana and Circus Circus. They've finally hung up their G-strings and jeer at the players from their second-level seats. Payback's a bitch. They yell stuff like:

"Let's Go, Jericho!"

"Over serve!"

"You are the WORST player EVER!"

"Ace 'em, Sebio! Ace 'em!"

"Andy, you would'a got that ball if it was a cigarette!"

"Whassa-matter, Carrot? They not feeding you at home!"

"Bye bye. Incoming!"

"Hip-hip, Sebio!"

However, some ladies of the fronton, perhaps influenced by the Moorish invasion of Spain, merely intone with an ululation. Also known as an ololuge or ololygmos, this noise is a long, wavering, high-pitched sound resembling the howl of a dog or wolf with a trilling quality. It is produced by emitting a high pitched loud voice accompanied with a rapid movement of the tongue and the uvula. Coors Light is a known uvula relaxer, so this behavior is really only natural when you think about it.

Tonight's games are about to begin. The Star Spangled Banner plays. It's a recording. Lee Greenwood sings it. About 500 people rise and grow tearful.

Then the players march out. White pants. A rainbow assortment of colorful shirts. The number on the front is the Team number. The number on the back is the PELOTARI number. White helmets with no face mask or brims. Before each game, the Jannouncer in the box overhead says, "THE PLAYERS SALUTE YOU!" They raise their CESTAS in the air. This also shows that they are unarmed. No Mausers. The Jannouncer plays music. Lester Lanin's "España Cañi." It means "Spanish Gypsy." It's a famous instrumental pasodoble by Pascual Marquina Narro from 1925. AKA "Spanish Gypsy Dance," it may be the best known snippet of Spanish music ever. Popular worldwide. Used during bullfights in Spain and elsewhere. The refrain is sometimes played to stir up baseball fans. The Beatles played it in Liverpool and it is often used by the Hawthorne Caballeros Drum and Bugle Corps, whoever the hell they are. Did I mention ballroom dancing? SALUDOS!

With the introductions done, a man resembling Lou Pearlman's fat weird uncle teeters up the awkward steps to find his seat. That could be some of the Backstreet Boys in tow behind him. No. Were there any black Backstreet Boys? No.

Each step is about six feet wide and four feet long by eight inches high. So only Sasquatch or Dale A. Gray Smoke might easily amble up these puppies. Most people would wisely take caution. That, or they face making a grandma goose step or suffering a groin injury.

Pearlman's almost made it to the top, but just as he gets there - whoa-whoa-whoa - he tries to fly and spills his beer. A Backstreet Boy steadies him and he heads for the lights at the nacho counter.

The DJ Jannouncer plays music. Manfred Mann's "Blinded by the Light." Again with the eyes here. Eye safety seems understandably important in the FRONTON. Most assuredly, the songs chosen by the Jannouncer served as a warning to the PELOTARIS. This must be Eye Safety Week. As I pondered this, the jukebox in my head played on and on:

"Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor
"These Eyes" by The Guess Who
"Doctor My Eyes" by Jackson Brown
"Hungry Eyes" by Eric Carmen
"Private Eyes" by Hall and Oates
"For Your Eyes Only" Sheena Easton
"Don't it Make My Brown Eyes Blue" by Crystal Gayle
"Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" by Willie Nelson
"Eyes Without a Face" by Billy Idol
"Eye in the Sky" by Alan Parsons Project
"Hit Me With Your Best Shot" by Pat Benatar
"Maxwell's Silver Hammer" by The Beatles
"Blind" by Talking Heads
"She Blinded Me With Science" by Thomas Dolby
"See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me" by The Who
"In the Dark" by Billy Squire
"Dancin' in the Dark" by Bruce Springsteen

Didn't hear "Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison or "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes. Guess tonight wasn't Ladies Night.

Play starts and I am clueless. For "Rules, Terms, Equipment" please refer to the PHOTO ALBUM tab on this fan page. Same for the wagering. Too much to go into here. I'm bad at this, so for you, it would be like hearing driving directions from Stevie Wonder.

I watch and feel grateful for the dim lights and soothing effects of my Coors Light. The brew fends off the inevitable back-and-forth crick in my neck from watching the ball. The Jannouncer speaks occasionally.

"Corky on the inside."

"Possible perfect game for the 8."

My mind wanders, and I get wrapped up watching a woman escort her drunk husband down the steps and out the side EXIT. I get a little sleepy, lulled by the old stripper ululations when suddenly:


Has a 180-mph PELOTA found its purchase through a portal in the chain link fence? That fence is there to protect players from fast-moving drunk fans. Or has the irate race book fan Stan Paul whopped me one? A stripper lady and Lou Perlman's fat weird uncle kneel beside me in my grogginess. I am doused with the rest of my Coors Light. I am revived, battle scarred and ready for more action. There's no place like home.

Pelota fever. Catch it.

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