At UCLA, Thursday nights are generally thirsty, trashy, trendy, or some other alliterative adjective. Turtle-racing Thursday was something entirely outside of my repertoire until this past week when the reptilian mystery sport was revealed to me in the back of Brennan's pub in Marina del Rey. Despite its rather normal outward appearance, Brennan's is the epicenter of the turtle-racing phenomenon, not only in Marina del Rey, but the whole of Los Angeles. For the last 39 years, Brennan's has been racing red-eared slider turtles in front of tens and tens of fans that come weekly to view riveting reptilian races.
Personally, I was entirely unfamiliar with the sport until last week when I was invited a dinner party; this invitation did not only contain the usual promise of wine and wisdom, but there was also the odd promise of "turtle racing." With the help of Urban Dictionary, I initially assumed that it was a euphemism for smoking marijuana, but I have been around long enough to know that a code name is entirely unnecessary, especially in The Great, Green State of California where dispensaries are a dime-a-dozen and smoke shops outnumber Starbucks. In reality, Los Angeles is a city known for taking ridiculous things seriously, so I really had no reason to doubt the legitimacy of this endeavor. However, questions remained: real-life animals or replica reptilia, land or sea, tortoise or terrapin?
Five of us crammed into a Lyft and embarked on our journey to a soundtrack of 50 Cent, Eminem, and Mariah Carey from a playlist called "dANCE." When "Juicy" by Biggie Smalls began playing, our driver asked us if we were even alive when that song came out (I was one-year-and-six-days old, David). Instead of answering, I asked if he felt more in touch with the absurdity of life as a consequence of his occupation. Camus would have been proud as we ventured into unknown Southern California territory with only three bottles of wine and the dream of finding a turtle track; questions of animal cruelty, parimutuel betting, and the subjectivity of reality hung in the air.
Strangely, Brennan's Pub looks like a turtle: it is a stout, stand-alone, symmetrical green structure with a worn and weathered exterior. Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? The inside is typically divey, a strange meeting/mélange of a classic sport's bar and an eternal home for Irish alcoholics everywhere. The Clippers-Spurs radiated down in blue-light to a rapt and intoxicated audience--Thursday night had begun. Admittedly, I didn't get a very good a look at the inside of the establishment (which, to my memory, was a haze of different types of wood and colors of bottles), for the real action, the turtle titillation, the emydidae excitement, was outside, behind the building itself.
For some reason, I expected an elaborate set of mechanisms, a sort of strange contraption through which the turtle races would be conducted. Instead, I stood on my tiptoes and peered through crowds, only to see a large white circle painted on the ground, surrounded by bleachers. I began to think that perhaps I had stumbled upon a fight club instead of a friendly turtle race. As the crowd opened up further to reveal the entirety of the racecourse, my confusion was not assuaged in the slightest. It was really just a circle. Now, however, I could see countless PBR advertisements and assorted turtle murals on the walls, which reassured me that we were in the right place.
The audience was full of mouth-breathing men sporting Dockers and non-ironic handlebar mustaches and second-tier frat-stars with a healthy degree of internalized misogyny. The women present wore a great deal of Ed Hardy and many looked as if they had looted Ashton Kutcher's hat collection: 2002 incarnate. The general aesthetic fell somewhere in between Duck Dynasty and Pink! Mixed amongst the general populace were a few veterans, confident and self-assured; they seemed to say, "this isn't my first turtle race and it certainly won't be my last," as they stretched out their legs and took drags from their cigarettes. As I took in the sights of Brennan's, I began to realize that I had stumbled upon an unusual and unstudied sub-culture.
The program itself began slightly after 10:00 pm, later than advertised so that the audience could be appropriately liquored up before the events could unfold, I'm sure. Anyone could rent a red-eared slider for $5.00 (or you could bring your own, which no one did), although women were significantly more encouraged for reasons that will become clear in due time. At this point, each member would pick a name for his or her turtle; I couldn't help thinking that one turtle could be Bobby, Nacho, and Sacagawea in the course of one evening. The identity crisis that could provoke must be devastating. All the while, scantly clad waitresses orbited the center ring, bringing shots and shooters to patrons.
At this point, the referees began their spiel, detailing the important rules of Brennan's Thursday Night Turtle Racing to the glee of an eager and animated crowd. Only one rule is important--the rest are subject to arbitrary invocation by the referees--and that rule is "no pointing at the turtles." This rule, pointless as it may be, generates a great deal of income for the pub: first offense, $10; second, $30; third, $50. The court of peer pressure makes compliance swift and effective. Another notable rule, formerly known as the LeBron James rule and currently known as the Bill Belichick rule is "don't be a douchebag." With these intransigent guidelines in place, the notorious Placement of Turtles began.
To properly understand the Placement ritual, one must understand the intricacies of the arrangement: a small ring of transparent plastic is put in the center of the wider circle in order to hold the turtles before the plastic ring is removed and the shelled-contestants are released to make their not-so-speedy way to the circular finish line. However, the placement of the turtles in that transparent center is an arena for women to exhibit their assets while "Drop It Like It's Hot" plays over the sound of boisterous hoots, hollers, and catcalls. They are not allowed to bend their knees and must therefore bend seductively at the waist. Of course, they are often accused of breaking the rule under false pretenses and moved to the other side of the ring such that the other half of the audience has a better angle. It's democracy meets misogyny--a truly brilliant contribution to society. As for the social component of this ceremony, it's considered pretty sexy for a guy to ask someone to place his turtle--it's akin to buying her a drink, but obviously much classier.
The race itself pales in comparison to the culture surrounding it; the transparent barricade is lifted and the shelled champions lurch towards the finish line. The little guys are much faster than I expected, as some of the races can be pretty heated. Of course, some drunken fool inevitably ends up pointing, the referees call a foul, and the fool is forced to pay his fine. Each time this happens, the race must restart; oddly, the racing procedure (placement, fouls, etc.) is much slower than the creatures themselves.
Instead of winning money, those who rent winning turtles get blue ribbons and the opportunity to pick "valuable prizes" from the deluxe grab bag graciously provided by Brennan's. Legal issues are avoided as winners go home with swag like turkey basters and People Magazine's Where Are They Now: American Idol Edition. Everybody wins.
After the last race, two hours and change later, everyone is wildly intoxicated, mainly on alcohol and the degradation of women. And the turtles are pretty cool too, I guess.
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