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Pub Crawling: Reptilian races at Deja Vu Downs



It's Wednesday night at the dimly lit Deja Vu bar, and mixed with the usual sights--customers engrossed in TV sports, groups huddled over their beer at dingy wooden tables--are a few signs that something more lively is going on. Set up along one wall, between two dart boards, is a platform about two feet off the ground and five feet square. It's been roped off like a boxing ring, and painted over the middle of the gray surface is a big white circle. A man with a microphone stands nearby. "Ten minutes to post time!" he booms. "Ten minutes to post!"

The announcer is Ken Campbell, and the platform is known to Vu employees and regulars as the Deja Vu Downs. Every week, in six heats and a final, competitors pit their turtles against each other in a test of speed.

The turtle races have been going on here since May. The evenings patrons are given numbered tickets with their drinks, and before each heat, Campbell calls out numbers he picks from a box. People with winning numbers get to race in that heat; they choose a turtle by picking another number. The turtles wait it out crowded together in a cardboard box with cloth numbers taped to their backs. Usually only one, Eskimo's Dream (number three), is aggressive enough to try to escape.

Once each contestant has picked a contender, the turtles are put in a starting pen in the middle of the platform, a spotlight goes on over the track, and a trumpet round (recorded for the Vu by Brad Goode) signals the start of the race. Campbell gives a lively, horse-race-style play-by-play, and the first turtle to leave the circle wins, The human winner in each heat gets a T-shirt and a chance to compete in the final, for which each contestant chooses a new turtle. The person with the last-place turtle gets a free drink.

Most weeks, the crowd goes crazy. The size of the audience varies, but both regulars and first-timers tend to cheer on the turtles; some even lean over the ropes, scream, and get redfaced. One woman recently kissed her turtle before the race, for luck.

Vu owner Dave Jemilo decided to hold the weekly event after a customer at the Green Mill (which Jemilo also owns) took him to see the turtle races at the Beachview Pub, in Rogers Park. "It was cool," says Jemilo. "It was real crowded and fun."

So he called pet stores and explained his project. "They told me the kind I needed was slider turtles--y'know, like the White Castle burgers? I don't know why they said I needed that kind, but that's what I got." (Two pet stores couldn't really say why either: an employee at the Old Town Aquarium said that what mainly distinguishes sliders from other turtles is a red mark on the ear, and one at the Parkview Pet Shop said sliders aren't unusually fast or particularly trainable.)

Jemilo bought six turtles and a tank, which he set up behind the bar, "where most places put their glasses." Then he built a round track rather than copy Beachview's long, narrow one: "You can see the turtles better this way."

Jemilo coaches one of the turtles, named Ace's Diner; Vu regular Eskimo Al coaches another, Eskimo's Dream; and bartenders and customers at the Vu and the Green Mill coach the remaining four: A.L.'s Pants, Joanie's Fox, Goodnight Irene ("the sentimental favorite," says Campbell), and Judy Daniels ("the only filly in the bunch"). Jemilo says he isn't sure just what techniques the other trainers use, and he's pretty vague about his own, implying that the timid creatures aren't trained at all but just run for the finish line instinctively to escape the spotlight or reach their tank.

When the Anti-Cruelty Society first heard about the races, Jemilo says, its main concern was that the turtles would wander off the platform. So Jemilo had Eskimo Al build a three-inch railing around the track. He hasn't heard from the ACS since.

"We try to do things so the turtles are happy," Jemilo says. "No one's ever died or looked sick." He used to treat them to a meal of goldfish every Wednesday after the races, but they got tired of the fish, and Jemilo switched to powdered turtle food. Next, he says, he might try cabbage and lettuce, which he's heard turtles like.

The turtles' times for each race aren't recorded, but Jemilo says the average winning time is about five seconds. The fastest turtle, and the one that most often wins, is Eskimo's Dream. "He's a crazy turtle," says Jemilo. "He bites [Eskimo Al's] fingers." He says there are rumors the turtle is drugged before the races: "We're gonna get some doctors in here and check it out."

The most frequent loser is Joanie's Fox ("a guaranteed free drink," says Campbell). But Jemilo says there've been slower turtles. Big John, who works the door at the Green Mill, used to race his turtle, Southside Johnny, and "it just sat there," Jemilo says. One night, it was still sitting in the middle of the track by the time the spotlight was shut off. Twenty minutes after the race began, the turtle started to move, and the light was turned back on. Twenty-seven minutes after the race began, Southside Johnny crossed the finish line.

The winner of each week's final gets $25 and an invitation to compete in the Deja Vu Derby to be held next May, "the same weekend as the Kentucky Derby," Jemilo says.

Meanwhile, aside from restricting patrons to one race apiece, there are no rules--yet. "You gotta break one to know it's a rule," Jemilo says; he doesn't want to rope in his rowdy audience too much. "People who come a lot and know what's going on make the most noise," he says. "As soon as they get number three, they're going crazy."

The Vu is at 2624 N. Lincoln. There's no cover on Wednesday; call 871-0205 for more info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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