It was the night of the big race. Santos stood behind the bar at Turtles All the Way Down on a recent, cold Sunday night, moving gracefully as he prepared each drink. Frozen coffee is the standard drink at this Brooklyn dive bar: 1.5 ounces of Irish Whiskey, one scoop of vanilla ice cream, one ounce of Bailey’s Irish Cream Liquor, 1 ounce of Kahlua, one shot of espresso, ½ cup crushed ice, and crushed coffee beans for garnish.
Usually, the bar menu has just three food items: tamales, a hot dog, and a cheese sandwich. But the bar will serve cheeseburgers with extra pickles on special nights like this one.
Like most dive bars, Turtles All the Way Down is small and dark and unglamorous and sells cheap drinks. The room is lit up by the neon lights that cover the wall, and the music is so loud that it requires shouting just to order. Twenty-two different types of draft beer line the middle of the bar. Twenty tall chairs line the bar all in different colors, sizes, and shapes. There is a disco ball that is constantly spinning. And behind Santos, there is a fish tank, the home of the bar’s two racing turtles, Shanti and Jaru.
“Turtles All the Way Down” comes from a famous debate between an elderly woman and a scientist. The woman believed that the world was flat and that the planet was being carried on the back of a tortoise. The scientist didn’t believe in her theory. Still, out of curiosity, he asked the woman what the tortoise was standing on to carry the planet, and the woman responded, “It’s turtles all the way down.” The bar’s two owners, Salvatore Fristnesky and Stephen Pandolfi, were on vacation and debating about the old woman and scientists when Stephen said that “Turtles All the Way Down” would make a good name for a bar. Plus, both men really liked the country song “Turtles All the Way Down,” by Sturgill Simpson. As a joke, the two owners said that they could even race turtles, not thinking it would be such a success.
Every first Sunday of the month, people from all over Brooklyn come to watch Shanti and Jaru race. Shanti is 10 inches long, and Jaru is 11.5 inches. The two turtles are the bar’s pets and very popular in the neighborhood. There is a lot of excitement surrounding the race, bets are placed, and tickets are sold. The rules of the race are simple. Each ticket is one dollar; once someone purchases a ticket, they place a bet on either turtle and if it’s turtle wins, they get a free drink.
On this night, customers talked about the big race and who they thought would win. Jaru is the crowd favorite. He may not look fast, but his tiny legs are quick with speed. Shanti, on the other hand, is slow-moving.
A medium-sized goldendoodle wagged his tail and looked up to the tank where Jaru and Shanti rested. The bar was so dark that it was hard to spot the two red-eared sliders.
There are three races during the day, the first beginning at 4 p.m., and the last race starts at 6 p.m.. Just before each race, the room got hot and began to smell like sweat as more people entered the bar, standing shoulder to shoulder to get a better view of the race. Faces were blocked by the flashes of smartphones. People pushed and shoved each other out of the way as they tried to get pictures and videos of Jaru and Shanti.
Santos, the bartender, handles the races. The turtles are identical, but Santos can tell them apart. Male red-eared sliders have thicker and longer tails. Santos is a tall man who looks like he might’ve played football in the past. Maybe a defensive end or even an outside linebacker. He has a salt-and-pepper beard, large white-framed glasses, and a deep voice to match. He wears a cream-colored snapback with the words “get lost’ written on the front. His skin is the color of toffee, and he has freckles all over his cheeks.
On this night, SantVisit Siteos removed the pucks from the shuffleboard and placed a green turf mat down for the race. He then placed a long divider along the middle of the shuffleboard to indicate the two lanes. The bright lights and loud noises were overwhelming.
Then, a woman with a bullhorn stood on a chair at the end of the shuffleboard table. She yelled “3… 2… 1… GO!”
The turtles were on the turf but didn’t move. Customers started yelling at the two turtles, trying to get them to walk. “Go Jaru… MOVE!” All of the locals know to place their bets on Jaru; he is the reigning champ. New comers are not privy to this information so they place their bets on Shanti thinking the race is an even match.
The music in the bar was already loud, plus the customers yelling over the music to be heard and the announcer with the bull horn trying to keep the energy alive. An overcrowded bar in Brooklyn is the last place anyone would expect two animals to show up. All anyone could do is feel bad for the two turtles. Jaru began to move and the crowd got louder.
After about five minutes, Jaru crossed the finish line. Shanti hardly budged. She wasn’t even facing the correct direction. The energy and focus moved on, from the turtles to the free beer, as customers crowded the bar.
Wearing his oversized leather gloves, Santos put Jaru and Shanti back in their tank. The two turtles had 55 minutes to rest up before the next race.