I’m hungover and five minutes late to a rodeo in Manhattan. It’s a rainy, windy, hellishly cold grey afternoon. The madness of Professional Bull Riders in Madison Square Garden on a Sunday afternoon awaits.
I throw on whatever I was wearing the night before, grab my umbrella. Ready myself and catch a cab uptown. The traffic’s terrible and the cabby likes to go 85 mph if there’s ten feet of clear pavement, then slams on his brakes at the stoplight. My belly’s all in knots. It’s so windy, the rain is sideways, old grannies and small dogs who aren’t tied down go flying through the air.
At MSG, I’m missing the first rounds because I have to wait at the security line.
“Is this a camera,” asks the guard searching my bag, smacking her gum.
“What does it look like,” I say.
“You don’t have to get smart,” she says.
“You don’t have to be stupid,” I say.
I’m feeling a bit unhinged. The place is far too bright, there are too many people and no one seems to have any answers. At Will Call, I give my reservation number from my phone but the tiny man behind the bulletproof glass tells me I need to print my ticket out.
“That’s madness,” I say. “This is the ticket here on my phone.”
“There’s a Kinkos on 37th,” the man says behind the glass. “They can print it for you.”
“Is this 1998,” I scream. “You don’t take e-tickets?”
“That’s just our policy,” says the man.
“Bullshit,” I say. “I paid for the fucking ticket.”
The little man eyes the security guard.
My head feels like a dragon woken from a sex dream. My belly’s gone sour. Luckily the benzos are smoothing things out just before I lose it and bludgeon the tiny man in the booth with his own penny loafers.
“Fine,” I say. “Kinkos on 37th.”
Defeated, I walk back into the rain and an Incredible Hulk-sized man approaches me and screams, “Ticket!”
“How much,” I say.
“$25,” says Hulk.
“No way,” I say.
“I’ll do $20,” Hulk says. “They’re yours.”
“I’ll give you 10.”
Hulk hands me the ticket, I hand Hulk the cash.
Back inside I take the escalator up five floors to the nose bleeds and my mind does gymnastics under the spell of good Kush.
People have been riding bulls for almost 4,000 years. At first it was a form of bullfighting in what’s now Greece. They literally rode the bulls to death. Then in the 1800s, rodeos sprang up in America with all kinds of different events. Calf wrangling and barrel racing and bucking broncos. But now, bull riding is big business. More NASCAR than county fair — it has sponsors, cowboy groupies and multi-million dollar broadcast deals on network TV. The riders are superstars. And so are the bulls.
When I reach my floor I beeline to the concessions for a coffee, a water and a beer and down them in that order. The hallways of MSG feel like a high school. A wide mix of people walk around. All colors, shapes and sizes. Black girls with cornrows, Jersey shore muscle heads and Brooklyn hipsters in ironic D.A.R.E shirts. This is no Texas rodeo. It’s fun for everyone. Yankees, rednecks and a whole range of nice folks and assholes.
Inside the great coliseum, the jumbotron is a spectacular monster of lights and honks and horns and announcers that are too excited for their own good. Shirts, cowboy hats, boots, jackets, belt buckles all bearing the PBR logo, which stands for Professional Bull Riders, the sport’s governing body. Until that moment, I had thought the whole thing was sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The last rodeo I went to I was ten years old in some podunk town in North Carolina. We had front row seats. A bronco fell and broke his leg. They put a sheet up and shot it right there in the dirt and chained it to a tractor and pulled it off.
I never went to the rodeo again.
The floor is covered in dirt and a green circle cage in the middle where the judges sit. The rodeo clowns wait for the next bull and rider. One of them has a mic and is bantering with the announcer. They crack a few clean dirty jokes. “You got one of those caucasian butts,” says the announcer to a clown doing some kind of twerk. T-shirts drop from the ceiling attached to parachutes. There’s a giveaway if a guy can guess the price of a showcase a la Price Is Right. He had to get within 100 bucks and he’s $10 off. An obese man in a motorized cart behind me shouts, “Shit. Close enough. Give him the fucking gift card.”
The bulls are the only honest things in the whole arena. People love sports that involve life and death. Everyone goes to NASCAR races, admit it or not, because they want to see someone crash. Same in bull riding. It’s the horror, or the possibility of it, that drives thousands of people on a rainy Sunday into a sports stadium in New York City to watch grown men ride 2000 pound animals with one hand floating free. It’s the stakes that create the glory. He might win a massive belt buckle and a cash prize or be paralyzed for the rest of his life. Grab the popcorn, kids! It’s violent, wholesome entertainment for the whole damn family!
Watching the bulls in the air reminds me of cave paintings from 40,000 years ago found in Europe. It was man’s first psychological triumph to tame the animals. Not kill them, but use them for work, then for their own enjoyment. To respect their power. There is no other professional sport with live animals in the US. When the rider is high in the air, he is one with this ancestors. He is one with the bull. But this could be the intoxicants talking.
My head is buzzing in a very straight ahead kind of way. During a commercial break, there’s a trailer for a Nicholas Sparks movie about bull riding on the jumbotron. Overly Handsome Cowboy meets Overly Beautiful Waitress and they fall in love only the Overly Beautiful Girl is actually the daughter of a famous bull rider.
“I promised myself I’d never date a bull rider,” she says.
It gives me a flashback of fooling around in the back of a movie theater in my small town when I was 14 during the Luke Perry bull riding movie called 8 Seconds. Looking back the title seems fitting for a movie to watch during teenage heavy petting.
The cowboys are all American or Brazilian, which makes sense. Gauchos, I think. Or is that Argentina? I’m rooting for the bulls anyway. I want nature to conquer man.
Some names of Bulls of the Year: Bushwacker, Asteroid, Bones, Chicken on a Chain, Dillinger and Bodacious, who was the most dangerous bull of all time. He was retired after inflicting a number of injuries. He gorged his last rider, broke his nose and burst his eye sockets.
I’m trying to focus my eyes on the tiny bulls and riders from so far away up here in the cheap seats. I decide to get closer to the action. I buy a comically large beer and head to the skybox section hoping it will lead me closer.
“Hold up now,” says the old man guarding the entrance. “You don’t have a ticket to be in here.”
“I’m on assignment for Sports Illustrated,” I lie and keep walking. “Don’t worry.”
“Look, son,” he says, this time touching me. “You’re not getting in.”
“I don’t want to get you fired, Gramps,” I say. “You’re so close to retirement.”
“I’m calling security,” he says.
“Let me at least call my editor and see if we can sort this out,” I say and make like I’m searching for my phone.
“Can’t find my phone. Mind holding my beer,” I say and hand it to him.
Then take off running. I can hear him on the radio calling for security. I try different doors but everything’s locked. I’m at a dead end and my head’s so lost I’m thinking one of these doors will lead me right out into the action. The bulls right there jumping at my face. Instead the only unlocked door leads to a bank of elevators. I push the down button. I can hear Gramps coming down the hall gaining on me. The elevator dings right as he gets there. The elevator opens and it’s packed with cowboys and VIPs.
I get in and as the doors close Gramps comes running.
“Stop that guy,” he screams waving the beer and balancing the walky talky on his shoulder trying to press the elevator button. “He’s not supposed to be in there!”
As the door closes they look at me.
“People get too drunk at these events,” I say. “There are families here.”
On the way down a middle-aged VIP with a toothpick turns to a cowboy and says, “I just want to say you’re a legend.”
“Thanks,” says the cowboy.
“A living legend,” I say.
He tips his hat.
The elevator opens on the ground floor. We’re right in front of the action right in time for the awards. The cowboys are signing autographs. We all get out and the legend walks away.
“Who was that,” I ask Toothpick.
“Ty Murray,” he says as if I’m stupid.
(Later I look Ty Murray up. Nine-time world bull riding champ. Married the Alaskan singer songwriter Jewel. They call him the King of Cowboys.)
“I know who he is,” I lie. “Just making sure you knew.”
When I walk outside I realize I’ve lost my umbrella, but I don’t care. The sun is out and I need a drink.