The story I heard around Red Hook was that this dude named Chris had actually left the neighborhood last Friday and trekked into the big city to go to Madison Square Garden, a venue I haven't been inside since filming Maria Carey there more than ten years ago. MSG, as it is called, is, for you non-New Yorkers, Manhattan's only enormodrome, a grotesque twenty thousand seat arena created by destroying the beloved Pennsylvania train station in one of the worst crimes of urban planning ever perpetrated on midtown. Because there are only so many New York Knicks home games, The Garden hosts an extraordinarily eclectic smorgasbord of events to fill the coffers and justify the imposing volume of real estate it occupies between 7th and 8th Avenues, above the much diminished, subterranean, gloomy and low-ceilinged Penn station. Reverend Moon has rented it out to hold mammoth group weddings and the Democratic Party first nominated Bill Clinton there at the 1992 convention. AK718 and I went several times in the 1990s to all-star salsa marathons featuring the greatest heroes of latin music, sitting in the balcony amidst thousands of screaming Puerto Ricans. It is, in short, a place where anything can happen.
Chris, as it turned out, had gone to the big apple to see some bull-riding. Red Hook after the holiday season is like a sleepy little town, and the news of this excitement spread quickly. (Okay, it's kind of like a sleepy little town all the time). By the time the story reached me after a series of Chinese whispers, the event, which continued all weekend, was being called a must-see, a "Mexican Rodeo," which Chris had allegedly described as "the best forty bucks I've spent all year." Caught up in the hype, I failed to consider what this might mean in a year that was only a few days old.
So it happened that on Sunday afternoon I ended up in the nosebleed seats, four tiers and hundreds of feet up above The Garden floor, accompanied by three beautiful women: The sophisticated and sexy Nadia, designer of sophisticated and sexy dresses; the fabulous stylist, my neighbor, and bullriding outing organizer Linden Elstran; and that happening horticulturalist, the divine Laura "John-Edwards-for-President" Harmon.
For those of you men who have never attended a bullriding extravaganza in the delightful company of the fairer sex, it is a thing highly to be recommended. Both the panting, snorting, testosterone-charged bulls, pawing at the dirt and bucking, and their chiseled, hunky, bowlegged riders, intent on proving themselves in a sweaty contest of meat and sinew, might seem to you to be potential distractions from your own charms, but it is not so: The bulls are far away, and terrifying, yet inspirational; the cowboys, for all their swagger and muscle, look in their powder-blue chaps and tassels like escapees from The Village People. The ladies, breathless and wide-eyed at the action, a sheen of dainty perspiration moistening their temples, seemed delighted to be in the company of a man, any man, perhaps any creature whatsoever of the same gender as those titans battling it out below. (The super mixologist St. John Frizell, aka Mr. Linden, had been supposed to join us, to relieve me of suffering all alone under the burden of so much feminine attention, but his wife, along with the tickets, brought his regrets. He had decided, she said, to stay at home fiddling with the score to some sort of a musical revue in which he finds himself involved. "He passed up bullriding to work on Broadway show tunes," was how she ominously put it. "What does that tell you?")
The show opened with a blitzkrieg of pyrotechnics several generations of hype removed from the local state fair rodeo. A throbbing blend of classic rock and hip-hop beats accompanied the studly bullriders as they strode out into the dirt oval between fiery cascades of sparks erupting from twin Roman candles. Green streams of lasers crackled through the air. It was rodeo-as-professional wrestling, complete with booming baritone voices of doom calling out the introductions over a massive public address system.
In fact, it wasn't a rodeo at all, that traditional collection of events demonstrative of cowboymanship having been stripped down to its purest, most entertaining and death-defying essence; this was to be one hundred and forty minutes of pure, unadulterated bull-riding action. No sheep lassoing, no hogtying, not even any branding, although that last might have gone over well in New York. A massive flag was unfurled down into the arena. We rose for a prayer in which God was urged to "watch over our livestock and our PBR fans." Moments after the introduction of Adriano Moraes, the only three-time Professional Bull Riding champion in the history of the sport, from the great state of Sao Paulo, we were asked without irony to sing along to the national anthem of "the greatest nation on earth." Not, apparently, the greatest in terms of bullriding. That would be Brazil.
Stylin' stylist: Linden rocks the oh-so-rodeo-appropriate Carniceria Garcia tote bag, fresh from Christmas in Oaxaca. Complete with the butcher's cellphone number and a list of meats purveyed!
We sat down. The lights came up, and the bulls came out. They had names worthy of the WWF, or of some minor bad guy in a minor Schwarzenegger movie: Slammer, Superduty, Heat Flash, Peacemaker, Big Mack, Outsider, Lynch Mob, Shock the Monkey and Scene of the Crash were just a few. The only bull named with a sense of humor was naturally my favorite, Cheeseburger with an Attitude. Leaving aside the Brazilians, the riders had names just as well suited to Hollywood. Travis Briscoe, Cord McCoy, Beau Hill, and Colby Yates might have stepped right out of the 70mm widescreen frame of a John Ford epic. One wondered, in short, how real it all was. It was certainly a marketing driven event, with the names of sponsors rarely seen in New York City plastered around the arena: Daisy, the B B Gun purveyor, Jack Daniels, Copenhagen Snuff and Cabela's, the Camo-porn emporium.
But the action was thrilling. There was no denying its reality. The bulls launched out of their pens, the riders hanging on for dear life, trying to withstand for eight whole seconds the onslaught of three-quarters of a ton of muscled haunches flailing in the air. The infuriated animal in its blind rage wanting one thing and one thing only: to fling the pestilential, tormenting rider from its back. All in all I found it the most beautiful expression of the antipathy one senseless animal can feel for another.
It is a balletic, violent duet between man and beast, one whose artistry and partnership is reflected in the unique methods used to score a bullriding outing. Two judges have fifty points each to distribute at the end of a successful ride. One judges the rider, the other the bull. On a top-scoring, maximally enervated bull, a rider who maintains rhythm, poise and savoir faire for a complete eight seconds may be rewarded with a maximum one hundred points. Anything above 80 is remarkable, above 90 historical. Sunday's winner? From the great state of Goiás, Brazil, Valdiron de Oliveira.
UPDATE: The PBR, apparently, is a big enough deal that 4 judges judge the rider and 4 judges judge the bull.