As a socially liberal, dark-rimmed glasses-wearing Manhattanite, I’m about the furthest you can get from “country.” The only cowboy I’ve encountered is the Naked Cowboy. The closest I’ve ever been to a farm is the Union Square farmers’ market. My idea of hunting is playing Big Buck Hunter at Crocodile Lounge. But despite it all, there I was — watching a Professional Bull Riders event at Madison Square Garden this past Saturday. Why? Because there’s nothing I like more than feeling hopelessly out of place.
I had taken my mother there as Christmas gift. Mary Ann, despite growing up in Queens and sounding like Fran Drescher with a bad sinus infection, had through the years developed an inexplicable romance with all things country and western. From George Strait to George W. Bush, she’d never seen a cowboy she didn’t like — and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. She swears she lived in the frontier in a past life, but I think it’s just a side effect from her meds. (Tomato, tomatto.) It actually wasn’t my first time at a PBR event; my friend and I had gone to one the year before out of boredom and morbid curiosity. Up until then, the only bull riding I’d ever seen was courtesy of liquored-up Murray Hill girls hiking up their skirts to straddle the mechanical bull at Johnny Utah’s in Rockefeller Center — otherwise known as “the sluttiest 8 seconds in sports.” Though a real PBR bull riding event is a lot more organized, it’s still just as awkward to watch.
Don’t get me wrong, bull riding is thoroughly badass. We’re talking about a sport where men try not to get crushed, trampled, gored, stomped or otherwise fucked up by 1,500-pound bulls that have names like Bushwacker, Smackdown and Meathook. This is not to be confused with bullfighting, bull riding’s more violent, foreign cousin that Ernest Hemingway endlessly jerks off to in The Sun Also Rises.
Bull riders don’t kill the bulls, they simply mount them and hold on for dear life — just like what sex with Jonah Hill must be like. The sport by itself is awesome, but when placed against the backdrop of New York City, let alone inside Madison Square Garden, things become really weird really quick. The thought of bulls shitting on the same hallowed ground as where the ‘94 Rangers won the Stanley Cup and where the ‘70 Knicks captured the franchise’s first NBA title is a little hard to swallow (then again, cattle excrement might be an appropriate addition to the Garden considering how shitty both teams have been playing as of late). To make things even more weird, the PBR always comes to the city in January, and there’s nothing stranger than having to navigate through throngs of people dressed up like cowboys and cowgirls in snow and sub-zero temperatures. Sorry to break it to you, Chase Outlaw and Pistol Robinson (yes, these are bull riders’ actual names), if you need to wear a down jacket from the Burlington Coat Factory over your cowboy shirt and bolo tie, it’s probably too cold for bull riding.
The bull riders aren’t the only ones who dress like a Mumford and Sons video. Unfortunately for me, so do the fans. In a sea of 10-gallon hats and cowboy boots, I stuck out like a sore New York asshole. If my flat-brimmed Yankees cap didn’t clue the rest of the crowd that I didn’t belong there, the European-made Tretorn galoshes I was wearing definitely did. This is not to say I didn’t have an opportunity to blend in. I could have bought an authentic PBR cowboy hat or an offensively large belt buckle for upwards of $40 a pop at the merch stand. The $12 beers seemed like a steal in comparison — and I would have needed to drink about a dozen of them to actually consider wearing a cowboy hat.
Perhaps the most confusing part of the night from the perspective of this New Yorker was the entertainment — the theme of which was decidedly Caucasian. I figured the DJ would play a lot of country music in between the action — and he did — but once I heard the likes of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” I knew I was being trolled. Before I knew it, it was halftime. Whereas at a basketball game, a lucky fan might have a chance to shoot a free throw for a prize, at PBR fans suited up in camouflage hunting gear and tried to hit a stuffed deer with NERF guns. Then people in the stands tried throwing frisbees into the back of a Ford pickup truck. The action got underway again, but not before the announcers pointed out that New York Giants tight end Bear Pascoe was in attendance. When the cameras flipped to him, I saw that he was dressed like a Texas oil tycoon, and then I no longer knew what was real anymore.
As the competition drew to a close, a rider named Fabiano Vieira (a Brazilian!) emerged as the night’s winner, beating out more than a dozen of the best bull riders in America. I’m definitely not one to root against the red, white and blue, but it was refreshing to cheer for someone whose name ended in a vowel for a change.
And as I looked around, I saw something remarkable. The entire arena was on their feet and cheering for Vieira too. And then it hit me. These people were there to have fun, and they didn’t care who they had fun with. They welcomed me with open arms, just like they welcomed Vieira. Whatever awkwardness I felt in the presence of cowboys and stetsons and lassos was on me, not them, because even though they were guests in my city, I was a guest in their world. After stripping out my cynicism and insecurities I was left with the startling truth…
I’m a New York hipster who likes bull riding.
Featured image courtesy of New York Natives, Photographer: Chris Vespoli