Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hitman and Me

Professional wrestling has predetermined outcomes.

In plainer terms, it’s fixed. Rigged. Scripted.

As a form of entertainment that is, by so many measures, based in fiction, it’s difficult for the bookers (the masterminds behind the ongoing storylines, not to mention the outcomes of matches) to truly surprise the loyal fanbase.

My father introduced me to the spectacle of professional wrestling when Hulkamania was running its wildest in the mid-1980s. I grew up on the WWF universe with Hulk Hogan, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, and The Ultimate Warrior as the lead players, and a cast of top tier villains like Andre the Giant, “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig, and “The Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase as the foils to our heroes. By the time I was nine years old, I could read the trends of the pro wrestling world. I could discern the main event level talent, from the midcard, from the jobbers (the guys employed to make bigger stars look good by losing to them in convincing fashion).

A funny thing happened late in my elementary school career. Hulk Hogan decided to leave wrestling and pursue a movie career. Randy Savage semi-retired from active wrestler to color commentator. The Ultimate Warrior’s contract negotiations fell apart and he left mainstream wrestling amidst a river of bad blood. Andre the Giant died.

And out of the ashes, the legitimately unpredictable came to fruition: Bret “The Hitman” Hart won the world championship.

By conventional standards, Bret Hart was a big man--six feet tall, two-hundred forty pounds--but in land of giants he was small. Moreover, prior to the fall of 1992 he was one-half of a mid-level tag team, The Hart Foundation, and then a mid-card singles wrestler.

My reaction when I heard he had dethroned Ric Flair for the world championship at an untelevised show in Saskatoon? A resounding: huh?

In the months to follow, The Hitman won me over. He’d never have the larger than life personality of The Macho Man or the Warrior, or offer the super hero theatrics of The Hulkster. But the WWF sold him as a fighting champion. An everyman who cut a schedule more rigorous than any champion before him, took on challengers of all sizes, and offered matches that were, frankly, better than most any of his main event predecessors. Hart proved himself capable of taking merciless beatings in the most convincing fashion possible for periods of ten to twenty minutes before willing his way to victory via a series of complicated reversals and maneuvers. Gone were the days when Hogan’s main event repertoire consisted of nothing more technical than a body slam. Hart’s signature series featured a side-Russian leg sweep, second-rope elbow drop, snap suplex, and his signature finisher, the Sharpshooter.

After The Hitman beat Flair, he worked his way through a series of fresh-faced challengers. People like a fledgling “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, Papa Shango, and Razor Ramon. By the time Wrestlemania IX rolled around, I was sold on the new champion.

Concurrently, the WWF built up it’s truest challenger to The Hitman. A 500-pound Samoan dressed up like a sumo wrestler, equipped with remarkable speed and agility for his size, billed as Yokozuna.

The two were headed for a showdown in Las Vegas. A match I would have been excited for anyway, but grew fanatical about when my father won a call-in radio show that allowed us to get the pay-per-view show live, for free in our living rooms--the first time I’d ever see a show of this caliber in real-time.

Hart lost the world title that night in a turn of events that was not only heartbreaking but oddly bittersweet. Not only did Hart lose, but seconds later, an impromptu match started up in which newly crowned champion Yokozuna put his title up for grabs against the newly returned Hulk Hogan, who won the championship back.

The Hulkster was the champ, and I should have been happy. Truth be told, in the moment it happened I was happy. But whether a post-steroid shrunken-down Hogan was less appealing, or his act had worn thin, or I had simply outgrown Hulkamania, the luster of that championship run wore off pretty quickly, and I pined for Hart to reclaim his status at the top of the wrestling world.

One year later, Hart did just that, winning his second world championship by pinning Yokozuna (who had beaten Hogan in the interceding months) at Wrestlemania X in Madison Square Garden. While the second title win wasn’t as unfathomable as the first, I still didn’t see it coming, and rejoiced at the changing of the guard.

For the four years to follow, Hart would win and lose the world title three more times, before a bad falling out with WWF management and Shawn Michaels--Hart's arch-rival on-screen and off. He went on to a run in WCW wherein the bookers didn't really know what to do with him. He took a bad kick to the head and suffered a concussion that would end his career. In the recovery process, he suffered a stroke that nearly killed him.

At the risk of being blunt, I saw no shortage of tie-ins between the timing of Hart’s journey and my personal life at the time. He was a scrappy, average Joe champion to look up to at the same time that I started to come into my own, developing my own identity, preferences, and creative endeavors in my middle school years. He retired when I was in college--the lone four-year period when I didn't watch wrestling more than a couple times a year.

His days in the ring behind him, Hart set to work on his memoir. He had kept diaries and notes throughout his career, and tied all of these pieces together for a 500+ page narrative of his life. I’ve read well over a dozen autobiographies and tell-all books from behind the scenes of wrestling. None of them touch Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling. I bought it in the late fall of 2007, and when I moved to Baltimore in January 2008, the book was my constant companion over breakfast, in the wee hours before I fell asleep, and through long waits at the Motor Vehicle Administration. Hart shared backstage stories about his own experience and his experiences with so many other major names in the wrestling, compiling a rich and thorough history of a twenty-year period in the business. Just as Hart had been an inspiration in my early teenage years, in my mid-twenties I found comfort this story that recalled so much of what I had watched in my youth, and provided a welcome escape from life at my first traditional nine-to-five job, in a strange city where I had yet to make many friends.

After I finished Hart’s book, I set aside a weekend night to watch a recently released WWE three-DVD set dedicated to Hart, starting with a two-hour documentary, followed by a collection of his best matches.

That summer I published a tribute article to Bret in my first pro wrestling column on 411mania.com. I received a nice note from Bret’s publicist afterward, thanking me for my words. I wore my Hitman t-shirt when I attended Wrestlemania 25, not because Hart would be there (he wouldn’t), but to pay homage to my biggest hero in the wrestling world at the wrestling world’s biggest event. I was pleased at the number of strangers who complimented me on the shirt. It seemed like a fitting tribute to a superstar who was long gone, but not forgotten.

Then the unthinkable happened. Perhaps even more shocking than Bret Hart’s first world title win, a gray-haired Hitman returned to WWE. He hugged it out with Shawn Michaels on live TV. Then, at Wrestlemania 26, he wrestled his first match in over a decade--a low impact affair in which he was protected, mind you--battling with Vince McMahon. While it’s difficult for a non-fan to comprehend, I don’t know there’s any clearer way to demonstrate two wrestling personalities have buried the hatchet than to watch them act in concert, putting on staged fight in the ring. In order to do so, the men involved need to trust each other to trade punches and grapple hard enough to make it look real, but without malicious intent. Hart locked in the sharpshooter one more time, and it was as though each time McMahon slammed his hand against the mat to tap out was a statement. An apology for the Montreal Screwjob. A gesture of forgiveness for Hart’s decision to leave the WWF for WCW. An acknowledgement of The Hitman’s legacy.

It wasn’t a very good match, but it was a satisfying enough epilogue to a magical career. Bret Hart was alive and OK, and riding off into the sunset with his oldest grudges settled once and for all.

About year into my stay in Baltimore, I came out of the closet as a pro wrestling fan, and the wacky world of wrestling became a regular point of conversation among a few co-workers who were casual fans, or loved this stuff as much as I did in their childhoods. Particularly my next-door office neighbor humored me through updates on the latest goings on, and chided me over my long-term allegiance to Bret Hart.

But it was he who came to me with the news, early summer 2012, that The Hitman would do an autograph signing at a local minor league baseball game in Bowie, Maryland. And so, three of us piled into a car. I wore my Hitman t-shirt once more and clutched my copy of his book, as excited as I’d ever been for a celebrity encounter.

We arrived during the first inning of the baseball game, when the line to meet Bret already stretched three-quarters of the way around the stadium. So we waited. Through hot dogs, and idle chatter with other fans, and bits of the baseball game. We waited for about three hours until we were no more than a dozen people from the front of the line.

The organizers announced that Hart had already stayed past his scheduled appearance time. They were sorry, but everyone left in line was out of luck.

I ducked out of the remaining line and managed to cut through a crowd to reach Bret as he walked toward the backstage area. Long enough to shake his hand and thank him for coming. He smiled and nodded.

In truth, the experience was more dissatisfying than disappointing. Aside from a few days advance notice about Hart’s appearance, I’d never had any real expectations of meeting him, so I can’t say that I was even as heartbroken as I was when I watched him lose his first world title. I had less a sense of sorrow than of unfinished business.

So, two days, later I visited Hart’s website to see what other appearances might show up on his calendar, only to find that he was signing at another minor league baseball game that very night, two hours from home in New Jersey.

It was time for an impromptu road trip.

Though I arrived at the stadium an hour before the start of the game, the line for Bret’s autograph already stretched about as far as it had when I joined it with my friends two nights before. I had a flicker of doubt for sure. That one of the few fates worse than driving back right away empty handed would be to wait another three hours in line and also leave empty handed.

But I kept the faith.

Three hours passed. I read about 50 pages from In Cold Blood, watched an episode of Friday Night Lights on Netflix on my phone, and chatted with the other folks in line about our likelihood of actually getting to meet Bret Hart.

This time, The Hitman didn’t let me down.

The game ended and management started ushering people through more quickly, and I finally got my moment. A shave past midnight, I crouched beside Bret as I had my picture taken with him and looked on as he signed my book. There were still upwards of 30 people behind me, so I kept my remarks short, shaking his hand one more time, patting his back, and telling him I was big fan.

And it was over.

In an ideal world, I’d love to sit down with Bret Hart, buy him a beer and talk about his greatest matches, his travels, and the impact he had on me. But then, I could say the much the same of Adam Duritz, Christopher Nolan, or John Irving. What matters much more is this: I got to spend over a decade of my formative years watching him practice his craft; I got relive and study his work in the years to follow; I got to see him return to the ring; and push comes to shove, I did get to shake his hand twice, and walk away with one of my most cherished pieces of memorabilia.

Later today, I will attend my second WrestleMania live and in person. I’ll cheer for guys like Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose, favorites from the new school. But as I take a sip of beer and take in the spectacle of Wrestlemania 31, I’ll most certainly also take a moment to reflect on wrestling’s star who will always be, for me, “The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be,” “The Excellence of Execution,” Bret “The Hitman” Hart.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

I Screwed Bud

There are no two ways about it: I screwed Bud.

In the sixth grade, I was a year shy of my last big growth spurt that would carry over six feet, but was still tall and may have looked taller for being so skinny. I had yet to start combing my hair with any regularity thus have to assume I carried the appearance of a dirty, malnourished child. That, and the approach of my teenage years left me flooded with crushes over girls, and marginally less shy but no less socially awkward.

And there was Bud. His real name was Wilfred--the sort of name that doesn’t exactly help an uncool kid. Bud was chubby and no more socially adept than me. We bonded upon the discovery that we each owned the same X-Files t-shirt, and even in the same size (absurdly tight on him, laughably loose over my frame).

None of my elementary school friends shared the same lunch period as me, and so Bud and I gravitated to one another. We ate the bologna, or tuna fish, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches our fathers made us (mine a stay-at-home dad, his a single parent for reasons undisclosed) and spoke of TV shows and movies, and concocted our own stories out of speculation about alien abduction and vampires and cannibalistic social studies teachers.

Things skewed a little weird for my tastes. Bud told me about an organization he and a neighbor, Matthew, had founded, dedicated to investigating extraterrestrial happenings in the area. He thought I should join and gave Matthew my phone number. Sure enough, a day later I got a call.

“Wilfred tells me you live near a wooded area,” Matthew said.

“Well, there's a row of trees across the street, in front of the neighbor’s house.”

“Anything else peculiar in the area?”

“There’s a little cemetery around the corner.”

Matthew clicked his tongue. “Sounds like you’re in prime territory for some paranormal happenings.”

The call didn’t last much longer, but I took note of Matthew’s deep voice. Most of the boys I knew were hitting puberty around that time, so the deep voice didn’t necessarily mean he was older, but did open the possibility that the person on the other end of the line was less a kid with a passing fascination in conspiracies and the occult, and more of a grown-up whackjob.

There were more harmless oddities to knowing Bud, too. The point at which, apropos nothing, he decided we should record a radio show together and went so far as to start calling local studios. He wrote our theme song, “It’s Monday-Monday-Monday-Monday, with the Chinman-Chinman-Chinman-Chinman and Bud show!”

I played along. We had our laughs, but just the same, when summer came, Bud wasn’t the sort of friend who I made arrangements to hang out with, or spoke on the phone with. We lived separate lives, and I figured we’d see one another the following school year.

We did. But things had changed.

That summer, I went to sleepover birthday party for Zach, one of my good buddies from elementary school. Four boys in a tent in the backyard, and a reunion of sorts as our school schedules hadn’t aligned well, and I hadn’t seen much of these guys the preceding year. The conversation turned to girls--crushes, first girlfriends. I left the party with renewed friendships, and was all too pleased when seventh grade started and I had plenty of classes with these same guys, not to mention the same lunch period. The same lunch period as Bud, too.

I tried to welcome Bud into the fold. He saved a seat for me the first day and I signaled for him to, instead, come join me at the table where other friends waited. I knew they weren’t a perfect fit, but I might get the best of both worlds. Keep Bud as a friend while also enjoying my own marginal social promotion, even if those two worlds never fully intertwined.

The guys weren’t particularly welcoming of Bud, but neither did he give any clear indication he was interested in befriending them, spending most of those lunch periods engaging only me, and only in eccentric subject matter until I grew annoyed that he was keeping me out of other conversations, and, though I didn’t think of it so consciously at the time, that he was making me less cool by association with him.

Things came to a head when Bud insisted I sit with him, apart from the others, during the recess portion of lunch. Weather permitting, recess took place at the football field, surrounded by a gravel track, surrounded by bleachers. I agreed to sit with Bud, but when I did, he only wanted to talk about the most recent X-Files episode. Zach came over and whispered in my ear that we could run. I gave him a smile, and second later, the two of us sped off along the track, kicking up dust behind us, while Bud called out, “Where are you guys going?” We both knew he was in poor enough shape that he’d never catch up to us.

The next day, Bud spoke to me at recess more warily. The same friend slinked over. We made eye contact and it was clear we would run again.

Too clear.

Bud sighed, “Go ahead and run away.”

Zach was already off and sprinting. I jogged after him. Trying to explain to Bud that I didn’t mean to abandon him, despite the obvious and immediate evidence to the contrary.

My memory is fuzzy after that.

For all of his belief in things supernatural and interplanetary I don’t suspect Bud actually dematerialized or transported himself to another plane. For all I knew, though, he’d might as well have disappeared, because I honestly don’t remember ever seeing him after that day. In my imagined epilogue he ate lonely lunches in some uninhabited corner of the middle school cafeteria. Maybe he found another friend. Maybe he didn’t. I see his father seeing how lonely he was and transferring him to another school in the area so as to get a fresh start. Maybe it was a mutual decision--it never sounded as though Bud had much other family in the area, much tying either him or his father down. So maybe they packed their things in a U-Haul and started a new life in the Midwest or out in California. For all I know, I’ve since walked right by him in a crowded bar in Indianapolis, on the train in Houston, hiking through a wooded area on Yosemite--my eyes on the Redwoods, his analyzing the clear blue sky for signs of saucers.

Plenty of friendships come with expiration dates. The time by which common interests will run dry or geographic distances will make it harder to keep in touch. It’s unlikely Bud and I still would have stayed friends even if I hadn’t run away from him at recess that day.

Still, it was a shit thing to do.

I don’t know Bud now. But I know I screwed him. And I’m sorry.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bad Wheel, Son

It was December 2013 when they returned.

They walked through the door something like apparitions--familiar, but not quite themselves.

They were taller than when last I had seen them they had close-cropped hair and their heads reached only as high as my stomach. In the interceding years, they’d grown to within a head of me--taller, even, if you count their bushy, curly locks.

This was the year when I was responsible for co-coordinating The Homework Club, a weekly after school program held in a church common room and gymnasium in Baltimore. Most kids, like Daquan and Angelo, stopped coming around the time they started high school, and I rarely saw them again.

A younger boy, the spitting image of Daquan when I had first met him, knelt on the floor, pulling a cord time and again before he let his toy car race across the common room floor. It veered badly to the left, crashing into a table leg.

Daquan picked up the car, inspected it for a minute, then handed it to the smaller kid. "You got a bad wheel, son."

I asked Angelo how he was doing.

“Good, sir,” he said. “We came to tutor.”

The tutor corps were mostly Hopkins undergrads, a few grad students, and a ragtag collection of young professionals like myself who lived in the area. We’d never had an alum of the program return as a volunteer. The romantic in me fell in love with the idea on the spot. The realist in me recognized they probably came on that wintry day more in the interest of shooting hoops in the gymnasium than in helping anyone with homework.

They seemed reasonably sincere, though. More sincere at least than the friends they brought with them, Caydence and Sharnell, who, in the opening minutes of their tenure, took to chasing neighborhood girls they knew rather than stopping them from running.

But homework time proceeded more successfully than I would have anticipated. Though the young women paid more attention to their attempts at braiding Angelo’s hair, the boys actually did help two of the other neighborhood kids through their math worksheets and then set to playing chess at a reasonable volume.

As homework time wound down, I assigned groups of tutors to walk kids home at the end of the night. I included Angelo, Daquan, Caydence, and Sharnell as I would other tutors, though I kept them in a cluster and only entrusted the kids they’d made it clear they knew and liked. Angelo nodded along as I explained the responsibility. The others looked past me, at each other, or at the floor, but when I asked if they understood, nodded their heads amidst mumbled a chorus yeses and OKs.

In the gym, Daquan and Angelo joined the older boys in playing “Fifty”--an every man for himself game in which the player who scores earns the right to shoot free throws, then three point shots en route to accumulating fifty points. They showed little interest in facilitating the game, every interest in winning. Daquan had grown big and fast enough to dominate the better part of the field. Angelo, though bigger and stronger, lacked the coordination to fare much better the next oldest cluster of boys. Caydence and Sharnell sat with their backs to the walls, alternately sending text messages and heckling the game.

Jamal, one of the older boys, had opted not to participate in Fifty, instead shooting around, mostly with younger kids, on the opposite side of the gym. There, chasing after a loose ball, he slipped.

It wasn’t unusual for the kids to fall and play possum either as a gag or to save face after an embarrassing tumble. But Jamal stayed down, writhing on the ground as a crowd of children thickened around him. I dispersed them to let him have air, dispatching two to fetch ice from the kitchen downstairs.

“I twisted my leg,” he said between winces.

Gym time expired and I offered my usual countdown to the finish, half-heartedly, standing beside Jamal to guard him from errant throws or unexpected bounces off the backboards.

Typically, the end of gym time was met with a clamor for each kid to get one more shot--a ploy I’d caught onto years before because one shot was never really one more shot. I grew wary of Daquan and Angelo adding to the resistance to return downstairs rather than helping.

They surprised me. Rather than continuing to shoot or pleading for extra time, they corralled loose balls, and corralled the kids, too. Daquan’s voice took on an edge as told a particularly rambunctious younger boy, clutching his toy car in one hand, a half-deflated basketball in the other, to “Come on.” These older kids--neighbors, cousins, siblings to the younger set--commanded a respect outsiders like myself rarely could. They had grown up in the same neighborhood, under the same adults, the same reprimands, the same rules. They spoke the same language.

And so, it came be just me and Jamal in the gym. I asked if he had a cell phone. He took out a small, silver flip phone. I asked he would like to call his parents or if I should. He made the call.

Like most of the Homework Club kids, Jamal’s family lived within a couple blocks of the church. Inside five minutes, his mother and father were both there. Mom’s bosom heaved from the sprint down the street, her stomach distended at just the size and shape that she may have been pregnant, but I didn’t dare to ask.

They checked on Jamal. “I didn’t realize it was just his leg,” Mom said. “When I heard he fell, I thought he might have cracked his head or something.” She continued to breathe heavily, then clutched my hand between hers and pressed by palm to her chest. “Can feel how fast my heart is beating?”

I looked to Jamal’s Dad, ever conscious of my hand all but cupping his wife’s breast.

Fortunately, he was focused on Jamal, trying to get him to stand up. Dad shook his head, accepting the boy was really hurt. “Goddamn it.”

“Charles!” Mom said, letting go of my hand at last. “You’re in a church.”

Dad turned to me, a hand over his mouth. He apologized, just as I became cognizant that, as the person working with their son, still clad in a collared shirt and khakis from work, I looked every bit the loyal church-going saint.

I waved him off. “Don’t worry about it.”

Dad left to fetch a set of crutches from home while Mom told me about how she had hardly sat down, much less slept in the last five days, just removed from the Thanksgiving holiday.

Soon enough Dad was back. He and I helped Jamal up, supporting him with his arms over our shoulders while Mom adjusted the crutches to the proper height. We started the journey out of the gym, but halfway through Mom grew dissatisfied with his crutch technique. Dad and I supported him again while she demonstrated proper form.

Then came the stairs.

The gym was located one floor above the rest of the church. In lieu of a more elegant solution, Dad grabbed Jamal by the back of his jeans and his belt, and tucked under his arm again. He half lifted the boy, as Jamal balanced on the banister with his opposite hand, and otherwise hopped down the stairs on one foot.

Visions of lawsuits danced through my head.

But they made it out down all right, and all the way out the front the door, where Jamal’s parents thanked me and started their journey onward.

The last I heard of them that night, Dad clapped a hand over Jamal’s shoulder. “You got a bad wheel, son,” he said, an unconscious echo of how the night began. “But you'll be all right.”