Sunday, April 2, 2017

Wrestling Show Reading

Most places I go, I read.

I’m notorious for sitting on a weight bench and reading at two-minute intervals between sets. I read in restaurants when I’m out to eat alone. I read at bus stops (and would read on the bus, too, if I weren’t prone to motion sickness).

And, yes, I’ve read at professional wrestling shows.

There was a period from 2008 to 2013 when I attended my share of pro wrestling shows on my own, because I was traveling, or for lack of any interested parties to go with me; it was also as a bit of a statement of independence--that if I wanted to go to a show, I wouldn’t let the absence of company keep me from something I'd enjoy. It started with a couple shows in Baltimore. It spread to shows in California, when I made a short-lived tradition out of following WWE’s annual west coast swing along my California vacation at the end of CTY summers.

And then there was the King of Trios.

Prior to fall of 2012, the only wrestling shows I had attended were put on by WWE, WCW, or TNA—the three biggest US-based national wrestling promotions of the last twenty years. I would venture that most wrestling fans don’t make it past these three, and, in fact, that few have made it past WWE or WCW. These brands each have (or, in WCW’s case, had) national television deals and conducted tours that took their show across the US and even abroad. They were home to all of the household names--the Hulk Hogans, Steve Austins, Rocks, Ric Flairs, and Randy Savages of the world, and all of the guys who were a step down from that legendary status but that people remember from childhood fanship had stopovers there--acts like The Big Boss Man, Ricky Steamboat, and Tatanka.

Guys who work the independent wrestling scene may be on their way up to a national promotion, or they may be riding a wave of fame after having performed at that level. Then there are a bevy of performers who never have and never will make it past regional stardom, but nonetheless ply their trade long and successfully enough to make a living at pro wrestling.

Chikara is one such indie. It’s owned by Mike Quackenbush, and operates primarily out of the northeast and Mid-Atlantic, run in conjunction with Quackenbush’s wrestling school. Quackenbush himself is a mainstay on the independent scene who has crossed paths with his share of big names but never ended up with one of the aforementioned major promotions. (Sidebar: Quackenbush also happens to be an alum of CTY’s writing program).

Most years, they hold King of Trios, a three-day, single elimination tournament in which teams of three wrestlers go head to head, typically featuring a mix of Chikara mainstays, indie talent from other parts of the world, and big names of yesteryear reunited with old comrades. It’s about equal parts wrestling event and festival, featuring three solid shows, yes, but also pre- and post-show meet and greets in which wrestlers will shake hands with fans, pose for pictures, and sign autographs (often, but not always, for a nominal fee).

I took off work to drive two hours north to Easton, Pennsylvania for the show. The first night, I met Tatanka and Tommy Dreamer, then took my seat on one of the steel folding chairs set up on the high school gym floor, and observed three hours of alarmingly good in-ring performances. I was hooked.

But not hooked enough to leave my book at the hotel room.

One of the things you come to notice attending shows alone is all of the dead time. These are the moments when you’d ordinarily talk with your friends, speculating about what will happen at the show, or letting the conversation wander far outside the venue and the world of wrestling.

Alone, you eat your hot dog a little faster for lack of conversation to keep up with. You feel the weight of every passing minute of other people talking, and of looking at an empty ring.

So I started bringing along books.

Books to keep me occupied and entertained. Books to be more productive during otherwise unused times.

For King of Trios weekend, I read Philip Roth’s I Married A Communist, the second in his unofficially named “American trilogy,” which depicts a radio star ruined by allegations of being a communist during the McCarrthy era. It’s a book that met mixed reviews critically, but that I was enjoying as my work skewed more realist and I began to embrace Roth as a profound literary voice.

And on that third night, as I sat in an aisle seat and read during intermission, wrestlers milled about. Veronica approached me, the valet for Mr. Touchdown, a football player heel who acted like the most obnoxious version of high school football player stereotype.

There are different worlds in professional wrestling. There’s the contemporary landscape, in which most wrestlers--at least those in the mainstream--don’t do much to keep up appearances off camera, fully aware of all of the documentaries, podcasts, and tell-all books that have exposed wrestling as not a sport, but rather an athletic, predetermined, theatrical mode entertainment. Thus, they do not act but rather conduct themselves like any actor or celebrity version of themselves--often gracious, sometimes a bit full of themselves, but talking with their fans as human beings.

By contrast, there’s the traditional landscape, steeped in kayfabe. Kayfabe is the suggestion that everything in wrestling is real. It’s the dividing line between real people and what’s portrayed in the ring and in storylines, and, historically, when wrestlers did not broadcast that their craft was scripted, kayfabe was the law of the land and performers stayed in character whenever they interacted with people from outside the wrestling world.

Most of the old stars I met at King of Trios didn’t put on any act with me. In a charming dose of old school, Veronica did.

“What are you doing—reading?” she asked. Her voice was nasal, her forehead scrunched in disgust.

I looked up at her. “I am.”

“Who reads at a wrestling show?”

“I suppose I do.” I was conscious of all of my answers being pretty obvious

“What is it?”

I turned the spine of the thread worn library hard cover to her to show her the title as I spoke it aloud.

“Communists—that’s from, like the seventies." She was trying hard. "Why would you read that now?”

I could tell that I was broaching the edge of character and human being. That she was playing the heel bully--and playing it reasonably well--but I also suspected that her knowledge on the history of communism and the American public’s reactions to it was rusty, and I was skeptical she’d ever encountered this particular novel.

The thought crossed my mind, momentarily, that I might play back at her. Try to play the face foil to her heel chicanery, or even out-heel her and make fun of her absurd purple dress.

Call me kind. Call me slow-witted. The truth probably falls somewhere in between. I said, “It’s pretty good.”

She rolled her eyes and walked away.

To this day, I wonder what Veronica made of me. She had picked on me, and not anyone else in my section. Maybe I looked like an easy target, sitting alone with a book in hand. Maybe there was something flirtatious in a woman around my own age stopping by to tease me about my reading habit.

Maybe she talked about me afterward to the other wrestlers. About the geek reading about communists in the middle of a wrestling show, in the United States of friggin’ America.

I’ll never know for sure, and I doubt the moment stuck with her. I turned back to my book in the meantime, though, and continued my journey through until the next bell rang, signaling the start of the next match.

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