Monday, July 1, 2013

W.W.E. Live In Cedar Rapids

Randy Orton, poster boy.
W.W.E. Live
U.S. Cellular Center, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
June 29, 2013

‘There’s a Ryback t-shirt,” I offered to my son as he intently studied the merchandise table during the intermission of Saturday night’s WWE event at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.

“I don’t like Ryback anymore”  he immediately countered, forgiving that I wasn’t up to speed on the relatively new character’s inevitable turn to heel on the never-ending soap opera that is professional wrestling.

Admittedly, I keep a lazy eye on the world of “sports entertainment,” but it is an exhausting barrage of characters and story arcs for me to keep a full head on it. My son, who just turned 10 this month, is an encyclopedia of current WWE matters, even showing interest in some stories of old when it used to be known as the “WWF” and the company’s logo was a cute black and white panda.

He doesn’t get that joke either.

When I pepper him with information on what wrestling was like during my youth, his mind chastises him for asking the question. He recognizes a few names from my history and pretends that my antidotes are interesting.

It gets cloudy to him when I begin to explain the world of professional wrestling prior to the WWE.

During my hometown’s introduction to cable television, the channel selections went from three to four over-the-air channels to a whopping 13, all housed on the television’s VHF bandwidth.

One of those channels, KPLR in St. Louis, was a unique entry. It was an independent station that featured a heavy line-up of reruns, cartoons, and Wrestling at the Chase every Saturday night.

We only had two televisions in our house at that time with one in the living room and a small 19” in my folks’ bedroom with no remote control and subsequently, no sleep timer to shut the thing off after Carson. I remember waking up in the middle of the night as a child, hearing the TV. on and seeing the glow of the screen casting shadows on the stairwell outside of our bedrooms.

“Shit, those guys watch a lot of TV.” I thought. Maybe the thought didn’t include the profanity.

I had little influence on the channel selection of either TV, so when I saw “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair doing promos for matches that would appear later in the broadcast, the imagination required me to determine what the outcome would be since Mom and Dad never agreed to let Wrestling At The Chase stay on for too long.

Rarely, the folks would let me use the TV in their bedroom and I would use this time to check out Monty Python’s Flying Circus on the public television channel and for a few matches on KPLR channel 11, “The One’s To Watch.”

That privilege ended one evening when I tried to copy the “Nature Boy” by standing on the armrest of one of the pair of antique chairs in my parent’s bedroom and jumping on to their bed, just as Flair did from the top ropes. Many pillows laid out length-wise on the bed suffered from my natural talent, but not as much as the arm rest on one of those chairs did. After a few dozen jumps, the arm of the chair snapped, plunging me onto the floor instead of the soft protection of the bed.

If I was in pain from the event, you wouldn’t have heard about it. I was punished for wrecking the chair, which was by then receiving much more attention than any wounds I would have obtained from the incident. I was immediately banned from watching any more television in my parent’s bedroom for quite some time.

We have three televisions in our home now, and the boy is welcomed to watch wrestling on at least one of them whenever it’s on. I must confess that I wasn’t aware that wrestling is now on multiple channels over the course of many evenings, but he has them all narrowed down and is beginning to understand how the wrestling universe works.

He first began to take an interest in it at the beginning of this year, undoubtedly the product of his peers at school and a desire to fit in with the boys in his class. Nobody likes to be on this side of oblivious discussion of characters you have no clue about, so suddenly, he began navigating the living room tele to such titles as Monday Night Raw and Smack Down.

It was his mom that first took notice of this as his selection was usually followed with such parental objections like “You’re not watching this!” and “Turn it, Ethan!” Her intolerance of wrestling is a product of bad memories of an abusive relationship years ago where the creep also managed to assert dominance over the television by making wrestling a non-negotiable viewing pattern. I can understand how this has led to a fairly narrow opinion of the entertainment.

At the same time, wrestling is practically a rite of passage among young boys who are curious about this hyper-idyllic image of the male form and id, putting large, emotional topics into easy to understand feuds and rivalries. It is the species at its most basic, and the roster is placed into its most simplistic categories of good vs. bad.

As a form of compromise, the boy could watch wrestling on a television that wasn’t being used by his mother or sister.

From that exposure, the various marketing tools began taking shape. At first, he was confused. When the wrestlers announced some pay-per-view main event, he failed to understand the concept of “pay-per-view.” On one such Saturday evening this spring, he finished dinner quickly and retreated to the basement to look for the live event that they had been promoting endlessly since the last pay-per-view event.

I had to explain that you had to actually pay to watch the show. He immediately determined that it would be a worthy investment. As one of two authorized account holders to our checking and savings accounts at the local credit union, I can tell you that our budget does not include paying $50 or more for any pay-per-view specials this year and probably for any years to come. He seemed to understand that the fee was relatively excessive, particularly when I pointed out that he could save his money and wait for the DVD to come out in a few weeks at half of the sticker price of the pay-per-view.

“You’ve got a birthday coming up,” I reminded him. “Maybe that’s something you can get with the birthday money you receive.”

I watched as he began formulating his own opinions of the wrestlers, unsure if he was to support or groan at a character’s bravado.

“Who do you want to win?” he asked as the rivalry between the two main event wrestlers for Wrestlemania 29 heated up in their weekly promos.

“The Rock.” I said without hesitation. He didn’t know that my answer came because I remembered him from my limited exposure to the world of wrestling entertainment. The last time I barely kept track of things was as a novice viewer of Mick Foley’s career. I would share with my son the stories of Foley’s legendary “Hell In The Cell” match against the Undertaker, and the bloody “King Of The Death Match” he had against Terry Funk in Japan. Foley cleaned up his act after mutilating his body, resorting to such oddball characters like Mankind, who hoisted a dirty sock on his hand and called it “Socko.”

He wrestled in tag-team matches with The Rock as “The Rock & Sock Connection” which is probably the only reason why I pretended to have a dog in this hunt. Personally, I thought the Dwayne Johnson must have banked big to leave Hollywood for a few monthly to return to wrestling, but as I said, I know nothing about the current state of the WWE.

None of this knowledge impressed him that much as he turned to his mother and asked the same question.

“The Rock, of course.”

Her answer was based entirely on familiarity, having no firsthand knowledge of the various styles and nuances of wrestlers throughout its history and growth. He was the dude in that Fast and Furious movie. She knew his catchphrase and would sweetly ask, “Can you smell what the rock is cooking?” if I was burning something on the stove.

With two very influential parents behind him, there was little the boy could do but to align with his family and declare that he too would like to see The Rock as the victor of Wrestlemania 29.

My son got the DVD of Wrestlemania 29 for his birthday. I had taken a X-Acto knife and cut a slit in the shrink-wrap, sliding a pair of tickets to the WWE show at the US Cellular Center. Every morning I would drive by the venue on my way to work, getting daily reminders of the commitment on the big event marquee facing the interstate in both directions. A wrestler’s face comprised the WWE evening. A big picture of Barry Manilow’s face followed it.

The boy needed no such reminders. Every morning he would glance at the calendar in our kitchen and count the days leading up to the event, an exhausting three weeks from his birthday.

Two blocks down from the U.S. Cellular Center is a Taco Bell. It’s not just any Taco Bell, but perhaps the worst Taco Bell in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. To my son, location is only relevant to the finish line of his target, and since this Taco Bell was closest to the WWE event, we would be enjoying our 5-layer burrito at the worst Taco Bell in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

I say, “we would be enjoying our 5-layer burrito” because he could only finish half of his and because I could not stick to my “only order the Beef Meximelt” rule. After he hit the head for a post meal whiz, I scarfed down the rest of his burrito, which promptly triggered the “You shouldn’t have done that!” warning message almost immediately after entering my piehole.

I noticed a Mexican-American mixed family sitting at a table next to ours, the Mother holding court with a friend or relative while her young teenage boy made regular trips to the counter to order more food. When he would return to the table, his mother would lecture him about spending his money prematurely, to which he would always respond with “Why? It’s my money!”

Another boy, probably my son’s age, would occasionally come inside the Taco Bell and whine to his mother about wanting to leave. She impatiently reminded him that they were waiting on his father and that there was plenty of time before the show started.

My son returned to the table, angered at the fact that he had to use the women’s restroom because some guy locked himself in the men’s john and had been in there for a long time.

Apparently, the dad from the table across from us did not follow the Beef Meximelt rule either.

Event parking a few blocks down was a bargain at $3 while the entire out of town schmucks forked over $5 an hour to park in the skywalk connecting parking garage.

The entrance to the US Cellular Center is now open, bright and airy-a trend that continues up the escalators and into the arena concourse area.

A group of special needs men, ranging in age from 21 to 65 formed a close circle in the middle of the floor, where a very solid black woman stood before them dispersing directions.

WWE promotional announcements filled the concourse area at high decibels. A father placed a blanket over a pumpkin seat to protect his newborn’s ears. It was ineffectual in my mind and I questioned why any parent would bring an infant to a wrestling event to begin with.

As I found out, wrestling fans are an obsessive breed.

We made the way to our section where I tried to make sense of the new arena layout. It’s still the steep angled concrete utility that it once was, but at least it’s a nice shade of black instead of the hazard-orange seating of the past thirty years. I think the seats have gotten wider since we’ve all gotten morbidly obese in the 21st Century, but the newly tweaked venue holds around 7,500 fully seated.

Only seventy percent of those seats were filled on Saturday night.

I gave an usher our tickets, who studied them intently and looked at our section like he was trying to remember the all-important seating layout training they had earlier in the afternoon.

“I think there’s someone in your seat.” The usher said, without much conviction to suggest that he was going to take care of that little problem for me.

Instead, he pointed to the other end of the section-accessible by the next door down-and timidly pointed out to some open seats at the end of the row.

“I think you’re over there.” He admitted, subconsciously acknowledging that he didn’t learn fuck-all during the staff registration meeting.

Whatever. They were next to the aisle, which was a bonus because the remaining quarter of my son’s 5-layer burrito was beginning to intimidate everything in my lower g.i. to visit Uranus. I fought through sharp, stabbing pains in my bowels while my son explained to me who was in the first match, oblivious to my plight.

Having to take a shit in the men’s room of the U.S. Cellular Center was something I needed to avoid as much as possible. I began to close my eyes and focus on minimizing the stabbing, overwhelming each wince of pain with relaxing breaths.

I began to go towards a better place.

That better place had a cozy chair, and I was about to fall asleep in it. Actually, I did for a bit. Missed the entire ladies match and part of another.

I felt bad about it a little, until I noticed the father in front of me spent the entire night on his phone while his kid watched the matches.

At least my indifference was from sleep deprivation and Taco Bell and not from general malaise.

To the left of the father/son, a well-groomed gay couple in their early thirties. It was at that moment when the entire notion of wrestling’s homoerotic undercurrent shot through me like an Edison filament. Suddenly, as the crowd erupted four times-one for every top rope pose that the sculpted Randy Orton did-you could see men and women alike, shouting their approval.

And for what? Because a sweaty man who defeated another bodybuilder in a pre-ordained mock wrestling match got up high in the ring so everyone could examine every bit of flesh their eyes could desire.

I saw it later too, after the show.

One of the event staff was helping an elderly man-probably in his late 60’s or early 70’s-from his special needs section to the elevator. A man in his 50’s was pushing his wheelchair-obviously a courtesy chair from the venue-until all three stopped in the middle of the merchandise area.

The elderly man was speaking softly to the staff escort, a girl in her twenties with a walkie-talkie, secretly hoping that another courtesy call would come in and take her away from the white-haired gentlemen, quietly conversing with dry, crusty lips.

“He walked around the entire ring after the match, shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures.” He told the young woman. She politely listened and acknowledged the old man as he continued the story, tears welling in his eyes.

“And then he walked to the end of the ramp….and then he turned around and came back and started shaking hands with the other side!”

He was speaking about the end of Orton’s match, where he was allowed over 15 minutes just to exit, his video loop and entrance music playing the same sixty seconds over and over.

Orton was clearly the fan favorite, and even though his match came right before intermission, you could tell it was really the main event. There were hundreds of his autographed posters flying off the merch table at twenty bucks a pop and both men and women were breaking out double-sawbucks left and right for the privilege.

What brought the old man to near tears was his feeling that Orton was doing something selfless by taking his time to touch and pose with as many fans as he could in the arena. There is a misconception among wrestling fans that just because wrestlers extol great brutality on their own bodies that this sacrifice is somehow a mutual reflection of their own toils.

Admittedly, it may take decades of sitting in a cubicle to lead to that degenerative disc in the lower back. But it won’t be too long before we’re all using a venue-issued wheelchair to get pushed around in button-down shirts and red sweatpants, attempting to explain the concept of “sacrifice” to some polite young woman getting paid $8 an hour to listen to our bullshit.

Maybe I should see if the live broadcasts are better in person, but I have to confess that I’m not looking forward to going in any more wrestling matches. I spent top dollar for a match that was nearly the same kind of matches that took place in my high school fieldhouse, only with more muscle, video screens, and better scripts.

It’s true: we once came in from football practice when I was in high school and found about a half-dozen wrestlers laying on the benches in our locker room, getting rested for a rare hometown showing of professional wrestling-independent, low-overhead style.

I have no idea who put it together or remember any of the wrestlers. All I remember is a sad batch of middle-age men hitting the anywhere-that-will-host-us circuit, doing ham and egg jobs for the 50 or so paying patrons that show up. This is pre-Cindy Lauper shit matches we’re talking here.

Mainly I just felt uncomfortable about showing my penis in front of a bunch of hairy fat dudes.

Ironically, that’s kind of how I felt about Saturday night’s exhibition. Wrestling brings out some freaks, and don’t think that you can just “blend in,” like I noticed several dads attempting to do, because you will encounter a freak at some point during a WWE wrestling event. Period.

Some dads were trying to walk with purpose, praying that their boy won’t want to get his picture taken with his favorite WWE Star at some $30 photo booth with a Photoshop program. For real: $30 for that shit! And it’s heavily staffed and operated, making it impossible to pull down your pants so that the picture would have your penis right next to Triple H.

I’m here to tell you that the look forward and walk fast approach will not work at events like the WWE.

Suddenly, that kid has to take a leak, and blend-in dad will have his work cut out for him navigating the social Mecca called the men’s restroom. Everyone’s at about a nine on the testosterone scale, having been through over two hours of violent eye-candy and homosexual repression. Dad will be expected to participate in such bravado, and he will forever remember the guy in the XXL Goldust t-shirt checking out his junk at the urinal, mouthing the word “nice” to him.

I’m exaggerating. I’m not trying to suggest that wrestling is filled with conniving homosexuals or have a problem with the LGBT community. I just think it’s hilarious that the most consistent pattern in Vince McMahon’s roster is the belief that carefully sculpted Adonis-types are the most bankable characters. His fascination with the male physique goes beyond mere appreciation, to a point where you take a look at his superstars in the WWE and can’t help but hear the gaydar sirens going off.

For me, the freak that approached my personal space was not of a sexual nature, but one of fragmented conversation-the result of methamphetamine use.

A gentleman came up to me and smiled while I was standing off to the side of a merchandise table while my son was waiting in line for John Cena wristbands ($15). After keeping an eye on the kid, I turned and noticed smiley standing directly behind me. He was thinking that I was in line for merch, even though I was not directly in front of the table, and even though the signs posted there clearly stated that you couldn’t buy anything from the side table.

“Do you know what you’re going to get?” he asked, apparently eager at the prospect of his own wish list. I finally understood what he was implying after piecing together a couple of false starts from the jittery guy in his late-twenties.

“No, I’m not in line.”

Before I could direct him to the proper place of where he needed to be to buy shit, his eyes looked beyond me as he saw a familiar face.

Suddenly, a loud back-and-forth between the man and some girl on the other side of the table ensued. She quickly made her way around to the side that we were at, and then I found myself next to their reunion, complete with hugs, excited introductions, and an obvious history between them. Two or three of the woman’s front teeth had been broken in half, the result of some kind of trauma. I gave the couple some space to sort out their conversation.

Again, all of this isn’t to suggest that wrestling fans are all weird, tweaked-out bottom dwellers, but there is a much higher proportion of strangeness taking place at these event then, say, at a Bon Jovi concert. I was prepared for a night of people-watching, but was surprised at how profound some of the characters I witnessed really were.

Even more so than the ones in the ring.