So I'm sitting there in a bar, talking with a guy I know, and he's complaining to me about his job. This guy works in a furniture warehouse and he says that one of his coworkers is a wrestler.
A wrestler, huh?
Yes, indeed. He is the Drifter. And the Bladerunner. I found out other things about this mysterious man, but when I finally finagled a sit-down with theDrifter, a.k.a the Bladerunner, he himself swore me to secrecy. And I've got to respect that. Wrestling is a strange and guarded world where reality and fiction are wedded in a fog of body slams that don't break backs, and rules that are made to be broken.
It's a place where anybody with a little moxie and showmanship can step into a ring and be somebody until the bell rings, a place with the magical power to allow a guy to forget about stuff like moving furniture for a while. Success in this game can be measured by hatred from the fans, and hatred equals love.
Now, here's what I can tell you.
The Drifter calls the shots. I tell him on the phone we can meet anywhere he wants; dinner, drinks, whatever, I'm buying. He says, "You know the McDonald's at Rural and Baseline? Be there at six."
I'm there at ten minutes to six, but the man has beaten me. He sits alone in a booth, no food, not even a cup of coffee in front of him. He doesn't say a lot, offers intense, terse replies that sometimes border on some form of twisted haiku. I think.
The Drifter got into this wrestling game five years ago, but he'd been a fan since he was small. He was influenced by some of the greats: Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Bruiser Brody. Someday, the Drifter hopes he can attain the ultimate power status; he wants a slice of the big money. When I ask him how much he makes right now, well, "That's confidential."
From what I know of wrestling, itlooks rough. But maybe, I suggest, just maybe some of the big moves are--dare I say it?--staged. The Drifter just looks at me.
"Nah, man. It's real, it's real," he says without blinking. "Once a guy kneed me where it counts, kicked me, man. I went off on the guy. I body-pressed him, dropped him, got up on the third rope, did my leg drop off the third rope, got him up again, pressed him again and dropped him on his face. That's really about it. But he was hurtin'; so was I. Singing soprano.
"Another time I got power-drived, and he did it hard. I got hit with a chair over my head, split my head open," says the Drifter, who still has not blinked. "You know those folding chairs? The guy hit me over the head with that."
Is that legal?
"Whatever it takes to win, you do it. If the referee don't see it, you can do whatever the hell you want to."
Seems like it'd be pretty hard for a referee not to see a fellow bringing a metal folding chair into a ring, but the Drifter just shrugs.
"Well, he saw the blood. But the guy knocked the ref down first, and then hit me with the chair. ... But, honestly, I love it. Every time I do it, I want to do it more and more. There's times when I want to quit, but once I get in the ring, I just keep going on and on. It can be hard on you, but I put my mind to it and my heart to it, and I'm there."
Speaking of heart, don't let thisbig galoot (six foot five, 240pounds) fool you; he's tough, sure, but he's got the guts to tip his face mask to honest sentiment. I ask what his mom thinks about all of this.
"She thinks I'm crazy," he admits. "She thinks I'm nuts. It was a dream. I thought I'd never make it. Before my dad passed away, he said, 'You'll never accomplish it.' But I'm doing it."
Doing it he is. The Drifter, sometimes the Bladerunner, says he travels to matches in Texas, California and all over Arizona. Sometimes the fans dig him. Sometimes not.
"I wrestled in San Luis a couple months ago and they hated me over there. They knew I was the Bladerunner, and I wrote USA on me, and they hated me."
Mexico can be a tough gig, he says. "I come in and beat the heck out of their own people, and they boo. They boo and throw chairs. My partner got hit with a chair, and a guy's girlfriend threatened him, and her boyfriend started coming after him, and I was sitting there going, 'Whoa--let's get out of here!'
"And I wrestled an Indian on an Indian reservation. They weren't happy with me at all."
Okay. Talking in a McDonald's is fine, but I figure if I want to know the Drifter, I need to meet him on his turf. I need to see the man in the ring. It just so happens that he's going to Tucson to do what he does best. So am I.
It's Saturday night, and the place is called Gargoyles. It's a rock club in a strip mall between the Lucky Star Chinese restaurant and Allied Forces hiring office ("Jobs Available").
The walls in Gargoyles are painted black. There are pool tables and an alcohol-free bar, but in the middle of the floor is where the action will go down, the ring. Well, they call it a ring, but it's really a small, square blue mat with four walls of Cyclone fencing around it, roughly five feet high.
A dressing room to the side has a sign reading "Mental Ward" on it; this is the hideaway for the talent. The wrestlers. The Drifter is in there, but I can't get in. Unless you are part of the brethren, you're out of luck.
Then I see him, the Drifter, clad in sweat shirt, jeans and work boots. And the mandatory face mask, the obligatory shroud of mystery that reveals only a wrestler's eyes, the windows to the soul. In the case of the Drifter, those windows are shut tight; they give away nothing.
"I'm ready! I'm ready to rock 'n' roll, buddy! The Drifter, buddy!" he yells, invoking himself. We make plans to meet up after the match. "That's cool!"
The crowd of literally dozens of rabid fans--from toddlers to bikers--is milling about, anticipating the fireworks. But first the Commissioner gets into the ring, holding a huge baseball bat for some reason. He looks tough, looks like a pit boss or a cop. Just who is the Commissioner? Here are some necessary tidbits from his own New Generation Promotions newsletter:
Harless P. Oskilowski. "Responsibilities: contract negotiation, match maker, must uphold quality & reputation of league, enforce league mandates and fines, former California Arm Wrestling Champ."
He gets ahold of the microphone. "I'll be here to enforce the rules of this league ..." Then he says more stuff that I can't make out until this sentence comes along, which he says while lightly slapping the bat against his leg:
"I just want to be ready when the shit gets flying around here. Thank you."
There is no national anthem.
The first match begins. It's the California Kid, who has long hair and sports a grunge look, versus the hometown favorite: Section8. As he emerges from the Mental Ward and makes his way toward the ring (a distance of about 15feet), the place erupts. Section8 gets into the ring, pushes the Commissioner. The Commissioner returns to the bar where the remains of a hamburger, an O'Doul's fake beer and a package of Marlboro Lights await him.
And there's the bell.
While the match is in full swing, I try to find the bathroom and head down the wrong hallway. I encounter some people who direct me to the men's room. While standing there doing my business, this is what I said into my tape recorder:
"Down this hall, there's some guy with flames licking up his butt printed on his leggings; he's got a big Klan hat on, and there's another guy who's dressed up in a black death robe with a hood. He's talking to some skinny hippie girl with glasses. Asked Klan guy where bathroom was, he pointed up like Sieg heil in the basic direction. Bouncer appeared with flashlight, said, 'It's down here, dude.'"
The second match. It's the hooded guy, the Time Traveler, against my man, the Drifter. The hippie girl turns out to be Rainbow, the Traveler's woman, assistant, whatever. She gets into the ring and speaks: "It is so good to be here in Tucson. I feel so much better when I see all you fat, lazy imbeciles out in the audience, and if you people don't know what that word means, I suggest you look it up in the dictionary, if you know what one is!"
Then the Traveler takes over.
"You wonder why I appeared, it's because I don't like you people. I don't like anybody here."
Then the Traveler: "I happen to live forever, and not once ever did anything important happen in Tucson, Arizona!!"
At this point, Rainbow, who is wearing a kind of white peasant dress with little yarn flowers woven in it, climbs back into the ring, clutching a big yellow plastic shopping bag. She pulls off the black tent Traveler wore into the ring, and he's this saggy, overweight, hairy-bellied man in his 40s, wearing black, diaperesque shorts baggy enough in the rear to carry a sack lunch. And he's balding, too. Rainbow circles the ring, pointing, gesturing, yelling things that are impossible to make out over the crowd noise.
Enter the Drifter.
But almost before the crowd can respond, the Time Traveler jumps all over him. The Drifter is on the floor; TT picks him up by the back of his mask. The Drifter ain't doing too good.
But what's happening now?
TT walks over to the fence and Rainbow surreptitiously hands him something. Looks like a white pen. TT aproaches the Drifter and begins to stab him repeatedly in the back! Later, someone tells me the "pen" is a syringe filled with magical Time Traveler serum. TT brings it back to the fence, hands it to Rainbow with ridiculously dramatic movements. He's making facial expressions--frowning, eyes darting back and forth--like a villain in a silent film.
The Drifter staggers around clutching his shoulder, then TT grabs him, thrusts his head over the fence, and Rainbow slams a trash-can lid down on his skull. Actual dust billows into the air from the impact.
The crowd is, as they say, going wild.
Then the Traveler has the Drifter against the fence, he's over the fence, he's on the floor! And there's the bell, but what the heck is going on here?! The crowd is happy; the crowd is mad--who knows?
Drifter is in bad shape, but he gets back into the ring!! The two are grappling and suddenly the Drifter is on top of the Time Traveler, sitting on his chest, slamming his head on the floor, smashing him repeatedly in the forehead with his fist--but get this: It almost looks like the Drifter is hitting his own hand instead of actually making contact with the wretched head of the Traveler. It can't be, of course. It must be the view from where I'm standing.
It doesn't end there. The Traveler hits the Drifter in the nuts, Drifter writhes in agony, the ref pulls off the Traveler, then the Drifter summons his strength and takes on the ref! Some other guy jumps into the ring; it's a four-way brawl! It's insane! Total chaos! Where is the Commissioner with his baseball bat?
A guy up in front starts chanting, "Anarchy! Anarchy! Anarchy!" fist spiking the air with index finger and pinkie sticking out, just like Beavis and Butt-head do when they're really into something!
I order another O'Doul's as the announcer reveals "the winner of the match by disqualification--the Drifter!!"
WHAT DO I OWE YOU FOR THE O'DOUL'S??!!
Wait a second. What happened to the Drifter? He's not in the ring anymore, and no one seems to know what happened to him. He has drifted away, apparently. But the Time Traveler refuses to disappear. He grabs a stack of three white plastic lawn chairs and heaves it at a ref. He starts threatening the ref--"I'll take you apart!!"--and while the enraged Traveler stalks around the floor with a look on his face that is part feral death-beast, part constipation, various crowd members are giggling, screaming, hooting, cussing, grinning, downing the nonalcoholic brewski.
There's a woman sitting with a little kid, her face flushed with the undeniable passion of the moment. Her name is Christine Johnson, and here is what she says when I ask her who won:
At this moment, the Traveler passes us in his march around the ring, his orbit of seething hatred. Christine points to TT.
"'Cause he's a fag bag. Look at his diaper; look, he has shit in it! Look at it! He's living in the fuckin' Sixties!" Christine is more than just an opinionated fan. I find out that her husband is Road Boss Don, one of the brave men in the black-and-white-striped shirts, one of the refs.
Someone--I think his name is Big Daddy--gets on the mike and starts yelling a bunch of stuff. I think he is trying to restore some sense of order. Or maybe he isn't. Anyway, his little speech ends with the word "tampon," prompting Christine to forage in her purse. Just look what she comes out with--sure enough, it's a tampon, the size of an infected appendix.
Does anyone ever get hurt?
"Yeah! Section 8 got a cracked head, AWOL Daddy's ribs been broke. He ain't fighting tonight."
A woman next to Christine offers that "a referee got messed up!" This woman is "Susan, I'm Section 8's girlfriend. This is his son." The little kid squeezed between the two women is Section 8 junior! Miles, actually, and he's clutching a wrestler action figure.
But hang on a second--over there, emerging from the Mental Ward--it's the Drifter! Let's grab a couple words from him before he drifts away again!
How did you feel about the match?
"I feel good. I'm in the Main Event, too."
Are you psyched?
"Oh, yeah, I'm into it!"
Before the Drifter has a chance to articulate his feelings beyond these simple thoughts, the Time Traveler, that low-down bastard, comes up and shovR>es the Drifter in the chest, says the "F" word, tries to get an out-of-ring donnybrook going. What a show!
"Jump back," responds the Drifter, as he jumps back into the Ward. Now I am alone with the Time Traveler.
Hey, Time Traveler, what do you think of the Drifter?
"What do I think of the Drifter? F-O-U-R, FA-R-M!!"
This may not seem to make sense, but you have to understand the fierce, dynamic level of energy and unbridled chaos here that makes even statements such as "four farm" rife with meaning and innuendo. Then the Traveler walks back to the end of the hall and picks up a big metal screen, raises it above his head and advances. Toward me. So I leave the hallway.
But the Traveler is not through with me. As I stand there in the main room gulping my O'Doul's, there's a tap on my back. I turn and there he is, eyes blazing, bits of chewed-up Styrofoam peanuts mixed with saliva dripping from his mouth. The Time Traveler raises a hand, and offers me some.
The Match Continues
Okay. Fast forward two matches. The Drifter is nowhere to be seen and that guy in the Klan outfit is about to get into the ring. His name turns out to be the Klansman. Ain't that a kick in the head?
Guys getting hit with trash-can lids, guys regurgitating Styrofoam, this kind of stuff I can get into. But dressing up as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, well ...
I'm not the only one with such sentiments; even though the Klansman is her husband's favorite wrestler, good ol' Christine is more than willing to speak out.
"He's a racial jerk," she spits out. "They should not allow him in Tucson. What makes a person even want to dress like that, and then walk around and say to the colored people, 'I don't like you, I don't like you'?" (Later in the night, I relate this statement to hubby Don, the ref. He says, "Aaahhhhhh, it's a free world, you know.")
Susan, Section 8's lady, chimes in:
"We had little gingerbread cookies made for the wrestlers at Christmastime, and he took two 'cause they're brown, and he chewed their heads off."
Standing next to me is A.J., who's in a band called Stinky Slinky. He's a wrestling fan, is great buddies with Section 8; whenever 8 enters the ring, it is to a Stinky Slinky tune titled "Iron Buddha." However, A.J. is presently at work on a unique, defining composition for Section 8, his very own theme song, if you will, an anthem designed to herald the wrestler wherever he competes.
"It'll be strictly for him," explains A.J. "It's called 'Section 8.'"
How would you describe the song?
"Motsrhead meets a big kick in the face, basically. It'll scare people, I think."
From where do you draw your inspiration--how does the creative process work?
"I come out and watch him, and I go from there. I watch what he does, then I go back and write a little bit more. I watch him kick somebody's ass, then I go home and write a little bit more."
We talk about the Drifter.
"The Drifter's pretty cool," says A.J. "I think he got a little shortchanged. Time Traveler: I haven't seen that kind of dirty play in a long time."
Not only is A.J. writing the new Section 8 theme song, he's actually going to become a part of the extended Section 8 professional family.
"Earl is Section 8's new manager, and that gentleman with the hat on is Earl's bodyguard, and I'm going to be his valet," he says proudly. "I'm going to run around and brush his coat off and stuff, make sure his hair's all in place and stuff. I'll be Earl's primper."
I ask A.J. if he'll get to have a name.
"I don't know. Maybe I'll just be the Little Guy. I'll be the little weasly guy who goes around and pokes people, then runs."
The Main Event
Look, I could tell you about the Main Event, but A.J. can do it better. Imagine a man who has just gargled with adrenaline. But before I turn things over to A.J., there is one thing you must know about:
The Cart of Doom.
This is a market cart filled with large, potentially dangerous items that the wrestlers may choose from and then attack each other with.
With that explanation, I give you A.J.:
"It was the Time Traveler and Section 8 against Hatchet Jack and the Drifter; it was a tag team. There was the Cart of Doom, bats, boards, frying pans, fences, gates, everything. I don't know what happened; the Drifter got thrown over the top, the Time Traveler turned on Section 8--turned on his teammate, man--and the Klansman came out, and they all started beating the shit out of Section 8. Then Big Daddy came out from behind his desk, got into it with a chair, started whopping 'em, then the Klansman knocked Big Daddy out cold, and they finally got him out of the ring. It was crazy, man, it was out of control--"
But where was the Drifter??!!
"I don't know. He disappeared. He was gone. He was just here, then he was just gone! He was gone, man! Turned tail and split! I don't know if he's gonna be welcome back here again. He drifted in and he drifted out!" A pause, A.J. grows thoughtful.
"Maybe that's how he does it."
The refereeing for the night is over for Road Boss Don. He lights up a smoke. He's seen 'em come, he's seen 'em go. The Road Boss shares a little wisdom.
"The Drifter? Uh, I don't know, uh, I think he's kinda nutty, myself. He'll turn on anybody."
But has he got promise?
"Oh, yeah, yeah."
So he's good?
"Both ways, more or less."
Obviously, the wrestler's job is no piece of cake, but from what I've witnessed tonight, the refs take no small amount of abuse. Is it a hard job, I wonder?
"My first couple times in there, I got clotheslined [the slamming of neck into extended arm], and I had a concussion for a little while. But it's not hard, not really," reveals the Road Boss. "It's pretty easy, actually. Basically, I just lock up the cage."
Do you need any special qualifications to do the job?
But it's fun?
So it's all over, and it's time to talk to the Drifter. I grab him, over by the Mental Ward, as emotionally drained fans begin filing out. He's triumphed, been beaten, been thrown around, thrown some other guys around; it's been a full night. What is going through this special athlete's head?
I tell the Drifter that I've talked to some fans. Not everybody loves him.
"That's fine with me," he replies with a shrug. "Don't bother me at all. They like me, they like me. They don't, they don't. That's the way it goes."
What did you think about the referee?
"The referee always sucks. The referee doesn't know what he's doing, or nothing."
But what if the Bladerunner had been here tonight? Could things have turned out differently?
"The Bladerunner's out right now. Shoulder injury. If he'd been here tonight, he'd kill everybody. Kill everybody. The Bladerunner's awesome, man."
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Who is he, this Drifter? Facile warrior or awkward dipshit? Hero of the square ring or craven nobody? Champ or chump?
This evening, he was everything to everyone. He did his job, and then, clutching an ice pack to his cranium, the Drifter, this sweating badass with a dream of glory and a bump on the head, drifted off to the parking lot and into the night.