Up Up, Down Down
Faces of Pain
Bell time for the Keizer Klash was 7:30 p.m., sharp, and Scott and I had arrived early according to plan, after the hour drive south from Portland. It was October and already dark out and GPS directed us down the kind of driveway I thought only existed in horror movies—murdersome’s the word. But there at the gravel’s eerie end we found the Lions Club. A beat-up moving truck was parked next to the entrance, and by the halogenic glow of an exposed bulb we could see that its side was stenciled with DOA PRO WRESTLING. Turns out the acronym doesn’t stand for “Dead on Arrival,” as I first assumed, but “Don’t Own Anyone,” which, although it has a certain Wild West and existential laissez-faire, primarily refers to the promotion’s business model, the fact that it doesn’t put the talent under contract and so doesn’t limit where they can wrestle. With at least three other professional wrestling organizations in Portland, not to mention those up in Seattle, the wrestlers hereabouts have options. But boasting is a big part of the business and when we spoke with them, the managers of DOA were
quick to assure us that theirs was the “premier” outfit in the Northwest. One went so far as to call their competition “just half a step better than backyard.”
We made our way into a spacious wood-paneled hall that was haunted by the smells of America’s past, an olio of boiled hot dogs and stale Hydrox and orange-flavored Tang. Scott affixed a flash to his camera and started to work the scene. He’d been talking about this for months, about how we should team up on a project, a combo of words and pictures à la the Agee-Evans opus Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Thanks in large part to my reluctance—I’d settled into a prevailing MO of irresoluteness—this had all remained remote and abstract, idle chatter after tennis, that is until a few days before, when Scott put the screws to me and convinced me to attend the Klash.
“It’ll be fun,” he said. And after a lengthy silence, he added, “At very least it’ll be an experience.”
I stood off to the side and made some notes while Scott orbited the hall. He shot the swag table, the staff, the gathering crowd. He shot the ring, which sat under a ceiling low enough to preclude top-turnbuckle action, it seemed to me. Empty though it technically was, you couldn’t help but feel it was full of promise, potential. It teased the imagination like a missed opportunity, like preingested drugs. The wrestlers themselves were out of sight, behind a makeshift screen of black fabric hung across an oversize portable clothes rack, on top of which were perched an assortment of party lights that looked like they’d been bought on clearance at Spencer Gifts. In 1999.
The card for the Klash looked promising. There was Draven Vargas, “the Plus-Sized Playboy,” vs. CJ Edwards, “the Little Chocolate Drop.” Rockin’ Ricky Gibson was set to tussle with Eric Right. For the heavyweights, J_SIN Sullivan was tasked with wrangling Dr. Kliever, “the Lean Green Love Machine.” And a tag team match would end it all: the Left Coast Casanovas vs. the Illuminati. It was struggle enough to keep one’s imagination from overheating.
We were then met by a member of DOA brass. He referred to us as press and we soon found ourselves being escorted through the black fabric and into the Lions Club’s kitchen, which is to say: backstage.
Not counting my elementary school plays, I’d never been backstage at anything before, and I immediately understood the thrill. The wrestlers were giddy, full of antic aggression. Every couple minutes one of them would peek through the screen to check on the crowd filling the hall and then he’d beat his chest or beat the chest of a compatriot or jump up and down or jump into another wrestler or pump his fist. One rapidly slapped his head with both hands like I’ve seen legit Greco-Roman wrestlers do, in high school and the Olympics. Watching them amp themselves up, I remembered I’d experienced something similar back when I played lacrosse, when my teammates and I would bang our helmets together and roar testosteronic roars while listening to backward-R Korn—in what feels like, and what I often wish were, another life.
Maybe it was because we were in a kitchen, but after the initial thrill wore off, I started to feel less like I was
backstage and more like I was at a Halloween house party. Or in the Castro. Or at a Halloween house party in the Castro. J_SIN Sullivan’s baggy pleather pants had flames down the sides and he was wearing a T-shirt that read GLADSTONE RUB-A-DUB, which I learned was an allusion to an old-school Northwest wrestler and not a business that specialized in car washes and hand jobs. Rockin’ Ricky Gibson dressed like he was in a Twisted Sister cover band. They’d both bleached their hair the way skaters I hung out with in the nineties used to. “The Plus-Sized Playboy” Draven Vargas’s face paint smacked of the Insane Clown Posse and he’d brushed his hair forward and styled it into a fine fin that rose from the front of his head. Bald but for a sad little island of hair at the top of his forehead, “Loverboy” Nate Andrews, the other half of the Left Coast Casanovas, had also styled what hair he had into a fin, which you could see only in the right light, at the right angle. Wearing a shiny pleather pin-striped blazer, a purple-sequined shirt and matching hat, and googly black sunglasses, Mister Ooh-La-La, their manager, looked like a cartoon villain. Dr. Kliever lists his weight as “242 lbs of surgical steel and sex appeal,” and his signature moves include the Autopsy, the Wheelchair Bound, and the Morphine Drop. He had a Marvin the Martian Mohawk so thick and meticulously coiffured that I swear you could do trigonometry on it. It was dyed a shade of neon green I’ve only ever seen on psychedelic posters and maybe, for that matter, on certain psychedelics. Somehow even those who weren’t seemed shirtless.
Scott focused on Dr. Kliever. When “the Lean Green Love Machine”
noticed the camera, his arms shot up reflexively, as though an electric charge had passed through him. He flexed his muscles in the classic strongman pose and smiled a smirky and startling and weirdly handsome smile. “The World’s Sexiest Doctor” was missing prominent teeth.
“Don’t get a picture with me and him together,” J_SIN said, pointing at Dr. Kliever. “We’re wrestling tonight.”
Wouldn’t want to spoil the notion that the show’s all real, not staged and scripted. Not a “work,” as they say. In the world of pro wrestling, sustaining this illusion of reality, this suspension of disbelief, is called “kayfabe.” The word’s etymology is uncertain but it’s often said to be a corruption of the Pig Latin for “fake,” and all the accounts I read traced it back to carny culture, in which professional wrestling has its historical roots. The opposite of a work is a “shoot,” as in “straight shooter.” The improvised moves and holds the wrestlers perform on one another in the ring, that is, the pain they inflict and endure—that’s the shoot. The tension between this reality of the match, the shoot, and what the public knows or believes to be an angle, the work, is an integral part of the audience’s fun. A fan who cannot or does not distinguish between the two is called a “mark.” As in, “Guy there with the foam finger and nacho cheese goobers in his goatee, he’ll believe anything. He’s an easy mark.”
I peeked through the screen myself and counted seventy-five people in the crowd, give or take. The adults who’d come alone outnumbered those with kids, I noted. And people were still arriving, finding their spots on the collapsible steel chairs set up around the ring—steel chairs
that you could just tell everyone present wanted to see used later as weapons.
An “experience.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant anymore. What’d always been an obvious idea had become a kind of phenomenological conundrum for me. A very simple part of the problem was wrapped up in the fact that, in English, we have a single word for two ideas. On the one hand, we register the sensational intensities of the world around us, and this is accomplished through perception of a prereflective sort. What senses we have build us a world. Immediately, automatically. And on the other, we gain experience over time. It’s an aggregate of everything we’ve gone through, which, with reason and memory’s help, implies a learning process, the development of wisdom, at least of a sort. The Germans, unsurprisingly, distinguish between these ideas.
They call the first one Erlebnis, which contains their root for “life,” Leben, and the second Erfahrung, which includes their word for journey, Fahrt, as in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous dictum “Life is a Fahrt, not a destination.”
My misgivings started with a vague intuition that my Erlebnis machine had malfunctioned. I wasn’t experiencing the immediate world as I once had. I was a newlywed and had recently bought a house and been transferred at work and my puppy had grown into a dog and the grass I’d planted had come in thin and patchy and I was startled to discover I actually cared about that and I was about to turn thirty and had all those clichéd and ramifying little anxieties that attend turning that age and my face was looking increasingly like my father’s face and my parents had shocked the family by separating after more than three decades of marriage. All the things of promise in my life had become some version of what they’d promised to become, and something about the way these possibilities had resolved into reality had turned my days palpably strange. New and foreign names populated my inbox. Furniture that my wife, Alexis—Alexis: my wife?!—and I had brought to the relationship didn’t fit in our new house. I wasn’t a hundred percent on what all my light switches controlled. It unnerved me. Felt like I was living my life in translation. And having lost a handle in this basic way, I found myself having doubts of the Erfahrung variety, getting caught in eddying and abyssal questions I thought I’d put behind me. Real ponderous things like “How did I get here?” and “What’s it all mean?” Because outside the obvious temporal continuity, I didn’t sense there was any narrative
coherence to my life. Events from my past were punctuated by a question mark, an interrobang. Were any the result of my having made a concerted effort to “become someone”? To “make something” of myself? Or had these things just like, you know, happened? In other words, there seemed to be unproblematic and “authentic” experience out there in the world to be had, of both the Erlebnis and Erfahrung sort, only not by me.
During the worst of this, I went to a barbecue at my buddy Kyle’s house. Kyle casts an unmistakable aura. When you’re around him, you begin to feel that life has a certain texture or grain or weave that otherwise—for me, at least—doesn’t exist. He always seems so full of fucking life. It’s intoxicating. So many people come to his BBQs that his backyard starts to look like the thoroughfare of a shantytown. That night, I wandered around talking to Kyle’s friends, people who play in bands and make art and casually know all about good music and movies and books, people who ride their bikes everywhere they go, even if that means they show up a little sweaty, people who are apparently so at home with themselves that they’re unbothered by the fact that they show up places a little sweaty. My mind felt buffered, as if it were in a padded cell, and I was hounded by a passage from The Ambassadors, in which Lambert Strether says, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you had your life. If you haven’t had that, what HAVE you had?” By which I really mean to say I was hounded by that part in Dazed and Confused when Matthew McConaughey says, “You just gotta keep livin’, man. L-I-V-I-N.” I
ended up in a corner of the backyard, by the chicken coop, wondering what instinct tells a baby chicken to peck free of its shell, while Kyle moved from group to group and high-fived all the handsome guys and hugged all the pretty girls and told jokes and laughed and talked plans for his bike crew and his many bands. Everyone looked like they were having the time of their lives.
Kyle and I ended up at a twenty-four-hour Mexican restaurant not far from our houses. It was two in the morning. We got our food and sat at a booth in the big front window and we could’ve been in a Hopper painting, except we were in Portland, at a Mexican joint, so Hopper would’ve had to paint us on velvet. Kyle was about to start a new job working for a high-end bicycle company, what he called the “Rolls-Royce of bikes,” doing a mix of advertising and publicity. For as long as I’d known Kyle, he’d managed a bike shop, and for exactly that long he’d talked about doing something else—whatever they’re doing, twenty- and thirtysomethings in Portland are always talking about doing something else. Kyle’s dream job was to work in a room with a whiteboard, beanbag chairs, and maybe a beer fridge or kegerator. Ping-Pong or foosball or arcade games or all of the above. An ideas room. And for five years he’d worked toward making this happen. He talked about the choices he’d made and would make, changes out on the horizon he’d set a course for—what an enviable sequence of cause and effect his life seemed.
“So what about you?” he asked when he was done. “What are your plans for the future?”
For as long as I’d known Kyle, I’d worked as the majordomo
of a summer camp for writers and as a magazine editor, and for exactly that long I’d talked about writing myself. So I said I’d probably continue to look for ways to prioritize that. But really I wanted to say that the future, like everything else in my life, wasn’t quite what it used to be.
Listening to Kyle talk, I knew, at least intellectually, that I too had a history. A history of decisions, decisions that lacked the fundamental sense of choice but were decisions nonetheless, that ended with me moving to Portland, many thousands of miles from my home in Richmond, Virginia. A history in libraries and with books that had landed me a job at a literary magazine. A history of love affairs that’d ended in a marriage. An accordion-like history that would continue to open out and to end in this moment and this one and this. Only this history, this quasi-chaotic chain of events that stretched behind me through time, didn’t feel like mine.
In addition to advertising “Live Pro Wrestling,” the flyers for the Keizer Klash indicated that the event was a benefit for a kid named Hunter. Hunter’s dad is the manager of a local Jiffy Lube, where “Loverboy” Nate Andrews works when he’s not wrestling professionally. Backstage, Nate said that everyone at work, their hearts really went out to his boss and his family. They felt his pain. And he wanted to do what he could to help them.
Hunter has a rare condition called paroxysmal skew deviation, a term all the wrestlers said with studied nonchalance, though none of them could tell me what it meant. What they knew was they were there for him, “the sick kid,” and that the night’s proceeds, including their pay, would go toward sending him to the Mayo Clinic.
Before the show, Scarlett, the DOA ring girl, whose breasts and bottom looked as though they’d been inflated and who seemed almost criminally sweet and caring in her role as Team Mom, invited the family into the ring.
She handed the mike to Hunter’s mother, who explained that something was wrong with her son’s brain. His brain stem. Doctors didn’t know much about his condition, including the cause, but it affected Hunter’s eyes, his vision and ability to focus. One eye would sometimes move spontaneously upward, against Hunter’s will, and roll away from the other in what essentially sounds like a lazy eye from hell. Worse still, sometimes it’d happen to both eyes at once. Hunter, who was maybe ten and stood between his mom and dad with his hands buried deep in his pockets, frequently suffered headaches of such terrifying acuteness that they reduced him
to tears. He experienced blurred vision and general fatigue. Seizure activity hung about him as a when-not-if. And he rarely slept through the night because of all the pain, which had also forced him to be homeschooled.
“That’s the story,” she concluded. “The short story,” she added, giving a sense of her exhaustion, her own pain.
I’ve lived pretty much my whole life with a tacit yet strict understanding of pain: at all costs it is to be avoided. Fuck pain, really. Fuck physical and emotional pain. Fuck spiritual pain. Pain hurts, after all. The assumption here was that the opposite of pain is pleasure or joy, and that if I minimized the former, I would, ipso facto, maximize the latter. But while pleasure may be pain’s antonym, it’s not its lived opposite. That’d be something more like nonfeeling,
a value-neutral blankness. And by so vigilantly avoiding pain, I wasn’t being prudent, as I thought, but timid, maybe even cowardly.
Which brings me to this: When I was around Hunter’s age, I overheard an argument my folks were having. They fought infrequently enough then for their fights to be memorable mostly by virtue of their strangeness. An electric and dangerous mood would settle on the house and my brothers and I would sit where we’d been caught when it all started and we would listen. This one, I was in my room, and I put my ear to the door I’d closed when I knew things were going to get worse before they got better. One of my brothers or I must’ve lately been fussing, because Dad said we were getting to be too sensitive. That Mom was ruining us with her coddling. He accused her of turning us into mama’s boys. Dad grew up on Long Island and, despite the fact that he’d been in Virginia longer than New York, continued to valorize northerners for what he held to be their chief characteristic: they were hard, “tough as nails.” A characteristic sorely lacking from southerners, who were, by his estimation, duplicitous and weak. The syllogism he must’ve feared isn’t hard to complete: southerners are weak, my sons are southerners, ergo my sons are weak. As a way of combating this, he didn’t brook any complaining or crying when it came to frustration and pain. We were to have a “stiff upper lip,” to “act like a man.” “Yes, sir,” we were to say. “No, sir.” His philosophy seemed to be that pain was no more than a problem of perspective, its severity (or very existence) hanging on how (or whether)
you chose to acknowledge it. And as I backed away from the door that afternoon, I tried to act accordingly, tried to forget what I’d heard, to go on acting like I’d never heard anything at all.
But God, that phrase. Mama’s boy. For years it’d return to me with a sharpness unblunted by time. An example: it’s fifteen-ish years later and I’ve been in Portland about a year. For several weeks I’ve been experiencing mysterious and unsettling episodes. Mood swings sing through me. Anger and anxiety and loneliness and fear and a deep unutterable sadness. There’s somatic stuff, too. A sudden and inexplicable paresthesia in my arms and palpitations in my chest that make me worry, like “Perfect. A stroke and a heart attack.” I pace and stomp about and I smoke. I take long walks in an effort to calm my underskin. I weep at TV commercials, at nothing at all. I feel like I’m going crazy. Like I’m turning into somebody else. So disturbing are these episodes that I have trouble believing the doctor when she tells me they’re called panic attacks—whatever was happening to me definitely deserved a less prosaic name. Weeks later, after more of these neural shock waves, these full-body flails, I finally cave and commit myself to a daily regimen of meds that promise to stabilize my moods and reduce both the likelihood and intensity of my episodes. But before they begin their work, they turn my mind into an empty castle, and it’s in those stilled and foreign corridors of thoughtlessness that I hear it softly taunting me, a thin persistent whisper: mama’s boy, mama’s boy, mama’s boy.
Before their Three Year Anniversary show, the DOA wrestlers held a meet and greet at Pattie’s Home Plate Cafe in St. Johns, one of the northernmost neighborhoods in Portland. Primarily a fifties diner–cum–soda fountain, Pattie’s is also a music venue, sock-hop dance hall, gift shop, clothing store, video store, costume-rental shop, meeting place, and, I’m pretty sure, more. St. Johns has always seemed to me to be a living reminder of what this town must have been like before it became so hip and cool to live here. There’s none of the yuppie influence that pullulates in the Pearl District or the hipster-doofus aesthetic that teems elsewhere. There’s no upmarket flannel or fashion-statement glasses or knowing facial hair. Although it may be read onto the place, irony has not yet invaded and colonized St. Johns as it has much of the rest of this city. When you’re there, you feel it’s safe to
take the place at its word. Work boots are worn to work and big-framed vintage glasses are just the glasses people have had for thirty years and mustaches are grown to make a face look better. Pattie’s hosts a regular Bigfoot believers meeting.
It was a Saturday afternoon and sunny and the wrestlers had set up a card table with two gold-plated black leather belts, T-shirts, DVDs, and flyers for the Three Year Anniversary show the next day. J_SIN Sullivan sat in a chair built for a much smaller man. To call him simply “big” would be a silly understatement. In the ring, yes, he looks big. But when you’re next to him, he’s beyond big. Upright, he’s a hair shy of six and a half feet tall and weighs 380 lbs. You’d shudder and avert your eyes and pray little please-God-not-next-to-me prayers if he boarded your plane. All-you-can-eat buffets must factor people his size into their P&Ls. He’s gigantic.
A fan—the only one who stopped by in the two hours I was there—approached for a photo. J_SIN slung the Tag Team Champions belt he and Big Ugly hold over his shoulder. Together, they are “Ugly as Sin” and weigh 650 lbs. In the ring, they are like two parts of one person, and are unstoppable. J_SIN posed his menacing pose and pictures were taken and the fan thanked him and walked off.
Now, there’s J_SIN and there’s Jason and the difference between the two is at once subtle and pronounced. After the fan moved on, J_SIN relaxed back into Jason, the man who by day works at a printing plant and who’s a founder and star of an independent wrestling promotion. Jason’s bigness isn’t really intimidating. Rather, he suggests a soul-comforting equipoise, more Buddha than the bad guy he plays. I sort of
wanted him to give me a hug and tell me not to worry, that everything was going to be all right. I imagined being hugged by a MINI Cooper. But Jason’s bigness was still intimidating enough for me not to suggest we try it out.
“Some people just have it,” he said. The “it” he was referring to is the it factor, those characteristics an entertainer or person possesses that make him compelling, magnetic. For some wrestlers, it’s a physical talent, the way they carry themselves, a move they do in the ring. For others, it’s mike skills, their swagger and charm, the way they talk. Either way, it’s how a wrestler manages and engages the crowd—it’s the crowd, after all, with its response or lack thereof, that decides how long a match goes and whether a character makes it. “If they’re not feeling it,” Jason said, “we cut it short. No one’s bigger than the show.” As a “heel,” a bad guy, in DOA, Jason’s job as J_SIN is to inspire the fans’ derision and hate, to rile them up and get them rooting for the “faces,” the good guys.
“I’ve got this thing I do with my eyes,” he continued. He cocked his head to the side and made movements with his brow and then said, “I can’t really do it out here. The sun, it’s too bright. But you get the idea.”
A group of kids BMXed lazily by and shouted something I didn’t catch.
“Nothing fake about this,” Jason called back as J_SIN, patting the belt he still had over his shoulder. “Come over and I’ll show you. Or are you too scared?”
The kids moseyed on.
“People are always like, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter, it’s all fake anyway.’ But is this fake?” He held up his forearm and
pointed to a four-inch pink scar that looked like a gummy worm. “That’s from barbwire.”
In his essay on professional wrestling, Roland Barthes writes, “The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.” The gist of the essay is that professional wrestling is a “spectacle of excess” and a species of morality play, and though highly athletic, it is decidedly not a sport. Unlike the crowd at a boxing or mixed martial arts match, the one at a professional wrestling production wants an image of passion, not passion itself. What is enacted and played out in the ring is “the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice . . . Everyone must not only see that the man suffers, but also and above all understand why he suffers.” The shows may be scripted, but they’re not choreographed, and while some of the suffering and pain are amplified for effect, “sold,” that hardly makes it all fake.
Jason said he’s bled in the ring twelve or thirteen times. At an event where the fans bring weapons for the wrestlers to use on one another—mostly pizza cutters and tenderizers and other kitchen utensils, but some real creatively sadistic shit, too, like an old keyboard with thumbtacks glued to the buttons like a miniature bed of nails—he got a cut on his back deep enough to demand medical attention, but he didn’t go to the doctor. “I just EZ-stitched it,” he said, meaning—I had him clarify—that he’d superglued the wound shut. Two years ago, he partially tore his MCL and he still hasn’t had the surgery he knows he needs, but continues to wrestle regardless. He said Home Boy Quiz (HBQ) recently under
went a fearsome procedure known as back fusion surgery. Two rods and six pins now stabilize his spine and he’s set for a comeback in a matter of months. I saw a picture of Wade “By God” Hess from the Taipei Death Match a few years ago. He and Thunder had dipped their taped-up hands in glue and rolled them in broken fluorescent tube lights, then punched and chopped each other until that grew stale, at which point they started smashing the fluorescent tubes over their heads and across their backs. In the picture, Hess is on his knees and his back looks like a river delta of pulpy skin and blood. Everyone has a bad back or bad knees or a bum shoulder or a crooked nose or broken ribs that didn’t heal right. Dr. Kliever said he has to do yoga every morning to make it through the day. For a time he also had burns all over his back from a show where he was slammed onto a table that had been lit on fire and, consequently, caught fire himself. Plus and all there’s the situation with his teeth.
“Concussions are so common that they’re, that we, wait. Hold on. Where was I going with that? Anyway, every time you’re slammed to the ring, it’s like you’re putting yourself through a fifteen- or twenty-mile-per-hour car crash,” Jason said. “In order to deal with it you need a lot of mental toughness. That’s more important than physical toughness, really. You have to condition yourself to deal with it.”
One of the managers came out of Pattie’s to tell Jason there was a girl inside who wanted an autograph, but she was too shy or scared or awestruck to ask for it herself. Jason signed a picture of the DOA logo, smiling a smile more private than public.
When I asked why he puts himself through all the pain,
what he gets out of wrestling, Jason said, “There’s that, the fans, of course. And I just love the sense of community I get from wrestling. I met my girlfriend through wrestling. I’ve met my friends through wrestling. It’s also just fun as hell.”
Another of the managers—they came in such a number that I got the sense that “manager” also meant “friend who wishes not to wrestle”—said they should probably wrap up. They had to head to the airport to pick up “Maniac” Matt Borne (of Doink the Clown fame) and Raven, who were coming in especially for the Three Year Anniversary show. Before we disbanded, I asked Jason whether he thought DOA could ever support him and the other wrestlers full-time.
“It’s a dream, of course. Because, I’ll be brutally honest,” he said, as though he could be honest any other way. “It’s really humbling, going from being the boss to being the grunt. Monday morning back to work. It’s hard. That’s the reality of it.”
After five-plus years, when the acuteness of my initial episodes had long since faded, I began to fear that the meds had leveled me into a listless, anhedonic, das Manian existence. So in an effort to purify my experience and gain access to what I imagined were deeper realms of myself, realms more vivifying and significant and “authentic” than any I’d recently inhabited, I decided to go off them. Because I didn’t know any better, I tried quitting cold turkey. By day three I was having vertiginous fits so bad I had to lie down for a half hour or longer. The dizziness was of a deeper, more severe sort than any I’d ever experienced, qualitatively different from what happens when you childishly spin around a lot of times. There were shocks and jolts that ran up and down my spine, to and from the base of my brain. They’re called “brain zaps” or “cranial zings,” which makes them sound a lot more whimsical and fun, like some cartoon bubble out of Adam West–era Batman, than they really are, in reality. My head ached. My mind went as mushy as a cake half cooked. Some kind of akathisia alighted and I felt as though I’d had too much coffee when I hadn’t even had any. I couldn’t keep still. I allowed myself to visit a handful of medical websites—after a spate of hypochondriacal false alarms I’d been advised to give them a wide berth—and read that the white-knuckling I was engaged in is ill-advised. Doctors instead recommend a process of gradual reduction called a taper. So again I took up the regimen and decided to think long and hard before I gave quitting another shot.
After the Keizer Klash match with J_SIN, a victorious Dr. Kliever stood sweaty and breathless by the ring. He leaned against one of the ring’s posts, signing autographs and posing for pictures with kids from the audience, most of whom came up to about his waist. There was a thrilling and transgressive cultural exception about all this. Parents letting—no, rather encouraging their kids to get close to this man wearing nothing but little leather undies, who’s missing prominent chompers and who has a large crustacean tattooed on his chest, which was red and welted from J_SIN’s chops, and who was breathing suggestively and had sweat so much that he glistened and whose verdigris Mohawk had lost its initial pluck and verve and was now flopped over and matted and sad in a way that’s probably best signified by the sudden diminuendo of a slide whistle. The atmosphere was charged.
In line with the kids to have his picture taken was an
older fan. Disheveled in his loose jeans and Hawaiian shirt and unbuttoned flannel jacket, he walked with a cane and looked like he could’ve seen action in Vietnam. When it was his turn, he congratulated Dr. Kliever and said J_SIN was a whale and a jerk and it took balls to get in the ring with him. He asked Dr. Kliever how he felt, after a win like that.
“You never get used to it,” Dr. Kliever said. “You never get used to the pain.”
I lied to my dad, said I was getting in on Friday, when really I had arrived in Charlottesville the day before. I was in town briefly and wasn’t sure I wanted to see him, what with all the anger and disappointment, the annoyance and confusion—the rawness of all the shit I preferred not to reckon with. But I felt bad, guilty, and from a friend’s back porch I told him I was calling from the train, couldn’t talk long. Could we
meet for coffee later that afternoon? After he’d moved out of my mom’s place but before he’d subleased a cheap room in a house with UVA graduate students younger than his three sons, he’d asked this friend if he could live with him and his wife. He doesn’t know I know this and even if he did I’m not sure he’d see the problem. On the phone he said Mom had Airbnb guests coming that night and he had to drive out to the house to cut the grass. So we made plans to meet for half an hour the next morning, at seven, before he headed to College Park, Maryland, to watch a UVA lacrosse game. Later that day I learned that Mom had already cut the grass, that he, too, had lied. And then, feeling bad and guilty himself, I guess, he went to pick me up from the train station, thus catching me in my own lie. I didn’t answer his phone calls and the voice mail he left only made me squirm: “Where are you, bud? Which train were you on? I’m standing by the entrance, the exit. . .” I just texted back that I’d see him in the morning.
We met at Spudnuts, a fifties diner famous in Charlottesville for its dense potato-flour donuts and thin coffee. I was a little hungover—for a while there I’d been drinking in order to bring on a mild, manageable hangover. The symptoms of a mild hangover were the physical analog, the literal embodiment of the itchy-edged ache and estrangement of my normal mental state; and they were strangely soothing, in that they quieted the dissonance I typically felt while walking around. The wrongness felt right, evened me out. Dad was wearing an old T-shirt and, like me, was carrying a little extra weight and, who knows, maybe he was a little hungover, too. We got good donuts and bad coffee and talked.
It can often seem like the world or someone in it has either executed an injustice against Dad or fallen well short of his expectations. No bone seems to go unpicked, no ax unground. This time, he wanted to discuss how my brother had shown up late for a lacrosse game someone had given him tickets to. Good seats. Box seats. He’d missed the first quarter and a few minutes of the second. What did I make of that? Wasn’t it messed up? Rude? (Was this really what we were talking about?)
When he got around to asking about the train station, I came clean. I hadn’t been sure I wanted to see him, didn’t know what to make of what was going on—the separation but also everything that’d led up to it. I put some questions to him, was direct. Confusion bloomed on his face, for ours is a relationship that thrives nearest the surface. Behind the door I’d nudged open lay a mess of knottily complicated emotions. And for a second I was ten again, waiting in terror for his reaction to something I’d said or done. But I was also almost thirty, by any metric a man now myself, and wanted an explanation, an accounting of some sort. A story. How had Dad come to be a man with a marriage on the ropes? Broke with no reliable job? Was it really possible for life events of this magnitude to just like, you know, happen? But I also knew that nothing he could point to—depression, booze, laziness, pride, hebetude, booze—would undo or absolve the pain of the last few years. At bottom it wasn’t really about undoing or absolving the pain anyway, but honoring it as real, acknowledging that the rest of us hadn’t simply imagined it.
We sat for a spell in silence. Donut particulate dusted
Dad’s ratty tee. I don’t know why or exactly how I expected things to be different now, but I did and so his deflection bummed me out. He said Mom needed to get help. “I’m getting help. All kinds of help.” He said that word, “help,” like he resented even it. And before I knew it our half hour was up, as though this had been some sort of prison visit. We hugged outside and he said, “Pray for your mother, bud,” and I said I would, even though I hadn’t prayed in years and probably wouldn’t start again anytime soon. And then I turned away, not wanting to see him get into his dinky little truck and blow into the pneumatic doohickey I’d heard he had to blow into in order for it to start. I didn’t want that experience. Walking back to my friend’s house, a heavy, donut-sick feeling in my stomach, the sun working its way through the morning haze, I wondered what alchemical substance is added to time that makes it possible for us to forgive.
I spent my time at the first few wrestling events looking for socially or sexually or politically charged shit I could write about. And it’s everywhere to be found. Take, for instance, the wrestlers’ obsession with the microphone. In the face of working-class anonymity, of a system that renders them all but powerless, “voiceless,” controlling the mike could be read as their way of asserting control over their situation, their lives. When they got their hands on it, nearly all of the wrestlers first said something like “Shut up! I have something to say!” This all seemed symbolically complicated by the fact that the cordless mikes often cut out abruptly, mid-insult, and that even when they did work they amplified and distorted in equal measure, muffling the wrestlers’ voices into the nonsense, muted-trumpet language adults speak in Charlie Brown cartoons. Everyone would’ve been totally lost were it not for the fact that we were all sitting close enough to the ring to hear through the distortion. I thought of the improvisational nature of professional wrestling as a field of play and an embrace of pain that Nietzsche would have associated with his übermensch, and probably would have admired. Then I thought professional wrestling could be seen as a metaphor for our own normal and mediated lives, some of it real, sure, but a lot of it scripted, posed, fashioned for other people to observe and assess, to “like.” And that maybe folks get so up in arms about pro wrestling being “fake” because they’re acutely sensitive to and insecure about all the ways their own lives are a work.
After my third event, though, I began to sense that looking for these signs and “readings” was, at bottom, dishonest. I could continue to shyster together language that masqueraded
as insightful, but in the end I knew that that language would only amount to a form of avoidance, of hiding, namely from my own pain. But, further still, I’d also started to tire of the idea that all experience aspired to significance, to meaning of one sort or another. The idea that an experience was somehow only completed by insight. Because I’d had enough of insight—what had once promised an endless unfolding symphony of self-knowledge had lately taken on the tinny jangle of Muzak. Insights had come to be as easy to have as they were hard to live by. Know thyself? I’d been knowing on myself for years and yet here I was, almost thirty and still waking up feeling like I was in a stranger’s bed, a stranger’s life. Wasn’t reasoning like this just another form of storytelling and so, by definition, a work? Didn’t it betray the very nature of the experience? Barthes was very much on my mind here, particularly when he writes, “What matters is not what [the crowd] thinks but what it sees.” And as part of the crowd at the many events I attended, sometimes alone, I saw a lot.
I saw “Loverboy” Nate Andrews introduce himself by stuttering the first syllable of his name with an overactive tongue—“Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-LOVERBOY. . .”—in a way clearly meant to signify cunnilingus. I noticed then that he’d shaved most of his stomach and chest, leaving one long center strip of hair from his neck to under his belly button. When it was his turn with the mike, Thunder called it an “unhappy trail” and we all erupted.
I saw C. W. Bergstrom, who’s fifty-four years old and whose prime dates back to the days when Rowdy Roddy Piper wrestled here, come out and say to another tag team, “I hope
you packed a lunch, because we’re taking you to school.” To which his opponent from the Honor Society responded, “My partner and I are the true masters of the double team. Just ask this girl,” and he pointed to a woman in the front row, which drew cheap heat, halfhearted jeers and boos, but didn’t seem to register any actual offense.
I saw Mister Ooh-La-La on a YouTubed episode of Springer and learned that when he was eighteen, he’d changed his legal name to Mister Ooh-La-La.
I saw Dr. Kliever throw J_SIN into the ropes and then clothesline him when he bounced back into the ring, and I saw all 380 lbs of J_SIN go horizontal in the air and fall to the mat with the sound of a cannon, after which Dr. Kliever walked around the ring pointing to his chest with his thumbs like I’m the Man.
I saw a number of head butts to the groins of spread-eagled men that looked like deranged and hellish fellatio.
I saw crowd members with what must have been seventy-inch waists hold up homemade signs that said FOOD STAMP TRAMP when the Left Coast Casanovas came out with their escort, Mary Jane Payne. As they entered the ring, I saw the Casanovas hold down the middle rope for Mary Jane, who paused for an awkward and long few seconds when her head came close to Draven Vargas’s crotch and her bottom came close to “Loverboy” Nate Andrews’s crotch, at which point the two wrestlers posed a high five to complete the pantomime of a sexual maneuver known as the Eiffel Tower, at which the audience collectively groaned.
I saw J_SIN point to a much smaller opponent and say,
“I’ve had bowel movements bigger than him,” and really almost believed that.
When I arrived early at an event, I saw wrestlers warming up and going over their moves. They were wearing T-shirts that hung over their little spandex undies in a way that made me think they might not actually be wearing little spandex undies at all, that they might be Porky Piggin’ it.
I couldn’t help but see that some of the wrestlers’ little spandex undies looked more full than other wrestlers’ little spandex undies and wondered why the less endowed wrestlers didn’t opt for shorts.
My heart went out to one wrestler, gone generally flabby and a little gynecomastic, when a twelve-year-old girl in front of me started to chant, “Get a sports bra!”
I saw Big Ugly stand in the ring wearing a plastic neck brace and tell a story about having been in a bad car accident with a semi. He’d had to spend time in the hospital, where some of the other wrestlers had visited him. Though he was in a lot of pain, he guaranteed that he’d be back in the ring as soon as he could. He made a point of saying that a lot of guys in the business, they spend their lives on painkillers to numb themselves. He didn’t want that life. J_SIN said he would wrestle their tag-team match against the Left Coast Casanovas alone, in honor of Big Ugly’s pain. And I felt a great wave of tension and then shock and then confusion wash over me when, during the match, Big Ugly rushed out from backstage, doffed his neck brace, picked up a collapsible steel chair on his way into the ring, and used it to smack J_SIN across the head. This betrayal, this twist in the angle, stupefied the crowd. J_SIN lay stunned on
the mat and Big Ugly hit him another time. Then Big Ugly got another collapsible steel chair and put it on top of J_SIN’s head and hit that chair with the first one. “I can’t believe they let this happen,” said someone behind me. “Nothing fake about that,” said another. And I completely marked out, bought it. I was genuinely confused. Was J_SIN okay? Had Big Ugly been faking his injury all along? What just happened? After the managers got Big Ugly out of the ring, three wrestlers came to help J_SIN backstage. Scott got a picture of the four of them walking away from the ring, and when we looked at it later, we saw that Dr. Kliever is smiling at the camera, and his smile is different from the one I’d seen on him before. It is full of gleaming and perfectly white teeth and he looks movie-star handsome and I didn’t know what to think.
I saw so many incredible things I almost couldn’t believe my eyes.
Six months after the Keizer Klash, I found pictures online that a local journalist had taken that night. Sure enough, I spotted myself in one of them, standing in the back of the Lions Club, leaning against the wood paneling, an out-of-focus ghost taking notes as grown men pantomimed a primal struggle. This picture convicted me. In the months intervening I’d been dutiful about my reporting, attending events and interviewing the wrestlers, but had only recently begun to understand how much of myself this project was demanding I give. All along I’d been fighting the personal turn, afraid that naming or narrating certain hurts would both cheat and cheapen them. Amount to no more than complaining. But watching alone would no longer do, of that much I was sure. A line of Hölderlin’s kept coming to mind: “But where danger is, grows the saving power also.” And a little etymological sleuthing turned up that danger and risk are literally embedded in the word “experience”—I knew I was going to have to put myself in harm’s way, that is, in peril.
The DOA training facility is in Troutdale, Oregon, about a half hour east of my house in Portland. It also serves as a school where Dr. Kliever teaches new wrestlers the ropes, as it were. I drove out I-84, the Columbia River on my left, and I was thinking about time and experience. I mean, I was thinking about Dad. How much of our relationship is a work? How much a shoot? And would its being a work make it any less real? Any less painful?
Mount Hood rose outside my windshield. Clouds crossed it. It looked like something Ansel Adams might photograph. In the nearly seven years I’ve lived here, Hood has never
looked real to me. Against the sky, it looks flat and matted, too much like what it is, and this subtle irreality has always led me to think of it as a symbol. How large and how small. Grandeur. Awe. Ineffability. Far-reaching singleness. Timeless time and eternal return.
Behold! A mountain.
There was an accident on the highway and three lanes became one and traffic slowed to a creeping pace as everyone passing tried to assess the damage, counted their stars. I grabbed my phone and checked my Instagram account to see whether any of my seventeen friends had liked the photo I’d posted earlier. Kyle was one of three who had, and he’d uploaded a new photo for his many hundreds of followers. I thought of posting a shot of the accident. There were fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances, a dizzying display of spiraling light. Surely there was a good filter for that. The rescue workers had lobotomized one of the cars that had come to a crumpled rest on the right shoulder. Its roof was peeled back like the lid of an anchovy tin. On the embankment, an abrasion of fresh red paint stretched behind it. I would put a knowing caption on my photo, an allusion, play to the Pacific Northwest crowd with “Randle Patrick McMurphy” and get tons of likes, or tens of likes at least. I slowed, assessed, and only after I had taken a picture that came out blurry and smeared-looking did I consider that it was probably in bad taste anyway, the situation too, well, real. As I drove on, I thought about how, at an earlier time in my life, like Dad, I would have prayed for the safety of the people involved.
I got off the highway and drove past the semitruck
dealership and then the Troutdale airport, where two small helicopters were either taking off or landing, just indecisively hovering there. I passed a sprawling and enervated office complex no different from one I remembered at that moment I used to work in. And then development abruptly ended and I was in the middle of nowhere and I almost missed the turn. I searched in vain for address numbers on a street that had large garages on the left and semitruck trailers behind chain fences on the right and knew I had arrived when I saw an SUV with a DOA sticker across its entire back windshield. I parked behind it. When I got out, I saw hanging from its rearview mirror what looked to be shrunken heads. The training facility’s windows and door were cheaply mirrored and I stood a moment in the thoroughfare between the two strips of garages. My face was imperfectly and fuzzily reflected in the DOA insignia on the door. I walked up and my reflection grew larger. At the door, though, gripping the handle, I hesitated, imagining the world of hurt that would be revealed to me in the ring. But I pulled it open because I had decided that, more than anything, I wanted a piece of the action.