Why you should care

No matter how sophisticated you think you are, you can still be floored — in a wonderful way. 

Charlie Bardey is a sophomore at Yale College .

The secret cowboys of 7th Avenue live among us. They ride the same subways, sip the same coffee, work in the same skyscrapers. With their cowboy hats hidden safely away in their closets until rodeo time, they’re almost like me. Almost.

One Tuesday morning on the Upper West Side, as I ate my Honey Bunches O’ Oats, my father confronted me with a strange inquiry: Would I like to see bull riding in Madison Square Garden next Tuesday? I was floored. Bull riding? Does that still exist beyond Matthew McConaughey movies? But, wait, isn’t killing bulls a little cruel? (Apparently, my father explained, bullfighting and bull riding are different sports. Who knew?)

To be clear, my father doesn’t even golf. Our family prefers HBO to SportsCenter (“So they try to put a ball in a basket for three hours?” we ask, laughing, slurping oysters like others do Budweiser.) Bull riding? Sounded like the pinnacle of dullness: Someone gets on a bull until the bull forces him off, a process that usually lasts about seven seconds. Surely at age 17, I was too sophisticated for such repetitive inanity. Bull riding was for plebes who knew not the finer points of culture. But of course, the irony-craving hipster in me could not resist.

The basketball court had been replaced with dirt imported from somewhere in our nation’s interior.

Accompanying my father and me the night of the event was, for some reason, my aggressively French grandmother, who insisted on sporting her fur coat, her Sonia Rykiel handbag and, as usual, a spritz of Dior. Of course, I had made sure to bathe my attendance in irony before the event. “Yeehaw, gang,” I told my friends at school that day. “I’m dun goin’ bull ridin’ tonight!” When I arrived at Madison Square Garden, however, I felt decidedly out of place. On any other night, my skinny jeans and T-shirt would have allowed me to blend into my meta-teen-hipster crowd, but not that night. MSG — the venue of the Knicks, the Rangers and the annual Jingle Ball concert hosted by Z100 where I saw Avril Lavigne perform in 2003 — was teeming with cowboys and cowgirls. A veritable horde of cow people. I was surrounded by big hats and Wrangler jeans and boots with real spurs.

Everyone had a beer in hand and a paper tray of wings. The basketball court had been replaced with dirt imported from somewhere in our nation’s interior. I was out of my element. I realized bull riding was not so much a sport as a lifestyle. This was a new world, one that existed in the nooks and crannies of our own, appearing only to those who knew how to find it. Where doctors and attorneys and bankers brushed the dust off their cowboy hats and donned them for this special occasion, like black tie for the opera.

I had entered this arena with no knowledge, but suddenly, I found myself commentating like an ESPN anchor.

About half the seats were filled — not Avril Lavigne levels, but still quite a turnout. As the announcer read out the names of the bulls and their riders, the audience held up signs with the names of their favorite bulls (Go get’r Buttercup! Knock’er socks off Clover!) — and I found myself cheering right along. I picked favorite riders and favorite bulls. How could I not love Ms. Destruction who threw off riders after four seconds, on average? Though I had entered this arena with no knowledge of Buttercup’s knockout history or Steve “The Wrangler” Jones’ record-breaking ride on Bessy, I quickly became invested in these four to seven seconds of excitement. Suddenly, I found myself commentating like an ESPN anchor.

Perhaps it was the audacity of this little world of cowboy hats and bulls and beer that so amazed me. As the show wound down, the cowboys exited their world and quietly assimilated into ours, gradually fading into the late-night bustle of 7th Avenue. As I watched them walk away, I wondered if I had known these people my entire life. Maybe they would go home, tuck their cowboy boots in their closets, return to their suits and ride the 6 to their office jobs as if nothing had happened, reemerging only when the rodeo was back in town.

And then it hit me: How did I know that the old man with the briefcase on the M86 didn’t have a pair of chaps hanging in his closet? How could I be sure that the woman in heels strutting down 5th Avenue wasn’t part of a roller derby? New York would never be the same.

Naked Cowboy Photo by Tristan Reville.

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