I HAVE NOT BEEN A churchgoing man for some time.
I was baptized Catholic but raised Presbyterian, confirmed a member of the local church back in Middle School, the day after a sleepover at a friend’s house where we watched the movie Red Dawn followed by soft core cable porn when his parents fell asleep. Looking back on it today, I barely remember the confirmation ceremony, but distinctly remember one of my friends running into the bathroom because his erections were out of control — due to the porn, not Red Dawn.
But the ceremony must have had an effect on me, because I became serious about church. I went every Sunday, I joined the choir, I was even ordained a Deacon (from Wikipedia: “charged with ministries of mercy, especially toward the sick and the poor”). I became a rock star of God — a Christian rock star — like Creed front man Scott Stapp. If I may quote an article from the music website Spinner.com:
Stapp remarked that his performance was a “symbolic, personal gesture” that had nothing to do with alcohol, [but] guitarist Mark Tremonti remembers the singer “staggering, slurring his words” and holding a half-drunk bottle of Jack Daniels 15 minutes before taking the stage.
But fairly soon after becoming a Deacon, I stopped going. “Fuck the sick and the poor,” I believe I said.
My church was protesting our high school theatre production of A Chorus Line, and attacking kids for being gay or even playing gay characters. If I remember correctly, there are only two gay characters in A Chorus Line, which is a pretty conservative representation for a show about aspiring Broadway dancers, but that didn’t matter to them.
I had to side with my high school theatre program. They’ve always been known for their progressive attitude. Why, just recently they staged Fiddler on the Roof, and our town doesn’t even want Jews to live there.
So I never went back to that church. I still believe in God, I just don’t didn’t have a place to go every Sunday. Until now.
Last Friday, my buddy Clem invited me to a Mexican wrestling match. Lucha Libre, it’s called. Huge dudes in vinyl masks and trunks who go by names like “Blue Demon Jr.” Here is a photo of that:
He said he’d meet me there with some ladyfriends and text me the address an hour before the show:
2028 7th Street, Los Angeles
I Googled it and found out there’s a 2028 W 7th Street and a 2028 E 7th Street. Clem wasn’t answering his phone, so I tried to guess which would be in the “more Latino part of LA,” which is like trying to find the “blacker part of Harlem,” or the “drunker part of Scott Stapp.” But since I was coming from West of Downtown, I figured I’d stop in at 2028 W first and keep going East if need be.
I arrived at a bar a few blocks from MacArthur Park. It seemed like the right spot. MacArthur Park, after all, is known among young people as a prime spot to buy fake IDs and among people of my parents’ generation as a song about a wet cake. I went inside. There were four people there, the kind of people you’d expect to be drinking on a Sunday night at a bar between a 99 Cent Store and a family-owned knockoff of Hometown Buffet. It seemed like a long shot, but just to be sure, I went up to the bartender and asked, discretely, “Is there a Lucha Libre wrestling match going on here?”
He hung his head and shook it, “No.”
“Thanks,” I said. I got back in my car. “Punch it,” I said. To myself.
LA’s population is unique for the fact that they don’t have to contend with hard, cold winters. Even the criminally insane ones can survive on the streets for years and become fun members of the community. But down 7th Street, you enter the industrial district where the strung-out, dead-inside homeless exist. I don’t want to say “live.” It’s a lot of lying on blankets during daytime, slapping the soft side of forearms, looking for spots to shoot drugs — excuse me… additional drugs.
As I passed them, I thought, “I’m almost there. Do I want to be there?”
I parked outside the place, “Chavez Cafe,” which did not look like a cafe. It did not look like a cafe at all.
Two guys stood out front smoking.
“Is there a Lucha Libre wrestling match here?”
“In the back.”
I could hear it: loud music, someone yelling into a megaphone… I entered the alley leading to the back expecting the worst, but what I found back there was a gymnasium full of parents and young children, a merchandise table with action figures and masks, tamales and hot cocoa, and — if I’d gotten there ten minutes earlier — a raffle. It looked like the lobby during the intermission of one of my old high school theatre productions, except a little more ethnic. Except Fiddler on the Roof, obviously.
I paid and sat down behind an enormous Mexican guy and his four daughters. I showed up right at the end of Act I. Two fighters were outside of the ring, shaking hands and signing autographs. The ring was empty. So one of the girls in front of me climbed into the ring. She was about six years old. I was waiting for her father to stop her — because once the Lucha Libre fighters entered the ring, this girl would get knocked the fuck out — but no one did. And all of the kids in the room climbed in with her.
A good twenty or twenty-five kids started play-wrestling one another. All were between four and ten years old, except for a Black kid in a Spiderman shirt who was at least two years older than anyone else and just roamed around the ring. I had no idea why he was there; no one in the crowd was not Hispanic. I figured he was a hired gun. A mercenary.
Then I realized I was the only white person there, probably within a mile. White guy wearing a Banana Republic knit shirt? Five miles minimum. But it didn’t matter; we were all in that huge, weird gymnasium together.
Clem and the ladies finally showed up. We went to the Chavez Cafe itself to get a drink. Like I said before: not a cafe. Just two pool tables and a bar, and the ladies working there laughed at us when we walked in. We got our beers to go and returned to the ring for Act II.
Eight fighters came out and started to warm up. First, I think we found the parent of “Spiderman Boy,” a Black guy who wore white wrestling trunks that looked like a diaper and featured the word “FAMOUS” on the ass.
“Go get him, Famous!”
“Who’s the man?” He’d ask.
“You are, Famous! You’re the man!”
And the most physically-intimidating of the bunch was a huge guy in black pants and a mask with the word “GOD” written in Gothic lettering across his back. I told you this story was religious. He had a V-shaped torso, the kind you get from doing pull-ups in a prison yard — more specifically, the kind he got by doing pull-ups in a prison yard.
Lucha Libre is Spanish for “free fighting,” which I take to mean there are no rules. Or they’re not followed. Two teams of four would start at the corners and three would stand outside the ring to be tapped in as needed. Sometimes they would enter the ring unsolicited. Sometimes one would argue with the ref — who had a cast on his right forearm, probably broken by bookies after failing to fix an earlier match — while the rest fought. Sometimes all eight went in there. At one point, the winners and losers of the individual fights reoriented themselves into new teams and the process started over.
Clem whispered to me, “What’s going on?”
“You studied French in school, not Spanish, right?”
“Well that explains why you’re confused.”
The crowd got really into it. I think I heard one of the girls in front of us yell out, “Stab him in the chest.” Even though the fight was fake, some of the stuff they were doing had to hurt — when someone drops you over their knee to make it look like they’re breaking your back, for example. I felt like all the wrestlers were getting abused in ways that would create irreversible chronic pain. Except for GOD. GOD dished it out. That was some real Old Testament shit right there.
But it was the next match where things really got interesting.
Two guys came out: a big, mean guy dressed in leather and a small guy wearing a mask. You know how in wrestling — fixed wrestling, at least — they try to make the fight look even?
We witnessed a first in fixed wrestling: the completely one-sided fight.
The big guy physically dominated the small guy start to finish, taking him to the ground multiple times and just about pinning him, then letting him back into the fight in order to slap him in the chest with an open palm and occasionally jump from a turnbuckle to kick him in the head. Then he’d get the small guy in a headlock and humiliate him by tearing off part of his mask, but then determine he’d rather let the small guy keep the mask on and instead force him to the ground and make him smell his own balls.
The fight technically only lasted fifteen minutes. The small guy got pinned for a count of three, then left the ring to go sign autographs for young kids. Deciding it wasn’t over yet, the big guy jumped out of the ring and punched the small guy in the head. Then he gave one of the kids a high-five.
It kept going another thirty minutes. Sometimes the small guy would lie on the ground motionless for up to ten seconds before getting back up, only to be knocked down again with a metal chair. It was like watching Goliath beat up David’s younger brother. And when it was finally over, the ref came out and presented the big guy with both a gold belt and a silver belt. He’d won first and second place in a two-person fight.
I turned to Clem. “Do you think there’ll be another fight?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m just wondering how much longer we get to spend in this dirty gymnasium in East LA.”
Sadly, it was over. People started filing out, and as we made our way to the exits, someone said, “Hey, Guys! Tell your friends. 8:00 every Sunday.” Every Sunday? I think I just found a new place to worship.
I know Chavez Cafe isn’t technically a church — it isn’t even a cafe — but it was better than the church I attended growing up for two reasons: everyone was accepted, no matter who they were, and it was the only time I’d ever seen GOD in person. And GOD was good. Very good. At Mexican wrestling.