(Originally published June 30, 2010)
I HAVE NOT been a churchgoing man for some time.
I was baptized Catholic but raised Presbyterian, confirmed a member of the local church in Middle School the morning after a sleepover at my friend’s house where we watched the movie Red Dawn followed by soft-core cable porn after his parents fell asleep. Looking back, I barely remember the confirmation ceremony, but I distinctly remember one of my friends running to and from the bathroom the night before because his erections were out of control.
After getting confirmed, I got serious about church. I went every Sunday, joined the choir, and was even ordained a Deacon (from Wikipedia: “charged with ministries of mercy, especially toward the sick and the poor”). I was a rock star of God, like a Christian rock star, like Creed front man Scott Stapp. If I may quote an article from the music site 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 “stagger, slurring his words” and holding a half-drunk bottle of Jack Daniels 15 minutes before taking the stage
But soon after becoming a Deacon, I stopped going. “Fuck the sick and the poor,” I believe I said.
The reason was that my church was protesting our high school theatre production of A Chorus Line and attacking kids for being gay or playing characters, even though there are only two gay characters in A Chorus Line, a pretty conservative number for a musical about aspiring Broadway dancers. Between the church and the theatre, I sided with the theatre, because tolerance trumps bigotry every time. Why, just recently my high school’s theatre program staged Fiddler on the Roof, and our town doesn’t even want Jews living there.
So I never went back to that church. I still believe in God, I just didn’t have a place to go every Sunday.
Last Friday my friend Clem invited me to a Mexican wrestling match. Lucha Libre, it’s called. Huge dudes in vinyl masks and trunks who go by nicknames like “Blue Demon Jr.” Here’s a photo of that:
Clem said he’d meet me there with some lady friends and texted me the address an hour before the show:
2028 7th Street, Los Angeles
I Googled it and found a 2028 W 7th Street and 2028 E 7th Street. Clem wasn’t answering his phone so I tried to guess which address was located 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 would be coming from West of Downtown, I figured I’d stop at 2028 W first and keep going east if need be.
I arrived at a bar a block from MacArthur Park. It seemed like a seedy enough spot. MacArthur Park, after all, was known among my friends Freshman year as the spot to buy fake IDs, and among people my parents’ age as a song about a wet cake.
There were only four people inside, the kind of people you’d expect to be drunk on a Sunday night at a bar between a 99 Cent Store and a family-owned knockoff of Hometown Buffet. I walked 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.
Los Angeles is unique for the fact that its homeless population doesn’t have to contend with long, cold winters, so even the criminally insane can survive on the street for years and morph into fun members of the community. But down 7th Street you enter the industrial district where the strung-out, dead inside homeless exist. (I won’t say “live.” “Live” implies living. It’s mostly lying on blankets during the day, slapping forearms to find 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 address, “Chavez Café.” It did not look like a café. Not at all. There were two guys out front smoking.
“Is there a Lucha Libre wrestling match here?” I said.
“In the back.”
I could hear it now: loud music, someone yelling into a megaphone… I entered a dark alley expecting the worst. Murder, perhaps. Instead, I came upon a gymnasium full of parents and young children, a merchandise table with action figures and masks, tamales and hot cocoa, and – if I’d arrived ten minutes earlier – a raffle. It looked like the lobby during one of my high school theatre products, except more ethnic. (Except for Fiddler on the Roof, obviously.)
I showed up right at the end of “Act I” and sat behind an enormous Mexican guy and his four daughters. Two fighters were outside the ring, shaking hands and signing autographs. The ring itself was empty, and one of the girls in front of me, about six years old, got out of her seat and climbed in.
I was waiting for her father to stop her, because once the Lucha Libre fighters came back this girl would get knocked the fuck out, but he didn’t. Instead, all the other kids in the crowd climbed in with her. A good twenty to twenty-five got in there and started play-wrestling. All were between four and ten years old, except for a Black kid in a Spiderman t-shirt who was at least twelve and just roamed around the ring like an enforcer, a hired gun.
It occurred to me I was the only White person there, probably within a hundred yards. White person wearing a baby blue Banana Republic knit shirt? Five miles minimum. Yet there we all were, in that huge weird gymnasium, together.
Clem and the ladies finally came and we went to the Chavez Café to get a drink. Like I said before: not a café. 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 to warm up. First, the father of “Spiderman Boy,” a Black Guy wearing white wrestling trunks that looked like a diaper with the word “FAMOUS” on the ass.
“Go get him, Famous!” we yelled.
“Who’s the man?” He asked.
“You are, Famous! You’re the man!”
The most physically-intimidating fighter was a huge guy in black pants and a mask with the word “GOD” tattooed in Gothic lettering across his back. (I told you this story was religious.) He had a wide V-shaped torso, the kind you get doing pull-ups in a prison exercise yard – specifically, the kind he got doing pull-ups in a prison exercise 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 without being tapped in. Sometimes one of them would argue with the ref – who had a cast on his right forearm, probably from a previous “argument” – while the other fights would fight extra violently. Sometimes all eight would go in at once. At one point, the winners and losers of the individual fights would reorient into new teams and the process would start again.
Clem whispered to me, “What’s going on?”
“You studied French in school, not Spanish, right?”
“Well that’s why you’re confused.”
The crowd got really into it. I think I heard one of the little girls in front of us yell, “Stab him in the chest!” Even though the fighting was staged, it had to hurt; when someone drops you over their knee to make it look like they’re breaking your back, for example. All of the wrestlers had to have been 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 shirtless 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 from start to finish, taking him to the ground multiple times and just about pinning him, letting him back into the fight in order to slap him in the chest with an open palm or jumping 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, or perhaps let him keep the mask on but 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 and left the ring to sign autographs for young kids. Deciding it wasn’t over, the big guy jumped out of the ring and punched him in the head. Then he gave one of the young autograph-seekers a high-five. This went on for an additional 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 little brother.
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.
As we made our way to the exit at the end of the night I heard someone say, “Hey, Guys! Tell your friends, 8:00 every Sunday!”
Every Sunday? I think I just found a new place to worship.
I know Chavez Café isn’t a church – it isn’t even a café – but it was better than the church I attended growing up for two reasons: first, everyone was accepted, no matter who they were; second, it was the only time I’ve ever seen GOD in person. And GOD was good. Very good. At Mexican wrestling.