My Year of Fear

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Tryin’ to catch me ridin’ birdies. Fin.

on April 20, 2012

To continue this from parts one and two:

I’ve been struggling to finish this story because a peculiarity in this particular fear that has been (I think) absent in all the others: selfishness, or the potential thereof. Everyone keeps asking me: “Do ostriches like to be ridden?” And part of me is deeply grateful that I hang out with people for whom that’s a serious question, to be taken seriously.

The answer, insofar as my extremely limited knowledge of ostrich psychology can determine, is “of course not, you dumbshit.” But is that necessarily bad? Does that make me culpable in some way for wanting to ride an ostrich? Am I causing greater harm to other creatures by pursuing a confrontation of my own fear? And if so, what do I need to do to make it right? I haven’t been able to come up with a clear answer. Maybe one of you has better perspective.

So I did go back on Saturday, that being my Sunday that week, arriving at the festival about 5:00 a.m. because I was so excited. The first race was at 12:00, and I was more than ready at 11:00 as I was told to be. (Pasha was working as a carnie and wouldn’t ride in that race. So jealous. No, really. I’ve always secretly wanted to be a carnie.) 11 came and went. Then 11:15. Then 11:30. Then it was creeping up on 11:45, 15 minutes before the hour being the time the riders need to be ready for the race. Still hadn’t signed the waiver.

I had been hanging around casually before, but now I started hanging around in an extremely pointed manner, casting meaningful glares at everyone I could make eye contact with. I caught Steve’s eye eventually, and he shouted up apologetically at me that he couldn’t get the waivers signed in time now, but to just hold on for the next race and I’d ride for sure. I don’t know if any bystanders got caught in the violent weather system that was formed when the giant black cloud gathered over my head, but it did flood out my immediate area.

But it was a gorgeous day and I tried to remain optimistic, even though I was convinced I’d be eating ostrich burger again for dinner that night. Instead I tried to watch the race from the point of view of someone who races ostriches for a living. That was a lot harder than it sounds, believe you me.

I watched the birds for a while, trying to get a feel for them as individuals. They do seem to have personalities. I couldn’t really parse out the subtleties, but some seemed to like being with other birds, some were more loners, some were dumb, and some were really dumb. They mostly milled around and made faces like this:

They ALWAYS look like this.

They didn’t seem nervous or stressed or anything. They just kind of seemed to not get why they were in a pen, and to be waiting for someone to throw food in their mouths.

Inevitably, I also witnessed an ostrich relieving himself. All I have written in my notes at this point is: “Ostriches appear to have a prehensile rectum.”

As I was waiting for the first race to get started, my phone rang. It was the guy I had called a few days earlier about setting up a time to go hang gliding. He was a nice guy, and chatty, and we talked for a little while. The race was about to start, and as I watched the birds being prepped to run, knowing my turn would be coming, talking to my hang gliding guy, because I’m apparently the kind of person who has a hang gliding guy, perfect winter sun on my face, for about eight minutes I was the coolest goddamn person in the world.

It’s actually a fairly complex process to prepare the birds for racing. Most of the time, of course, they mill around in the paddock (assuming we can apply horse terminology here) until it’s time to go. Then the handlers pick out the three birds they think are best for that race (either in terms of temperament, mood, stress levels, physical condition, or who will be riding). Then a handful of guys go in with brooms held horizontally and start herding and try not to be kicked. There’s a little maze-type thing made out of movable metal gating so that way the birds have to go single file if they want to get away from the brooms and consequently go toward the gates. And the birds have nicknames but not official names, incidentally. They have numbers, which are on their, um, thigh? On a black-and-white tag around their leg above the knee. Thingy.

Each rider suits up in a red, white, or blue t-shirt and matching helmet. They hang back while two other people, both with brooms, herd one bird at a time into the gate. These gates are kind of like a M*A*S*H unit in that they’re obviously sturdy enough to be going on with, but still have to be dismantled at the end of the event. The bottom half is made of plywood, while the top is made of metal mesh. The handler pushes the ostrich into the front corner of the gate by shoving it with the broom lengthwise using his full body weight. This is probably not an activity recommended for persons with heart conditions. There’s no ladder or step, so the rider just has to hoist his (or her) own body up using the side of the gate. Your legs fit under the wings and you grab the front of the wings with both hands to hang on. Except an ostrich’s back is sort of humped, so there’s no way to just sit on it like you would a horse. The only way to stay on is to balance at a backward angle by pulling back against the wings in order to keep your crotch pressed up against the ostrich hump.

There is no saddle.

There are some theatrics before the show. Like they ask everyone to stand while a young woman (pretty, but do not doubt that girl can ride) in one of those satin cowboy shirts with the white piping, carrying an American flag in a kind of a holster on the saddle. They play a prerecorded message read by a man with an indeterminate Southern accent that I didn’t take notes on, so this is my best recreation:

“Hello. I’m the American flag. I was born in 1776. My mother was Freedom and my father was the Constitution. I’ve seen a lot of trouble in my time. We all know every nation has its share of strife. But I stood firm in the American Revolution. In the War of 1812. In the Mexican-American war, the Navajo wars, the Spanish-American war, the Boxer Rebellion, and World Wars Episodes IV–VI. During the attack of Pearl Harbor, I flew proud and strong. In the Korean war and the Bay of Pigs invasion I flew overhead. Well, not as much in the Bay of Pigs invasion, but I was definitely there in spirit. People did not cast their eyes away from me in shame in the Viet Nam war, no matter what the liberal mainstream media tells you. And last weekend I went on a camping trip with my cousin and his brother-in-law, and let me tell you, you’ve never experienced heartache until you realize you’re out in the godforsaken heart of the greatest country on God’s earth with only one 12-pack for the three of you and have to make it till Sunday. Thank the lord we at least had enough ammunition to shoot a hell of a lot of shit while we were out there. Hell, I don’t even remember what all I shot. I just know: I’m proud to be an American.”

Then the riders mounted, the handlers opened the gates, and they were off. On that race, the red rider fell quickly, the white rider hung on about halfway through, and the only one who made it all the way around was the blue rider, a guy I found out later went by the name of Cowboy. Cowboy is tall, maybe 6’6″, and lean and lanky, just wirey muscle and a hat, always with a little stub of a hand-rolled cigarette balanced just on the edge of his lower lip, and not bad-looking, or at least I assume not, because he never took off his aviator glasses in my presence. He walked with that permanent crook in his posture that let everyone know he was entirely too cool to waste time talking to people or looking at things. He was stone-faced and silent nearly the entire time I saw him, looking very much as though he was gazing into the merciless yet inevitable destruction of the heart of the American West, or possibly thinking about breast cancer.

The only time I saw him crack a smile and laugh out loud, in fact, was when someone told this joke: What do you get when you mix up your Rogaine and your Viagra? Hair that won’t lay down. Cowboy thought that was a right hoot.

But damn, that boy can ride an ostrich. He’s the undisputed champion, and only has been thrown a couple of times. He does it like it ain’t no thang. My best guess is that he’s so tall, he’s able to balance more easily and just kind of swing his body back and forth like a drinking bird. He sure makes it look easy, though. I made it my personal goal to defeat Cowboy and earn the championship title, and then my estranged twin sister will return from Bolivia where she was presumed dead, and the heartless banker will be so moved he’ll agree not to foreclose on the family ranch to give us time to drive the cattle to market.

But ostrich races only last a couple of minutes at best. I had some time to kill before the next race, which I was assured I would ride in, so I spent some time hanging out with the carnies. It isn’t just the ostrich races that Steve’s company brings to town, I found out. They’re paid by the festival to do the races, but they also negotiate to be able to bring in their own revenue streams. Like Harley the Hog, who is allegedly the biggest pig in North America. You pay a dollar to walk behind a partition to see him and his cantaloupe-sized testicles. There are the pony rides and the camel rides, which are each $5 a pop. There’s also the petting zoo, which is free to go in but “sponsored” by the fair, meaning Steve is also paid to bring the goats and pigs and water buffalo and zebus and whatnot, though the Chamber was selling cups of food you could feed to them. There was never a time when I didn’t see a line of people for the ponies and the camels. Steve told me what he expected to pull in for the weekend, and while I’m not gauche enough to tell tales, I’ll simply say I began to reconsider my career in public service.

I don’t think the carnival circuit is easy on the animals. The ponies walk in circles, about 12 hours a day, six circles at a time before switching riders. They’re not rotated out or anything. Camels are similar. They go around in circles for a living. Harley had it pretty easy; he just sat on some straw all day. He wasn’t expected to do anything, probably because his balls were so huge none of the men could bring themselves to give him orders.

The petting zoo animals had a middle ground. They have small pens and can’t really romp or gambol, but they don’t have to work, either. Although I would have to think having thousands of sweaty loud strangers sticking food in your face the entire day can’t be all that much fun. Breeding did seem to be somewhat willy-nilly, which concerned me. There were some brand-new lambs in the pens (as in, actively exiting their mother’s vagina), and I was in 4-H long enough to know you don’t do that to new mothers, though I admit I didn’t see any typical signs of stress. I asked one of the workers later about what it’s like to transport all those animals across country. He told me that it’s mostly fine, although sometimes babies are born on the trip and they usually get crushed or trampled, or the mother kills them because she’s totally freaked out. He shrugged. “That’s just nature, though. Can’t be helped.”

I really, really tried, but I could not think of a single way in which that could be considered “nature.”

I asked the guy running the camel ride if they ever got questions from the public about how they treated the animals. He thought for a moment. “Not really. Sometimes we have some pita trouble, though.” I swear to you I am a big enough dork that’s really what I thought he said. I would make an AWESOME investigative journalist.

The thing about that, though, is this: I’m not sure the people working had it much better. There was one guy running the pony rides. Just the one, all day, the whole weekend. He worked every bit as long as those ponies, plus hauling fat sticky kids up into and out of the saddle all day. Leading ponies around in their eternal circle, all day. Cleaning up after them. All day. No breaks, meal or bathroom, except for cigarettes that he would sneak now and then and stick butt-end first, still burning, in a crack in the tent frame so he could retrieve them up later. He was a fair-skinned fellow who was not, shall we say, a prodigious tanner. Up at 5, not in bed until after midnight. Work the whole damn day. Could you do that? Cowboy worked the camel rides, walking those damn camels in damn circles until he was needed for an ostrich race, then he’d change his shirt, ride the bird, and head right back to work. Nobody I saw got dinner breaks or a chance to pee or anything. Those boys fucking worked.

Probably none of them ever trampled their own infants to death, though. Just a hunch.

Does that make it better? Do the animals suffer less because the people do, too? Or is it just the price of earning a living? We all certainly suffer and do things we don’t want to because rent doesn’t pay itself. The thing is, while I was off making googly eyes at the zebu, these people were unsentimentally trying to earn enough money to live off of. Is it possible to have an emotional attachment to animals that earn your keep for you? And if so, would you want to? When animals are your business, it’s true it doesn’t make financial sense to mistreat your livestock. But you can also easily accept some trampled lambs as the cost of doing business. Spoilage, if you will. But the humans are expendable, too. The two owners had been there forever, since it was a family business, but they didn’t expect any of their workers to stay with them. They accepted nearly 100% turnover as just another cost of doing business. Not the way I have learned to see value in an economy.

But is there ever any way to earn a living, to be and to exist and to grow, without doing some kind of damage to another creature? I defy anyone to live completely harm-free. And sometimes we can’t even agree on what “harm” is. Oh the other hand, not being able to do everything doesn’t mean you should do nothing. It’s a mess. I was feeling quite perplexed and slightly irritable about the whole debacle when 1:30 rolled around and it was time for Pasha and I to go sign our waivers so we could ride.

It was time. Then it was past time. Then it was WAY past time. At 1:50, for the 2:00 race, Steve was still running around like a crazy person and Pasha and I were starting to get that now-familiar sick, disappointed feeling in our guts. (Pasha didn’t say so, but I’ll take the liberty of speaking for him.) Finally we just asked wtf already. “We don’t know where the waivers are,” said Steve. “Nothing for you to sign.” My heart sank. I was going to get shafted again, and I’d have to take on the ostrich as a personal enemy, and no one would ever take me seriously again. “You’re just going to have to write something up,” he continued. “Make it official.”

Uh. I’m not a lawyer. I’ve never written a contract. I barely have legible handwriting. I have no idea how to write something even close to legal, let alone binding. “I need it in ten minutes,” said Steve. “I’ll have it five,” I said.

Luckily I was carrying around my little black notebook. I once asked a professor of mine what good a degree in English lit would do me. “If you can write, really write,” he said, “you have an advantage over 90% of the people in the world. You can do anything, and succeed, because you can communicate.”

I’m pretty sure that was all bullshit. In my experience, good writing skills are about as high on the list of success-makers as the ability to masturbate goats. But here we were about to find out just exactly how good I could be. And I used my best penmanship, which is to say, ha ha.

“I hereby do ordain and decree that I hold Steve and all his employees and this ostrich thing and the whole Chandler Chamber of Commerce and all their kin unto the seventh generation not at all liable for letting me do something unbelievably stupid. I am of sound mind and body and if I wind up with an eye patch after getting a dinosaur talon in my eye, it’s my own damn fault. I hold myself entirely responsible for my person, property, and immortal soul. Amen.”

I signed it, had Pasha sign it, and showed it to Steve. “Looks good,” he said. “That should hold up in court.”

That would totally not hold up in court. I didn’t care. I was ready to ride.

1:55: By this time the stands around the race track had completely filled up, way beyond capacity. The entire paddock, including the back side where the birds and the riders prepped, was surrounded by spectators because there wasn’t anywhere else for them to stand. I did a quick estimate, and by my count there were more people watching that race than watched the 2010 World Cup. It was time for us to go in. Everyone else involved in the race hopped right over the fence into the paddock to get dressed and ready, and so I confidently followed. At least I tried to look confident. I was feeling pretty little right about then, though.

Cowboy, the consummate professional, was the first to get ready. He whipped off his shirt. “What color am I?” I said. “You want me to do blue?” I thought that they might like to change it up sometimes. I was wrong. Cowboy turned to me, stared deep into my soul with his aviator glasses on and his cigarette dangling, pulled on a blue t-shirt and said simply, “I’m the blue rider.”

Ooh-kay. I looked around for help. I didn’t come prepared with a t-shirt. Pasha had taken off his shirt, too. “I have a red shirt and a white shirt,” he said. Thank god for Pasha. “Which one do you want?” I chose to be the white rider, because I will never let it be said about me that I passed up a chance to make a Lord of the Rings reference.

2:00: So I was the white rider. But now I had to become the white rider. By which I mean putting on the shirt. They had already started the horse around the track, so it wasn’t like I could modestly duck out across the parking lot to the trailer. I mean, I had deliberately worn a sports bra specifically in case I had to change in front of an audience. I just didn’t expect it to be an audience of 1.5 million people and their 6.7 million gawking children.

You know how if you’re concerned about wearing your swimsuit to the beach or the pool, and your friends tell you not to worry because everyone there is having fun with their own friends and no one is paying attention to you? I can promise you that was not the case here. EVERYONE was paying attention to me, because I was the fucking entertainment. I was the ostrich rider. And I was a girl. There was nothing for it but to go all Brandi Chastain on those people’s asses.

Which I am absolutely counting as a separate item on the list.

2:05: Steve physically hauled Pasha and I aside to do our comprehensive safety training. “We’re going to get these birds ready for you,” he said. “You need to climb on. Put your legs under their wings. Hold tight to the front of their wings. The only way to stay on is to balance. Pull back against the wings the whole time so your crotch is pushed right up against their hump.” I felt distant, like I was being washed away by the noise of the crowd. The sun was hot and the dirt track smelled strong and clean. The only thing I could see was Steve’s weathered face, urgent and grim.

“Now,” he continued, the birds flapping loudly behind us as they were driven forward in the paddock. “You will not be able to steer these birds. They will run where they want to. They might run forward. They might run in circles. They might run back into the gate. You cannot tell them where to go. All you can do is hang on.” He took a deep breath as the noise grew louder, though whether it was from the audience, the birds, or my bowels was impossible to say. “You might fall off. Try not to fall off. Try to stay on. It’s much, much better to stay on.”

Here he grabbed my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes, just the same way people do in movies right before they tell another character what the denoument of the film is. “Now Jennifer, you listen to me. Are you listening?” I nodded vigorously, white helmet bobbing. “You listen to me. If you fall off. Try not to fall off. If you fall off, FALL OFF BACKWARD. You listening to me? If you fall forward, you will go right over that bird’s neck. And which direction is that bird running? He will run right the fuck over you and trample the shit out of you with those huge-ass dinosaur feet. See them claws? They will go in your fucking face. Fall off backwards.”

I had been feeling dopey and high on the energy of the crowd, but suddenly I extremely cold and sharply focused. I wondered if I could change my mind and rescind my waiver. The feet certainly looked a lot bigger when they were right the fuck next to you. They looked like actual dinosaur feet, probably because they are. The feathers are huge, and not the friendly Big Bird yellow, either. Everything is too big and scary and I don’t know why I wanted to do this and I want to go home and waaaaaaaaaaaahh!! But I just nodded my head once, grimly.

“When you get up on the bird, I’ll help you,” said Steve, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this was a horrible stupid thing we were about to do. “Get settled. Grab on. When you’re sitting, the bird will start to go up and down on you. Don’t worry; that’s just what they do. Ain’t nothing. What you need to do is grab on and lean back. It’s all about balance. You have to lean back in order to stay on. But not too far back. Just lean back and you’ll be fine.”

I started looking around for a gun with which to shoot myself in the head, but there was no time. A runner came over. “Riders up front,” he said.

“Go on,” said Steve. “Get the crowd all pumped up.”

“I beg your pardon?” The carnies weren’t looking at the gates, they were looking at the track. Something else no one told me they were expecting: me to stride across the track with the other riders and announce who I was, where I was from, and that I was a librarian. And get the crowd excited about this. How’s that for performance anxiety? Everyone there seemed to be under the firm impression that the crowd would go wild when I said I was a librarian. I was pretty sure that would only be true if I were also simultaneously stripping and playing the Star Spangled Banner on the harmonica with my ass, but I was determined to give it my best shot.

So I gave it my best shot. We were introduced and announced. When it was my turn, I was prompted with, “And what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a libRARian!!” I squeaked, pumping my flaccid tiny fist in the air. The reaction I got from the audience suggested they may have thought I had lapsed into speaking Portuguese. “Woo!” I tried. Then I clapped once.

Fortunately they ended that part quickly once they saw no one gave two shits. We three went back to the gates to get loaded onto the birds. Steve himself was my handler, which I deeply appreciated. The birds were ready for us. All we had to do was open the door, walk around the guy with the broom holding the struggling bird in the corner using his full body weight, and have another person shut the door behind us and lock it just in case the bird got free and ran backwards trying to escape, then vault onto a live ostrich.

The gate inside is really not much bigger than the average apartment closet. Made much smaller by the sweating pushing guy with the broom and the giant goddamn hopping bird. I was suddenly feeling not at all pleased with my life decisions to date. But Cowboy was already mounted and Pasha was almost there, so I had to go.

Ostriches are big. Also tall. And they bounce up and down a LOT. I was made extremely aware of these facts as I scaled the side of the gate, slightly too short and lacking adequate upper body strength to lift myself up with either grace or verve. But I hauled my skinny ass up and clung on with my right hand and foot while leaving the left ones dangling in space to lead me onto the ostrich. Steve lifted up the left wing and guided my left foot almost tenderly underneath it while I leaned my body over to grab on with the left hand and hopefully not fall the fuck off, which I was in genuine danger of doing. I know how to ride a horse and I thought I could apply a lot of the same knowledge, but I was really struggling to get my ass situated and get a grip with my legs, especially as it was a moving target I was trying to hit. There was a horrifying moment when I tipped over and nearly fell straight off the back, but I caught myself with the wall and slid myself back up with Steve’s help.

“Grab the wings,” said Steve, remarkably calm considering that he was holding a flailing, full-grown ostrich in place underneath a complete novice rider in front of a crowd of thousands using nothing more than a broom handle. I felt around and finally got a firm, solid grip with my left hand. The wing was bigger than I expected, somehow. Wider. Thicker. Feathery-er. Extremely hard to grasp. I fumbled for a grip with my right hand, saying, “I—”

And that’s when they opened the gates. All three birds shot straight out the front at top speed. My bird was the fastest and I immediately slipped backwards. I automatically tried to compensate by leaning forward, then remembered the feet and the face and leaned back again, now overcompensating. There was nothing for it but to just hang on as best I could and keep my balance while getting a grip on the other wing with my free and flapping right hand and rebalance myself while we were running.

Maybe if I were an actual Jedi knight this would have worked. As it was, I flailed with my right hand for a couple of seconds, was forced to tip forward again by the motion of the ostrich, felt myself slipping permanently off, and knew I had to eject. Fortunately I watched hundreds of hours of the Dukes of Hazzard training films as a child and so was prepared to take a fall. I pushed backwards and twisted to land on the far side of my left butt, which cushioned the blow. I was just fine, albeit humiliated that I barely made it out of the gate.

I think, however, and there’s no video to confirm this, but it must have looked horrifying, as the entire crowd let out a gasp and a moan when I fell. Or it’s possible they could immediately see what it took me another eon to figure out:

My bird was the fastest. Which meant, as I was lying in the dirt, I could hear the thundering dinosaur hooves of the other birds right behind me. And not only could the riders not do anything to help me avoid getting my face stomped off, I was actually a hazard to them, since the birds might startle or change direction suddenly with me on the ground, which might get them thrown off, too.

Again my Hazzard County training served me well. With reflexes I didn’t know I had, I pulled my arms in, tucked my head down, and hurled myself as hard as I could toward the inside of the track, rolling several times before I came to the wall. It was only several seconds later that I realized what that odd pointy dinosaur breeze was that had gone right past my face just after I started to roll.

So that was terrifying. But I also have some rudimentary theatrical instincts, plus I know from watching 1,000,000 football games as a kid because as a member of the marching band my grades were held hostage until I attended every last motherloving home game, that as much as I might disagree with these people’s politics, they are good and decent and cannot enjoy the event until they know the players (riders) are all ok. So I popped right up like a filthy jack-in-the box with the adrenalin shakes and waved an arm covered in ostrich feathers to let everyone know I was fine.

That was when I remembered that I had vowed to defeat the blue rider. I was reminded of this as I saw Cowboy round through the home stretch and bring his bird in first place. Pasha made it halfway around, but fell before the end. I was dead last. But at least I had a face.

What killed me, though, is the look Steve gave me as I walked back toward him. The look that said, “Yup, you’re a girl, all right.”

“I wasn’t ready!” I complained. “I only had one hand on! It’s not my fault!”

After sufficient bitching and moaning on my part, it was agreed that I would try again in the 5:00 race. This time I spent the down time watching both the live animal show (in which the trainer made endless almost-filthy jokes about his monkey and openly mocked his wife, who was also his assistant) and the freak show (seriously, that’s what they called it). The freak show was notable to me mostly because when the female (of course) contortionist did some particularly spectacular backbends while constructing a short-wave radio and balancing on a pair of chopsticks, it became obvious there was a kind of large tear in her leotard in the personal area, so you could see one of her inner thighs. Then I listened to pig-eyed, dyed-blonde mothers of small children make catty remarks about how tacky she was and how they shouldn’t have to put up with this.

4:45: Back again. Determined to defeat the blue rider, who was already changed and ready. I was so determined to redeem myself on the second try that this time I just whipped off my shirt to change without even thinking about it, probably pointing my nipples at people in a really tacky manner.

I walked over to my nemesis, Cowboy, to try and size him up. “So what do you think I did wrong?” I said, playing the helpless female card in the hopes of getting him to reveal his ostrich secrets. “What would you recommend I do to stay on this time?” Unfortunately, halfway through I accidentally switched from helpless female to seriously asking, because he really is a lot better than me.

He looked at me and I saw the first spark of interest in his face I had seen so far. “Yer ridin at bird fine. S’all bout balance.”

“What do you mean?”

“Yer ridin at bird jest fine. Jest gotta do ‘er.”

I thought that was pretty solid advice, actually.

As the handlers went through the whole round-up process again, they picked out a small (hah), calm (lmafo) bird for me this time. They told me his nickname was Tweety Bird. I mentally renamed him Buckbeak and wondered how I would go about freeing him after the race. I looked Buckbeak in the eye and we had a moment. Or maybe just I had a moment. Whatever it was, suddenly I felt ready. I looked out at all the people looking at me, and realized, no matter what happened in the race, I was about to do—for the second time—exactly what I had set out to do. I already won. I felt immortal and unstoppable.

And when they called the riders out to be introduced again, I made sure we were in red-white-blue order, because I am a goddamn patriot, and I strode across that track with my helmet under my arm like I was about to get on a shuttle for the moon. At that time of day, the sun was still strong but not so hot, and the winds had kicked up slightly, so my hair blew back while I gazed confidently into the crowd. Still not much reaction when I announced I was a librarian, but this time it was their fault and not mine.

Steve was my handler again and he told me he would not allow the gates to be opened until I gave a clear shout that I was ready. I thanked him and he wished me luck.

Then this happened.

People ask me a lot what it was like. And it’s really kind of hard to say. There was so much happening at once that there wasn’t really time to think, there was only time to be. The ostrich wasn’t smelly. It wasn’t pokey. It wasn’t aggressive or hostile. It was awfully bumpy, though. Kind of like what I think riding a jackhammer must be like. There’s no gliding with the bird, at least not for me. And Steve was right: you cannot tell that bird where to go or what to do. The only thing possible is to hang on.

But yeah. I did that. I still have a little bit of a smirk on my face because of it, too.

You can see that I only made it about halfway around, though. The problem this time was that my leg was right where the ostrich’s knee was going, so he basically kept kicking me, which threw off my balance. Each time he lifted his leg, I got jarred and eventually that was enough to tip me over to the side. Easy dismount, though, and I’m pretty sure my balls were as big as Harley’s at that point.

As I came back around, Steve came racing toward me, yipping and hollering. “Babegirl!” he shouted, pounding my back. “You fucking rode the shit out of that bird!” He hugged me, a genuine big bear hug, and gave me a kiss on the top of my head. He looked around at the carnies at large. “Goddamn, did you see this girl ride? She rode the hell out of that bird! I seen ESP-fuckin-N athletes ain’t done as good as you. And you took that fall like a goddamn pro.” He hugged me again, seemingly beside himself. Everyone else came around to congratulate me. I even got an approving nod from Cowboy.

“Thanks,” I said, in danger of floating away on the smile on my face. “It felt good.”

Steve barked out a laugh. “You goddamn right it felt good. You’re a natural, babegirl. You’re a gotdamn natural. A skinny little girl like you? No tears or squealing or nothing! And you rode that thing! Goddamn, Babegirl, you come back and ride for me any time you want to, hear? Better for the birds, anyway, to have you than the fatasses I got riding now.”

“Um,” I said.

We went on like that for a while. Eventually I allowed myself to be cajoled into admitting I had just done something pretty fucking awesome. I went in back of the paddock and changed out of my shirt, taking my own goddamn sweet time, because if anyone objected to seeing my sports bra, they could kiss the giant dinosaur feathers sticking out of my ostrich-riding ass.

As I walked back over to where the rest of the animals were, I noticed with the instinct familiar to all women that a man was walking toward me on an intercept course. I slowed and turned slightly toward him, not really expecting trouble but showing him I noticed him noticing me.

He smiled at me. “You’re that girl who rode the ostrich, aren’t you? You changed your shirt, but I recognized you.”

I smiled back. Of course that’s what he wanted to talk to me about. Duh. “Yeah, that’s me. The shirt was just for the race.”

“I figured.” He hesitated as we walked together. “How was it?” he said finally. “It looked really fun.”

“Yeah,” I said warmly. “It really, really was. It was everything I hoped it would be. And there’s nothing else in the world like it.”

Postscript:

Ecstatic and loopy and loving the world, I walked back over to where the camel rides had already started up again, because remember that what was a thrill for me was just a break in the tedium for Cowboy and friends. Now, I come from a world in which the manager (meaning, occasionally, me) is responsible for making sure all her staff get federally mandated breaks, do not work unpaid hours, have appropriate safety gear and adequate training to appropriately use the gear, and are furthermore charged with making the workplace a generally pleasant, supportive, and personal-growth-encouraging environment. This may explain to you why I was absolutely beside myself when I realized that although I got to play around after doing something I literally thought I’d never get to do, these guys had been working since dawn, got no bathroom or lunch breaks, had a break only to ride an ostrich and were expected to come right back to work afterwards and continue to work until almost midnight.

It may also explain to you why they as a group work the animals so hard. The animals don’t work any harder than the people, really.

But I was absolutely unable to abide the idea that they were getting no food break, so I offered to take someone’s place so they could rotate through dinner. And I knew I could just step in, because these jobs are not exactly skilled labor, no offense to everyone I met there. First I offered to take the admissions guy’s spot, but they refused because they wouldn’t let me handle the money. Which frankly I was somewhat offended by, since an entire Arizona county has certified that I am trustworthy to handle money, and I have been doing so without incident for years, until I remembered that I should just get the fuck over myself.

What they decided to have me do was lead the camel around. I was deeply apprehensive, but I Am Babegirl. I can do anything. They had me do a quick training to ensure I was competent to handle the animal if there were an incident. My training consisted of going around the pen a couple of times with customers aboard while one of the camel guys walked beside me and asked me if I had a boyfriend. But really, it’s not that hard. Basically you say, “Come on, Charlie!” and pull on the lead rope. Unless you’re walking Smoke, which I was because Smoke is considered more tractable and easier to handle. Then you say, “Come on, Smoke!”

Smoke on the water

Then you walk around in one big circle, stopping if need be to let parents take pictures, then go around in one more circle, then pull into the camel depot and let the people off and then do it all over again. Forever.

Forever in this case was about two hours, which was long enough for everyone to get a quick dinner break and for me to come to deeply appreciate my younger self for pursuing higher education. Don’t worry that I didn’t get paid, though. These guys don’t roll like that. I was duly compensated with a camel ride ($5), a size L official Ostrich Festival t-shirt ($10), and a free look at Harley the Hog ($1), and all tax-free, bitches.


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The Militant Baker

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Cynical Idealism

The Blog and Times of Matthew Ciarvella

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