Colorado, United States, December, 2004
In all of America there is a particularly American beauty in Colorado It is the wind, the pine needles, and the starlight that gets stuck in the cracks of granite of the foot hills at the base of Pikes Peak. It is the people. And it is the technologies they are making. This beauty lubricates the huge machinery we call The Wild West. This machine does many marvelous things. It makes robots into people and people into animals. It pits the animals and the robots against each other. It generates money. And, for the first time back in my home town of Colorado Springs in some number of years, I was there to watch it all churn.
Colorado Springs is just one county south of Columbine (the county, not the state flower). I'm referring to the school that got shot up a few years ago. And I am of the firm opinion that this happened where it did for a reason called Culture.
For the entire time I was in Colorado Springs I listened to KILO 94, FM Radio. KILO is the premier purveyor of auditory violence on the airwaves of Colorado Springs. It is one of the few points of release that can be found in this calvinistic county of patrol, patriarchs, and punishment. And they played, on KILO, two advertisements for over two weeks. The first was the Monster Truck Rally. It would take place at Pikes Peak Stadium, "Where The Big Boys Bring Out Their Big Toys," the announcer deep-throated in the most malevolent of macho-bravado that can be heard on American radio. I needed an event like this, in some way, to remind me of something Iíd forgotten. If youíre away from the United States for too long you forget the drama of the idiotic, the spectacle of the absurd. If youíre born in the United States and you forget that, well, thatís worse than the suicide of expatriation. Since I had already committed one of these crimes I had to find some absolution. It became a spiritual obligation to attend one of these events. Alas, the Monster Truck Rally was out of my league - too far away, too expensive and too many people. I didnít even have a car to get there which just seemed to fly in the face of the entire idea. After all, what kind of a jackass would walk to a monster truck rally? The other advertisement that KILO played was "The Best of The Springs Wet T-shirt Contest." Girls got in for free. It was on central Tejon Avenue, which was within walking distance, and it cost only $4 admission, which my wallet could handle. And anyway, they had a pool table, which is always an asset.
Itís Friday at 10pm and Iím sure Iím in the wrong place. I have to be. Past the bar thereís a temporary boxing ring set up and two fat guys are wearing boxing gloves and swatting at each other. One of them round-houses, but misses, and connects instead with the wrist, slips in some beer on the mat, the referee screams and things pause for a few seconds. But I donít see "Colorado Springs Best" walking around in wet t-shirts; just sweaty guys slugging each other. I go back outside to confirm itís the right place. Yes, there is the KILO94 flags with some under-age skate punks standing around rolling cigarettes; this is it, the meat show. So I walk back in, order a drink, and get a pool table.
The announcer is going live from the bar with a huge mouth and the whole world can be sure that this is where the action is. We are the privileged few attending the important event. I shoot pool for a few minutes and a GI from Fort Carson introduces himself. His name is Mike and his three friends watch him beat me six games in a row. Itís around 10:30pm These four GIs all just walked off the army base. They look exactly alike. Short hair, white zitty skin, thin, early 20s, faded blue jeans. Their fingers twitch and they giggle a lot over the cigarette that hangs from a lip. The entire troupe has been happily sniffing amphetamines all afternoon. They have grey crescents under their innocent eyes and are theyíre grinding their teeth like river ferries. Theyíre happy, trapped in the Springs and heated up on chill. I ask them about the show. Where's the tits? GI Mike explains whatís going on, "Well, they start with Fight Night then at twelve they have the t-shirt contest." He looks at me then says "HA" as if it meant something important, or were a kind of punctuation. He has swirling spiral eyes. So this means that we have ninety minutes to wait. Heís reminding me of a San Francisco leather queen at, say, the Eagle. He sticks his chest out. He informs me with a smile that there are no legal barriers in this place. Itís simply signing a form when you step into the ring that says that anything that happens is your fault. I kind of like this. It flies in the face of that Suzuki Samurai legislation that allowed you to sue because you rolled your own car. Other than that the only rules are that you have to wear head gear, you have to wear gloves and you have to listen to the referee (of course, hearing the DJ scream, it occurs that you have to listen to KILO94 too). GI Mike leans in and tells me in a sort of officious way, "Look, thereís three rules. The three rounds are sixty seconds each." He holds up his index finger. "Crowd decides the winner." He holds up a second finger. Itís a peace sign now. "Referee has final say. Thatís it." And he backs up and tucks his chin in and looks at me with his Camel Kool expression. "Are you gonna get in the ring?" I ask, really interested. Not that I have an interest in getting my head separated from my shoulders, but I wonder if GI Mike does. "HELL YEAH he is!" his buddy shouts and slaps him on the back so hard GI Mike has to take a step forward. "I AM NOT!" GI Mike turns around, cue in hand. I wonder if the question will generate a second fight in the room. The game is interrupted and grand debates emerge. The issue of GI Mike getting into the ring takes a good six or seven minutes to discuss because itís something GI Mike has considered. But, he insists, he doesnít want to get in trouble with The Sergeant. As I watch the GIs arguing, Tool plays in the background, some fat guy is falling over on the mat, and the stench of beer is worming its way up deep into my forehead. There, in the bar, the world is small and little problems are big. Everything is imminent; fistfights, music, alcohol, booze, cigarettes. Everything is here but the tits and t-shirts. We are in an the middle of the world. Nothing is productive or precious. Everything is a goddam sticky mess of crawling cigarette butts and screaming boozed-up brawlers. I feel something like love's sick cousin settle down into the couch of my heart.
In 1979 a promoter named Arthur P. Dore started a backyard fistfight club called "Toughman" contests that amounted to matches for American boxers that are overweight, medically risky, and untrained. Participation is open to anybody that knows how to make a fist. The rooters step into the ring to slug the hell out of some other guy theyíve never met. In the last few years these outings have gained both popularity and attendance. And "Toughman" participants have started putting on startling performances. For example, on June 17, 2003 235-pound Stacy Young from Sarasota, Florida stepped into the ring, took fourteen whacks to the head, fell over, began twitching and didnít stop until her EKG had flat-lined. But itís all in a good nightís fun and spectators paid $15-$25 for a seat. Mr. Dore managed to gross over $10,000 on that particular evening. Itís no martial art; itís untrained American-style amateur gladiator beatings. Naturally, "Toughman" contests have ignited other kinds of events such as "Toughwoman" contests, Viking Fights, Bourbon Street Cat Fights, Amazon Slugfests, and Evening Gown Catfights, to name a few. Itís a chip off the old entertainment industry.
Sick of losing pool I decide to shoot photos instead. After a brief discussion with the event organizers I get a press-box seat up above the ring. I have to promise them Iíll mention KILO in my article in exchange for the front-row privilege. They tell me I have to clear it with the DJ (a round guy with a goatee). He points up some stairs to a little circular cage over the ring. He shouts, over the music BE CAREFUL OKAY. I shout OKAY WILL DO THANKS back. So I climb the sacred stairs and sit down on a metal seat directly above the ring. Everything seems to be trembling a bit. The seat had a good view of the purple and blue circles of light that are cast onto the boxing ring below. The first set of boxers are two enormous thugs. They are in the 250-pound class and itís all fat, cartilage and bone; not a pound of muscle unless you count the hair. They canít complete the sixty-second rounds. Weíre fifty-four seconds through and theyíve already stopped slugging each other. The DJ is counting down, "Six! Five! Four!" three seconds left and the two slabs of enraged beef are eyeing each other, arms limply hanging below their chests. "One!" and they meekly go back to their corners breathing hard. Even the applause is flaccid.
The next fight is being organized and Iím getting ready to leave when enormous screaming breaks out below. A short blonde girl gets into the ring and starts dancing around. Somehow, a light pink, she looks pretty tough, slapping herself on the collarbone and screaming something underneath the music. The DJ interpolates, "SHEíLL TAKE ANYONE ON! WHOíS GONNA FIGHT THIS MEAN MAMA?!" and there is more screaming and I can see GI Mikeís friends encouraging him to get in the ring. I donít want to see GI Mike fight Pink Girl; it seems wrong, somehow. But GI Mike is going to do it. Heís talking to the promoters, one foot in the ring, Pink Girl is looking at him and clearly willing to kick his pansy ass when Brown Girl comes flying across from the other side with her arms in the air. Sheís a champ. The crowd goes hysterical and GI Mike steps out of the ring. Everyone is screaming and punching the air. Pink Girl versus Brown Girl. The fight has been picked and I canít quite take my eyes off the abomination and I canít stop laughing, either. Among the crowd there are several unanimated couples mixed in with the air-punchers. The female members of these couples are really dressed up but they donít seem to be having a very good time. Their dates had promised them something and this was what they got ("Hey, baby, wanna go watch a fistfight and a wet t-shirt contest on Thursday night? We can get splattered with beer. Címon, itíll be fun."). The women, yellow roses all, smile when spoken to. Their dates are all GIs or sports fans. They all have cowboy boots on. There are a few women that arenít with a date. Theyíre wearing tight red t-shirts. That seems to be the sign of a Breast Competitor. One of them walks up behind the DJ and jiggles his head between her boobs. He doesnít respond. She does it again. He makes a grab for a nipple and she dances off laughing and pointing at him. Ha Ha got you. They seem to know each other. But maybe not. Back in the ring the two girls are suited up with their head-banger gear as KILO plays a track from Metallicaís new album. The crowd starts to cycle into simply chanting, "Whoo Whoo Whoo" and the DJ is busy telling everyone out in the rest of the world how incredible the women are. If youíre there you realize heís talking about the boxers, but if youíre not there, if youíre at home listening to your radio, youíd think heís talking about t-shirt contestants. And youíd hear all the screaming in the background. The DJís good. The bell rings and these two "wild cats" (as he calls them) fly at each other with at least three times the energy the two "big dogs" had shown. Itís a flailing mess of bared teeth and flying fur and the crowd is screaming and screaming. The crowd gets so excited that a fistfight breaks out down at the bottom of the stairs. Two guys are a blur, they fall on the floor, punches are thrown and the bouncers half-carry one of the writhing bodies out the front door. Fortunately it happened between rounds. The second and third rounds increase in speed and ferocity. Pink Girl gets knocked down a couple of times, both girls have bloody noses now, Brown Girl gets knocked down, they get into a clutch, Brown Girl gets knocked to the mat and starts swinging before sheís even stood up, sheís mad, itís clear, they clutch again, the referee pulls them apart again, the fists came flapping. Their wits are fried and their faces are torn. Brown Girl probably weighs about 20 pounds but she hits Pink Girl whack in the chin, sending her back against the ropes. But thatís not good enough. While Pink Girl is dangling like a scarecrow Brown Girl comes in like a windmill and just beats on her head. Pink Girl is lying against the ropes with her head bouncing back and forth. It seems completely unfair and I wonder if Iím going to watch someone get killed. The crowd is overjoyed. Elated crowd, this is a critical mass, an obscene mob scene. They are alive for the first time this week, screaming, and drooling, and thirsty because they all want to drink Pink Girlís blood too, and they give Brown Girl an earthquake applause. Pink Girl walks out of the ring. Brown Girl wins $20 and a metallic taste in her mouth.
At 9:04am the next morning I decide to go get some cash so I can run errands. Just normal things to do like buy an extension cord, get some juice and a loaf of bread. So I go to get my cash and the little machine that lives, like a clam in the wall, gives me my bills. Itís a familiar process now called an "ATM" or Automatic Teller Machine. Youíre probably familiar with it; thereís some buttons that are prodded, a screen lights up, you wait for a few seconds, and some cash scoots out. Itís really an Automatic Banker Machine. Itís easy for the bank; they donít have to do anything to provide you with service. They just have to restock the box from time to time.
I take my money to Home Depot to buy an extension cord. Home Depot also has an Automated Checkout System. I donít have to talk to anyone there, either. I could swipe out what I wanted to buy, stick my card in the little slot and leave; no human needed. Avoiding that seems a good idea. The person at the counter looks more intelligent than this primitive robot. As I walk into the grocery store I notice an ATM kind of thing built into the front window. Itís a huge vending machine, but a convenience-store version. You can buy all the necessary tampons for the night, coffee for the morning, or fulfill whatever other immediate needs you have when there isnít someone working the store. Maybe weíll all start using the term, "AGM," for automatic grocer machine in the coming years. Prices were higher, there, so I skipped that robot, too. On the way back I need to stop to get some gas. I pull into a Shell station on Constitution Avenue, shut off the car and realize that, once again, Iím interacting with a robot. Iím now poking my card into a little passionless mouth and waiting while it circuits out the proper dispensation and pops a receipt out its eye socket. So I fill up my tank and stare at this little robot that just gave me my gas. Like all computers it is dumb and plastic and lacking personality. Thereís no person in it. I miss the cholo girl that listened to Led Zeppelin. But Shell is all about self service. Like McDonaldís. I stop into a McDonaldís, also on Constitution - near Academy - and find that they have a system that is fully automated there, as well. You can order, pay for, and receive anything on the standard McDonaldís menu without having a single interaction with a single human at a single counter. No wide waitresses with hash browns here. It makes sense that McDonaldís would offer a fully automated meal. McDonaldís will be full of robots faster than you can say Ďunemployment on an international scale.í I donít get a meal, but I do drive home because Iíve found what I thought I would (just like last night), and Iím sort of enjoying the horror of what Iím finding (just like last night). Late that afternoon, a bit before dinner, Iím phoning United to confirm my plane reservation. Itís just a confirm, to make sure. There isnít a person on the phone, but an automated voice asking me to push buttons and wait for a recording. I try that but it felt too creepy after such an automatic day so I start frantically poking "*" and "0" and "#" until the phone robot decides to transfer me. Then it plays a fucking advertisement - for Unitedís website - while I hold the line. My nose is being rubbed in customer loyalty by a robot. And the robot is telling me to use a webpage instead of the phone. Iím being marketed to by a robot that is trying to get me to use a system in which I donít even have an option to talk to a robot anymore. I look at the phone in my hand and think of the events that day, the ATM, the Home Depot Bot, the AGM, the Shell Petrobot, the McRobot and now the United Airlines customer representative cum advertising propaganda machine telling me where to stick my business. Iím being surrounded by foetal robots. Automation in America is on the rise. My money hardware, food and transportation were all items that came from a factory that didnít care about me. It just needed my cash.
But, fer chrissakes, I have to get my ticket sorted out, so while I sit there on the phone with my ear getting hotter by the hour, I think of the events of the night before. GI Mike and his black eye, his dumb buddies and their urging, the guys with puffy gloves, the girls with bloody noses, the screaming crowd with their mouths open, like a pack of baby birds, waiting to be fed some strange and bloody mob food that they could never get at a McDonaldís. All of it a modern version of a tribal life. All of it taking place in the county where there are more churches and more military installations than any other county in the United States. Those people last night made sense to me, and not just cause they're from my home town (as it were). Theyíre surrounded by robots, too. I wonder if maybe violence and sex are just places we go not because weíre an empire and we like warfare in our media, but because fistfights and titty contests are where the robots canít find us.
Fuckin' and fightin' are the sacred and final frontiers of the truly human existence.
We humans are programmed that way. And in places like Colorado, and other industrialized frontiers of automatic culture, the robots help keep it that way.
Note: though the events are acurate to (as we say) the best of my ability, they did not all happen on the 28th. i was in colorado springs on the 28th, but these events were actually from a previous trip, during the summer.