Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Lucky Shirt

The Lucky Shirt
By Maestro Gaxiola

It was Saturday about 1:30 in the afternoon as I rolled up to Sally Mae’s Western Wear store in Santa Maria, California. I had been staying at my uncle’s ranch out on Edna road and doing some painting down around San Luis Obispo for the past two weeks. I had just finished a painting of some field hands working in a lettuce field over near Nipomo and decided to kill a little time checking out some western gear before I went back to the ranch. I knew Sally Mae would be stocked up pretty good because the Elks rodeo had been going on all week. The Elks Rodeo in Santa Maria is the third largest rodeo in California.

I didn’t really need anything because I have plenty of western gear,…shirts, jeans, hats, and I make my own boots so I don’t even bother looking at those things. But I just love to look at the other gear. I can’t seem to pass up a western wear store. I like to just be around the stuff. I’m a cowboy gear addict I guess....and Sally always has a lot of nice stuff.

As I walked in Sally was at the register shuffling some invoices, she gives me a big smile and says, “Howdy.” I return with a, “How ya do’in.” I quickly moved away from her toward the shirt racks - I was afraid she would try to sell me something. I avoided any more chatter or eye contact. I feel guilty not buying anything, the western wear business is a specialized business and those people who are in it love the stuff as much as I do but the clientele is a pretty small target so they need to sell as much as they can to anyone they can just to stay in business.

A regular working Cowboy will wear the same style shirt, hat, boots, and jeans most of his life so there isn’t much of a chance of a style turnaround. Now that most of the standard stuff can be ordered through catalogs or the Internet it cuts down on the need to shop. It’s the young cowboys and the Mexicans who like the gear that keep the style moving forward a bit. They still shop some.

The style is changing a little because the young rodeo riders want something different to wear so that they will not be lumped in with the old timers. They carry on the tradition with the hats and boots all right but they want to tweak the style enough so that they look more “with the times”. They wear shirts with buttons for example. I would never do that - ever. That’s why I have so many western shirts with snaps at home, I’m afraid they might stop making them someday. These young cowboys now days also wear low heel boots with round toes. Maybe they are more comfortable for walking but I will never wear a low heel boot. And round toes? Forget it. This ain’t Italy. Since I make my own boots I guess I don’t have to worry about not being able to get the kind of boots I like.

So anyway, I was sort of casually moving around the store looking at this and that and I spot a white shirt hanging on a hook near the dressing room. It was a Panhandle Slim, white on white shirt, 17 X 35 - just my size. I was admiring it when over my shoulder I hear Sally say, “Hey cowboy, that’s a lucky shirt, you’re gonna win in that one.” I was caught by surprise. I sort of laughed and said, “Guaranteed?” I noticed she was looking at my hand.

I had been doing some gardening for my aunt back at the ranch and not having worked with my hands for a long time I ended up with this big blister across the palm of my left hand from hoeing weeds. It was the kind of rope burn blister a bronc or bull rider might have. I realized then that she thought I was competing in the Elks Rodeo. I was actually flattered to think I looked that authentic. She had been around rodeo cowboys a lot and she thought she knew one if she saw one…but she missed her target this time….or was it just a sales pitch? No matter, I wasn’t about to correct her. If she thinks I’m a rodeo cowboy then I’m a rodeo cowboy. I will play along.

She went on to say that she gives a ten percent discount to rodeo cowboys. She had me there. What could I do? I said, “Ok then, I’ll take it!” (even though I already have five of the very same shirt) I grabbed the shirt and walked directly to the checkout counter. All I could think about was getting out of there as fast as I could before she found out I was a fraud. I changed the subject to the weather as she rung me up. I kept talking so she wouldn’t be able to ask me any rodeo questions. “You know it rained so hard up in Montana last year that..bla bla bla.” I paid with cash and with a “Thank you ma’m” I tipped my hat and walked out with a deliberate “need to pee” stride. I was never so happy or relieved as I was when I made it out to my truck. As I left her parking lot I turned in the direction of the rodeo grounds as a last bit of deception. Man, that was a close one. Why do I do these things?

It was about 2 o’clock so I decided to get me something to eat. There is a great little hamburger joint I like to go to called, Lloyd's Burgers. It’s right near the rodeo grounds. I figured if I went there I’d be safe in case Sally is following me to make sure I didn’t scam her for a ten percent discount.

Lloyd’s is an old time shoebox size burger joint with no booths. It only has a horseshoe counter with those spinning stools, the kind you loved to spin on when you were a kid. These stools lined the outside rim of the horseshoe counter. I would say there were a dozen, maybe fifteen, stools. The kitchen, if you can call it that, it’s just a refrigerator and a stove, is back behind a wall through a doorway. There is a small window like area right above the grill where Lloyd passes the food to the waitress. He only serves burgers, milk shakes, (with real ice cream), pie, potato salad, and coke or Dr. Pepper, and of course, coffee. I suppose he serves something else too but nobody ever looks at his menu; everybody goes there for the hamburgers. The sign out front doesn’t say Lloyd’s Burgers and Other Stuff, it says Lloyd’s Burgers, period. If you want variety go to Denny’s.

Lloyd’s burgers are what burgers were before the franchises and the diners started piling stuff on them like lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, bacon, and onions. A Lloyd’s burger is just a hamburger patty with pickles, mustard, and a little Mayo, and probably some sweat from Lloyd’s forehead and or ashes from his cigarette. He cooks each hamburger himself on an old fashion greasy grill. You can see him back there in his dirty, (used to be white) apron, hunched over the grill with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He never says a word, never smiles or looks to see who’s out there eating his burgers. He just cooks and sweats and sweats and cooks. He always needs a shave and always looks unhappy. 

Sitting is serious business here at Lloyds. When you enter Lloyd’s place you have to decide quickly where you are going to sit. It’s the most important decision you have to make. The regulars are mostly cowboys or farm hands and there are almost always two or three of them in there anytime of day. They look like they are not paying attention to anything but their food. But have no doubts, they all are watching you whether they are looking at you or not. Once you come through the door your every move is monitored. If you’re not careful you’ll end up as tomorrow’s joke.

So here’s your choice. You can sit on one of the stools that are directly in front of you as you enter; the wussie stools, or you can go to the stools on either side of the counter. Whatever you do you don’t want to hesitate because that is a sure enough sign that you have a low opinion of yourself, like maybe you have a small Johnson or some other manly defect. Sometimes its real hard to decide which way to go, right or left, when there are six or seven cowboys sitting there eating…you have to make a snap decision as to where and by whom your going to sit. You only get one shot at it. To change stools once you have seated yourself is a serious breach of protocol. No one will say anything but the waitress will ignore you and won’t take your order. And don’t think that’s not embarrassing. You eventually just have to leave. As I said, sitting is serious business here at Lloyds.

It’s no problem for me because I’ve been here before. I walked in and veered directly to my right because I saw two old ranch hands eating on the left side of the counter and I didn’t want to sit between them. I sat near a cowboy more my own age at the time, around thirty-three, who was up against the wall near Lloyd’s serve window so he could make small cowboy talk with the waitress. Dolly was working today and he would banter with her as she came to pick up her orders. There was one stool between us. I ordered a hamburger and cup of coffee.

Normally there are two waitresses here, and during Rodeo week, three. But today seeing how it was early afternoon I guess two had a few hours off because it was just Dolly and Lloyd. It is amazing how well Lloyd and Dolly work together. They are a precision team as good as any of those synchronized swimmers you see at the Olympics on TV. Often times in city restaurants there is a lot of conflict between the waitresses and the cooks, it’s kind of a, who’s running the show sort of thing. They can’t outright argue or fight so it is all by innuendo or body or face language. Most people don’t see it or even care as long as the food is good and it is served hot. But in these small shoebox joints with the horseshoe counters the cook and waitresses are right there in front of you all the time so you see things. Sometimes bad things like Lloyd and his sweat, sometimes good things like watching Dolly as she works. She works as effortlessly as a Porsche going up a driveway; smooth with implied power.

While I was waiting for my order I noticed that the cowboy sitting one stool away from me had a rip in his shirtsleeve. He kept fussing with it. It was a nice shirt too, a Rockmount with sawtooth pockets. He looked like a rodeo cowboy who had seen better days. He had on expensive gear but now it was, like him, sort of worn out. He was kind of disheveled looking with one tooth missing up front and quite a big scar on his right cheek.

He was just having coffee. He and Dolly would banter a bit and of course in a small space like that everyone heard what was being said. He kept saying, “Come’on Dar’lin how about sewing up my shirt, I can’t be seen with this torn sleeve in competition, it’s against the rules”. “Yea, sure” said Dolly, “I aint your wife, have her do it.”  The cowboy would laugh and make eye contact with the two old men across the horseshoe from us. “You know I ain’t got no wife Dar’lin, come on, it will only take you a second. Here I got a free ticket to tonight’s rodeo, I’ll give it to ya if ya fix my shert”. He pulled out a ticket from his shirt pocket and set it on the counter. Dolly just smiled as she walked around cleaning the counter picking up and putting down stuff. “I can’t go tonight, I got other plans”. Just then Lloyd plops down my food on the pick up window. She slides the plate onto her hand and brings it over to me. “Here you are,” She said, “anything else?” “No, that’s it.” I say.

The cowboy took a look at my burger kind of envious like but quickly looked away so he wouldn’t look like he was staring. Made me think he may have missed a meal or two lately. I started to eat then I looked his way and sort of motioned at the small coffee cream pitcher that was sitting in front of him. He knew what I wanted without me having to say anything….it’s a cowboy thing, kind of knowing the breed and how it acts and moves. He slides it over and says, “Here ya go pardner” I say, “Thanks.” That sort of broke the ice with him and me. He knew I was enjoying his banter with Dolly even though I never said anything. “How about that woman” he said, “she wants my wife to sew my shirt’. He laughs and adds, “Shoot, I ain’t never had one of those”. I laugh. After a bit of silence I looked at his shirt sleeve and said, “Must have been a tough ride last night.” He looks down at his sleeve and says, “Yea, he got the best of me for sure, threw me up against the fence. And this is my good shirt too.” he adds. I smiled and continued eating.

He takes another refill and looking at the ticket on the counter says, “Well hell Dar’lin I can’t be letting this ticket go to waste,” and with that he slides it over by my cup, “Here ya go pardner, come and see me ride tonight.”  Things started to feel awkward all around as everyone began to realize that this rodeo cowboy was flat busted with little or no prospects. It sort of looked like he was trying to sell that ticket, although he would have rather been thrown and stomped on by a thousand broncs than admit it. I figured he had one or two more rides left in him, but for all intents and purposes he was finished. He was on his last go round.

I was thinking I would like to buy him a burger, but cowboys are a proud breed and any sort of charity is like a slap in the face. I looked at the ticket for a bit and then I said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I just got me a shirt up at Sally Mae’s, it’s a 17 X 35 Panhandle Slim white on white, and I don’t really like to wear white shirts. I just bought it to be buying something. Sally Mae told me it was a lucky shirt so I think you should have it. I’ll take that ticket if you will take the shirt. What do ya say?” He paused for a moment then says, “It’s a deal pardner, I could use some luck.” “Great”, says I, “Come on, I’ll get it out of my truck for you.” I grabbed the rodeo ticket, took a last sip of coffee, dropped a five on the counter and out we went. He said, “Gaxiola, is that your name?” He saw my name in silver letters on the back of my belt. “Yes,” I said, “some folks call me Gax.”

“Ok Gax.” he said as I handed him the shirt, “My name is Lenny, it was a pleasure to meet ya. I’ll be look’n for you in the stands tonight.” Then he turned and walked off toward the rodeo grounds. He walks a few yards then turns and shouts, “Hey Gax, this is just a loan, OK?” “OK Lenny.” I say back. He wanted me to know it wasn’t charity. Poor guy I thought, he doesn’t even have a ride. This must really be his last roundup.

I got to the rodeo grounds a little late that night because I had to drive up to San Luis, have dinner at the ranch, and then drive back down. Usually when I go to rodeos I go back behind the chutes to hang out with the real cowboys, but since I had a free ticket this time I went in with the tourists with their two dollar straw hats. I was afraid that if I went to the chute area I might run into Lenny and I really didn’t want to see ol’ Lenny again. I couldn’t face him knowing he was going down for the count. No lucky shirt can save that ol’boy - he’s done for. I knew he didn’t stand a chance up against these young cowboys with the kind of rough stock brought in for this rodeo. He was in his rodeo cowboy death throws, he knew it, I knew it….and he knew I knew it. I preferred not to see him again. I did enough pretending for one day. If you want to be a rodeo cowboy you just have to take your lumps then go off and die somewhere out of sight. Cowboy up and disappear like a man. Don’t make us watch you die.

When I walked into the grandstand area the bronc riding had just started. I didn’t even have time to find a seat when I saw chute #3 open and out comes this cowboy in his Panhandle Slim, 17 X 35, white shirt. It was Lenny all right and he was making the ride of his life. The crowd was on its feet. I couldn’t believe it. It was just like out of some movie. The grace and fluid motion that the rider and horse were locked into made it more like a ballet than a bronc ride. It was amazing. In eight seconds it was over. He made it to the buzzer. Then with a great leap he left the bucking horse’s back and landed squarely on his feet. It was just like a Nadia Komenich dismount. The crowd went crazy. And just like out of some fairy tale he scores a 96 and wins the event. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t see it with my own eyes, it just was so unreal. I stayed watched the rest of the bronc riders but they were duller than peach fuzz after Lenny’s ride. For some reason I felt uneasy. The crowd was still buzzing when I decided that I had had enough cowboying for one day. This was just too much so I headed for the gate.

At the Elks Rodeo grounds there is a small beer and hamburger stand near the back of the chutes for the cowboys to grab a bite or a beer. My truck was parked near there so that’s the way I headed. As I passed to Hamburger place I here a loud, “Hey Gax!  Gax!!” I looked over and it was Lenny. He was sitting at one of the outside tables eating the biggest hamburger I had ever seen. “Did you see that!” he shouted, “ 96!, my all time best score! Come, come over here and talk to me!” He was so excited. Life and youth rushed through him now like a NASCAR racer on steroids. He was grinning from ear to ear and his smile was so genuine you didn’t even notice the missing tooth. His winning overshadowed everything, even nature. I sat there while he tells me second for second how he made the ride. At intervals he would stop and acknowledge the cowboys who would come over to shake his hand or buy him a beer with a, “Great ride Lenny!” “Thanks pardner!” I was seeing real core happiness here: this was the genuine article, you can’t fake this sort of thing, its magic on the highest level. In my mind Lenny was a true cowboy in every sense of the word. He never gave up even when his back was up against the wall; he kept the cowboy spirit, image and attitude no matter what the cost. I was in awe of this man.

Yet, as I sat there listening to him I couldn’t help but notice that every time he took a bite of that giant burger the hamburger juice would run down his arms staining the white on white ‘lucky’ shirt. Strange isn’t it. All this emotion and lifting of the human spirit going on around me and it all just sort of fades out of focus. I see only the hamburger juice running down both of his arms. That is more movie-like than all the rest. What a day!

That was almost forty years ago. I never forgot Lenny. I never forgot his excitement and smiling face at that hamburger stand either. I can still hear the “Hey Gax!!” as clear as if it had just happened. And somehow, deep down, for these past forty years I have never been able to shake off the feeling that I was a fraud. Lenny was the real cowboy and I have only been playing the role. I still wear the gear, talk the talk and look the look but I have nothing like Lenny has to back it up. I paint paintings and write Haiku poetry - what kind of cowboy is that? I pictured an aged Lenny in full gear on his ranch in Montana telling his grandchildren how it was back when real cowboys were real men.

Then in 2006, on my trip back from Chicago along Route 66, I stopped to have dinner with my niece who lives in Joplin Missouri. After dinner she brought out a bowl of the most delicious cherries I had ever tasted. When I asked where she got them she told me she got them at the local Wal-Mart. So the next morning, before I left for Oklahoma City I decided to stop at the Wal-Mart to get some of those cherries for the road.

As I walked in the door passed the shopping carts I hear, “Hey Gax!” I turned and here was this a little old man coming toward me. I couldn’t believe my eyes. “Lenny?” I said, “Yea,.. it’s me!” he said. I didn’t know how to respond. It looked like maybe he had had a stroke or something because he walked kind of sideways with a limp and he sort of talked funny, like out of one side of his mouth. His hair, or what was left of it, was in a comb over and all gray and stringy. His big belly hung out over his belt and he had on a pair of glasses with the frame all bent out of shape. He was wearing tennis shoes and one of those silly Wal-Mart greeting outfits with the “Always cheaper” patch on his vest. He was working as a greeter. “Hey Gax,” he said, “It’s me!, talk to me Gax!” I tried not to look shocked but you could have knocked me over with a ping-pong ball. “ Hey Lenny.” I said. I stood there not believing my eyes. All my illusions were collapsing like the Trade Center towers on 9/11. This is beyond,… beyond…well it is just beyond beyond.

Lenny continues to run on and on about how he got married and how his wife tried to poison him, how he has diabetes and some sort of liver disease, how he traveled with a circus, and had one of those pitch a dime concessions, and delivered Meals-on-Wheels for the elderly in Kansas until his car got stolen,….and on and on, and how things were going good now because Wal-Mart is a good place to work. Jesus, I thought, can this really be happening?

I stood there nodding and half smiling for what seemed like an hour, then I said, “I really have to get going Lenny, I’m heading for Oklahoma City”. He must have thought I lived in the area because he said, “OK, but give me your address and phone number, we have to get together”. I pretended to look for some paper in my shirt pocket as I started to move along with the incoming shoppers, I said, “OK, Lenny. Look, I’ll catch ya on the way out”. He waved and started greeting again, “Welcome to Wal-Mart, welcome to Wal-Mart.” I went to the restrooms waited a few minutes and then left by the doors at the far end of the building. I jumped into my truck and headed for the freeway - never mind Route 66, I needed to get away from that place as fast as I could.

It took me about a hundreds miles of freeway driving to process the whole “Lenny phenomenon.” How did all this happen? It was like seeing the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain..he’s no wizard he’s just a huckster with a bad sales pitch. The only thing different was that I believed in the wizard for forty years not forty minutes. All these years I have been thinking that Lenny was this super perfect cowboy on a perfect trajectory for cowboy sainthood when it now looks like he was just randomly rolling around like a pinball, bouncing from one bumper to the next with no discipline, goal, and no particular place to go. When I met him he was bouncing off the rodeo bumpers. He made one spectacular bounce and that was it. From there on he just rolled around until he finally played himself out. He is going down the slot for the last time. No score.

When I got to Oklahoma City I paid a visit to the Cowboy Hall of Fame Museum. When I walked in  I looked at my reflection in the glass door and said to myself, "I have a right to be here, I'm as much a cowboy as anyone else."  That realization made me feel how lucky I was to have run into Lenny. It helped to dispel that myth I was carrying around about what a real cowboy was or wasn't....and... it just so happens that the  shirt I was wearing - as opposed to what Lenny was wearing - was a Rockmount 17 X 35 white on white western shirt with pearl snaps...a real lucky shirt I thought, a real lucky shirt.

Who is Maestro Gaxiola:

Maestro Gaxiola with Rodeo Champion Monty Henson at the Salinas Rodeo 1981