June 26, 2013

Home On The Range

I saw three grown men, all wearing cowboy hats, in the fish store this weekend.

I know, I know, you're expecting me to write something really smarmy about them, but I'm not going to. I've evolved and grown as a human being. Maybe they had a logical reason.

For example, Papa used to wear straw hats for shade when he worked in the garden. He didn't buy them – we would win them at the Fire Department carnival every year in Sag Harbor.

The same motley crew of carnies would roll in every year, led by "Tuffy" who manned the Ferris wheel. Assorted female "townies" would station themselves next to him, hoping for a hot night with this muscular brut with a navy tattoo on his mammoth arm.

The fact that some of the more unseemly girls found him attractive troubled us guys, because Tuffy had very few teeth in his mouth. Then again, some of the girls shared the same predicament.

Me, my sister and our friends would go to the carnival every night. Papa would fork over a quarter, telling us to bring him back a straw hat. We always did, mainly because you "won" a straw hat or a "cane" every time you took a chance. That's because the hats, and the canes – colored sticks with a plastic die on top – cost less than the quarter you anteed up.

We'd go to the carnival even on nights when we had no money. I was captivated by the gambling booths – what a shock – like Over/Under, Big Six, etc. Usually I'd grub up a quarter and slip it on the table, even though you had to be 18. If I won, I'd try to parlay it. (Come to think of it, I've been leading my life the same way ever since.)

They had one booth where the prizes were bottles of liquor – really cheap stuff, like pints of Four Roses. The teenage boys would spend all their money trying to get some hooch – when one did, they would all retreat back into the weeds, suck it down, and come back looking for a fight.

I remember once Jimmy Dean, the singer, actor, and sausage king, was strolling around the carnival, with a group of whiskied up local boys walking behind him trying to goad him into a fight. "You ain't so big, Big John!" they would yell, alluding to his big hit about a coalminer with the same name (by the way, "Big John" was written by Johnny Cash). Dean, probably liquored up himself, ignored them.

Speaking of whiskey, that's what cowboys drink. And they ride horses. And they eat Slim Jims and beef jerky and rabbit stew and stuff like that. The only cowboy I've ever seen in these parts was the guy in the Village People.

Maybe these guys in the fish store wore cowboy hats to shield them from the sun? Couldn't be – all three of them were perfectly tanned. Maybe they were in there buying Slim Jims and beef jerky? Nope, they were going to have truffled scallops with lime and ginger glaze. Christ, what would Hopalong Cassidy say?

My favorite "cowboy" story was told to me by a guy who recruited big time stockbrokers. He went down to Dallas to meet a team of them – these guys were probably worth a billion dollars a year in commissions. The recruiter bought a $1200 Stetson hat, alligator boots, and a $5000 gold belt buckle to impress the brokers.

When he got there the guys were all sitting around the boardroom dressed like conservative Wall Streeters. Finally one of the brokers, in a deep Texas twang, told a joke. "What do you call a cowboy with a Stetson hat and alligator boots on?" he bellowed. Then he answered his own question: "An asshole from New York!"

When I was walking out of the fish store two young, obviously rich guys were walking in – one had a Cuban shirt on and wore a pork-pie hat. The other wore a fedora and was smoking a huge cigar. He was like, 22. Is this stuff supposed to be cool?

When I was their age I had bell-bottoms with holes in the knees (that I put there), tie-dyed shirts, and I wore a headband. In other words, sensible attire for a normal young man. Where have we gone wrong?

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