I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn't even know it yet. -- Captain Benjamin Willard, Apocalypse Now
By the end of the night, the press box at Reliant Stadium was starting to seem something like the unholy grail. It hovered there, high above the rest of the stadium, shimmering in the dark with a malevolent, mocking glare, much like that shining off Marlon Brando's bald dome at the end of the trail in Apocalypse Now.
My assignment was to get a quote from Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo assistant general manager Leroy Shafer, the event's longtime spokesman and public face, and the Colonel Kurtz of my mission. I soon discovered that I lacked the right stuff, that I was no Captain Willard. In the end, I learned, you just can't get there from here, wherever here happens to be.
The whole appalling operation began pleasantly enough with Racket and a friend -- we'll call him Kilgore -- knocking back a few beers at the West Alabama Icehouse. "My superiors want me to write about an event that has gone insane," I told him. "They've heard rumors that the parking's a nightmare, that the acoustics in the new stadium are horrific, that the fans are getting restless." I should have considered it an omen when the Doors' "The End" came wafting out of the icehouse juke, but I paid it no mind.
Parking was going for a mere $14 plus $3 in Ticketmaster "convenience" fees, so we decided to ride the Minute Maid Park shuttle service. As it happened, that lot was full. We drove about ten blocks away to Kilgore's place of work, where we stashed his Mercedes. Once we had hoofed it back across the wasteland that remains the baseball field's immediate neighborhood, we discovered that plush charter buses were leaving Minute Maid every five minutes on the dot.
But then, the navy gunboat in Apocalypse Now left Saigon on time, too.
Minutes later the journey ended. We were "in country" now, Strait country Also, Shafer country. I knew I was getting close. I could practically smell Shafer's trail. Fear set in, and something else as well. Like Willard said, "Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him."
And the farther we walked, the more I wanted to confront him. We disembarked from the bus somewhere east of the Astrodome, about a mile from Reliant Stadium. We soon discovered that this was a ploy of Shafer's: All of the travelers were forced to walk through the entire length of the rodeo carnival, even though -- since it was windy, rainy and about 40 degrees -- few were in the mood to throw darts at balloons.
Because I misspent a few childhood days every summer at the Tennessee State Fair, carnivals have come to remind me of grotesque images: various and sundry severed limbs in the haunted house and the freak shows, drunken magicians too incompetent to pull off even the simplest card tricks, rickety rides that haven't passed a rigorous safety inspection since the Carter administration. Perhaps Shafer hoped we'd lose his trail among his oddball tribesmen and foul machines of death.
But we were made of sterner stuff. "You smell that? Do you smell that?" I looked over at Kilgore, who was suddenly starting to look more like Robert Duvall. "Funnel cakes, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of funnel cakes in the evening. The smell, you know that grease and sugar smell, the whole carnival. Smells like victory. Someday this walk's gonna end "
Eventually it did. Once inside the gates, Kilgore and I decided to split up. He would go to the seats, and I would go it alone the rest of the way.
I flashed my media badge at the first kid I saw wearing a Reliant Stadium suit and asked him how to get up to the press box. He looked at me blankly. He pointed vaguely up some ramps. I trudged up two of them to the next floor, found a window marked "Customer service," and asked again how to get to the press box. I could feel Shafer up there, taunting me from afar.
"Go around this corner and take the elevator to the eighth floor," I was told. I found an elevator, but the eighth floor was not one of its options. So I rode to the seventh. This was the rodeo committee member floor. I shouldn't have been allowed in there, but a flummoxed usher saw my media badge and waved me past the velvet rope.
Shafer had really slaughtered the fatted calf for his inner circle. There were several free buffets up here -- corn, potato salad, cole slaw, fatty brisket preslathered in sauce, garlic chicken, sausage links. I raided one of them just as the night's entertainment began -- not with George Strait but with, horror of horrors, Lee Greenwood, who struck up the band for his jingoistic ditty "God Bless the U.S.A." The JumboTrons flashed images of U.S. warplanes and the space shuttle rocketing through the sky. After this little orgy of patriotism, I half expected a Blackhawk chopper to swoop down and whisk Greenwood back to wherever it is the Man keeps him on ice, but then I looked up and saw that the roof was closed.
My appetites for 'cue, bloodlust and cheap sentimentality slaked, I resumed the mission. I found another bank of elevators, where a Reliant employee told me that I needed to be at a different end of the floor. But after walking past all the buffets again, I discovered that this was a dead end, a storage area of some sort. "You need to go down to the sixth floor and take the elevator from there," yet another of Shafer's minions told me. So I headed back to the other end of floor seven and took the ramp down. And down some more. And more, all the way to the fifth floor. I went back up, thinking I had missed the door to floor six. I hadn't, there just isn't one on that particular ramp.
Meanwhile, Strait's band had launched into "Deep in the Heart of Texas." (Now there's a patriotic anthem Racket approves of ) Despite all those baffles on the ragtop roof, the acoustics are still rotten at Reliant. Paradoxically, all the honky-tonk nuance was stripped from Strait's voice, while Greenwood's unctuous rasp came through loud and clear. In fact, the sound is even worse than it was in the Dome, which I eyed nostalgically as I walked up and down all those ramps. (Kiss it good-bye: Reliant parking hassles obviate the fact that nostalgia or no, that sucker's got a date with a few hundred sticks of dynamite.)
On my fool's errand went. I ended up going all the way back up to the guy near the storage area, who looked at me funny when he saw me coming. Then I went back to floor five and asked a different attendant how to get up to floor eight. She told me I needed to be on floor six, and actually told me where I needed to go to get there.
At last I arrived at the bank of elevators that would take me to Shafer. But I was foiled again.
One elevator was stuck. The door kept opening and closing, but the carriage wasn't going anywhere. So I walked over to the other one and described my plight to the attendant, who looked strangely like Dennis Hopper. He said that the other elevator was broken, too. "You have to wait for someone to get off at this floor," he said. "You can mash that button all you want, but this baby won't come until someone wants to get off."
And how long might that be? "Could be five minutes, could be five days," he said, laughing maniacally.
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But I had to talk to Shafer. My mission was hanging in the balance, I said, growing desperate.
The attendant looked scared. A tear tugged at the corner of his eye. "Hey, man," he said at last. "You don't talk to Shafer. You listen to him. The man's enlarged my mind. He's a poet-warrior in the classic sense. I mean, sometimes he'll, uh, well, you'll say hello to him, right? And he'll just walk right by you, and he won't even notice you. And suddenly he'll grab you, and he'll throw you in a corner, and he'll say, 'Do you know that if is the middle word in life'? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you -- I mean I'm no, I can't -- I'm a little man, I'm a little man, he's, he's a great man."
I left the elevator attendant babbling where he stood and walked back to our seats. I had failed and I knew it. I was just an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill. Strait was playing "The Fireman." Kilgore said we'd better go. The lines for the buses out of this hole were already long; they would get longer still when the show actually ended. Like the fatstock on display nearby, we were herded into a huge tent where we waited in line for about half an hour before boarding the bus and waiting some more.
At last I turned to Kilgore as the bus lurched to life. "Everyone gets everything he wants," I said. "I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another."