From my vantage inside the train, I looked down onto the platform of the Rialto station — that’s one stop west of San Bernardino on your way to L.A. — and saw a guy strutting around like a bowlegged rooster. Parked between his serious-looking cowboy boots and cowboy hat were a white T-shirt and jeans. Even for Rialto, where there are still a few horses and a cow or two, this guy’s attire was absurd. After a couple of rooster steps, each footfall splayed to the side, he tugged on his belt, hiked up his jeans and came aboard. A crooked, sloping back and a small gut gave the impression of an old man, but when I saw his face, he was just a kid, early 20s at the most.
Munching from a box of Chiclets and complaining out loud that he had no chewing tobacco, the cowboy planted himself a couple of seats behind a heavyset young man who’d earlier introduced himself to me as Dan. In a nasal Texas drawl, he asked the conductor where he might find a can of Copenhagen. Then he asked Dan, who shrugged. The cowboy was in withdrawal. He said he’d given up chewing two days ago at the request of a girl he’d met on the Internet — a pretty 19-year-old he’d taken the three-hour train ride from Moorpark (near Ventura) to meet on this day. They’d had a few phone conversations, he said. She’d sent him her photo, but he didn’t reciprocate. “I was completely honest,” he explained. “Said I was a young, fat cowboy.”
Boisterously friendly, the cowboy came over and shook my hand and introduced himself as Jake before sitting directly across from Dan. He said he took his date to the mall, as she’d requested.
“Then she said she didn’t think she could date me anymore, but we could be friends. Crap. What a waste of time. And to think I gave up chewing for her. Never, never give up anything for a woman.”
Jake waxed about the loneliness of cowboys, and then revealed that after his failed date, he stood in Rialto trying to decide whether to go into the Spearmint Rhino strip club or to get on the train. He had some advice on how not to lose your wallet at a strip joint.
“You got to sit in the back, and sip your drink real quiet-like. Find a girl you like and do one lap dance and then git outta there. If you’re smart, you can git in and outta there for 25 bucks.”
Then he asked if Dan wanted to join him at a Spearmint Rhino strip club. Dan politely shook his head no.
“Damn! Wish I had me some chew,” he said.
On Jake’s T-shirt was a cowboy riding a bucking bronco. The caption across Jake’s chest read, “I live life eight seconds at a time.” His belt buckle was engraved “Redneck.”
I asked him if he was from Texas, but he said he was born and raised in Moorpark. Jake said that as a child, he had scoliosis of the spine, and is missing two vertebrae and has a small steel rod implanted in his back. As a teenager, to spite his cowboy father, he switched from country music to heavy metal and rap. After his dad called him a loser, he drifted to Texas, where he said he found his country “roots” and where he was introduced to bull riding.
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“My doctor told me I shouldn’t be riding the bulls; I said, ‘Too late, I already done it.’ He says, ‘Then don’t land flat on your back, you could wind up paralyzed.’ I says, ‘Too late, I already done that too.’ It just raises the stakes.”
Jake paused when he ran out of Chiclets, and seemed to be looking for something to chew next. Then, he explained the dangerous, especially for him, allure of bull riding.
“First you stare at the animal right in the eye, and you get into the bull’s head. You say, ‘I’m gonna ride you and you gonna buck, but I’m gonna ride you anyway.’ And when you’re in the gate, all your problems, your problems at work, with your girlfriend, financial problems, problems with your father, with your life, they all just disappear. ’Cause all that matters is that little lump right below the animal’s shoulders. You follow that lump, because that little lump, the way it moves, tells you where the bull is going to buck; through that lump, you can see right into the brain of a 2,000-pound animal. And for those eight seconds, if you can stay aboard for eight seconds, there’s just nothing in the world but you and that bull. You’re the same animal, and it’s a dance, it’s a dance, and it’s awesome.”
As he spoke, Jake was dancing. He was imagining himself on the bull, his shoulders were arched forward, his left hand was planted into the cushioned seat between his legs, while his right arm carved the air, up and down, up and down, as the San Gabriel Valley floated by, through the window behind him.