It’s a relatively small patch of grass, really, but I can’t shake the feeling that we are gathered in a remote wilderness meadow of some pristine valley, perched high in the Rockies, miles from civilization. Mountains loom in the foreground and horses graze indifferently, even as Colorado 5th Judicial District Attorney Mark D. Hurlbert addresses our congregation, tuned in, along with an international television audience, to learn the fate of NBA golden boy Kobe Bean Bryant. Hurlbert announces that, to the People of the State of Colorado, Bryant is no longer number eight in your program. He is now Case Number 03CR204.
Eagle County, my home for more than a decade, has been portrayed as little more than an Opie-and-Andy boondocks ever since a visiting circuit-court judge gave Eagle County Sheriff Joe “Barney Fife” Hoy permission to abandon protocol and arrest Bryant on the suspicion of rape before Hurlbert had an opportunity to evaluate the evidence. Anticipating a sensational smorgasbord, the media buzzards began circling.
Fortunately, our outpost “somewhere near Vail” does offer Internet access, cable and even satellite TV. Otherwise, how would we know that “a general store, pizzeria, bakery and two saloons are the extent of commerce” in this “tranquil valley that is home to more deer and elk than people”? And all this time we thought this was one of America’s most popular resorts.
It is on this patch of grass — between the county courthouse and the parking lot — that such reports originate, where the bellows of television’s talking heads now emanate from full torsos shielded by power ties and where news scribes seek out reliable teenage sources who may have gone to high school with the former cheerleader Bryant is charged with sexually assaulting. From beneath a small but largely symbolic circus tent, Hurlbert attempts to deflect a barrage of questions from well over 100 journalists stalking him with cameras and boom microphones like hungry lions circling the rookie ringmaster.
Reading the reports, one wonders how far their authors have strayed from the sanctuary of this field, perhaps too distracted by the humility of the community to recognize that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is entertaining the elk a few miles upstream in this same tranquil valley. Barney Fife drives a Saab at that end of the hollow; world-renowned orthopedists piece elite athletes back together at the local clinic. Some of those athletes call the valley home, as do franchise owners from both the NBA and the NHL.
The media have taught us much about this little mountain hamlet, known locally as the Eagle Valley. Mostly about its ability to keep secrets. Since the night of the alleged attack, on June 30, very little has emerged about the case beyond the covert nature of the arrest, a timeline of the alleged events, and sporadic details of the accuser’s background offered up by a handful of former classmates willing to dish the goods only after weeks of prodding and the occasional bribe. One supposedly sold a peek at his high school yearbook to a New York tabloid for $50, and others are confirming reports of the alleged victim’s recent drug overdose brought on by emotional turmoil.
Now, The Vail Daily reports that Lindsey McKinney, the young lady who was quoted extensively in the Orange County Register on that subject, claims she was “tricked” by the reporters and has since turned down $12,500 from the National Enquirer for further dish. “Nothing is worth losing a friend,” and “nothing is worth what the victim went through,” the local paper of record quotes McKinney as saying. As for her friend, just about all the county’s 40,000 residents know her name by now, but you won’t hear it in public or read it in print outside of FreeKobe.com.
The show, of course, has only just begun. Reality television will be redefined by the time Bryant attorneys Harold Haddon and Pamela Mackey complete their crucifixion of the alleged victim through the predictable “nuts and sluts” defense. Accusations that Hoy was “biased and unfair” in his hasty arrest will cast him as the Hispanic Mark Fuhrman. And a backlash that already includes cyberspace death threats against the pill-popping whore trying to take down the NBA’s best talent for the sake of a buck will escalate under the slick spin-doctoring that surrounds the industry that is Kobe Bryant. Can’t we simply rewind back to Vail’s own Ryan Sutter, the fireman who used poetry and muscles to woo Bachelorette Trista Rehn?
By now, everyone realizes that Bryant exercised a colossal lack of judgment, whether it was sexual assault or simple adultery. And while it would make little sense for a celebrity of his stature to rape the concierge an hour after checking into the hotel where he expected to spend the next three days, it’s equally difficult to believe that the first mousetrap he stepped into was set by a 19-year-old from Mayberry who flunked out of American Idol.
Perhaps he was set up. And maybe Nikes really can make you a better basketball player. But if the media have taught me anything from Case Number 03CR204 so far, it’s to question how we can know our celebrities so well when we hardly know our own neighborhood.
The girls onstage were gyrating like their lives depended on it. They flung their bird-skinny arms back and forth as they danced the Charleston, mouthing the words — “Singing Lordy, Lordy, Lordy!” — of their pre-recorded accompaniment. They hauled out hula hoops, and pompons made of straw. There were pajama girls, surfer girls, skater girls, casual girls, beach girls, military girls, biker girls, retro-girls, and girls in liquidy, night-clubby dresses made of latex. They had long, shiny healthy hair, short swingy bobbed hair, curly Pre-Raphaelite hair that tumbled down in perfect ringlets. Their teenaged skin was taut and radiant. They were like a thousand incandescent bulbs, the non-energy-saving kind.
I had been invited to the Long Beach Convention Center to spend ten minutes with Miss California Teen USA, the ostensible host of the Action Girl ’03 trade show. The convention was an attempt to quantify the idea of girl-ness. To explore the possibilities of the “girl market.” To learn exactly which flowered CD holders girls would buy, which brightly lit retail displays they would run to, which specific surf-inspired bikini color-block combination (pink-white? pink-brown? pink-brown-white?) would hit it big. To find out, as one of the seminar titles had it, “Where the Girls Are.”
I arrived to find teen queen Shannon Byrne, 18, MIA from her booth — though the proprietress, a woman in red and white cotton pajamas, said she thought she saw her in the bathroom. I wandered past deserted kiosks hawking snowboards and surfboards to find that the girls had taken over the womens’ restroom, had turned it into a command center/dressing room/lounge hangout. The tile floor was littered with short-shorts, lingerie, platform shoes, tote bags, flip-flops and halter tops. There were skirts and dresses to be hastily zipped, unzipped and re-zipped as battalions of girls rushed into various sub-sequences of their dance routine. “Those pants are so cute!” said one girl from behind a toilet stall door to a girl in another toilet stall, though it wasn’t clear that she could see said pants at all. “Oooh, I know!” Another girl — languorously brushing her waist-length, flat-ironed hair in the mirror — said to no one in particular, “Gawd, would you hurry up?”
If the stickers and slogans printed on the baby-tees are to be believed, teenage girls say things like, “Boys are great! Every girl should own one.” They refer to themselves as “Babe” and “Princess” and “Dirty Girl” and “Snow Bunny.”
Miss California Teen USA had just come out of the bathroom when I found her. She stood with her hands clasped lightly in front of her, head tilted up wistfully, as if leaning into a breeze. She seemed to float. She wore a regal, sequined satin sash on which her title was embroidered, fitted blue jeans and a thin white sweater. Her hair looked even blonder than in her photo.
“The personal interview is one of the three components to the Miss Teen USA pageant,” Shannon told me, “where a panel of judges ask contestants an array of questions concerning character and her views on different issues. It is not unlike the ‰ process of interviewing for a job, because it is a job which involves staying healthy, working out, organizing the outfits. The young lady they choose will be a spokesperson. In a nice way. In a universal way. In a way that will not offend. Then there is the swimsuit competition and the evening gown competition.” In a few weeks, Shannon will go on to compete for the national title, which means that, if she wins, she will be the reigning monarch of all teenage girls in America.
On which issues will she take a stand? “I have strong feelings about self-image and the media, drugs, teen abstinence. Oh you know, just your basic issues.”
Across the room, in a separate corral, skater boys slid out in parabolic loops, got air, ate concrete, to the clamp-whoosh-clamp of wheels on curved plywood and metal. Boys, brought in to attract the girls, on one side of the room. Girls on the other.
I suggested that we watch the dancers for a while and Shannon settled in obligingly. Was she friends with any of the dancers? “No. I don’t know who they are. But see that girl with the short brown hair? The one in the pleated skirt? I competed with her.”
“Why do you suppose people are fascinated by girls?” I asked. “What do you think is the difference between being a girl and being a woman?”
“I’m sorry but I don’t understand the question,” she answered. “I don’t know how to articulate it.” And the more I considered it, the more I thought she was right. Maybe there was no good answer. Maybe I didn’t understand the question either.
Abruptly the music ended, and as quickly and unexpectedly as they had materialized the dancing girls were gone. Vanished into the muggy Long Beach midafternoon, perhaps to pelt each other with teddy bears, perhaps to part-time jobs at Jamba Juice, perhaps to melt into the frothy California surf. You just had no idea.
The white-haired, wheelchair-bound Ray Bradbury, author of such fantasy classics as Fahrenheit 451, was being rolled around Comic Con. He wore chunky glasses and a tweed sport coat, and appeared virtually mute as he pointed his handler in the direction of the booth for Sonoma Gallery. “I know what he sees,” said the handler, “and I don’t think it’s Barbie.” The gallery’s specialty was sexed-up porcelain sculptures with names like “The Bride.” The tops of her stockings were visible, and her train was nonexistent.
Bradbury was not alone. The only reason I’d come to 2003’s Comic Con International was to get sexy with my fellow geeks, and it looked as if I’d blown my best chances: I’d missed the Klingon ascension ritual. I’d also missed Friday night’s Klingon Lifestyle presentation. And Halle “Storm” Berry and Angelina “Lara Croft” Jolie had already fulfilled their contractually obligated meet-and-greets and gotten the hell out of the San Diego Convention Center — two more instances when the hormone levels would have been running high.
Though 60,000 of us were here, we geeks are shy, and need all the social lubricant we can get. I knew I should have come in costume. How else was I supposed to start a conversation? All around me, pointy prosthetic ears poked alluringly through limp locks of unwashed hair; wan goth girls with lip piercings and 6-inch platforms abounded. But the mere scent of geek love was not enough. The scent, the scent . . . it’s a bit like the odor of non-archival Mylar, yellowing with mildew in a humid room.
Looking for some action in Artists’ Alley, I visited the booth for Who Wants To Be a Superhero?, a reality show set to debut on the WB in January 2004. The show’s producer, Aliyah Silverstein, had already lined up a bunch of prospects — Budget Man, Action Folk Singer Man, Man-Man — yet she continued to trawl for candidates.
“Are you interested in becoming a superhero?” she called to a freckled boy, about 15, wearing baggy shorts and a big gray T-shirt.
“I’m not really of the superhero build,” the kid said. He lifted an arm, weighted down with a plastic bag of convention swag, and indicated his pudgy chest. There are very precise notions about where superheroes are supposed to bulge.
A squinty-eyed blond guy with a week’s growth of beard and a sailor cap dropped by to say hello. His name was Steve Ruddy, and he had applied earlier that afternoon as Sea Wolf — pirate by day, wolf by night!™
“I’m from the Superfun Toy Company,” said Ruddy, as I accompanied him to his own booth, in row 4800. “We’re here hangin’ out and promotin’, trying to introduce the Toxic Teddies. They’re like New Age tools for living.”
At Ruddy’s booth, an idyllic diorama of figurines was laid out on a card table. There were eight to choose from, with names such as BiPolar Bear (complete with straitjacket), Rubba Bear (with leather bondage mask) and Smackie Bear (with hypodermic).
“Don’t take that one the wrong way,” said Ruddy’s partner, Joe Reginella. “He’s diabetic.”
Ruddy and Reginella had traveled all the way from New York with their bears. “Joe and I have been friends since high school,” said Ruddy. “We met because I’d heard Joe had every issue of Fangoria, the hora magazine.”
“Horror?” I asked.
“There are other products like this,” said Reginella. “You know, you squeeze the bear, and it curses.”
“But that’s a little lowbrow,” said Ruddy.
“We’re trying to bring it up a level,” said Reginella, folding the diorama into itself, to show how it doubled as a child-size coffin. “It was made by master carpenters,” he added.
I asked if any other exhibitors boasted comparable craftsmanship, and by way of answer Ruddy took me to the Plastic Fantasy booth. The Superfun duo had bonded with that company’s president, Jerry Macaluso, because they were all from Brooklyn.
“I like what Toxic Teddies are doing,” said Macaluso.
“And we love what he’s doing,” said Ruddy. We entered a backroom, shielded from the convention floor, containing an array of naked dolls based on full-body laser scans of famous porn stars. Each measured an impressive 7.5 inches — tall — with fully articulated sex organs modeled on the originals. Except for the Ron Jeremy doll.
“He couldn’t get it up,” said Macaluso. “I had to mold that one by hand.”
Weren’t porn-star dolls a bit out of place at a comic convention?
“At this point, it’s just another part of fringy pop culture,” said Macaluso. “These are available at Tower, Virgin and Spencer’s Gifts. One girl had Steph sign her tits.”
Outside, the kewpie-faced porn star Stephanie Swift posed for pictures, directing her come-hither gaze at each photographer in turn. As I walked by, we locked eyes. And at last I felt satisfied, having shared at least that one intimate moment.
—Alec Hanley Bemis