Thursday, April 15, 2010 | 10:17 a.m.
The cowboy on my right says of the riding machine to my left, "OK, hop on there."
Yes. Hopping on. There. Right now. Just give me a moment to contemplate the manner in which I will "hop" on "there."
Do I sneak up on this sucker from behind? Come at him sideways? Run up from the front, like a gymnast sprinting toward a springboard?
Hmmm. I do not want to startle this beast, even if it is powered by a motor that sounds like a riding lawn mower and operated by a guy to my right who, for several seconds, will play the role of my Higher Power.
It's an unsettling situation, and hardly the first, on Fremont Street. My Tony Lama cowboy boots, which I have not worn in anger for 15 years, are sinking into the inflated, rubberized surface. It's an artificial situation — no dirt, no "cowboy lemonade," no "cowboy guacamole." No bull.
But still, the butterflies, they are real.
No wonder people usually drink to excess before hopping on a mechanical bull.
But this is for charity, an event tied to the Professional Bull Rider 2010 World Cup, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday at Thomas & Mack Center. Angelica Bridges of "Fantasy" is among those taking part, making PBR star Ryan McConnel's tutorial assignment one of the more titillating in his bull-riding career. Several media members take part, too, on a staging area near the Third Street Stage, next to Fitzgerald's in fact and inches from Panic Central in spirit.
It's for a good cause, you keep repeating. That's why we're here. Earlier in the day, I have notified my friend Kevin, who manages Samaritan House, a sober living home that has helped thousands of men recover from life on the streets, that I would be taking part in this event. I tell him there would be $1,000 for my chosen charity — Samaritan House — if I win.
"We would love that," he says. He doesn't add, "hypothetically," but it is understood.
The riding tips from my McConnel, my cowboy confidant, are at once simple and impossible. When the bull dives forward, you tilt forward, even as your brain is saying, "Lean back!" Control your balance with your legs, even as your brain is screaming, "Grab that rope with both hands, because your very life is at stake!"
I ask the simple questions: Which hand do I use to grip the rope? "Whichever one you're comfortable with," Ryan says.
There is no element of my being that is comfortable.
I choose my left as the gripping hand. With my right, I slap the fake bull — because I seem to remember John Travolta slapping the fake bull to signal the start of a ride on the legendary Gilley's bull in "Urban Cowboy" — and the beast starts rocking. The first thought is, this is a lot like surfing. You feel what is happening beneath you is wholly out of your control. So I am like Greg Brady off the Hawaiian coast in this episode.
We spin, this unnamed creature and I, and I lock in with my legs. My left hand digs tightly under the rope, and after several seconds you feel like you've achieved some sort of manageable rhythm. But then the speed of the machine is stepped up, and you forget you are not allowed to touch the artificial bovine with your "off" hand. I do just that, and after 13 seconds — eight longer than a scoring ride in competition, and 13 longer than I expected to remain seated — I reach down and grab my riding partner for balance. That's it. Show's over.
Not knowing proper dismount protocol, I flop to the mat. What hurts? Everything that matters. The knuckles on my left hand are bleeding, but I'm not complaining to McConnel, who has without a doubt suffered innumerable fractures in his riding career. The winner is my colleague Justin Bowen, who also took pictures of my ill-fated ride, and who also has taken on an actual bull once. He lasted 16 seconds.
Bridges went for nine seconds, and dang if it wouldn't have been fine to see her ride for nine minutes. Afterward she asked, "I finished third. What's my prize?" Same as the rest of us: You can limp away with pride, glad you don't have to do that again. At least not today.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.