Monday, November 10, 2008

The Old Cowhand


Did you ever see someone go by and wonder what his story was?

We see God knows how many people in the course of a day and instantly forget the vast majority of them, but every so often someone sticks in your mind.

I had that experience the other morning when I was riding the R train to work and I saw a man wearing a cowboy hat and boots.

He was an older gentleman, easily in his seventies, wearing a jacket and tie with his cowboy attire. He sat down and took a book to read and I could see it was a western by Louis L’Amour, one of the all-time great cowboy writers.

I didn’t think people read westerns any more and the really strange thing is that man’s book itself looked old; like it was printed back when paperbacks cost 60 cents.

I confess I haven’t read much of L’Amour’s work, I admired how he strove for accuracy in his stories. He used to say that if he mentioned a spring in one of his books, then you could be sure that the spring really existed “and the water there is good to drink.”

And what a life he led: professional fighter and trainer, L’Amour traveled the country by rail and then traveled the world as a merchant seaman.

The old cowboy was minding his business, which I should have been doing, but I wanted to know more about him. Did he actually ride the range at one time—before he started riding the R? Or was he going through his second childhood?

I didn’t read too many westerns when I was growing up—I was more a fan of science fiction and private eye stories—but I loved western movies.

Some people tend to dismiss them as B-movies or horse operas--and many of them are--but some of the greatest American films have been westerns.

They deal with such powerful themes: honor, courage, love, greed, and evil. And some of America’s greatest filmmakers have made westerns, like John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah.

There are so many great films: High Noon, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, Will Penny—and that’s my short list.


I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on a double bill with Shane at the old Carnegie Hall Cinema years ago. It was great hearing this audience of sophisticated Manhattan cineastes cheering wildly as John Wayne and Alan Ladd took on the bad guys.

Hey, Fellini may have been a genius, but, come on—what could possibly compare with Shane’s showdown with Jack Palance?

The Fifties were a good time for the western and I’m particularly fond of Anthony Mann’s westerns, such as The Man from Laramie, Bend of the River, Winchester ’73, and The Naked Spur, all of which starred James Stewart. They were understated and with real characters, as opposed to cactus clich├ęs.

Saddle Up

Jack Nicholson did a few westerns in his career and I recommend The Shooting, a 1967 low budget Roger Corman movie that co-starred Warren Oates, a fine actor who died much too soon.

I’ve never seen a film so determined to tell you as little as possible about what’s going on. In some many movies characters just about turn to the camera and explain everything to you, but not this flick.

I saw the movie again a few years back at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I stuck around for a Q&A with the director Monte Hellman. One guy raised his hand, stood up and started to ask Hellman to explain the ending of the movie.

“I’ve been avoiding explaining this movie for nearly 30 years,” he said. “I’m not going to start now.”

I like spaghetti westerns—or is it Euro western?—though I consider a kind of sub-genre or variation on the theme. Sergio Leone is the master director of this breed, with The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly, Once Upon A Time in the West, and Duck, You Sucker.

Westerns used to dominate the TV schedule, too. I remember The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, Branded, Have Gun Will Travel, and—though, God, how I’ve grown to hate this word—Maverick.


I did rent one season of Deadwood and enjoyed it immensely, but I must confess it was mighty strange to hear cowboys throwing around the f-bomb.

The western seemed to die overnight as cop movies moved in the genre’s turf. You can kill more people in a crime flick—machine guns and 9mm handguns do more damage than six guns. Carnage and mass destruction are the goals nowadays.

Kids don't play cowboy any more. I don't think they play anything in the real world any more. Do you get the feeling we've lost something?

It occurs to me now that years ago I saw another guy all done up in a cowboy outfit riding on the N train. But, unlike the older gentleman I saw last week, this other dude was one seriously mean hombre.

He was dressed entirely in black with a long coat and a Stetson and he sipped clear liquid out of a little glass bottle he held in his gloved hand.

He was muttering curses under his breath and then suddenly punched the window on one of the doors, inspiring several people to skedaddle and change their seats. No one complained when he finally got off the train. I never found out what his story was, but that's okay. This boy was plum loco.

The old cowhand got off at Lawrence Street, instead of riding off in the sunset and I never saw him again.

Coming home on the R train that night I sat across from a man with muttonchops—not the food, but huge patches of whiskers on either side of his face. He looked like a Civil War general. (R must stand for "Retro.")

There was another guy sitting near us who kept making these weird animal noises—ack! ack! He seemed fairly normal, whatever that means, with a brief case across his lap.

He just kept making these damn noises. It was irritating as hell, and I know I should have ignored him—like the muttonchop man clearly was—but it was irritating me something fierce.

I was tired after a long day and I was tired of the way people behave in public—shouting at the top of their lungs, screeching along with their Ipods, or making strange noises.

People spit, curse, hustle you for money—you ride the trains enough you’re bound to hear somebody shouting “Excuse me, ladies and gentleman…” before putting his hand out.

So as I stood by the door to get off at Bay Ridge Avenue, I gave the guy an “ack!” right back. He gave me a dirty look and mumbled something I couldn’t make out.

Now, I will admit that this was a very stupid thing for me to do. First, it’s dangerous as hell. I’ve lost track of how many killers have been described with a variant on the phrase “he seemed harmless,” or “he was always so quiet.”

But more importantly, it was just plain mean of me to mock someone who was clearly not well. Whatever point I was trying to prove was completely lost on this guy. I’m ashamed of my behavior.

That's not the cowboy way.