NEW YORK If Bryan Siegel were from Texas, he'd be a bull rider. Alas, Bryan Siegel is from Brooklyn. Instead of boots and buckles and cowboy hats, he sports hoodies and New Era ball caps that cover his completely shaved head, conspicuously adorned with painful looking tattoos of flames and the logo for the Pittsburgh Steelers, for whom he calls himself a "die-hard fan."
"I'm a tough guy all right," Siegel says in a thick Brooklyn accent. "I'm bad, what can I say?"
But city life has done nothing to dull his passion for all things country, and he speaks wistfully of a youth spent playing cowboys and Indians and dreaming of replacing his plastic toy horses with real ones.
Siegel is one of a kind, but he also represents the curious affection some New Yorkers feel when 45 of the roughest, saltiest, tobacco-chewing, beer-swilling cowboys roll into the middle of the fastest-moving city on Earth. And to ride bulls, no less.
Just ask Pearl and Tallness, as they identified themselves, who wandered into Friday's Professional Bull Riders performance thinking they were attending a basketball game not entirely far-fetched for a typical night at Madison Square Garden.
"We were looking for the Knicks game and we wound up here and were happy," Pearl says. "We said 'Forget the Knicks game, let's watch these guys.' They're sexy, you know?"
Pearl and Tallness (who was not particularly tall) even went so far as to walk back outside onto Eighth Avenue in 30-degree weather to purchase matching chocolate-colored cowboy hats made of a leather material one might confuse for high quality unless you saw the vendor from which they were purchased.
The purpose of this, the girls explained, was to make them less conspicuous.
"We had to, we wanted to blend in," Tallness says, a little indignantly. "We didn't wanna be outsiders."
The chances of that in this crowd were slim. Trolling the stands were everything from slick businessmen still wearing their ties and tapping busily on their Blackberries, to girls in skinny jeans seeing belt buckles in person for the first time, to members of the New York Fire Department witnessing one of the only groups who could lay claim to being just as tough.
And as the saying goes, this is, in fact, their first rodeo.
"We're pretty typical New Yorkers so we don't really come to many events like this," says Ali Ehrlich, whose older brother Tim toured with Rent last year and sang the National Anthem on Friday night. Far from the opening acts of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas (think Brooks & Dunn and Reba McEntire), the elder Ehrlich wore a blazer over a v-neck sweater, skinny jeans tucked into tall cowboy boots and a pompadour straight off of Danny Zuko.
Steve Madden boots outnumbered Justin, and the most conspicuous cowboy hats were the giant yellow foam variety being handed out by a local radio station. In this setting (judging by the sheer volume of burnt orange paraphernalia present) items emblazoned with the University of Texas Longhorns logo seemed to pass for "country."
New Yorkers' impression of the event?
"It's quick, quick, quick. It's a nice quickie." That coming from Pearl as she stirred her vodka soda with a dainty swirl of her red sipping straw.
We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
The petite blonde waitress with the Eastern European accent bustles through the crowded upstairs dining room, making sure to avoid outstretched boots as she maneuvers a plate of fried calamari ordered at an absurdly early hour for a Saturday.
When you're not wearing much in the way of clothes, a stray spur can really do some damage.
We're at the Hawaiian Tropic Zone, smack dab in the middle of Times Square, and 45 bull riders and their hangers-on are crowded into the party room on the second level of the restaurant. It's the second round bull draft, where riders select the bucking beast they'll climb aboard later that night, and the location seems selected strictly for irony. Girls in bikinis and high heels, slightly hungover (there was an afterparty the night before) cowboys in black hats and shining oversized belt buckles if you didn't know better you'd think you had wandered into a Fellini movie.
One waitress, an aspiring R&B singer named Dana Noble, who moved to the city from Michigan six months ago, is awestruck by the cowboys in her workplace.
"When I heard the names like Icy and Champ and Almost Famous I'm like, 'What the heck?'" she says enthusiastically. "And then I was like, 'Ohhh those are the names of the bulls, I get it.'"
Meanwhile, in another corner, the spur-dodging waitress has cornered a few of the more than willing cowboys, and they are now posing for pictures as she impishly commands one of them to place his black cowboy hat over her blond locks.
"I look hot," she notes as she looks over the shoulder of the photographer to view the image on the digital screen. It is impossible to disagree.
Perhaps in New York and nowhere else could the locals make themselves a bigger spectacle than the cowboys.
"In New York so many things go," Noble says after detailing her singing career aspirations. "Like, you can't tell when someone's dressed crazy on purpose that day, or if that's fashion. Out here everything can be fashion. Out here you can express yourself.
"So if that's how they (the cowboys) wanna dress I think it's normal. I mean, I've seen guys dressed up like girls, or dressed up like clowns, or dressed up like anything. It's just normal to me now."