Smacked down

"Dude, that guy's up there talking about wrestling ... and he's got an audience!" chuffs a pierced passerby, obviously above all of this. "Did you see that?"

Me, I'm choosing not to see anything, instead smoking a cigarette and wishing it all away. Former ring announcer Gary Michael Cappetta, a sort of Howard Cosell to the wrestling world since the 1970s, is occupying the upstairs at Barnes & Noble with promotional anecdotery lifted from his vainglorious book, "Body-slams: Memoirs of a Wrestling Pitchman."

Cappetta is reciting little bits about someone called "Animal," who once bit the carnation off his lapel, and his words have captured an audience of about 10 people ... minus one. That is, until I realize that he has finished longwinding and is ready for my wrestled head. Sort of.

"You know what I really need ... and you're probably Mister Health," he announces.

"A cigarette?" I hope.

"I could use a cigarette," he confirms.

"I look like Mister Health to you?"

I furrow and flutter in confusion at the very thought of this, quietly wishing that he was cute and would maybe take me away. Instead, we wrestle with words.

"So you're trying to tell me that you're trying to write a fluff piece?" he punches.

"It's not a fluff piece!" I knee to his head.

"Ooooooh, I hit a little nerve, didn't I?" he kicks crotchward.

"Is your book a fluff piece?" I smackdown.

We're smoking. That would make this a puff piece, right? So, why a book?

"I had tried to get publishers to take it on," he grumbles, "and their opinion of people who would be into wrestling was of people who didn't read."

No way!

"They had this image of whiskey-chugging, toothless, unshaven people as wrestling fans," he defends. "Which is so far from the truth."

Yeah. They shave. Their chests, even!

Fortunately, no chests are exposed at tonight's main event, where Cappetta's crowd ranges from a clan of obsessive teen-age Webheads (they trade wrestling videos on the Internet! Fun!) to neglectful, violent dads. A minor scuttling erupts when one such dad, having allowed his kids to tear up the store while he cozied up to memories of bulging man-thongs and blood in the ring, blows up at the angry manager.

"You're a fucking bitch!" he grunts, kids wrapped around his side.

Parent of the year. Hands down.

"A lot of people lament the loss of the tradition of wrestling," Cappetta fidgets. "Those are the kind of people that come to see me."

I ask him about his early days on Vince McMahon Sr.'s payroll, citing some specifics from his book. He pauses in offended confusion.

"You know more about me than I'm comfortable with," he fades. "Are you with the FBI or IRS or something?"

"Well, you wrote a book about it," I rope-bounce. "So tell me about your taxes in '87."

"You're taxing me right now ..." he scores.

"OK, no answer then. Let's talk about wrestling in general," I offer, inviting another narcissistic non sequitur.

"The hair is real. I'm not happy with it, but it's real," he strands, pulling at the comb-over waved across his head. "People used to, at ringside, yell up at me to take the toupee off. And I was like, Ã?It's real! If I was gonna buy a wig it would be a good one, not this!'"

If I wanted to know, I would have asked. "Tell me about the rise of wrestling."

"There were two steps," he combs over. "One was in the mid-1980s when Hulkamania ran wild ..."

"Cyndi Lauper!" I word associate, noting that her wacked-out involvement with the WWF is just about the only thing I know about wrestling. Except that it sometimes leads to sex.

"The way her association with wrestling came about, she was on a flight to Puerto Rico, and Captain Lou Albano was on the same flight," he name drops. "She was a wrestling fan, and she went up to him and introduced herself. That's how he brought her into the WWF."

You lost me at Puerto Rico. OK, what's changed in wrestling since Cyndi?

"That change was twofold. In the presentation, with the glitz and the glamour and the lights and the fireworks," he cheeses. "Also, making the personalities into larger-than-life cartoon characters.

"Then when WCW in 1995 had their TV show head-to-head against "Raw", they began to beat him [McMahon]," he rattles. "To fight back, he had to bring a more vulgar -- you might want to say cutting edge -- but a more vulgar product."

Is McMahon crazy?

"No. ... I mean, I know that he has, in my opinion, done a lot of unethical maneuvering. I mean, women on all fours crawling, Vince McMahon himself dropping his drawers on television and guys kissing his ass. I find that to be vulgar. I don't think I'm old fashioned when I say that, am I?"

You're certainly old-ish.

"When I first came about this wrestling product, I was 10 years old, on a Saturday night. Mom was home, and I was flipping the channels," he way-backs. "I see these two guys in underwear, sweaty, rolling around on a stage of some sort, and people are screaming all around. I thought it was pornographic! I'm saying, I shouldn't watch this! The next week, there were women doing the same thing in bathing suits. The third week, four midgets! I was like, hell, I don't care who knows. I'm watching."

I'm not. I need a cigarette.

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