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A Midsummer Day's LTSEWH. . .
 (July 14, 2004)

       Call them Less Than Satisfying Encounters With Humanity, or LTSEWH, just for the sake of creating an ungainly acronym. Names have been included when possible, to ensure fullest humiliation.
        I needed a pair of clip-on sunglasses. My old ones broke, and I was tired of squinting like Walter Brennan. I stopped into a little tourist clip-joint by the Venice Pier, where a woman with unknown Middle East accent helped me. I found a pair that fit, paid the ten bucks, and went on my way. Voila!
        Well, not so Voila. . .
        Perhaps Stephen Hawking could explain to me why the new clip-ons, which were exactly the same as the old clip-ons, interfered with my vision. I could see gaps between them and my glasses, and the clip-on prongs loomed like peripheral flying insects. I tried to acclimate, but after about fifteen minutes of suppressing the urge to bat away nonexistent bees, I returned them.
        "Hello again," I said, smiling. "I'm afraid these don't fit, after all, so I must return them."
        "No refund," said the lady.
        I had suspected this might happen, and I was ready. I showed her all of my teeth.
        "Oh, yes, there will be a refund. You will give me a refund. Because this is the right, courteous, civilized thing to do."
        "No refund. You buy something else. Ten dollars credit."
        I didn't really need any crappy Hawaiian shirts or hats that said, "Venice Boardwalk." I generally prefer not to advertise that I'm a jackass, and let people find this out on their own.
        "No. You will give me a refund."
        "I can't."
        "Yes, actually you can. You really can. You can see there is nothing wrong with the sunglasses, and we both know you can re-sell them without a problem."
        "It's problem."
        "No. There is no problem. You will give me a refund."
        She said nothing, but looked as if she had suddenly taken an interest in other matters. Perhaps she was remembering a childhood pony ride, or solving a quadratic equation, or waiting for me to leave. At last:
        "My boss will give me problem."
        "Well, let me tell you something, ma'am. If you have a boss who will give you trouble because you gave a customer a refund, you need a new job."
        "Oh? You HAVE new job for ME?"
        Yes, patient readers, an idiot-simple business transaction had turned into an employment crisis, a complex psychological game of manipulating me out of my ten-spot with guilt.
       "No," I said. "I don't have a job for you. I don't even have a job for me."
       (Reverse psychology!)
       Clerk began fiddling with some receipts at great length, saying nothing, explaining not a whit of her actions, and in the end. . .
         Proceeded to return my ten dollars!
        "Thank you!" I said. "You did the right thing."
        I swear to you that the following two words emerged from her mouth:
        "No problem."
        Cough. Just when you thought things could not descend further into the dank depths of Absurdity Hell.
        "Wait a second," I said. "Before you said it was a big problem, and now you say it's NO problem?"
        "Is problem both ways!"
        "Problem both ways? Well, we can't have that! I'll tell you what. I'll write your boss a letter, okay? What's your boss's name? I'll write a letter and tell your boss how WONDERFUL you are, and how much you helped me, and that he is lucky to have someone like you working for him. What's his name?"
        Absurdity is no match for me!
        "Come on, what's his name?"
        "No. Never mind. It's okay."
        "It's okay? No, I don't think it's okay. It's PROBLEM. So I'll tell you what---here's what you do, see? I'm a writer. A very famous writer. My name is Ernest Hemingway. My name on a letter will really impress your boss!"
        "No. Thank you."
        "No? Okay, then try this: just tell your boss that a big, tall crazy man came in here, and scared you, so you had to give the money back. How's that?"
        At this point the woman began to look a bit frightened, and who could blame her?
        I left, squinting into the sun like Walter Brennan.
        I had drunk a good deal of tea and water. I was walking. This is not a good combination, in this, the era of the "customer only" bathroom. But when you gotta go. . .
        "Excuse me," I said, smiling, "Do you have a men's room?"
        The woman behind the counter of the Arco gas station/mini-mart/hot dog stand/cosmetic surgery salon did not smile back. She did speak, though, which was a step in the right direction, and here is exactly what she said:
        "Customer only."
        She was not from this country. Come to think of it, neither am I. I come from a country where business operators smile and say, "yes, sir, first door on your right." I don't know where that country went, but it sure as hell is gone.
        "Look, I really have to go to the bathroom, okay?"
        "Customer only!"
        I mulled the problem over carefully, pensively, calculating all angles and possibilities. Then the solution came to me (almost literally):
        "Tell you what, lady," I said. "How 'bout if I just pee right here? Right here on the floor! You can watch, if you want!"
        She stared in plain horror. Probably was pressing the hidden button to alert Homeland Security. Urination as terrorism!
        "How' bout it? Should I just pee right here? Huh? Right on the floor?"
        I reached for my fly.
        "Go ahead!" she said.
        Well, because I am a man of couth and civility and gentility and modesty, I declined her offer, and went on my way. (I also had a quick image of myself on "America's Stupidest Criminals.") But not before I assembled a sentence that managed to both question her intelligence and indicate a strong likelihood that she bears remarkable similarity, symbolically, to the nethermost exit point on the human body.
        And then I went wee wee wee, all the way home.  (Well, actually I went to a Starbucks, a fine, civilized establishment where they let non-customers pee for free!)
        Picture it exactly: one great, spacious, fat lane on a side street. Wide as the great prairie. Cars approaching the stop sign at the end of said lane with poetic logic: moving to the right to make right turns; keeping to the left to make left turns. Pristine system!
        Just as it is in billions and billions of other efficiently designed T-intersections. Probably even on other planets!
        Tragically, the young, arguably human female creature at the wheel of a Mustang convertible (New York plates) had never encountered such an intersection before in her 20 or 25 years of life! Evidently, she had never encountered a turn signal before, either. Or maybe New York citizens have abandoned using them as an affront to personal freedom.
        There she sat, smack on the left side of the lane, at the stop sign. Foolish me! I assumed that therefore, she was turning left! So I coasted to a stop on her right. This was my first mistake. Mustang Sally leaned on her horn, glaring at me. Her facial expression suggested, perhaps, something trying desperately to break free of her colon. 
          I spoke.
         That was my second mistake.
        "You are on the left side of the lane, and you are not using your turn signal," I said. "Please use your turn signal next time."
        I almost added that Swiss Kriss is excellent for clogged bowels, but I thought she might take it the wrong way.
        O, silly human, appealing to reason and courtesy!
        "CHILL OUT DUDE!" came her delicate reply, using up no more than thirty percent of her vocabulary. And then. . .
        She attempted to cut in front of me. Yes! She wasn't about to be lectured by an old man in an irrelevant vehicle. This, of course, meant she had to make a violent right turn from the left side of the lane---just as I was making my own gentle, purposeful right. This also, as it happened, meant she would actually have to straddle the on-coming traffic lane, in order to cut me off, once her turn was complete.
        And so she did, forcing me to play sideswipe chicken---with her on the left and parked cars on the right. This was not a fun game, so I floored it.
        Third mistake. She did the same.
        My rattletrap tincan junker rose to the occasion, though, roaring along parallel to New York Nitwit, close enough for me to have seen her nose hairs, if I'd wished to---until it became time for her to make one rather vital decision. Seeing as she was driving largely in the oncoming traffic lane (perhaps another New York expression of freedom?), she could either opt to ease up on the gas and fall behind me, or slam head-on into a fast-approaching truck and die.
        She chose life!
        Fourth mistake: I confess that, well, I got just a little upset. I know it was wrong, but I couldn't help myself. So I informed this fine specimen of millions of years of human evolution exactly what I thought of her behavior, if not character. I accomplished this entirely with hand-signals!
        You guessed it: Nitwit waited for a break in oncoming traffic, then whooshed past me in her mighty Mustang, cut in front, and slammed on the brakes. Wham! Full stop.
         I was in no great hurry, so I didn't mind too much. The thing is, the ten or twenty cars that promptly backed up behind me were definitely in a hurry, and they proceeded to announce this with a horn fanfare worthy of Schoenberg or Edgard Varese. Musique car-crete.
        Nitwit didn't budge. She was teaching me a lesson! So I put my hands behind my head and waited. What else could I do? I don't carry a gun, and unlike the President, do not have the authority to execute human beings. I stared dreamily ahead, where a pastoral green light wore down, tick-tick-tick. Then I realized her plan: she would roar through the intersection at the last possible second, and leave me stranded!
        And so she did, timing things so that she actually ran a red light and scattered cross-traffic in the process.
        Whew! Guess she showed me!
        I was stopped at a red light, when I saw the woman fall. She stepped off the curb and went down, boom, crumpling into the street. A nicely dressed, middle-aged lady with a large purse. But she quickly picked herself up, brushing at a pant-leg, seeming disoriented.
        I put the emergency brake on, got out of the car and yelled, "Do you need help?" A passing motorist saw me---a big SUV with a younger woman driving---and she also stopped and asked if she could help the woman.
        No response.
        I decided Fallen Woman needed some help, and approached, as did SUV Woman. Fallen Woman seemed to have a sprained ankle and badly scraped kneecap, as blood was soaking through her torn jeans, but was otherwise okay. SUV Woman asked if she could drive Fallen Woman home, to a hospital, whatever, and Fallen Woman asked for a ride to Santa Monica to pick up her car from a garage. SUV woman said she would oblige, and I helped Fallen Woman into SUV woman's massive auto, advising her to get a tetanus shot.
        SUV woman then turned her back on me and entered her vehicle. I returned to mine.
        It was then that I realized no one had so much as grunted a "thanks" at me. Well, that was a lot to expect, really, given the quasi-emergency taking place. People can't be expected to behave thoughtfully under such circumstances, after all. And virtue is its own reward!
        Suddenly, SUV Woman de-SUV'ed, walking toward my car. Ah, I thought, she's going to say thanks, after all. . .But. . .no. . .she was getting some. . .bottled water---two bottles---out of a big case containing about 60, there in the back of her SUV. One for her, one for Fallen Woman.
        No "thanks," no wave, no eye contact, not even a bottle of water!
        It suddenly hit me:
        SUV Woman deliberately avoided speaking with me---even looking at me---because she thought perhaps I was a criminal type looking to prey on Fallen Woman! (I don't know, maybe it was my day-old beard growth and "Ringo" T-shirt.) This, in fact, was probably the reason she stopped at all---to save Fallen Woman from the creep about to steal her purse, or, or. . .kidnap her!
        Such are expectations in Los Angeles in this, the 21st century.
        FOR MORE LTSEWH's, watch this space.

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