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 LTSEWH. . .
(July 6, 2005)

          Call them Less Than Satisfying Encounters With Humanity, or LTSEWH, for um, short. For those unfamiliar with this long-running column, it is an attempt to set down minor occurrences that chronicle the ongoing decline and decay of civilization. Names have been used whenever possible in order to ensure fullest humiliation.
          LTSEWH # 1 TO GO TOO FAR
          There I was. . .
          On the glorious July 4th holiday, sharing the glory with the glorious American people---in their glorious designer T-shirts, tattoos, sunglasses, hairy guts, unshaven cheeks, flab-encasing skin-tight exercise pants, sleepy dead eyes, and gimmegimme, covetous hands.
          Whole Foods Market, in other words.
          Everywhere I stepped, on every aisle, at every turn, a fellow glorious American citizen stepped right in front of me. With nary an “excuse me,” “sorry,” or “Happy Independence Day.” It became rather like a game. Find the Polite Person in the Maze!
          Women vacuum-sealed into low-waisted jeans with sunned midriffs scrutinized the contents of rich pastries through opaque sunglasses. One of the supernaturally increasing numbers of pregnant Los Angeles females passed by, her massive gut exposed to the world, navel protruding like a beacon, undecipherable tattoo sticking up from the vicinity of a crotch barely covered by sweat pants.
          Makes you feel patriotic, doesn’t it?
          Well, I managed to wretchedly gather up my usual array of aliments, with the words of a Buddhist priest I heard recently echoing in my head:
          “You people are all stinking rich! Stinking! Don’t believe it? Go to Asia. What’ve you got to worry about? You’re stinking rich!”
          The odor in the market was certainly ripe.
          At last I reached the check-out register, and emptied the glorious July 4th contents of my environmentally friendly canvas bag on to the glorious conveyer belt. The bounty spilled out: carrots, kale, beets, bananas, rice milk, turkey, fish, “Rice Dream” (good ice cream substitute), apples, grapefruit, oatmeal, potatoes, garlic, avocado, tomatoes, celery, peaches. . .
          “Is this for here or to go?”
          This voice was not in my head, but for all the sense it made, it might as well have been. Couldn't be meant for me. . .
          “For here or to go?”
          There it was again! Yes, yes, the question was directed at me! By the checker---or “customer service tabulation engineer,” or “human shopping aide,” or whatever they are called now.
          “For here or to go?”
          Ah, I got it. She was kibitzing, cutting up, being convivial and jolly. The merry “customer service tabulation engineer” doing a little shtick for shoppers!
           “Ah, it’s a joke, right?”
          She stared back, a pleasant looking woman in her mid-20s---or she would have been pleasant looking, perhaps, had she been smiling.
          “No, sir,” she said, with all the life of a doorknob, as she picked up my grapefruit and held it aloft. “Is this for here or to go?”
         I looked at the array of groceries laid out before her.
          “Oh, it’s for here!” I said. “I’m going to eat the grapefruit right here! And then the bananas, the garlic, and then every single container of the rice milk, and everything else. Want to watch?”
          She was a flesh-and-blood monument to disinterest.
          “Why on earth are you asking me if this is for here or to go?”
          “We have to now," said Engineer. "We’re required to.”
          “You’re kidding! Well, that’s really sad. I’m really sorry you have to do that. I think it’s really terrible that your management makes you do something so incredibly stupid.”
           “It isn’t management. It’s the government.”
          I had as much interest in comprehending what sort of bureaucratic idiocy was now playing out before me as I have in a date with Oprah Winfrey. No, less. Yes, yes, I realize it has something to do with taxes. Everything does.
          “That’s awful that you have to ask this, and have people like me smartass you all day long.”
          “Oh, I’m used to it,” she doorknobbed. “I’ve put up a big wall. It bounces off. Some people are really nasty. They scream at you.”
          I couldn’t blame them!
          And then, to gild the absurd lily, my poor brain began analyzing the matter as I walked out of Whole Foods. What if I ate the grapefruit five feet outside the store? Is that “to go” or “for here?” Did “for here” mean I had to eat a banana inside the market? What if I had one bite inside the store, then ate the rest of the banana outside? Tax that, Uncle Sam! What if I went up and down every aisle in the market and just knocked as much merchandise off the shelves and on to the feet of all the sleepy, dead-eyed, gimmegimme stinking rich customers?
          Guess I’d be charged “for here” for that.
           LTSEWH # 2: WRONG TURN
          I was driving down an empty sidestreet, not another moving car in sight, at about 25 miles per hour---which, of course, meant that I was in imminent danger.
          The young woman saw me coming, but pulled out anyway. After all, she had important things to do, I’m sure.
          Specifically, she made the first part of a three-point turn, away from a curb. Directly in front of me.
          Picture it: I’m blissfully making my speed-limity way along. I stop for a stop sign, which is a quaint, antiquated custom in L.A., I’ll grant you, but then, I’m nostalgic. She sees me at the stop sign from her parked car on the opposite side of the street. Eye contact occurs. She watches me move through the intersection and then. . .pulls directly in front of me, perpendicularly, forcing me to slam on the old brakes.
          I wondered for a moment. . .Homeland Security? Had The Rip Post finally annoyed the wrong people? No, it was Ratmobile Syndrome. My car is old and dented. I am obsolete, unadapting, poor competitive stock. I am to be ignored, elbowed aside, even run off the road (which has happened.) As I have written before, it’s Carwinian.
          I stupidly awaited her smile, her waved apology, her look of embarrassment---anything to convey that she had erred. But. . .nothing. Then she backed up---point two of the three-point turn---and as she did so, I slipped by.
          How dare I! How dare a Ratmobile interrupt her three-point 2005 shiny generic-looking vehicle turn?
          She was on the Ratmobile's tail in nothing flat. Whatever “nothing flat” means. She followed to the end of the block, where I turned right. She followed to the end of that block, and waved her arms at me in a “what the hell are you doing?” fashion.
          What can I say? I was once again doing the speed limit, and this is very, very upsetting to people who are better adapted to driving in modern society.
           LTSEWH # 3: WAR OF THE WORLDS
           I confess: I went to see “War of the Worlds.” I liked the original almost as much as I loathe Tom Cruise, who has always reminded me of nothing if not a manic beaver. Although I think beavers make better dramatic actors.
          I also think Spielberg has seen his glory days long ago, and I’d read A.O. Scott’s New York Times review that warned me of the insipid sub-plots involving Cruise’s character and a resentful, estranged teenaged son.
          Still, I like to see a “summer blockbuster” every two or three years in order to confirm all of my suspicions about the near-total intellectual, artistic, emotional, moral bankruptcy of popular culture.
          In this regard, I was not disappointed.
          The movie is a product. Everything about it is calculated to generate response, that’s all. Yes, there some hamhanded parallels to 9/11 terror attacks (and sleeper cells, as the aliens planted their ships here eons ago, awaiting activation), but that’s as “intellectual” as things get. Cruise’s manic beaverism was crippled by a lack of credibility, even for him. The flick lacked all of the heart and character---and for my money, suspense---of the original, however romantic and corny that one was. (And to give Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, stars of the first version, all of two seconds as a “cameo” was reprehensible.)
          End film review.
          On my way into the theater, I was assailed by four or five twentysomething chickies, dressed in tight virginal white pants and tight white T-shirts, asking me, “Would you like a bracelet for the upcoming movie, ‘The Island?’” They were handing out what appeared to be white rubber bands with “The Island” stamped on them.
          I smiled at one of the Virgin Girlies and said, “No, thank you.”
          She peeled back her lips and showed me a mouthful of giant white eating devices.
          “Have you heard of ‘The Island?’”
          “No, thank you.”
          Her voice, which was already at a volume which suggested she had assumed I am not only old, but deaf, increased. And it acquired an aggressive edge that flirted with outright animosity:
          “Well, then, HAVE A NICE DAYYYYY!”
          Then. . .
          You guessed it.
          After having my fulfillingly disappointing cinematic experience, the same thing happened on the way out. Same spiel. Different Girlie.
          “Would you like a bracelet for the movie, ‘The Island?’”
          She also had obviously concluded that I was deaf.
          “No, thank you, “ I said, smiling.
          This Virgin Girly, a willowy and positively gorgeous young lady with legs that stretched from here to Hollywood (or will, soon enough), shifted, as per her training, to the back-up question: “Have you heard about ‘The Island?’”
          I had passed her at this point, but politely turned my head and said, again, with a smile, “No, thank you.”
          Uh-oh. Her poor, undernourished, sugar-poisoned, Hillary Duff-rearranged brain did not like the fact that I had not properly answered her question.
          “Have you HEARD about ‘The Island?’” she asked again, at a volume no louder than a movie preview.
           Now, my natural urge is to take the face of a person like this, and push it into a nice plate of Jello, or something even less appetizing. These children have no idea they are dirt-stupid, let alone that they are prisoners of marketing, popular culture, demographics, consumerism, greed. That their humanity has been co-opted, almost since birth, by the great marketing and entertainment machinery, rendering them dutiful soldiers in the Army of the Corporate States of America.
          But there was no plate full of Jello handy, so I opted for courtesy and pleasantry---always a good choice. Or almost always.
           I tried a smiling “no, thank you” a third time.
          I was a good thirty feet away when she began to shout at me, despite the fact that she was surrounded by many other exiting moviegoers who might have wanted a “The Island” bracelet. And who were not old and deaf.
         “WHY CAN’T YOU ANSWER THE QUESTION?” she yelled in what was now a plainly snotty tone.
          I know, I know. I should have gone on my happy-go-lucky way, but you see, this was a war of the worlds. Mine, which is civilized, logical, kind, forgiving, generous, deferential (well, okay, at least once a year), and hers, which is built of brain chemistry mercilessly flogged on a daily basis by constant bombardment of misinformation, pop culture, TeeVee, and a fabulously hypertrophic consumerism. All of which teaches me, me me.
          I wished to bridge the gap. I wanted her to glean a little lesson. I wished to say something like, “I have answered you, although I was not obligated to do so, and I have answered you three times! Politely. Yet you are unsatisfied with this. Your ego will not allow me to escape unscathed. You have now run out of patience with your work, and that the ‘public’ will not respond to you as you wish, and you are behaving badly. So please accept my original answer.”
          But I knew this was futile. Besides, I confess that I had run out of civility, logic, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, and deference. Yes, I was having a LTSEWH with myself! All kinds of unpleasant things rushed into my brain and got in a big traffic jam there. One of them was “Why don’t you shave your f---ing head and sell all your f---ing possessions and go and work with starving children in India, you pinhead!" But again, my time was limited, and I was not confident she would grasp the spirit of the invitation. I figured I had a better chance of getting through to her with some basic hand signals. Less danger of misinterpretation.
          So I made a gesture so biological in implication that I am ashamed to reveal it here. But I really thought there was a better chance she might understand this mode of communication, seeing as language and courtesy were so alien to her.
           Her response:
           “You probably don’t have one!”
           Damn! Failure of communication, again! She still didn’t quite get the drift, so I endeavored to make it even clearer, this time resorting to very primitive language of a type guaranteed---guaranteed---to rile up the animal defenses of the brain. Which is to say, her entire intellectual capacity.
          That did the trick!
          As I crossed the street, a voice that was no longer recognizable as Virgin Girly welled up and roared. I mean this was the voice of The Beast. I could not even discern the words. And then that voice was joined by another, probably male, which made me think my days in my world were about to come to a sudden end.
          Yet, as with the aliens in the movie, they simply died away.
          I must add, for any Hollywood marketing geniuses who might come across this column, that I have no plans to see “The Island.”
          Phone was dead. I got out the cell phone and called the phone company.
           Once again, this is proof that I was born in the 20th Century. It was the stupidest thing I could possibly have done.
           The Verizon guy with the Texas accent first explained that “there is nothing wrong with your line” and that it is a “circuit problem.” I asked if this meant that many phones in the area were out, and he said no, repeating that it was a “circuit problem.” I asked him what that meant, and well, he launched into a lengthy dissertation, full of impenetrable tech talk, that boiled down to. . .
          Many phones in the area were out.
          And Verizon Boy was not through:
         “You know when you had all that rain out there? When it rained in California for like a hundred days straight and nearly drowned everybody?”
          There was something in his voice that was curiously derisive, sneering---not jesting. Oh, I got it! He was being insulting! He was one of those people who finds California to be the butt of all jokes, a land where “everything loose from the east” rolls to, etc., Haw, haw.
          “Well, it didn’t really rain quite that much.”
          Texas Tekkie didn’t hear me, as he was on a monologue.
         “Well, what happens is that the cable gets wet, and. . .”
          And away he went on another five-minute---I really mean five-minute---explanation of telephone technology that had as much to do with getting my phone repaired as Texas has with subtlety. Then he added:
          “I’ve been doing this job for 13 years and no one ever calls to tell you that their phone is working properly!”
          Yes, folks, I get them all. Every drunk on the street talks to me. All schizophrenics in the park do. All misanthropes everywhere. Hey, there’s Rense---let’s talk to him! This nutcase had even sensed it over the phone. I felt like I was in a Woody Allen picture.
          “Yes,” I said, “I’m sure that’s true. You have a tough job.”
          “I love my job!” he said defensively. "Wouldn't stay here 13 years if I didn't!"
          Good, good. I vaguely recalled that he had my name, address, and, being from Texas, lots of automatic weapons.
          “I’m sorry, I’m running short of time. How do I get my phone fixed?”
          He hadn’t heard me. He was off talking about cables and operatives now. Operatives? I realize the federal government has consolidated intelligence agencies, but had this included Verizon, too?
          “And you know that earthquake you had a week ago?”
          “Near Eureka?”
          “That’s right. Well, we have six-hundred operatives up there right now trying to check everything, make sure all the poles are straight---“
The tone in his voice said this:
           “We’re a great company nobly helping out your insane state with its insane problems, so why are you complaining that your damn phone went out for a few hours?”
          He went on and on about the six-hundred “operatives” who could not be in Southern California to help an idiot like me out, actually chuckling about it at one point, and finally allowed that someone would be out to fix my phone---
          In two days!
          “Two days? Gee. PacBell was never slow like that, even in an earthquake. No offense to you personally, but that’s just ridiculous. This is the kind of service you get in a third world country.”
           “Well, we’re doing our best to give you the best service we can, and we’re faced with a natural disaster, and---“
          I interrupted the next speech-to-be, and thanked him.
          The phone was working fine the next morning.
          But I’ll give Verizon credit: a repairman came two days later, as promised.
          “I have to go to a bris,” he boomed.
          “Oh, that sounds kind of unpleasant,” said his date.
          They were schoolteachers, judging from previous discussion centering on troubled students, and they were in their late ‘40s. They were on a dinner date.
          “Oh, it’s not bad!” he boomed again.
          What’s unusual about this conversation, you might ask? For the couple, perhaps nothing. For me and my female superior, attempting to have a quiet dining experience about three feet away, the topic was excessively. . .picturesque. Circumcision is not something you generally bring up over spaghettini alla putanesca. Red sauce, and all that.
          “We’re all circumsized in my family,” he proclaimed.
          “Good,” I muttered. “Now everyone in the goddamn restaurant has an approximate idea of what your penis looks like.”
          “And you know, at the bris, it’s over real fast," he added, "and the amazing thing is, you dip your finger in wine and put it in the baby’s mouth, and he doesn’t cry at all!”
          “Wow,” said his date, “well he probably likens it to sucking on a breast.”
          “Okay,” I muttered, “he has now figuratively exposed himself to her, and she is now referring to breasts being sucked. Can marital bliss be far behind?"
          The happy couple left a few minutes later, probably to discuss sperm motility over dessert.
           For more LTSEWH’s, watch this space.

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