The Rip Post




  Tilting at West L.A.
Oct. 29, 2003

Don Quixote has put on weight, and switched nationalities. He's Italian, sports a hefty midsection, gray hair, and pencil-thin moustache. But it's him, all right. The windmills are a dead giveaway.
        "God damn, man," said Quixote, standing on a sun-battered, deafening streetcorner in West Los Angeles a few weeks ago, "I am afraid everything is uh-hopeless; it cannot-uh be fixed."
        Doesn't sound like the Don, exactly, but judge a man by his actions, not words. The wars have been tough on him lately. Quixote goes to thrift shops and buys up all the teddy bears to hand out to the poor Latino kids in the neighborhood. He is repeatedly thrown out of chain stores for telling customers to shop at Big Lots and local second-hand emporiums. He settles territorial disputes between homeless aluminum can collectors. He engages grime-encrusted jabbering wanderers in dignified conversation.
        "You know, a lot of them---they just uh-need their medicine! This guy on the corner 'ere, he shout and shout all time---but when he get uh-money, he take a bus downtown and get 'is uh-medicine, and he's fine! You can uh-talk to 'im like he is uh-normal!"
        Quixote trailed off with a denunciation of   heartless bureaucracy, and humanity in general, as SUVs full of sunglasses, glinting teeth, and cell phones screamed down Santa Monica Boulevard.
        "Look at 'em," he said. "What do they think about? Nothing! Where are they going? Nowhere!"
        Quixote goes by the name of Franco, and he is an old friend I have not spoken to in years---until I ran into him the other day on the streetcorner. Not so long ago, he ran a magical, glittering restaurant in West L.A. called Gianfranco's, where they had opera on weekends. He's retired and pushing 70, now.
        "I'm uh-just surviving," he says resignedly. "That's about it."

Quixote believes deeply in a world predicated on charity and compassion, if not justice. . .He is surrounded by windmills, and he knows it. If he has to, he'll go down tilting.

       The wreckage of a man wandered within listening range. His clothes might as well have been stitched-together oil rags, and his great tumbleweed beard ate up most of his filthy face. The eyes were wide and darting.
        "'Ey, Paul," said Quixote, "You behaving yourself today, ah?"
        Teeth tried to break out of Paul's beard as he nodded vigorously.
        "Oh yeah! I'm behavin'! I'm behavin'! 'Cause I know the alternative to not behavin'! Fifteen years in Folsom!"
        Quixote took a drag on an ever-present cheap Italian cigar, turned back to me, and talked about how he recently almost got into a fistfight.
        "This manager at Rite-Aid, he tell me to get out of his store. I'm uh-not kidding! I was uh-telling the clerk---'look at the people who shop uh-here! They are making minimum wage, like-uh you! They're people. You should-uh give the kids a little candy! And if you see somet'ing that you know is more cheap at another store, you should uh-send them there! An' 'ow can you ask old people if they want to pay $30 more for a three-year 'lifetime guarantee' on a coffee maker? It's a goddamn ripoff!' Then the manager, he tell me to get out. I tell him, 'I 'ave a right to come into this store!' I was a ready to fight him, man, right there!"
        And he would have. You see, Quixote believes deeply in a world predicated on charity and compassion, if not justice. He believes that profit is secondary to decency and kindness. He is surrounded by windmills, and he knows it. If he has to, he'll go down tilting.
        "Sometime I'm uh-glad that I'm on my way out," he said, echoing a sentiment I've heard from several people his age. "I don't have to see the world get uh-worse and worse."

"If I am uh-starving," he said, "and the last place on Earth is that goddamn---'Don't Bother Me, I'm Eating' place (Carl's Jr.)---I will uh-STARVE!"

         We stood there, on that corner, for almost an hour, jawing about the general state of affairs. Nearby, cops rousted drunks, Mexican indio busboys pedaled past on bikes, nurses waited for sluggish buses, and kids wandered home from high school, looking more menacing than Snoop Doggy Dogg.
        "My wife got mad the other day," he said. "She buy uh-somet'ing at Ralphs, then she see an ad that has it more cheap at Albertson. So she tell me she going to shop only at Albertson from now on! I have to laugh, man---it's the same company! Everyt'hing is uh-one big company now."
        I reminded him of the great Monty Python movie, "The Meaning of Life," in which the world is ruled by "The Very Big Corporation."
        "Yeah, that's it. You know, when I talk to people, and tell them how I uh-feel about everything, they call me a, what is word, pessimist! Cynical! Sometime I feel like I am uh-Don Quixote!"
        I laughed, and said I guess that would make me Sancho Panza.
        "You know, the last mom-and-pop hardware store where they know about what-uh they sell---gone," said Quixote. "You go to 'Best Buy' or 'Sears', and they don' know nothing! All they know is 'finding everyt'ing all right?' and 'ave a nice day.' . . .I ask a clerk a question about a TV, and he give me wrong information! I look in the instruction book, and I show him he's wrong, and he said, 'I'll be damned.'"
        If he could, Quixote would climb atop Rocinante and thrust his lance right into the heart of ignorance, thoughtlessness---and globalism:
        "You know, I try to buy a pair of Italian shoes. They make them so good---your foot can uh-breathe, but the leather is strong. I know. So I was uh-going to pay $150 for a pair, when I turn them over and I see, 'Made in China!' That's it. I put back right away. Even Italian shoes, you can't buy no more. They pay $15 or $20 an hour to make in uh-Italy, but in China, maybe thirty cents. It's all uh-crazy---but you know, it's good for China. I t'ink they will be the strongest country on Earth soon."
        Stronger than the USA? Economically---yes, he says. The American public has grown fat, lazy, unquestioning, obedient. Everyone has turned into self-centered, unthinking, kneejerk consuming machines---conditioned to yearn for new SUVs, cigarettes, Big Gulps, sex, and pop stars. . .
        "If I am uh-starving," he said, "and the last place on Earth is that goddamn---'Don't Bother Me, I'm Eating' place (Carl's Jr.)---I will uh-STARVE! I'm not uh-kidding! I will not eat there! I will steal food, or I will uh-starve! You see the commercial, with the person getting the food all over 'imself---and so many people 'ave nothing, man! I hate it!"
        So who or what is left to respect in this mercenary, demographically exploited world? Mention Schwarzenegger, or Bush, and Quixote's face flushes. He can't even get the words out.
        "You know the black uh-guy around here who is cripple?" he said. "He collect aluminum cans? His legs are all uh-twisted, and his feet are crooked, but he push two carts, man! He work maybe twelve or fourteen hours a day. I see him all over, even late at night! He work 'arder than anybody I know!"
        I mention that I have seen the guy, and that I always tell him that he's working too hard.
        "The other day, I see him argue with another guy who collect uh-cans. They fight over this one street. So I stop and talk to them both for a long time, then I tell them that one can go there one day, the other on the next day."
        Amazingly enough, they agreed to the plan.
        But then, they were dealing with Don Quixote.

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