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(Mar. 17, 2010)

          Incipient spring was in the air like a fat guy sitting in front of you in a theater. It was hard to see the day, such was the hugeness of heat and blossom and pollen and perfume. And the suddenly brighter, painfully brighter, sunshine.
          I was behind, like everyone else. Daylight Savings Time behind. It was 2 but it was 3. It was 1 but it was 2. It would soon be five but really four. Not that I had a deadline. I had the luxury of indulging disorientation. It would not cause me to miss a meeting, be late for a lunch. I was on time. At all times.
          I was “going to the store,” you see. Big outing of the day. Oh, the housewifeyness of it all.
          Around me, the usual pigslop parade of shiny greed machinery, brutish, booming. Sunglasses at red lights, windows down, car stereos impotently punishing the air with banalities, freakish pounding. Aural dares to surrounding drivers, mega-decibel de facto “fuck you’s,” sonic erections. High-tech tribalism.
          I remembered a line from an old Captain Beefheart piece:
          “The music was. . .thud-like.”
          I had an idea. If I were to make a movie, I'd fix it so you could hear all the thoughts of all the people in cars stopped beside you, whizzing by, pulling illegal u-turns in front of you, cutting you off, etc. The thoughts would pass with the cars. It could go something like this. . .
           “Uh. . .nice ass. I’d sure like to. . .I want a goddamn iced fucking mocha. . .. . .Oh God I’ve got to try that restaurant---oh fuck I almost hit that dude---hey, fuck YOU, asshole. . .I’m hot, and he knows it. . .Men are such pigs. . .Nam myo ho renge kyo, nam myo ho renge kyo. . .Fuck wit me, I kill you, Homes. . .Look at the tits on that. . .Yes, Jesus loves me. . .Damn straight, Rush, baby. . .If I pick my nose, that guy will see. Oh, I don’t care. . .What’s wrong with driving with a nice buzz?. . .Oh God I love this song!. . .Look at that asshole, thinks he’s so fucking hot. . .What? Why are you honking, you prick. . .I wonder what Michael Jackson is doing in heaven right now. . .What’s that guy looking at?. . .Chingao, ese. . .Get my script optioned, and. . .What’s wrong with Shia LaBeouf and Khloe Kardashian. . .Shia LaBeouf, what kind of a fucking name is that? African?. . .Black guys are hot. . .I wish I was Asian. . .Steak tartare? Who would spend sixty bucks to eat raw beef?. . .My ass itches. . .I’ve got to get my eyes done. . .I'm soooooo fuuucked uuuupp. . .I am an actor, I am an actor. . .Catherine Zeta-Jones looks soooo great. . .Visualize, visualize, visualize. . .Oh, I made that light---must be my guardian angel! Cool!”
          Of course, my car was also pulsing with dangerously loud music. Tom Waits singing Brecht/Weill’s “What Keeps Mankind Alive.” The last line:
          Mankind is kept alive. . .by bestial acts!
          I arrived at Centinela Feed, where a petite, sullen kid snapped an aggressive “Hello!” from behind a cash register (are they still called cash registers?), another young employee shouted at me like a marine drill sergeant, “Can I help you find anything today, sir?” (I smiled and said “No, thank you”), and yet another kid who obviously spent too much time at McDonald’s barked in a voice better suited to giving commands to zoo animals:
         “Help you find anything today, sir!”
          I said no.
          “Well, let us know if you need anything!”
          (All of this translates to “I see you so don’t shoplift, asshole.”)
          Lucky for other employees, no one else asked me if I was “finding everything all right.” They would have, but I got out of there very quickly with my bag of Lotus brand organic cat kibble devoid of MSG disguised as “natural flavors.” (No wonder the cats went hog wild for that other stuff---it must be so goosed with MSG that their kitty tongues had little flavor acid-trips.)
          Back in the car, I eased along sidestreets through bucolic neighborhoods ridiculously verdant, blabbering with noisy flower gardens, the crisp, dry, desert mountain ranges projected in the distance, behind a thin sepia layer of smog. . .Waits continued singing on an album I seldom play, because it is a collection of leftovers: “Orphans.” I slipped on the second disc, “Bawlers,” and Tom sang in a poignant, flagrantly Satchmo voice:
          You can never hold back spring. . .Even though you’ve lost your way. . .The world keeps dreaming of spring. . .
          I have to tell you that there was something on my mind, through all these tiny events. Shouldn’t have been, but there it was. One of those things that sticks for a lot of psychological reasons that are best left unexplored. Come to think of it, most psychological things are best left unexplored. Why take precious time to stare up your own ass? Anyhow, I had looked at Facebook before leaving, you see, and had happened upon an entry reading, “Francine Brandt is contemplating the 'last day of Gusta, the perpetual kitten.' Can't stop the longing for her to stay with us, but must end the suffering....” And there was a photo, a mug-shot, of an old calico, indeed a kitten grown old, an elderly feline lady, her face a bit narrowed with age, her lids half shut. It was apparent that she was in decline, and probably pain.
          And Gusta the cat, and her last day on our strange vagrant orphaned planet, just wouldn’t go out of my head, for some Holden Caulfield reason. Of all the colossal, bafflingly merciless tragedies in the world, my brain was stuck on a picture of a cat I’d never met, who was about to die, and didn’t know it. And Waits sang. The blushing rose will climb/ Spring ahead or fall behind/ Winter dreams the same dream/ Every time. . .
          There would be no more springs for Gusta the cat. Marie Dressler in “Dinner At Eight” came to mind, as she often does: “That's the unfortunate thing about death. It's so terribly final.” Little Gusta's final day, hour, moment. Never could she imagine a world in which odd creatures far away would look at her face on Arthur C. Clarke-ian machines, never could she know of such sophisticated human ruminations and insanities. Couldn’t know much of anything, really, not what she was, who she was, where she was, when she was, or why she was. Of course, neither do we. It’s fair to assume that these questions didn’t bother Gusta, though they sure bother humans.
          I parked at Whole Foods, and wiped away a tear. They come at the most unpredictable times nowadays. Next to me, a fabulously wealthy West Side new mom was putting groceries into her big black Infiniti, and talking goo-goo talk to her lavishly comfitted baby in a stroller. Expensive car, expensive stroller, expensive baby, expensive groceries. Cheap life. I thought of how amused Kurt Vonnegut would be---or at least Kilgore Trout---by the idea of someone driving a vehicle called an “Infiniti," probably making trips of no more than four or five miles a day. A vehicle made entirely of finite resources, operated by a finite creature, in a finite world, and yet. . .comprised entirely of elements that had traveled a quadrillion quadrillion quadrillion light-years in order to be present in the form of car and mother and baby at that moment. And I thought of the Buddhist phrase of “infinite causes and conditions. . .” And then I got out of the way of a truck driving too fast through the parking lot.
          Inside "Foods" were still more new moms and strollers full of other burbling fat little fledgling greedballs, fantastically unsuspecting of the world’s travails, pitfalls, peccadillos. . .of the picaresque, picayunish, and pecuniary. Their eyes protruberant with undiluted amazement, their tongues la-la-la’ing, their hindquarters expelling whatever begged exit, with elan, oblivious of social protocol. As are humans at the opposite end of the time scale. An elderly woman alone in the bread aisle unleashed a flapping jolt of haunch emission fit for Shaquille O’Neal. You can never hold back spring. . .
          I escaped Foods with one bag, ten items, and a $33 receipt, and felt lucky. Every time you go into that place for two or three things, you walk out with one bag costing $80. In the parking lot, the inevitable guys with clipboards who had ignored me on the way in (“Only ask them after they’ve finished shopping”) assailed. I was a bit surprised, as canvassers tend to bypass my gray beard and rumpled attire (I'd write "thank God" here, if there was one.) One of them yelled at me:
          “Check your spine today, sir?”
          Check your spine today, sir. . .Check your spine today. . The phrase floated up into the pollen and blue, into the hummingbird-darting, diesel particulate-matter suffused, carcinogenic Los Angeles atmosphere. It interacted with molecules and light in ways that physicists can describe elaborately, intricately, but will forever remain unknowable to me. Check your spine. . .What did it mean? A metaphorical question? Or was it my bad posture? Trout might write a story about that, in which stranded humanoid aliens gifted with CT-scan vision would wait outside stores, picking out medical flaws of customers and asking if they could give them little check-ups for five bucks. Then they would eventually collect all their money and go to the Jewelry District to buy gold and diamonds, which was their principal diet. They were always near starvation. . .No, they couldn’t check my spine. I already knew my spine, and how it is compressed at the base to the point where there is almost no disc left, and will eventually cause me to be a little less than happy-go-lucky.
          Back in the car and on to Trader Joe’s, with Tom singing again. A great song, one of the best he has done, with those world-weary, battered piano chords he does so well, and lyrics about The Rip Post motto, persevering through relentless absurdity.Never Let Go.” I cranked it up, and wiped more surprise tears away. In a left turn lane, I noticed the woman behind me noticing me dabbing my eyes. She looked nervous---uh-oh, psycho in front of me---so I made a point of driving extra safely, so as to reassure her. Why I do these sorts of things, why I give a rat’s ass, I’ll never understand.
          Trader Joe’s. . .free coffee. . .Stevia sweetener. . .heavy soy cream. . .a touch of happiness. . .cat treats, organic Fuji apples, dark chocolate bars, smoked salmon, canned salmon, sardines, watermelon juice, organic zucchini, organic cucumbers. . .How decadent, how rich, how ridiculously convenient that one could toss such items effortlessly into a cart, without ever having expended one carbohydrate of energy to create, refine, pick, or package any of it. . .What a spoiled lout I am. . .I remembered a scroll someone recently gave me, reading, in part, “I am fortunate to have awakened today. . .” How pathetic are people, that such crass reminders of gratitude must be mass-produced. . .
          More babies, more kids, more swollen, pregnant bellies. . .So many new mothers all the time. . .You can never hold back spring. . .Lithe, coltish teen daughters trailing mothers who looked like haggard caricatures of their kids. . .I drank a third free tiny cup of coffee, and failed to step entirely out of the way of a mommy and brood, did a little pirouette so as not to trip a little girl with pigtails and glasses. Something about little kids with glasses always breaks my heart. Shouldn’t, of course, as they are lucky to be able to afford the care, and have parents who care, but still, always breaks my heart. . .
          “Find everything all right today, sir?” said the checker, for the 456th time that day.
          “Yes, thank you.”
          And a little girl stood in the doorway on the way out to make sure the door stayed open for me, and for the customer before me. She was having a good time playing doorman, and I said, “Thank you, dear,” which made her smile with embarrassment, and run for Mommy. I often have this effect on people.
          Outside, a tiny man materialized between parked cars. He was perhaps three feet, six inches tall, and crooked. Bent sidways at the waist. Elderly, gray, perhaps 70, in suit pants, and white shirt. Like an apparition from Poe, an imp who fell through a crack in time from 1922 Weimar Republic and into a hot blacktop 2010 Palms parking lot of hot garish transportation machines. One of them started, and prepared to back up, with tiny old guy walking right behind it. I knew the driver could never have seen him, so I stepped directly into the path of the car and stood there until the time-travelling imp made his crook-backed way safely toward Trader Joe’s, or more likely, into some other crack in time and space. . .
          And back in my car, and I swear this is true, Waits began singing something called “Little Man,” by Teddy Edwards:
          Don't look back/ There are things that might distract/ Move ahead towards your goal/ And the answers will unfold/ Little man/ Love is always in the air/ It is there for those who care/ Little man. . .
          I loved the bit about “things that might distract.” How true, how true. . .I remembered with fondness how Waits once took me to see the great Edwards at the Biltmore Hotel, and how lucky I was for having been, for a moment, in the presence of two such brilliant musicians. What's wrong with this picture?
          I sort of drifted home, feeling a kind of buffer all around, a buffer built of held-back spring, and grocery bags, and Waits’s music, and of not knowing the life of a parent, or the life of an unthinking consumer; a buffer from “Hello!” and “Check your spine?” and diesel particulate matter. . .And I was in a place very alone, on a too-hot March afternoon, in my dumb car, with thoughts of how I can’t know who/what/when/ where/why am I, and how I am regulated by infinite forces and conditions of spinning planet and genetic dice, and how Gusta the cat was about to die, and didn't know it.
          Finding everything all right, sir?

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