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Feb. 4, 2009

          Call them Less Than Satisfying Encounters With Humanity. Only the names have been changed---well, actually, as few names as possible have been changed. I like to include them whenever I happen to know them, and the threat of lawsuit is not too great. Yes, that’s LTSEWH (try and pronounce it) for, um, short.
           LTSEWH # 1: DOOR BELLE
          The last time I remember someone at the door at 2:30 a.m. was in 1974, in my wonderful, furnished, 40’s-era Sherman Oaks apartment. With the wicker furniture and yellow chrome dinette. I woke from a deep, blissful sleep, more motor reflex than consciousness.
          “Who is it!” I gasped.
          The reply was sinister, eerie, distant. A small threatening voice in the darkness.
          “It’s Dr. Death.”
          I think I squeaked something well decorated with profanity involving “what do you want” before Dr. Death revealed that he was actually my old pal, Jeff, who had dropped in as a surprise after driving across country. Such was not the case the other night when the doorbell---which is more like a submarine “dive!” alarm---went off. The cats exploded from chairs and couch.
          I peered over the balcony. No Jeff. Instead, sitting outside the “security gate” (guaranteed to keep out dwarves and midgets) was a very pale young woman with long black hair and bare shoulders and arms. Dracula’s Daughter. Mrs. Dr. Death.
          “What do you want?” I barked.
          “I live here,” came a slurred response.
          I didn’t have glasses on, and the two women who live downstairs both have black hair, so I headed tentatively outside, barefoot in pajamas. I didn’t carry an Uzi. I figured the sight of me at 2:30 a.m. barefoot in pajamas would ward off most evildoers, including the supernatural.
          She was sitting on the corner of a large planter, back to me, like a ghost in a Kurosawa movie. She said she lived in “102,” which would have been fine if our units did not stop at “4.” She then announced that she lived at Wilshire and 20th. She’d missed this by only about a mile and a half, not too bad for being more pickled than a quart of kim chee.
          “I jusss. . .wanna. . .cab home,” said Mrs. Dr. Death, adding, “Ian! Ian! How could you do this!”
          She pronounced “Ian,” incidentally, the correct way: “Een.” Her dashing paramour, one assumed. I immediately thought of “Seinfeld.” (I often immediately think of “Seinfeld.”) The episode with an “Een” who hustled Elaine for some bucks. “One of those bounders!” as Elaine said.
          I leaned over the railing by the security gate, trying to figure out what to do, then went back upstairs and tried to figure out what to do. It’s hard to figure out what to do at 2:30 a.m. In the end, I opted for calling the cops, because I was pissed off about being bothered by a woman too pissed to stand up. Speaking of pissed, when next I looked over my balcony, I noted that Mrs. Death had disappeared, but not before she’d pissed herself, leaving a healthy trail across the sidewalk and into my heavily labored over garden. Wondering vaguely about AIDS, Hepatitis C, and estrogen from birth control pills poisoning groundwater, I listened as the cops gave me a recording in Spanish, then I hung up. The cops often give you a recording in Spanish.
          A slick black car that I noticed prowling the neighborhood cruised by again, this time stopping around the corner for a couple minutes, then drove off.
          Ah, so it seemed that Een had taken his beloved back. That bounder. Either that, or she had just been “extraordinarily renditioned.”
          Either was fine.
          LTSEWH # 2: CUT
          There was no room in front of my car. Well, there was enough for ten or twenty cats, provided they could run at 35 miles per hour. Or an ostrich, which can. There was, in other words, just less than a car length between me and the car in front.
          No wonder the SUV in the lane to my right decided to cut in front of me. If I was chump enough to leave such a gap, why, it was practically the duty of other cars to cut in! How foolish of me. Besides, the SUV was a new Range Rover, black, with black tinted windows, and it was pulling out of a film industry complex in Santa Monica. This was obviously someone important, and as is well known in L.A., important people are exempt from the inconvenience of traffic safety.
          Signaling? Are you kidding? Signaling is for the weak and courteous. SUV simply began moving right into my lane. Thisclose. It was a get-the-f---out-of-my-way move. I considered my two choices: brake, or accelerate and honk. Well, three, actually, if you included rolling down my passenger window and throwing the dregs of my horchata at him.. I opted to accelerate and honk. SUV also accelerated. Nobody was going to deny his entry into the lane of his choice!
          So I kept my hand on the horn, and closed the gap to the point of tailgating the car in front. I just don’t know my place, you see. At last, SUV dropped aside, and I took note of the driver. Caucasian, perhaps 45, tall, aristocratic face. Kind of like that bounder on “Seinfeld.” I gave him the finger. He was too preposterous to shoot, and besides, I didn’t have a gun.
          He remained right next to me, though, smiling, giving me a sarcastic little beckoning motion. It was pretty good, really, kind of John Carradine-ish.
          Ah, an actor!
          Perhaps he wanted to give me his autograph.
          LTSEWH # 3: LADIES' ROOM
          When I do tai-chi at Cloverfield Park, I am able to either tune out or actually integrate the energy of various distractions. On a good day, this includes private celebrity-stuffed jets from adjacent Santa Monica Airport, spewing great carpets of carcinogenic particulate matter. But what I heard coming from a girls’ soccer workout a few feet away broke my concentration.
          “I have to go the bathroom reeeaaallllll bad! I mean real, reaaallll bad! Can Carly go with me for just a minute? I’m scared to go in these bathrooms by myself!”
It was a girl of perhaps 11 or 12, yelling across the playing field to her coach. Imploring, really.
          “What!” said the coach. This was a woman of perhaps 30, with one of those droning drill-sergeant P.E. coach voices. Addressed her charges sternly as “ladies!”
          The girl repeated her request, which was more of a plea. Another of the perhaps 25 ladies on hand chimed in helpfully, “She’s afraid of rapists or something.” The girl asked again.
          “Can I just take Carly with me? It’ll only take a minute.”
          “No!” came the reply. “Absolutely not!”
          That broke my concentration, right at the end of “single-whip” and before “snake creeps down.” Not the best place to falter. I wobbled. Well, I wobbled more than usual. No? No? The kid couldn’t go to the bathroom? Couldn’t take a friend? Let me tell you about those bathrooms, folks. They are all cement, no windows, one way in and out. You read news stories about rapes and murders in public bathrooms. I mean, I look over my shoulder as I stand at the urinals, watching for werewolves. Never mind aim. If I were a twelve-year-old girl, I’d be terrified.
          As I proceeded perfunctorily through “punch up seven stars” and “carry tiger to the mountain,” I was overwhelmed with incredulity, which gave way to outrage, which would have probably given way to anger, had I not just done the tai-chi set. The smart thing---the right thing, the sane thing, the wise thing---would be to always send girls in pairs to the creepy bathrooms, of course. Then I heard the “coach’s” next set of instructions.
          “All right, ladies! We’re going to have some fun now. We’re going to get a little bit rough, a little bit angry.”
          Ah, sportsmanship! Gone with the NFL and “professional” basketball. Adults actually teach brutishness, along with passing and free kicks. It’s part of the game. “Coach” was suddenly dividing her kids into squads (presumably including the one with the bursting bladder or colon) with the aim of instilling thuggery as part of their soccer skill-set. And you wonder why people have gotten so goddamn hostile. . .
          Had I not just spent an hour in the Tai-Chi Zone, and had I not had more than my share of crap in the preceding 24 hours, I would have done something annoying. Something like challenging the coach to her face, loudly, in front of the other ladies. Never mind if bathroom girl and Carly were actually sneaking off for a cigarette---saying “no!” was stupid, wrong, and could cost a kid her life.
          Instead, I discreetly hailed a male assistant coach and politely explained my point until I saw the lights come on in his eyes. The lights that said, “Old guy not crazy. . .children endangered.” He nodded vigorously at the suggestion that the kids should always go to the bathrooms in pairs.
          I noticed “Coach” glaring at me with suspicion for the few minutes I stood there. Undoubtedly she wanted to “have some fun” with me.
          LTSEWH # 3: POLICE STORY
          I had taken the freeway downtown. I was displeased. Taking the freeway downtown will often leave you displeased. Taking the freeway anywhere in Los Angeles will often leave you displeased. There is little that compromises freedom more in this town than taking the freeway. I had gotten off the freeway because staying on it was an indisputable indication of sheer insanity.
          I was in the so-called Fashion District, or Sweatshopland, where clothes and boom boxes are cheap and not a lot of English is spoken. At least not well. But hell, English is hardly spoken well anywhere anymore. I was trying to sort of stair-step my way northeast, with the ultimate goal of reaching Little Tokyo, the nicest part of downtown, and probably the nicest part of L.A.. Guess I was in a bit of a hurry to get to somewhere nice.
          Ahead of me, a car was stopped at a four-way stop intersection. Stop signs, no lights. The car stayed stopped. It stayed stopped for a long time. It was at an angle, as if to turn right, but was not signaling, and not moving. It remained this way for the thirty seconds that I approached. I noted a woman at the wheel, who seemed to be staring at clothing in a display window, conversing with a friend. Naturally, they took the popular attitude that there are no other drivers on the street, no other drivers in the western hemisphere, and if there are, it doesn’t matter.
          I rolled up behind them, slowing down to stop. They had never seen me coming, had no inkling that there was anyone behind them. No inkling, perhaps, that the sun was giving off heat and the sky blue. Realizing that they were not going to move, that they had no interest in participating cooperatively in human society at that moment (if they ever had any), I glanced at the other three stop-signs, saw no cars at any, and simply went around The Oblivion Ladies.
          I accelerated through the intersection at about 25 mph.
         And was promptly pulled over by an LAPD squad car which was apparently materialized out of the ethers by Jesus.
          (Profanity here.)
          Hands on the dashboard in plain view so I would not get shot, I awaited my punishment. A pleasant young cop came over and politely explained that I had just gone through a stop sign and “I clocked you at about 35 miles per hour.” I smiled and admitted that indeed I had failed to stop, that it was wrong, and that I had no excuse. I explained that the woman stopped in front of me might still be at the intersection, and had given no indication of moving. Rather than honk at her, I had avoided confrontation and moved on, but was wrong to have done so.
          “Well, I’m going to let you slide on that,” said Cop.
          What? A cop letting me slide? Do such things really happen? Were leprechauns crouched in the alleys with the reeking homeless, winking at me?
          “Thank you. And I’m not making an issue here. I just wanted to point out that I didn’t think I was doing 35 miles per hour. I thought it was closer to 25 miles per hour.”
          I know damn well it was 25 miles per hour.
          He looked at me with mild irritation, asked for my license.
          That was it. I’d blown it. No leprechauns.
          Never contradict a cop.
          I accepted the ticket after promising to be a good driving boy.
          “Well,” I said, “not so bad, really. First ticket I’ve gotten in 27 years, third one in my life.” Which was true.
          “Really!” he said. I thought I detected a twinge of guilt in his voice. I checked the ticket. He’d let me slide on nada.
          I’ll teach that pony-tailed old dude to question authority.
          Well, all I can say is that it’s a good thing that cop was there---staking out the intersection, he’d said---to catch vicious and dangerous traffic criminals like me. Give that enterprising young fellow a bonus. Maybe he’ll soon work his way up to catching the two or three hundred people who drive through the stop signs in my neighborhood every day, often blasting through at 45 or 50 mph, right outside an elementary school. Then he can graduate to the innumerable bounders in SUVs who tailgate, cut you off, change lanes in front of you when there’s no room, make right turns in front of you from the lane on your left, try to run you into parked cars when two lanes narrow to one. Later he might join the noble LAPD crime-fighters who do absolutely nothing about thunderous “parties” that find 40 or 50 tattooed gangsta-looking punks running riot in the street outside my bedroom window several times a year, drunk and screaming. . .
          Next time, I’ll just stay on the freeway, with the rest of the insane.
          LTSEWH # 4: FOOL OF BEANS
          I often order bean-and-avocado burritos at a place called Centinela Café because they are very large, and very good, and very nice to my stomach. Plus this is a pleasant, home-cooking joint, with a friendly chef who occasionally shoots the breeze with me in Spanglish. He packs the burritos tightly, which is not easy when working with beans, and makes them large enough to pass for dinner. So to speak.
          Well, at least he did.
          Nice chef moved on a couple months ago, replaced by a short guy who seeemed to feel about me the way I feel about prostate exams. Really. I doubted my conclusion for weeks, but it proved irrefutable. Every time I walked in there, Shorty would give me a dirty look. I mean it. A get-the-f---outta-my-restaurant-white-dude dirty look. It’s true there were few other evil Caucasoids dining there, and he enjoyed shooting the breeze with Spanish-speaking customers, but hell, this wasn’t deep in the barrio or anything. It’s Venice, where I went to high school. I’m a homey, fer crissake.
          Still the looks came. I mean narrowed eyes and curled upper lip, and then a quick back-of-the-head. I tried nodding at him a few times, then adding a smile, and this indeed stopped the dirty looks. In fact, it stopped all looks. The guy would no longer make eye contact with me at all. Yet I’d still catch the sidelong go-to-hell-gabacho glance whenever I made stupid small talk with the nice woman who works behind the counter.
          I mean, que paso? (Sorry, I can't figure out how to add the accent mark.)
          Then it happened. He turned the unsuspecting burrito into an instrument of war. Terrorism by tortilla.
          That’s right, the burritos had gotten smaller, were poorly packed, and usually leaking on the ends. Now, I didn’t mind paying six bucks for chef number-one’s humongous affairs, but when it got down to about a quarter a bean, I asked the counter-lady to please write “extra beans” on the ticket. I offered to pay extra, too. Then came the payoff, the moment when I knew this was no accident, that I was a victim of refried politics. She shot Shorty a disgusted look (he didn’t see it.)
          Yes, counter-lady was aware of pint-sized jefe’s game! Burritos as a vehicle for his apparent racial animosity. What else could it be? Did he not like my beard? Did he think I was getting more beans than I was morally and legally entitled?
          This was really just too ridiculous to let slide---I mean, my dignity was being measured in frijoles---so I bided my time and decided to force the guy’s hand. It was right after New Year. I walked up the counter by his grillside work station, and yelled at the back of his head:
          “Feliz Ano Nuevo!” (Sorry, I can't figure out how to add the tilde.)
          That’s right, folks, he didn’t turn around. Not at first, anyhow. He tried to ignore the white man stealing his culture, pretend he hadn’t heard me. So I repeated it, louder, prompting him to finally turn and give me the barest of nods, and a flat-toned, hollow  “Happy New Year.”
          He wasn’t going to be tricked into speaking his native language with Old Gringo.
          Still, I kept going back, hoping for a un miraculo. Peace through pintos. All we are sayyyyying. . .is give beans a chance. . .You see, those burritos are really good, even if they leak---and he made sure they always did. In the end, though, the little jefe won. I will never, never return to the Centinela Café.
          The last burrito I bought from him. . .stunk. I mean when I got close enough to take a bite, I was physically repelled by a noxious odor. Pungent, sharp, sour smelling. I don’t know what it was, and I don’t want to know what it was.
          Complain? I don’t think so. Bad as things are these days, my sanity is worth more than a stinking burrito. And the problems of two people in this world don’t amount to a hill of beans.
          For more LTSEWH’s, watch this space---and buy the book.

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