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(May 29, 2008)

        Call them Less Than Satisfying Encounters
with Humanity, or LTSEWH, for um, short. They are intended as a chronicle of the decline in civility and deference, written with just the slightest implication of humor, in this, the alleged 21st century. Names are included when possible to protest the impudent. (Please note: LTSEWH is now a book, with wonderful illustrations!  Buy one, you ingrates.)

          LTSEWH # 1: Jolly Bad
          It’s the beard. Has to be. I look a little like Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye’s Father. And Poopdeck Pappy looks a little like half the old homeless guys---formerly known as bums---that you see going about their mysterious bum errands on the streets of West L.A.
          I was in a motel. Specifically, The Jolly Roger Motel in Marina del Rey. I figured it for a jolly place. Just the place for Poopdeck Pappy. Besides, I once housed the great American a cappella group, The Persuasions, there, when they played McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. I helped with their career for a while, and my return visit to the Jolly Roger also had to do with The Persuasions.
          Or rather, Persuasion.
          I had brought Persuasions high tenor Ray Sanders to L.A. to do some overdubs on an album I am co-producing, “The Persuasions---Live at McCabe’s.” Ray had just gotten off a plane, and I was dropping him off at The Jolly Roger. That jolly place. I accompanied him to the jolly check-in counter, just to make sure all went jolly well.
          Now, I should explain here that Ray, an African-American, was dressed entirely in black, including a black watch cap and a strange black headgear that also wrapped around his neck (“to keep my voice warm,” he explained.) He looked essentially ready to make a Youtube video denouncing Booosh. Me, I was wearing a nice Pendleton, chinos, Reeboks. My usual high style.
          “Hi,” I said, smiling at the desk clerk. “I made a reservation for Mr. Sanders here.”
          It is also important to note the clerk’s appearance, at least for fun. He might have played in any number of old “Mr. Moto” or “Thin Man” movies, assaying the role of some sort of skulking, slippery Mesopotamian villain. You know, the oleaginous ceramic artifact dealer who is outwardly charming, but has a tiny blow-gun full of curare-dipped needles that he periodically launches into the necks of diplomats who hold the key to world peace.
          I noted with admiration the pencil-thin beard following his olive-complexioned chin, arching up and over his mouth. The obsidian hair, greased and combed straight back, like Dean Martin. The widow’s peak. I’ve heard Persians describe his type of attire as “classy.” I’d call it “early disco.” He was built like a giant pineapple, garbed in satin. He did not smile. I repeated the statement about the reservation, adding:
          “You do have rooms available?”
          “Yeah,” he said curtly. “We have room.”
          “Well, Mr. Sanders would like to check in, please.”
          He silently gave Ray a form to fill out, and asked for an ID.
          Ray had left his ID in New York City, and all he had was a New York state ID card which had expired about three weeks earlier. I explained this and presented it to Ali Baba. He tossed---tossed---it back at Ray, saying, “This expire.” Judging by his facial expression, I figured the guy had recently been forced to eat a toad. Raw. No toothpick.
          “Right,” I said. “Look, sir, he just got off a plane, and he’s tired. This man is a professional singer, and I’m his manager. His group has stayed here before, which is why I decided to put him up here, and---“
          Leave? I glanced around me. Had his ex-wife shown up? Osama?
          “Get out!”
          It sunk in. Mesopotamia Marvin had adjudged Ray and I as undesireables, miscreants, rascals, or even. . .
          “You’re homeless!” he said to Ray, snarling. I mean actually snarling, with the upper teeth exposed, dog-like.
          And then, ladies and gentlemen, he turned to me, yes me. Your faithful burnout veteran Los Angeles journalist, your quixotic Internet columnist, author, bon vivant, and sometime music producer. . .
          “And you are homeless too!”
          Well, I’ve been nearly homeless in my life, and as W.C. Fields once said, “dogs never lose the scent of hobo.” But hell, I’m no ordinary good-for-nothing. Why, I’m a finalist in the L.A. Press Club competition again this year. (I always get beat by guys writing pithy articles about serious issues.) I took umbrage.
          “Homeless? Homeless? Are you kidding?”
          “No! You are both homeless! Now get out!”
          At this point, the portion of my faculties that sorts out self-preservation kicked in. I find this happening more and more as I live in L.A., while dealing with people who are new here. Brain electricity sizzled and popped and came up with this: little creep from foreign country. . .little creep from foreign country sees Pendleton, thinks it is low-class. . .little creep from foreign country runs stupid motel, gets scammed all the time. . .little creep from foreign country is racist asshole. . .little creep from foreign country who runs motel probably has gun behind counter. . .
          Still, I am a slow learner. Instead of taking his advice to "Leave!", I instead. . .stayed. And advised him exactly what I thought of him, in a marvelously decorative array of extremely obscene verbiage. I should have written it down.
          And he said. . .
          “I call POLICE!”
           I leaned on the counter and stared at him, smiling.
          “Go ahead and call the police,” I replied evenly. “I’d enjoy that.”    
          He did not call police. I had called---his bluff. It was when he moved to another part of the counter (the gun part, I thought) that Ray and I decided to walk away, both of us again demonstrating a wonderful proficiency with the most vile of descriptors.
          I sometimes wonder if swearing in other languages is anywhere near as satisfying as it is in English.
          The next motel we tried didn’t ask for any ID.
          And Ray did some jolly good overdubs.

          LTSEWH # 2: Senior Moment
          I had a pulled muscle. When I was young, I liked to have pulled muscles, because I incurred them while playing basketball, or running track, or doing other athletic things that might impress the girls. I figured that when they saw me limping between classes, they would be dazzled by how athletic I was.
          What a nut.
          Anyhow, this stupid pulled calf muscle happened while I was merely walking up a steep hill. I repeat: walking. (Relevant poetic quotation about the injustice of aging here.)
          So I wrapped my leg up with Ben-Gay and an Ace bandage and went about my business, such as it is. No girls looked at me admiringly, or sympathetically, that was for sure. If they glanced my way at all, it was with that look that reflexively kicks in when they, oh, have to step over a pile of dog crap. But I didn’t take it personally. I find that a great many younger people tend to have this kind of facial expression at all times.
          Anyhow, I was walking back from dropping off the car for maintenance. Life is made of this kind of idiocy---dropping off cars, buying window blinds, rushing out to get cat litter. Very few of us get to be George Hogg, and rescue dozens of children from Japanese and Chinese soldiers by marching them 700 miles over death-defying mountain passes.
          After dropping off the car, and lamenting the fact that I do not get to be George Hogg, I walked to Wilshire Boulevard. That is, I dragged one leg, much as Lon Chaney Jr. and Tom Tryon did when they portrayed Kharis, the living mummy, in various cheesey 1940’s “horror movies.”
          I tried gamely to hoof it home, but had to give up after a couple of blocks, as the hitch in my getalong got more hitched. So I gave up and did something I absolutely dread doing---I mean I hate this more than “The Bachelor" and "The View" combined---I waited for a bus.
          I could write a whole bunch about buses in L.A., but I’ll save that for another time. (Lucky you.) Suffice to say that I so despise, loathe, revile, detest “rapid” transit in L.A., that I refuse to ever, ever use it. This goes back to my late teens and early 20’s when I had to rely on it, and I swore I would never, never ride buses in L.A. again. There were instances---true story---where I waited so long for a goddamn bus that never came, that I gave up and walked. Once, from Sherman Oaks to Playa del Rey. (I was two-thirds of the way through the Sepulveda pass when my bus finally passed me.)
          Anyway,  I couldn’t begin to figure out the insanely complicated bus signs and numbers and where the evil things went, and as a result, naturally missed three in a row that would have taken me right home. Twenty minutes later, a big stinking lummox pulled over and I stepped aboard, asking the driver what the fare was. And this is what he said, folks. As sure as you are spending a small part of your life reading The Rip Post, he really. . .said. . .this:
          The killer in this story is that this was a couple months ago, before I had even grown my mostly-white beard.
          Senior? Senior!
          And that’s what I said to him, followed by:
          “No! I’m not a senior!”
          But incidents like this are certainly hastening me all too quickly in that direction.

          LTSEWH # 3: Van Go
          I was driving. In L.A., this is usually a mistake.
          It was a short trip up Ohio Avenue in West L.A. to my bank. I was doing the speed limit, 35.
          Mistake number two.
          An old beat-up van was tailgating me. Never mind that the light ahead was red, and due to stay that way for a long, long  time. Never mind that after it changed to green, the next light ahead was red, and due to stay that way for a long, long time.
          The hulking, slope-browed animal menace at the wheel of the large and heavy machine behind me didn’t care.
          At last, I turned down the side street to my bank. Checked the rear-view, and. . .no van! Half-way down the block, checked again. Still no van. Phew! I wonder about the cumulative damage to nervous systems caused by tailgaters (listening, Mayo clinic?) I slowed to turn into the bank driveway, reflexively checking the mirror again, and. . .
          Right on my bumper. He had perhaps dimension-hopped, materializing like Dr. Who’s telephone box. That’s all I could figure. Anyhow, I pulled into the parking lot, where about eight cars were backed up. Huh? Seems they were waiting for spaces on the other side, nearer the ATM---never mind that there were six or seven slots immediately at hand. That extra 50 feet of walking is a bastard.
          I zipped into one of the nearby spaces---and Van pulled in right next to me. And I do mean right next. This despite the fact there was plenty of room, and in fact, several other spaces with no cars on either side of them in the vicinity. Slope Brow must have really liked me. He certainly enjoyed being close to me. Very close. Because I found this a bit odd, I stayed in the car and waited to see if: a) he knew me, and wanted to say hi, b) he had decided that I represent everything un-American, and wanted to beat the snot out of me, c) had some hot stereo equipment in the back to sell.
          Brow had left himself barely enough room to squeeze out of his noble vehicle without his door hitting my car. Which is just what happened. I was so baffled by it all, I just sat and stared. I mean, why had he tailgated me? How had he suddenly appeared behind me again, after having disappeared? Why was he parking right next to me, with so many other choices? Why had he left himself no room? Why was his door hitting my car?
          There are some things in life I am apparently not meant to understand, like math and Van Man. For he spoke to me, and this is what he said.
          “You’re over the line!”
          He was right. The parking space lines on each side were long horseshoe shaped double-lines, and my tires were covering the innermost of the two lines.
          You know, there are times when you engage in conversation with people, and then there are times when you just stare at them as if you are “all in” with a pair of deuces.
          After he walked to the bank, I moved my car to a distant and remote part of the lot, bought some paint and painted it in green and pink polka-dots, lined the windows with dingleballs, wrote “Here Comes Sancho!” in the window in nice white cursive letters, then switched my license plates so he could never find me again.

          LTSEWH # 4: Last Dance
          There are times when things get so absurd that you just have to laugh, damn the consequences. Like. . .well, almost all the time. Hmm. . .this could be the secret to happiness!
          And sometimes, laughing isn’t quite enough. One must be even more creative, just for the sake of oh, poetic justice. Or something.
          There I was. . .
          Walking up Arizona Street in Santa Monica, just past the funeral home where I once accidentally walked in on an old friend of mine. She didn’t notice, though, as she was dead, laid out for family and friends. I was an hour early, and had no idea that the “memorial service” included my old pal’s cold corpse.
          Awkward moment!
          So I tend to quicken my steps whenever I pass this joint. Flower shops have never smelled good to me since.
          I stood there with that dopey pedestrian look---that look that says "You wonder why I'm walking in this awful car-infested place, and frankly, so do I"---on the corner of a four-way light, waiting for the little green walking man. Now, I can understand the word, “walk,” but apparently, a great many people in L.A. no longer do, so they use the little green walking man. Blind people in my neighborhood know to walk just by the change in the sounds of the traffic. God help them.
         Well, little green walking man appeared and I stepped off the curb. As expected, the car that had been waiting next to me for several minutes to make a right turn. . .began making that right turn. Yup, right into me. Renseburger, medium-rare, coming right up. But this wasn’t all. At the same time, an SUV was running the red light, through the intersection, and was also barreling straight toward my middle-aged self.
          Got the picture? The little green man told me it was safe to walk, but you can never trust his little green ass. He doesn’t know shit from Shinola about crossing a street. And there I was, with two vehicles coming at me from two different directions, roughly nine o'clock and 12 o'clock, both accelerating.
          I guess it would be sort of distinctive to be run over by two cars instead of just one. An only-in-L.A. kind of demise.
          But as I said, there are times when things are so absurd, so out-of-orbit ridiculous, you just can't take them seriously. I mean, look, the light was red, but the jackass in the SUV ran it anyhow. Perhaps he was in a hurry to his yoga class or “lotus therapy” session. The driver of the car (Lexus?) making the right turn had two full minutes to see me standing right beside him, waiting for the light to change. But he was on the phone.
          This was way too stupid to be upsetting. I figured, hey, if you guys really want to run over a pedestrian so badly, have at!
          So I stopped, turned, faced both cars, and. . .
          Did a nice soft-shoe, with a little suave arm action, to boot.
          Showed them my teeth.
          And by golly, they stopped without so much as a honk, or even the lusty old L.A. all-purpose hail, “Fuck you.”
          Guess they knew good hoofing when they saw it.

          LTSEWH # 5: Dowdy Neighbor
          But back to the mostly-white beard.
          I took my beard out for a walk the other day. I do this frequently, as a form of exercise (for my body, not the beard.) After all, bus drivers think I’m a “senior," and walking is senior exercise. I have mapped out a nice “course” in the very pretty neighborhood above Wilshire Boulevard, where I full-steam along for about an hour, most every day. In my usual elegant ensemble: chinos, Pendleton, Reeboks, baseball cap.
          It's nice. 
          There are beautiful homes to look at, and wonder how much cocaine their occupants have to sell in order to live in such fine places, and fabulous late-spring/early summer gardens resplendent with wildflowers, succulents, cedars, petunias, rosemary hedges, honeysuckle, New Zealand tea bushes. I mean, the roses are as big as Oprah’s head. Literally and figuratively. And there are wandering cats who ask to have their heads scratched, and very serious joggers who blow by you with stern expressions, and moms-with-strollers who eye you with smiling teeth and wary eyes, and occasionally even someone who smiles and says “good morning.” At the pinnacle of the “course,” there is a view of the ocean on the west, and downtown on the east. Not bad.
          So I huff-and-puff it at a good clip, stretching first to make sure I don’t pull my “senior” calf muscle.
          There I was. . .
          Loping uphill past a mailman---er, letter carrier---delivering mail. She smiled at me, and I handed her a letter I had been carrying in case I ran into a mail---letter carrier. A pleasant exchange, a neighborly, functional transaction straight out of Norman Rockwell. I allowed myself the momentary illusion that everything still worked fine in America, that people were still agreeable, that mail---er, letter carriers---were cheerful and flexible, that morning walks in neighborhoods were benign and even bucolic.
          Straight ahead, just a few yards distant, there stood a gentleman---a. . .neighbor! Out in his pleasantly landscaped front yard, opening his good, old-fashioned mailbox to retrieve the day’s slew of recyclable paper. He was about my age, I figured, what with silvering hair, still trim physique, and he looked---I don’t know how else to say it---successful. A TV writer, perhaps, or more likely, a producer of some sort. . .
          But for current purposes, just a lyrical, classic, unpretentious howdy-neighbor. Like me!
          As the sidewalk curved in front of his home, I glanced up. Proximity alone called for a salutation. He was just five feet away, inspecting his mail, glancing at me. I smiled and tipped my hat brim.
          “How ya doin’?” I said.
          And Neighbor returned my greeting with a hearty hello. Yet it was a kind of odd hearty hello. Almost too hearty. And then, when I was about twenty feet past, the other shoe dropped.
          “And just keep on walking!” he boomed.
          Huh? Was it a joke? A comment on my fast pace? I was stumped. Turned my head and smiled and said something stupid, like “Can’t stop.”
          Then it hit me.
          Oh, what a chump I am. Suckered myself once again into thinking this was 1955. Or ’65. Or ’45, ’35, ’25.
          It seems I had been once again taken for a creep, a bad guy, someone who didn’t belong in such a fine neighborhood as this. Possibly even someone who was. . .
          Yes, that was it. Possible Producer had scanned me, scoped me, and labeled me some sort of “loser” human grunge/sludge who was not welcome near his grand home, or in his oh-so-prosperous north-of-Wilshire hedge-fund dealing world. My “How ya doin’?” had obviously been a cover, a con, a pose to try to convince oblivious citizens that I was no threat to anything other than the occasional ants beneath my feet. While I surreptitiously sized them up for burglary, robbery, murder.
          I’d blame it on the beard again, folks, but really, I blame it on other things. Such as Reagan, Nixon, capitalism gone amok, a venal and amoral media that purveys hatred and ugliness for profit, hysterical “pundits” on 24/7, shouting inanities and insanities, commentators every bit as gentle as Grendel, criminal gangsters exalted as stars of culture, governments and senators and mayors and councils that never do anything right, people who are consumed only with profit and possessions. . .
          And in the end, the kind of dufuses who stand in their front yards and insult innocuous passers-by.
          On my next walk, think I’ll bring a few old tomatoes.

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