Call them Less Than Satisfying Encounters With Humanity, or LTSEWH, for um, short. Names and places have been included wherever possible to ensure fullest humiliation of subjects at hand.
LTSEWH # 1: SOUP NAZI
I was in the Souplantation, which I think is pronounced "Soo Plantation," because it's cheap and I can load up on lots of lousy dessert with names like "chocolate lava cake." It's the American way. Of course, in order to get to the lava cake, I must first endure nutrients in the form of soup and salad.
There I was, wretchedly ladling chicken broth into my little bowl, fishing for hunks of boiled bird with a big spoon, trying to avoid the ghastly, leaden noodles that go with it. This is a tricky proposition, as Souplantation Soupengineers have carefully designed the broth to be scooped up with 90 percent noodles, and only token chicken.
Still, much practice has enabled me to deftly secure desired avian, and then---still wielding the ladle---nudge unwelcome noodles right back into the big pot! I was performing this very maneuver when---
"DON'T PUT NOODLE THERE, SIR!"
I looked up to see not John Belushi, but a guy about six-five, and perhaps 300 pounds. Glaring.
"DON'T PUT NOODLE BACK!"
The accent was Eastern European. The demeanor was WWF. Two-day-old stubble; hairy, muscled arms; mono eyebrow.
"Uhhh. . .Don't put noodle back?"
Yes, Man Mountain took his soup seriously. The poor fellow, it seemed, was trying to do his job properly, and apparently had been warned about customers taking food, then putting it back. Presumably he hadn't understood that this pertained to half-eaten items. Or perhaps he just took exception to the fact that I refused to accept the ghastly, leaden noodles that the Soupengineers wanted me to eat.
Still, being scolded by the help in a joint where dinner is about $7.99 didn't set well with me. I rejected my first impulse, which was to suggest that Mountain endeavor to experience extreme coital intimacy with himself. I value my physical well being, lava cake notwithstanding.
So instead I smiled, and said, "Say please!"
"Say. . .pleeeeaaase!"
I showed him many, many teeth.
He frowned and turned away in disgust.
We Americans are a crazy lot.
LTSEWH # 2: PLAYING POST OFFICE
The West L.A. post office is highly dependable. That is, you can always depend on a line of at least twenty people, and as many as two whole windows open for business. Mailing a single tiny package can be done in a spiffy, quick-as-a-wink 40 minutes!
And don't try to cheat by weighing your package and affixing your own postage, either! Why, it's liable to be returned to you for being "suspicious," just as two such packages were returned to me. (Both contained highly dangerous material---copies of my novel.)
So I took my inevitable place in line, resigned to cashing in 40 minutes of my life for the privilege of picking up a package that required a signature. I had come prepared with an L.A. Times, which I figured would be good for at least ten minutes, if I didn't take too long on the funnies. So I stood there with the world-weary: the working women on lunch breaks, fussing over customs forms; the Filipina with a stack of packages for relatives back home; the mom with twins in stroller, etc.
Fifteen minutes passed as people waited longingly for one of the two clerks to utter those enchanting words, "may I help the next person in line?" At twenty, I ran out of newspaper, having read sports twice, and one of those commentaries about the economy that no one ever really understands. I resorted to playing songs in my head, and foot-tapping, for the next ten minutes, then just stood and sweated impatiently for another five.
And then. . .
"May I help the---"
I strode forward and boldly presented my yellow slip for package pick-up. The clerk noted the slip, then promptly recited to everyone in the room, in a voice as vivacious as a funeral director's:
"If you are just here to pick up a package, please come to the front of the line."
My eyebrows went up, along with the corners of my mouth.
"Uh. . .ma'am," I said extra-politely, "If you had said that anytime in the last 35 minutes, you would have saved me a lot of time."
No eye contact.
She turned her back on me, retrieved the package, handed it over without a word.
"Help the next person in line?"
LTSEWH # 3: PARKING COP-OUT
He was about 65, he was cheeful, he was chewing gum. He seemed to like his job, which was to catch all those nasty, nasty parking criminals who don't make it back to their meters in time. And never, never to catch the fine, accomplished souls in Mercedes SUV's who park in red zones while they run into Coffee Bean for a latte.
I saw him as I parked, and was glad I had a quarter on hand, which I promptly plunked into the meter. I walked across the street to Sav-On to make a quick purchase, and came back to find. . .
Parking cop writing me a ticket. Chewing gum, smiling as I approached.
"Wait a second!" I said, "I just put a quarter in there."
"Welp," he smiled, Andy Griffith-like, "Meter's expired."
I looked. He was right.
"But that's impossible. I put a quarter in there no more than eight minutes ago."
"Welp," he smiled again, and---I swear---winked. "Sorry, sir, meter's expired."
"That can't be right. It must be broken. Here, wait, let me put another quarter in."
I felt in my pockets in vain.
"Look, can you wait a second? I'll run into McDonald's here and get change. Thirty seconds."
He smiled yet again, cocking his head, and I sprinted into McDonald's, braving a crowd just released from a nearby high school. Felt like I was walking the exercise yard at San Quentin. They eyed me tribally, peering from beneath watch caps and behind great overcoats. Managed to extract change from a dead-eyed McDonald's employee, and ran back outside.
"Here," I said, and slipped a quarter into the meter.
Of course, it worked fine.
"But really---I'm not lying---I put a quarter in there and it didn't work."
The old guy chewed his gum and gave me that look that said "Yeah, I've heard this one a thousand times."
He winked once more as he handed me the ticket, and---I kid you not---said, "Have a nice day, sir."
LTSEWH # 4: BOOK HER, DANNO
Put me and a nut in a roomfull of people, and I guarantee you, the nut will talk only to me. It's happened all my life. They seek me out like bats on mosquitoes.
It was the end of a lousy day, and I just wanted to waste a few lousy minutes, quietly perusing lousy books in a lousy Barnes and Noble. I wanted no conversation. I wanted no trouble from anyone. My soul was benign, my spirit battered into a search for peace.
This, of course, made me a prime target.
She was well dressed, she was perhaps fifty, she was African-American. I was none of the three. I noted her vaguely, peripherally, paying no special attention until. . .
"Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Ignoring me. I see it comin', yes I do. I see it. I've seen it all before. Mm-hm."
I tuned her out, my attention riveted by such literature as "The Psychic Pathway: A Workbook for Reawakening the Voice of Your Soul," and a lovely book about a noble circus elephant. Yet I was aware, as I browsed pages, that the woman was still speaking, and that her tone was agitated, accusative, loud enough to distract. This went on for a good five minutes---or, rather, a bad five minutes. I further noted that other customers had moved away from her. Must be on a cell-phone, I figured, and then committed an error that you never make with a nut:
Nope. No cell phone. This was a one-way conversation. Or perhaps two-way, depending on whoever else was in her head. I scowled. Mistake number two.
"Mm-hm! There it is, there it is! Now it's comin'. He's about to say the N-word! Here it comes! Come on, white boy! Let's hear it!"
Folks, there are limits to my vast sympathies, and this is where I encountered one.
"Listen, you worthless ass---, why don't you just GO AWAY. You come in here, disturbing people, when no one is bothering you. You are a negative. A subtraction. A force of evil. So why don't you just get the ---- out of here."
And miracle of miracles, she did!
LTSEWH # 5: I GET A KICK OUT OF DRIVING
She should have known better. After all, she was around 60, extremely well coiffured, and driving a new Lexus. There was zero need to tailgate on an empty sidestreet at 5 in the afternoon. Particularly to tailgate a beat-up old tin can driven by a rumpled freelance writer doing the speed limit on a short block.
Yet she insisted. Right on the bumper. No more than a foot away. Perhaps she'd had a bad experience with a freelance writer. An ex-husband, perhaps. . .
I turned around and waved Old Coiffure away.
No response. Zzzzp---right on my bumper.
Now what, I wondered, was this woman doing? Did she imagine that she might reach the next stop sign 1.5 seconds sooner? My mind filled with the vision of an old journalism colleague, crippled for life after being rear-ended at slow speed. So I slowed down, gradually, then turned and waved her off again. She saw this clearly.
I speeded up again, and so did she. No more than a foot away, once more.
Gasp. Maybe a freelance writer once sat on her poodle, Froo-Froo.
I slowed a second time, and yelled out the window "Stop tailgating, goddamn it!" which caught the attention of several onlookers---but not Lexus lady. At last, I came to a complete stop, turned around, and waved her away one last time.
Yes, you knew it was coming: tailgate party resumed.
I was left with no recourse but suicide, but instead opted to stop and get out. I approached her, repeating my request in a voice not quite loud enough to be heard in, say, Utah:
"Stop tailgating me, you goddamn old bag!"
Finally, it registered. The message penetrated the thick Lexus windows, the thick swirly gray coiffure, the thick skull. And the message said:
Up went her window. Shut went her sun roof. And, I hope, wet went her underwear.
Old Coiffure floored it, barely missing me and my car as she zoomed into the (fortunately empty) oncoming traffic lane.
Not before I managed to kick what I hope was a fair-sized dent in her. . .tailgate.
For more LTSEWH's, watch this space.
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