Costco.

Originally posted on Confessions of an Albino Roofer:

There are only three of us in my immediate family, but I shop at Costco. if we need a castle of paper towels or a bottle of shampoo, I go to Costco. it’s not because I am a savvy shopper, a careful consumer or even a half-healed hoarder. I go there because i’m both lonely and hate most human interaction. Costco is my buffer, my go-between, my beard, my chaperone. It protects me from the human race while allowing me limited contact. It gives me the opportunity to be a male Jane Goodall (but without all that messy compassion).

I especially like spying on the many amoebic tribes that spread out and across Costco’s bald, cement floors in a constant search for free samples. Finding their prey, they pounce on the tiny, white-smocked serving women’s little paper cups. Modern gluttony exposed beneath the bright, slaughterhouse lighting.

But the samplers are…

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Costco.

There are only three of us in my immediate family, but I shop at Costco. if we need a castle of paper towels or a bottle of shampoo, I go to Costco. it’s not because I am a savvy shopper, a careful consumer or even a half-healed hoarder. I go there because i’m both lonely and hate most human interaction. Costco is my buffer, my go-between, my beard, my chaperone. It protects me from the human race while allowing me limited contact. It gives me the opportunity to be a male Jane Goodall (but without all that messy compassion).

I especially like spying on the many amoebic tribes that spread out and across Costco’s bald, cement floors in a constant search for free samples. Finding their prey, they pounce on the tiny, white-smocked serving women’s little paper cups. Modern gluttony exposed beneath the bright, slaughterhouse lighting.

But the samplers are only one of the huge warped pieces to my Costco fetish. I am weak in the knees for the Somali-style refugee like check outs. Who can deny the excited agitation and excitement that comes from waiting in one of those convoluted lines. It’s addictive–like sky-diving or cheating on your taxes.

I can always rely on a long, drawn out check-out experience at Costco. It’s part of the oversized package. And I love the ever-present puzzled woman who ,while under pressure, forgets how to separate herself from her cart — does she go left and the cart goes right? Or is it the other way around? The rest of us look on, miming our incredulity in a plethora of somatic gestures and eye rolls. Emotions are prickly, but the flabby middle aged cashier in clothes so tight they might be considered explosive, points to the two red signs and calmly explains, as she has for the past five years to countless others, just how customer and cart should be disentangled. The lesson we learn: Costco is patient, like geological erosion.

No matter how dehumanizing Costco tries to be with its stark steel and it’s survivalist-friendly, 12-month portions, it’s mountains of pants and it’s walls of underwear, humanity breaks through. You may have to buy a package of toilet paper as big as your couch, but it’s cheap, and the human circus performs daily.

Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth

Mike Tyson opened his one-man show at the Pantages on Friday, attracting a nearly sold-out crowd. For 90 minutes he laid it all against a backdrop of video clips featuring his old neighborhoods, prize fights and interviews.

 

How a culture chooses its heroes says a lot about it. Sure, America has its firefighters and police. But we also have our sports stars. Some shine on while others fade away with grace. And then there are stars like Tyson who fall from the sky and hit the earth like a bullet, often becoming more famous for their metioric fall than their metoric rise. 

 

Believe me, Tyson had to do a lot of strange stuff to overpower his fame as  boxer. Coming out of one of the worst neighborhoods in New York, he became the youngest boxer to win the WBC, WBA and IBF heavyweight titles. It was the rags to riches story we Americans love. Unfortunately, Tyson’s boxing career was not to end on a high note. Fresh out of prison for rape, he entered the ring with Evander Holyfield. Claiming his opponent headbutted him, Tyson bit of a piece of his ear and was suspended from boxing.

 

As Tyson speaks to us, he often seems as surprised by his life as the rest of us. Self-described as a fat, little kid who was out-of-control in one of the worst areas of New York, his first fight was with the neighborhood bully who took Tyson’s pet pigeon and ripped the bird apart in front of him.From that time on, Tyson discovered he was good at fighting and incorporated it into his other pursuits: robbing and general mayhem. “If you were in our neighborhood,” Tyson told the audience, “we probably would have killed you.” Not exactly a good way to bond with the audence. But Tyson isn’t onstage to apologize.

 

Tyson is candid during his talk. He shows a 20/20 televison clip where his first wife is bombasting him to Barbara Walters while he quietly sits at her side like a castrated Mastif. Later, he tells the audience about midnight street fights, getting arrested for drugs and then going to prison for a rape he says he did not commit. “She had claimed someone else had raped her just months earlier,” Tyson squeeks like a rabid and deranged Mickey Mouse/Donald Duck crossbreed. But there are no laughs, not even a snicker.

 

Tyson talks about his time in prison, There he finds Islam and is visited by famous friends, including Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson.He gets out and soon incarcerated again, this time in a mental instituion for biting off an ear. Even for that he is not repentant. “It was a fight,”he recalls. The other guy was headbutting me.” Tysaon explains all, epents nothing. He had a bad childhood, he has an addiction gene just like his troubled mother. Those who were supposed to help him, hurt him. Tyson’s excuses go on and on.

 

I don’t quite know what Tyson is trying to say in his show. And it’s not just because of his garbled, falsetto, helium-esque twitters. I almost feel like he’s being manipulated again. That fat child still looking for attention, still looking for the loving home he never had.

 

Tyson ends by talking about his sobriety, his children in Ivy Leaguge schools and his devotion to being a family man. I see a sparkle in his eye and wonder if that’s the star we had all looked up to. It’s smaller now, more managable, but it still shines bright.. 

Welcome to Mexico: Don’t drink the water, don’t breathe the air

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The smell of Mexico City hits me as soon as my redeye flight from L.A. touches down. I imagine a putrefying grease, nauseatingly sweet and tangy to my nostrils. My mind doesn’t want to admit to a culinary attraction. The thick odor triggers both pangs of hunger and guttural convulsions of disgust.

We exit the Aeromexico 737 in fits of starts and stops. Walking through endless corridors, we all look waxy, paled by developing-world florescent lighting. It’s pre-dawn. As we move along, a cadre of airline and security personnel welcome us while suspiciously looking us up and down at the same time.

A few questions, a little bit of paperwork and I’m through customs and in a taxi heading for the Double Tree by Hilton. I look out the window into darkness. The driver speaks to me in Spanish. I understand nothing but agree to everything. Neither of us seems certain we’re going in the right direction but somehow we arrive. I check in. It’s nearly six a.m. but still no sun. I fall asleep, something I couldn’t do on the plane.

Two hours later, a beam of light floods my room from a small gap between two thick curtains. I walk over and pull them apart. The light is blinding. Outside, the architecture ranges from poor to “someone actually lives in that?”. Rusted and torn corrugated roofs are kept in place by large stones. City block after block of jumbled boxes spread out as far as the eye can see, and then vanish in an all engulfing thick, grey smog. Welcome to one of the most populated cities on earth. And the only one that’s actually sinking into the polluted water and mucky remains of an ancient civilization.

Mexico City was originally Tenochtitlan, built on an island in Lake Texcoco by the Aztecs in 1325. But thanks to Cortez, and some unruly neighbors, the city was almost completely destroyed in 1521. And then rebuilt in accordance with Spanish urban standards. The Spanish renamed it Mexico because Tenochtitlan was too hard to pronounce.

Missionaries took to saving souls, which included leveling Aztec shrines and then using them as foundations for catholic churches. The Aztecs’ tradition of cutting the hearts out of living humans and then barbecuing them, was no longer allowed. Of course the hearts weren’t the only things getting sacrificed. Spanish conquerors witnessed decapitations, dismemberment, disemboweling and even skinning. But the Aztecs had a good reason — keeping the cosmos in balance by bathing the earth in human blood.

I get dressed and head out to the lobby where I get the address for the National Anthropology Museum. I hand it to the taxi driver who is confused and tries to confirm the address with me. He speaks no English and simply looks at me and repeats something in Spanish. He does this repeatedly until he feels I have given some tacit approval, and then we’re off into Saturday traffic, hopefully heading for the museum.

We reach a busy, nicer area of the city with trees and space. There are people everywhere. The driver stops and motions to the large building across the street. I see a sign that says museum in English. We made it. I pay and get out.

The museum is huge: two large halls of artifacts. Nearly everything is in Spanish. Inside are entire Aztec temple walls and crypts. There is death and art in every corner. There are baby skeletons and rich grown up skeletons. And then there are countless clay figurines. Everything goes back thousands of years.

The Mexicans seem more at home with death then we are. It pervades their culture, as it should, I suppose. after all, it’s the flip side of life and just as apparent. The Mexicans have no problem with corpses, fresh or fetid. The poor who must rent cemetery space if they can’t afford to buy it, risk having their dearly departed kicked out of their eternal resting places. In fact, one cemetery puts the evicted into a museum where they are depicted in amusing scenes. It’s a popular tourist attraction. The national museum is a little classier.

I read a museum brochure. It explains Mexican history, and includes civilizations in Arizona, New Mexico and California. I am taken aback at first. Those belong to the United States, I think for a moment. But then remember the United States is a late comer, taking those lands in the 1800s. But to be fair, the Mexicans took them from the Spanish earlier. And the Spanish took them from the original inhabitants before that. My head swims. Even Los Angeles, the city where I live, belonged to three different national governments since its inception in 1781. And some people were alive for all three. I leave the museum with its details, dust and death for the airport.

The flight home is aboard Alaska Airlines. The attendants are playful and full of glee. The plane is only about half full so they are taking it easy. It’s a three-hour flight back and soon I am walking through another long hallway to get to U.S. customs and immigration. I make my way through, head out of the airport and hear a taxi driver talking to someone in Spanish. I realize that a line on a map can only change things so much.

Celebrity gawker tells all

earl“Is that…?” I slow my car as I motor down Sawtelle, one of L.A.’s insanely long streets. My view of the guy is suddenly cleared as a car passes. “It is him, it is.” I am so excited that I am mouthing the words. The guy who played “My name is Earl”‘s brother is slowly and heavily stepping from a brand-new Range Rover that has been cartoonishly accessorized. It’s like a big, metallic cheeseburger. He is oafish and wide, lumbering on the sidewalk, seeming to purposefully ignore me as I stare, no gawk at him through my passenger-side window. He glares straight ahead and I watch him like I’m on safari. Not a morning person, I surmise and then look back out the front window. I am a TV celebrity gawker. Others might follow sports stars like Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, but I am awed by TV stars, fresh and stale.

I was already happy about it being a beautiful Friday morning, but this has put me over the top. I continue down Sawtelle, excited to relay my experience with my co-workers.

Eva is at the elevator. I call out to her as I enter the lobby. “Eva, I saw “My Name is Earl”‘s brother.” She gets excited, too. “Wow. That’s great. Where was he?”
“He was going into Starbucks ( I now assume this). He doesn’t look like a morning person.”

My story reminds Eva of her celebrity encounter with Dolly Parton. “I saw her in the Vons Parking lot,” Eva recounts. “She looks just the same as she does on TV. She’s shorter than me.”
“I didn’t know that,” I reply. “Interesting.”
We are both excited to tell and hear our stories.

I enter an empty office. It’s still early and Lindsay, the sales assistant isn’t in yet. I craft an email to her:

Hi Lindsay:
I saw My Name is Earl’s brother going into Starbucks. You have to get up earlier if you want to catch the morning stars.

I reread the email and then press send.

I begin checking emails, and the workday begins.

Time passes and there is no reaction outside. I walk out of my office to see if Lindsay has come in yet. She is in her chair talking with Maria, a project manager.

“Did you see my email?” I ask with excited pride.

“Yeah, I don’t know who that is.”

“You’ve never heard of the TV show “My name is Earl”?

The two girls look at each other.

“Richard, we were born in the 90s. I did see Angelina Jolie’s dad at a Starbucks on Santa Monica last month, though. He smiled at me. I was like, whatever.”

I am dazed. Hit hard not only by her referring to movie legend Jon Voight as “Angelina Jolie’s dad,” but also by the reality of my advanced age. It’s like she has just given me a terminal diagnosis. The office blurs around me as I stare dumbly at the two girls who now ignore me as they talk with each other.

I find my way back to my desk, lost in a funk that comes with the sudden awareness of nearing personal mortality so early in the morning.

I sit and stare at the glowing icons on my computer screen. My thoughts turn back to the young girls just outside my door.

“Life goes by so fast,” I think. “And they don’t even know it.”

I was an 80s punk rock poser

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It’s Thanksgiving Eve, 1982 and I am looking at myself in a dirty bathroom mirror at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. I am in the grimy bathroom, probably the least hygienic place in the whole aging, moldy club. And that’s not good. Blood is gushing from my now oddly shaped nose. Its flow is so strong that I can feel the warm blood as it seeps through my black canvas Converse high tops. I am giddy.

The club’s manager Dirk Dirksen walks into the small room. He is shorter than me but 20 years older. He looks at me in the mirror. He is a legend. The promoter of punk in San Francisco. He is also nervous. I am seventeen, a child under the law. And he knows how fast his venue could get shut down because of a little thing like this. It’s happened before. He is a nervous man on the best of days, but seeing me smile through the wide red ribbon jetting from my nostrils makes him even more antsy. He has two rules for the club. Pay to get in and don’t get hurt. I face him. He curses under his breath and hands me a clean bar towel. “Here, hold your head up. Are you okay, Rick?” “Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” I say, true to my punk rock ways. He quiets. “You know, you can fix that right now. Beat a trip to the doctors. If your parents see you like that, they’ll never let you in here again.” Dirk lets what he said sink in.

Hours earlier. The pit was filling up as Black Flag took the stage. This was an event. In fact, Black Flag was only a handful of decent bands that managed to find their way to the Mabuhay. And when they came, the house was actually packed, and not just with scenesters playing see-and-be-seen. These were actually fans who had come to see the band. It had been a good night for Dirk until he saw me dazed and bloody crumpled up in a ball on the dance floor while spastic fans continued to bump and trip over my body as they circled tribe-like. They beat each other with their white, bony arms. All the while, ear-splitting music blared so loud that it was disorienting.

My deepest secret was that I didn’t really like punk music. I was more into new wave. I never listened to punk, didn’t really enjoy what I heard, and knew most of the bands only by name. Still, I was attracted to the foreignness, the rage and the youthful angst. Punk was a British transplant. A culture from across the sea. And that’s what interested me.

In my mind, true punks suffered for their art. They skewered themselves with long needles and squatted in the abandoned and ignored areas of big cities. They were runaway artists with a death wish. I, on the other hand, had to ask my parents’ permission to take the 40-minute ride to the city,

I looked in the mirror. Two puffy and purple eyes looked back. They were my medals, My tickets into punk’s inner circle. I, too had now suffered for my art. No one could deny it. And it had been done in the pit during a Black Flag performance. It would be my story, my myth. It would make me.

“What I mean is, I can fix it if you want,” Dirk continued. “Can you?” I asked. He left the room and came back with some ice and a new towel.

“Here” he said, handing me the towel. “Blow hard into this.” I put the towel up to my nose and blew hard. I forced out a bubbly, chunky discharge.

Dirk put a hand on each side of my nose. He pressed gently on each side, his two hands forming a  triangle. “Oh, one last thing,” he said. This will probably be the most painful thing you’ve ever experienced.” With all his force, he then squeezed both sides hard and then yanked down hard.

I heard the cartilage in my nose crunch like someone walking on snow as a bloom of pain expanded from the middle of my face and radiate outwards. The initial shock faded enough for my brain to translate the sensation into a loud scream. I began to feel woozy and Dirk sat me down on the toilet seat. He handed me the  bag of ice and some aspirin. “Take these and put the ice on your face.”

Now instead of blood, there were tears streaming down my face. Tears of pain, anger and confusion. My home seemed so far away. I just wanted to be in my bed. Where’s the artistic purity in this? I thought to myself. Suffering and pain was just that, nothing more. A chapter had turned and I again faced the unknown. Punk was now dead, at least to me, anyways. 

My 80s closet

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So I decided to rummage a little more deeply into my 80s walk-in closet and found an entire lost decade intact. No wonder it’s hard to find anything. The Laserdisc was in front because I have used it recently  and I am thinking of selling it on Craigslist.

I wear a white painter’s mask because the dust of desiccated Power Spikes hair gel and mousse billow up whenever I step down hard on the unclean carpet or when I shuffle and open unmarked boxes too quickly. It’s like SCUBA diving and I must move gingerly lest I lose all visibility.

I stumble over my cheap suits and strange thin ties, my Talking Heads albums and my college diploma. Beyond that, my low-paying part-time jobs scramble across the floor like scared rodents. I can hear them but never catch a glimpse.

My friend Chris, who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge is there, still young. He is quiet and looks good for a deceased guy. Moving along, more dead, still in their 80s garb. Grandparents, people I kind of knew, kids from school that I knew of but never really talked to. They’re all still there just hanging out. You would think they’d find a better place.

I move on. The floor ungulates as I pass through the emotional temblors of teen life. There’s even an old dusty jar of acne, its gold and red contents shimmer and blaze against the darkness. It sits on a small dresser, protected by small Star Wars action figures: Storm Troopers, Darth Vader, even sand people. 

I’ve seen enough and I need fresher air. I stumble back the way I came in as the dust’s deepening opacity clouds the room into an even deeper pea-soup foggy grey.

Finally, I find the door way that leads me out into the muted fears and horrors of 2013.