Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Human Condition

 During an intense time in your life when you seemed to regard each new story you wrote as a kind of battering ram the police use on crime TV dramas, you were living off your savings from the only kinds of jobs you were able to get.  These were essentially boring jobs, where you were tasked with making a dreary assortment of machine tools and restaurant supplies appear newer and more useful than they were.

Your particular solace, beyond writing new stories and, thus, mounting more emphatic assaults on the doors of publishers, were two neighborhood establishments, somewhere between neighborhood lounges and taverns.  Both were within walking range of where you lived, on Crescent Heights between Olympic and Pico Boulevards.  

Your regard for the need to walk rather than drive was a cumulative one, born of your awareness at your good fortune for not having been the subject of police inquiry into your ability to operate a motor vehicle within the framework of a prudent blood alcohol ratio.

Each venue was close by a movie theater you'd spent considerable hours in as a younger person.  Burke's Lounge was in the same building as the Fox Wilshire, barely in Beverly Hills, run by the no nonsense Mae Burke, who sat in a back booth, drinking black coffee, trying to read novels by Pearl S. Buck in the dim light, and somehow keeping track of when it was time to buy a round for a regular customer.

Your drink there was the unimaginative vodka grapefruit mix called a greyhound. You did not go to Burke's; with the notion of drinking more than you should, rather to absorb what you liked to think of as life without affect.  This mean you were often drawn into discussions and theories in medias res, wherein Art, who sold insurance during the day and had visions of acting, would greet you with an advanced theorem such as, "What kind of person would I be if I allowed a sales manager to intimidate me?" or Neil, an engineer, would frequently remind you, with no preamble, how important it was to keep the formula for the coefficient of linear expansion in mind.

There was also Bill, who was an actor, warning you about losing your focus by working in anything connected with the film or television industries, and there was Sean, also an actor, who was concerned that you did not know the correct way to drink porter or stout.  You were getting on well enough with Estelle to consider asking her about contact outside Burke's, if only to listen to her monologues about her customers in a Beverly Hills hair salon.  Sometimes, she and Ida, a checker at a market in Beverly Hills where you used to be a box boy, would go mano-a-mano about who had the worst customers.

Small wonder your stories had the edge of persons feeling the need to become regulars at a place such as Burke's.  You were there not to let off steam, or so you thought, but to observe what you considered the human condition.  On one memorable evening, Mae Burke made all the men customers put their hands on the bar.  She examined the outstretched hands with an awl eye.  "One of you gents,"  she observed, "has lost it and taken his angst out on the men's room mirror.  The rest of you are in better control."

This was the first time you'd heard the word angst used outside of UCLA.  You were impressed.  You were also glad your knuckles bore no traces of self-loathing or angst.  "I'm going to find out which one of you did this,"  Mae persisted.

Although you suspected the culprit was Sean, a clear matter of another term you learned at UCLA, racial profiling, you felt like confessing, just to see what would happen next, but then
Neil and Bill confessed in unison.  "Hands,"  she said.  "Let me see those hands."  She peered at close range.  "All right,"  she said, "you're sticking up for one another and I appreciate that, but yous are going to be parting your hair behind a cracked mirror for a long time."

The other venue was located in the same block as the Del Mar Theater on Pico, where the main fare was draft or bottled beer, pickled eggs, and packaged pretzels.  The juke box tended toward country Western, which, when you began to think in critical terms about country Western, was another way of demonstrating angst.

Conversations were different, more often oriented to the outcome of sporting events.  It was known that you'd put in some time at the university, but your ability at the shuffleboard deck, particularly your ability to slide the carom in a breaking curve, meant you were accepted for team play.

The demographic here was more working class:  auto mechanics, a delivery man for a dry cleaner, and, of course, Stan, a frustrated writer.  "Real writers write, don"t they?"  He'd ask.  "You're not a real writer until you write, so that makes me a frustrated writer because I don't write.  You wanna know why?  No, I can see you don't wanna know.  You don't wanna know because you prolly write all the time.  You have no idea what it is to be frustrated."

"You wanna like avoid him when he gets like this,"  Vince suggested.  "He could end up taking a swing at you."  Vince was the evening bartender.  Vince always knew when the house owed you one.  If you brought a date, Vince would always assure her not to worry, he was serving you in a freshly washed pitcher.

Was it your own angst or perhaps tipsiness?  Was it one of those Summer Sant'Ana wind evenings in Los Angeles?  Was it your need to learn more about the human condition?  Whatever it was, possibly the reason you used to go to neighborhood bars in the first place, you got into a discussion with Stan one night near closing time.  The topic was, of all things, salami and eggs.  "I don't imagine,"  Stan said, "there's anyone can make better salami and eggs than me."

You ventured an opinion about your mother and both your grandmothers.  You see now, after all these years, your error.  You were challenging him.  The upshot was you and Eric, puttering around Stan's kitchen at 2:30 in the morning, with Stan, trying to slice salami and Eric, following Stan's directions to look in that cabinet over there for the best goddamned cast iron skillet.  The upshot was also the sudden appearance of a woman in a quilted robe, asking, quite calmly, you thought, "What are you doing in my kitchen?"

In many ways, the moment was one of the most painful in your life to that point.  All you had going was a sense of what salami and eqqs should be and a curiosity about the human condition.

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