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Friday, July 28, 2006

Vignettes 

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My colleague walked by a bag lady squatting and pissing outside the steps of the library before we opened. "Now be a gentleman and don't look!" she cackled.

Up in the periodicals room, a I saw a homeless man who looked just like Aqualung reading and surrounded by a pile of open men’s fashion magazines. He looked like he hadn't bathed since the Reagan administration, but he was studying GQ for the latest in summer wear like he was cramming for a test.

On the steets outside the library I saw a man dressed in a business suit, jabbering self importantly into the latest in pretentious cell phone technology, a man who epitomized the 21st century version of Master of the Universe. Two steps behind him was a shirtless Asian man carrying two buckets on a yoke, like a coolie straight out of some time worm hole from the 19th century. Frequent and bizarrely incongruous sights like these are why I love this city!

At the civic auditorium near the library, my colleague saw a bunch of girls exiting in procession from their graduation ceremony, still in their robes, lighting up and passing around joints.

A smartly dressed young business woman clicked up on her heels to the desk. “I accidentally left my copy card in the Xerox machine, 3 times in one week, and so I’m out the money! I would like to be reimbursed, but that clerk over there said that I would have to take it up with the vending company. I want my money back.” She leaned in and gave me an unpleasant smirk. “I'm willing to take this to court if need be.” She then slapped her hand on the desk. The total amount she was out due to her own careless absentmindedness? $3.00. It helps to have a healthy sense of the absurd here, which I do, so instead of grabbing a golf pencil and stabbing her through the hand for being such an unreasonable, grossly entitled skank I just gave her a bemused stare and took her complaint form.

My colleague was on the phone with a woman for a few minutes, exchanging pleasantries and renewing her books. She interrupted him, “Now wait a minute! Am I talking to a machine?”

A woman with frizzy blonde hair dumped the contents of her purse on the reference desk. “I can’t find my card!” She began to sniffle and tear up. “I’m sorry, it’s just been the worst day. I just can’t believe it. Nothing is going right and I have to get on a computer.” She began sorting through the mound of detritus from her purse - lipstick blotted papers, old receipts, empty checkbooks. She reminded me of Mia Farrow at her sniveling worst. Even though we’re trying to make signing up for the computer completely self service, I said, “Here – I’ll sign you up. What is your password?”

She looked up at me, her eyes welling with tears, “Lucky.”

Saturday, July 22, 2006

911! 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comThe other morning I had a cop pull me over and scream at me for running a red light on my bike. Earlier I had spotted the cruiser out of the corner of my eye, so I didn't blow through the light like I usually do, and even though traffic was dead, I waited until the opposite light changed before going. There is a two second time delay before my light turned green, however, so I was “offsides” a few seconds. The police officer pulled up beside me and started screaming and threatening me with a $300 ticket. I sensibly groveled and apologized and gave her zero attitude so she eventually let me off with a verbal warning, all delivered in a tirade from the air conditioned comfort of her car. I had to laugh because this incident took place in the seediest, most dangerous part of town, and after she sped off I looked around me and spotted all sorts of flagrant malfeasance: trannie prostitutes, crack smoking, drug deals, a group of junkies squatting and searching for a vein, their Pit Bulls and filthy possessions spread out, completely blocking and making the sidewalk impassable. I’m sure that the cop was tired of seeing splattered bicyclists, so I hope this accounted for her highly emotional reprimand, but I suspect there was also an element of laziness and cowardice on her part, in that it was much easier to yell at the librarian bicyclist than deal with any of the more serious violations glaring at her from all directions. It was was a scene straight out of Reno 911!, which I recently discovered and now consider the most brilliant and hilarious show on television, at least to me. I often feel as if the writers and actors are reaching inside my brain to act out what I find funniest in the world.

For example - there is a scene in the opening credits in which the inept cops are trying to corral a man outside his trailer home. The man, a mulletted, shirtless dirtbag, is howling and blindly staggering around, a metal Lawn Dart embedded in the front of his skull. To me, there is nothing funnier than Lawn Darts; in fact, all you have to do is say the words Lawn Darts, and no matter what kind of mood I am in, I will start giggling. Why any company thought that that toy was a good idea in this country of drunken, litigious idiots is beyond me. And by the way, please check out the Wikipedia entry, where some Lawn Dart apologist claims that the toy, when used responsibly and according to directions, is no more dangerous than a game of basketball, and that ‘almost all’ fatalities involving lawn darts are alcohol related. Indeed, how tragic and unfair that the nanny state will deny future generations the pleasure and joy of Lawn Darts and the subsequent emergency room visits. There was actually a Lawn Dart question on Jeopardy the other night, something along the lines of “Ronald Reagan signed a law banning the sale of this toy on December 19, 1988.” As all three contestants stared blankly, I (and every other redneck Jeopardy fan across America) screamed at the television, “LAWNDARTS! LAWNDARTS, YEW MORONS!” None of the contestants got it, and I was completely disgusted.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Barf-o-Rama 

Image hosted by Photobucket.com The other day my colleague asked if someone could take his shift on the front desk for the first hour. He had just biked to work in the heat and wanted to clean up a bit for the public. I offered to go out to the front desk but another colleague insisted. About 20 minutes into the hour I was sitting in my cubicle in the back offices when my colleague who had volunteered to be at the front desk called me and told me, with gleeful excitement in his voice, that I should come out to the front desk, and that I should hurry. I bounced out front, wondering if someone had sent me flowers, or if there was some celebrity sighting, or perhaps even an exciting bum fight like the one a few days before when two homeless men decided to settle some point of honor by the internet terminals. Instead what greeted me was a giant pool of vomit splattered right in front of the desk, which our valiant custodian, who surely deserves combat pay, was trying to cordon off. The mess was this bright, fluorescent orange, and there was an ungodly amount of it, as if the man’s stomach had just rejected 10 Orange Juliuses, or a giant bag of Cheetos, or a gallon of Tang. I suspect that his morning methadone dose, which is served in a liquid that same unearthly, violent shade of orange, hadn't agreed with him.

My colleague, hiding and laughing behind his computer terminal, told me that a disheveled man had stumbled toward the desk and without warning retched his guts out noisily for 2 minutes, spraying torrents of bright orange vomit. The library was packed and everyone stood by in helpless horror, shielding their eyes and gagging along in involuntary sympathy. It looked like it was going to escalate into a Stand by Me Barf-o-rama chain reaction, but by some miracle did not.

After he finished vomiting the man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and headed straight for the elevators, into which he disappeared. While I was standing near the vomit listening to the story my mouth filled with water but I choked back my gorge so I could run to the back offices and pull the same thing on another unsuspecting colleague. I wonder if my coworker who switched desk duty and avoided the whole disgusting ordeal had a little premonition, like those animals who reportedly head for the hills minutes before a tsunami or the passengers who don't show up for fatal airline flights, which have twice the regular number of no-shows I read somewhere, although that may just be an urban myth.

I should have known not to fall for it. At the obsolete, throwback women’s college I graduated form one of the most thrilling things that could befall you was to have flowers delivered to you from a boy. When the lucky recipient got the phone call from the front desk informing her that she had flowers, she would run squealing to the front office and then parade triumphantly back through the campus quad to her room, flowers in her arms, gloating and glowing in her classmate’s envy. I had a friend who could perfectly mimic the voice of the chain smoking old dragon lady who ran the front desk and made the phone calls announcing flowers and visitors. My friend and some other girls got drunk in the middle of the afternoon and thought it would be great fun to prank call classmates to tell them they had had flowers delivered. One of their victims was a girl who had just slept with some completely unappreciative fraternity asshole from the neighboring men’s college the night before. My friend called her and said, “Front desk! Dozen roses delivered for ya’.” Then they all leaned out the window and watched the girl run out of her dorm and sprint to the office, then walk out a minute later, head down, crestfallen. Her second "Walk of Shame" that day! This is the kind of sadistic shit girls all cooped up together and at loose ends do to each other.

Click here for more of the eerie tableaux of Sandy Skoglund. I've always been partial to Radioactive Cats myself.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Chicken in Every Backyard 

Image hosted by Photobucket.com Oooooh, I want one of these so bad. The price is outrageous - I estimate that each egg would end up costing about $20 - but how lovely and magical would it be to have a couple of hens scratching around in a backyard in the middle of the city, eating bugs and fertilizing our victory garden, or at least the one we have vague plans for in the misty future? City ordinance permits up to four chickens, but no scary man chickens, as Earl's brother calls roosters, so it would be a sort of radical lesbian commune paradise, like that one that Susan "Stop the Insanity" Powter ran off and joined. No crowing, floggin’ roosters allowed!

I would fear for their safety, though. To me, Billy has the beady, darting eyes of a chicken killer, and although their little hutch and run appear safe and sturdy I don’t know if it would withstand the determined onslaught of ingenious urban raccoons. And I know they’re out there - I awoke uncharacteristically early the other morning spotted one in the gray light in the backyard. He was immense, at least 40 pounds, and he was using our backyard as a thoroughfare to the riches of overflowing trashcans and composting bins in the neighborhood. He was fat and slighly ridiculous but I could tell he was amazingly strong and nobody you want to mess with, like a sumo wrestler or Samoan bouncer. After he waddled through the yard he hoisted himself up over the fence with surprising grace.

About 8 years ago, before E installed a dog door, Sid had a touch of dysentery. To accommodate him we kept the kitchen back door cracked that night. Something awoke him around three in the morning and he flew into the kitchen where he interrupted a gang of raccoons trashing the place like drunken rockstars. They had pulled open drawers and cabinets and ripped open a bag of dog food, which they were wetting it in the dog bowl, leaving muddy tracks everywhere. Sid confronted them and was bitten through his forearm during the showdown. The raccoons screeched and snarled like demons and finally fled out the door. We doctored Sid’s arm and fussed over him and told him what a hero he was. Despite his injuries, he he patrolled the place the rest of the night. For months, we sang to him to the tune of Bonnie Tyler's song:

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero until the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong
And he's got to be fast
And he's got to be whiter than rice

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Fetid Flights of Fancy 

Image hosted by Photobucket.com I had a Chinese patron, an older woman, ask me if English had exact words for different types of food to indicate they have spoiled. She told me that in Chinese there was a specific word for when soup goes bad, another for when fish turns, another for when beef spoils, and yet another for when fruit is rotten. I told her that we had interchangeable, catch-all words like ‘spoiled,’ ‘turned,’ ‘bad’ and ‘rotten’ that can be used to describe all foods when they go bad. Because I had never really pondered food decay or taken a class in food science I never really thought about all the different words for food spoilage and their shades of meaning. Take for example, milk, which can be described as sour, rancid or putrid. I’ve always used these words interchangeably, but now that I think about it each word indicates a specific stage or type of decomposition. Each is also so recognizable by taste and smell that you wouldn’t need the award winning palette of Napoleon Dynamite to recognize it.

Sour: milk has been made acidic by fermentation (or perhaps the cow got into an onion patch)
Rancid: the result of decomposition of fat and oils
Putrid: horrible smell and taste caused by bacterial break-down of protein.

So, the word putrid specifically refers to the decomposition of animal proteins by microorganisms, ass in the unforgettable sentence I heard when I worked at the Sheriff’s Office, “Whoo-ee, did the wallet taken off that floater smell putrid!” The officer played a little prank on the receptionist and put it on her desk, and the smell filled the entire room and had everyone gagging who entered it, including me. I would pay big bucks to the people over at The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to expunge the memory of that smell.
The word rancid, on the other hand, describes the odor and smell of decomposing oils or fats, while the word sour has to do with the breakdown and fermentation of sugars.
Then there’s the word stale, meaning loss of freshness and palatability. I think specifically of bread (or jokes, or bathwater) that has been dehydrated by exposure or age.

I’ve always associated the word fetid with mold. When I think of fetid I think of cheese and wine – things that are processed by beneficial bacteria or fungi, but way too much.
The word rank I’ve always thought of it as having a stronger, more pungent than smell than fetid.

I always enjoy these linguistic, cultural differences. The Chinese girls I used to work with told me that the phrase “You have rats in your house” is a compliment. In China, you have rats because you have the luxury of food enough to spare for storage, not because, in the USA, this land of careless abundance, you keep your house like an unsanitary sty.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Beau Ideal 

From Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin's Broadway play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, when the speaker is praising her feminist boyfriend: "He is so sensitive that he's the only man I've ever known who knew where he was when Sylvia Plath died."

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Alzheimer's Toll 

Image hosted by Photobucket.com In a Psychology Today article entitled Writer's Block: A Novelist's Malady, two of Iris Murdoch's writing samples are contrasted to reveal the cognitive toll Alzheimer's took on the writer. The first excerpt if from her first book, written at age 36, the other just before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at 77.

From Under the Net, 1954

"So you may imagine how unhappy it makes me to have to cool my heels at Newhaven, waiting for the trains to run again, and with the smell of France still fresh in my nostrils. On this occasion, too, the bottles of cognac, which I always smuggle, had been taken from me by the Customs, so that when closing time came I was utterly abandoned to the torments of a morbid self-scrutiny."

From Jackson's Dilemma, 1995

"His beautiful mother had died of cancer when he was 10. He had seen her die. When he heard his father's sobs he knew. When he was 18, his younger brother was drowned. He had no other siblings. He loved his mother and his brother passionately. He had not got on with his father. His father, who was rich and played at being an architect, wanted Edward to be an architect too. Edward did not want to be an architect."

According to the article, Iris Murdoch told interviewers that she had suffered a terrible case of writer's block while writing Jackson's Dilemma, and had for the first time a terrible and frustrating time articulating herself. Compared to the first sample, her vocabulary is significantly diminished and her style is simplistic and crude, as if written by a child. What torture this must have been for a brilliant writer. Alzheimer's is one of the cruelest diseases.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Mipanko (you know, like the candy treat?), Don't be a Hero 

I sat outside and shared my lunch with an aggressive, greasy little black bird today. I guess the animal kingdom can smell ‘soft touch pushover’ like they can supposedly smell fear. The bird reminded me so much of Billy that when he cocked his head at me I expected him to emit the same impatient yip Billy gives me when I’m don’t share my food fast enough for his liking. One time when E was eating a bowl of ice cream the dogs gathered around and stared at me expectantly. When Spoon trilled at me, it dawned on me that they were begging me for E’s ice cream, even though E was sitting across the room. I have never seen animals beg by proxy before. Cesar Millan would have a lot of say about how our household is run.

While I sat outside with the bird I spent a lot of time watching the band of homeless who gather outside the library like villagers huddled outside the castle walls. For the most part, they seem to be having a damn good time. They’re convivial and raucous and wile away their day smoking cigarettes, panhandling, shooting up, making out, squabbling and napping by their shopping carts. They watch each others things while they go into the library to use the bathrooms and surf the internet. Toward the afternoon they’ll get a touch football game going.

On a recent weekend they were displaced from their spot by an ethnic fair, and spent their time disgruntled and muttering outside the temporary cyclone fence gates. The ethnic fair was strange. The booths seemed primarily to be sponsored by Safeway and military recruitment. The recruitment booths had all of these soldiers of the fair’s ethnicity milling about, looking dashing and heroic, as lures. Because I like an environment I certainly don’t favor uncontrolled immigration but for all of you immigrant haters out there you should know that these boys are the first ones to enlist and inquire at the reference desk about ASVAB preparation books. They’re so heartbreakingly eager to prove their patriotism.

During the fair one of the women in the band of homeless had a seizure, and her confused friends tried to perform CPR on her. Although their intentions were good, they were completely unhelpful, and the Samaritans were screamed at for their trouble by the EMT when they arrived.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Feeling so Mean I Could Shoot a Man Just for Snoring 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comWe’re finally going to install living room curtains so our neighbors in the apartment building across the street can’t stare into our exciting lives Rear Window style like we do into theirs. I was sitting with my legs crossed Indian style in the library stacks, rooting through a pile of decorating books for inspiration when an older man attracted my attention. He was sitting at a carrel about 10 feet away from my spot, sucking on his dentures as he gazed contemplatively out the window. He was making this horrible, wet smack in slow, maddeningly predictable intervals, like a smoke detector or Chinese Water Torture. While I was giving him the stink eye a teenage girl joined me in the aisle and began sniffling incessantly. As they battled for aural supremacy around me I wondered why some times I'm astoundingly oblivious to noise and the goings-on about me, while other times I unwillingly hone in on random ambient sounds with the laser beam focus of an autistic. The situation made me greatly sympathize with John Wesley Hardin, the Texas outlaw immortalized in those old Time Life commercials as “so mean he once shot a man once just for snoring.”

I know that we all do things to irritate each other, so I shouldn’t judge. In a memorable scene in I, Claudius, Caligula scolds his nephew for his constant coughing. His nephew insolently replies that he can’t help it - he’s sick. His coughing continues, infuriating Caligula. The next day or so Claudius greets Caligula in a hallway and asks where his nephew is. Caligula casually mentions that he has found a cure for his nephew’s cough. He snaps his fingers and a guard brings out the nephew’s head.

That’s what inbreeding? lead pipes? absolute power? meningitis? life long paranoia? will do to you. Actually, the paranoia was well deserved. Caligula's father died under suspicious circumstances, his mother was exiled and starved herself to death, another brother was thrown into a dungeon and resorted to eating the stuffing from his mattress before starving to death, etc.

And by the way, if you ever want to see England’s finest Shakespearean actors torture, murder, participate in orgies and engage in all sorts of other intrigue, decadence and vice, then watch the amazing BBC miniseries I, Claudius.

Robert Graves, the author of the books upon which the series is based, relied heavily on Suetonius’s 12 Caesars. Seutonius definitely had a political axe to grind, so I’m hoping he fabricated or at least exaggerated the cruelity, depravity and perversions of Imperial Rome. Although I was raised Episcopalian, I’ve never grasped the appeal of Christianity (I consider myself more of an ethnic Episcopalian than practicing Episcopalian) but I can see how it was an understandable reaction to the behavior going on at the time, if it truly was that bad. When I toured the catacombs of Rome, favorite hiding and gathering places of early Christians, I envisioned the Christians as termites drilling and eating out the city's foundation. Down in the dank catacombs, E pretended to be the Orkin Man. "Yeah, Emperor. You've got quite an infestation here. This is going to cost ya'."

In I, Claudius, Caligula’s antics include:











As horribly as the Romans behaved, some sure knew how to die with admirable dignity. When traitorous Praetorian guards pull out their swords to assassinate Caligula's wife, Caesonia, she sneers at them as if they are incompetent serving girls. “Don't make a mess of it," she commands them.

Fun fact: Tony Soprano’s mother is named Livia, a tip of the hat to Claudius’ scheming, vicious grandmother in I, Claudius.

If I, Claudius isn't louche and hard core enough for you, then there's always Bob Guccione's Caligula, which is also lousy with fine British actors, including one of my favorites, Helen Mirren, who plays Caesonia. No matter what role is I see her in I always think of Caligula's sister's aghast reaction when Caligula informs her that he wants to marry Caesonia. "Caesonia? But she's the most promiscuous woman in Rome!"

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