Saturday, November 8, 2014

Working Class Hi-Jinx!

When I applied to the Jack in the Box “restaurant” on Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica, between a pet hospital and a park in which the very elderly seemed to enjoy rolling white bowls on a manicured square of lawn, I was able to cite some experience in food service. Had I not worked an entire weekend at one of the snack bars in Zuma Beach? Had I not washed dishes for a few weeks at the Malibu Pharmacy’s coffee shop? Had I not busboyed at Ted’s Rancho Restaurant, several miles to the south? 

I was hired, and experienced class resentment for the first time. If my origins had been any lower middle class, they’d have been working class, as we don’t call it in this country, but I’d just completed my first year as a university student, and had no crud under my fingernails from tinkering with my own automobile engine. Half my co-workers were high school dropouts. None was soft. While I would surely go on to the life of glamour and ease and privilege guaranteed all college graduates, they would flip burgers for the rest of their lives. 

I never actually flipped a burger. My own specialty was drinks, which might sound easy, but bear in mind that sometimes I had to put more syrup in the machine. And because Jack in the Box offered only malts, it was my sole responsibility when someone ordered a milk shake to give the malt a little shake. Working class hi-jinx!
Unlike most of my jobs, I actually lasted long enough to receive a raise, of five cents per hour. In the course of a 40-hour work week, this put an additional $2 in my wide-wale corduroy trousers. What the department stores called Mod was very in at the time.

You will have read by now that John Lennon once had a job making sandwiches for sale at the provincial British airport that many years later would be renamed in his honor, and that he spat in the sandwiches. Our star burger-flipper, Barry Something, did no spitting, if for no reason other than when it got busy, there was barely time for breathing. One Saturday night, after things had calmed down, Barry tried to borrow a cigarette from me. I was a Tareyton man (LOL) in those days. It was Barry’s view that Tareytons “taste[d] like a colored girl’s Kotex.” I suppose I might have asked how many white girls' sanitary napkinw he'd tasted, but his gritty proletarian poetry had rendered me speechless.

Jack’s advertising at the time — this was several years before the criminally adorable Rodney Allen Rippy — was largely about the chain’s Secret Sauce. I think said sauce consisted almost entirely of mayonnaise, sugar, and food coloring. 

The place’s proprietor (who I discovered made something like $120,000 per year in an era when the biggest stars of major league baseball were making maybe $150,000) was a nice guy, but with a perverse sense of humor. If it wasn’t too busy, he found it amusing, though it cost him a buck or two, to assign Barry to the intercom (via which drive-thru diners placed their orders). Did I mention that Barry was a harelip, and his speech barely comprehensible? His exchanges typically sounded something like:

BARRY Iyi akşamlar. Ben sipariş alabilir miyim? [Good evening. May I take your order?]
BARRY Ne yemek istersiniz? [What are you having tonight?]
DINER You trying to be funny, pal? Because if you are, I’m going to come in there and punch you in the nose. What do you think of that?
BARRY Mogu li vam ponuditijabuka promet s tim? [How about an apple turnover with that?]
DINER Hey, you know what? I’m going to McDonald’s, smartass.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Asshole's Asshole

In 1980, Bruce D— oversaw Larry Flynt’s three magazines, the fervently vulgar Hustler, the considerably subtler, very much less popular, Chic, and, if memory serves, Bathroom Companion, which published that which…sit down for thisss!…Hustler found distasteful. I was down on my luck, and agreed to come in to be interviewed for the senior editorship of Chic, with the understanding that I would conceive, assign, and edit exposės of prominent American hypocrites, and have nothing whatever to do with the sleaze for which Hustler was infamous.

Bruce’s little office was very dark, and smelled vaguely of singed hair. As his secretary, who I understood to be something like his 19th in the past three weeks, left me at its threshold, he glowered as though at someone who'd ruined his childhood, though we'd never met. He reviewed the writing samples I’d brought in and demanded why I wasn’t contributing to Hustler. I didn’t say, “Because I find it appalling on every level.” They hired me.

I hadn’t been in my oppressively beige office high above the smog of Century City two hours before I heard screaming from down the hall. I came to understand that Bruce believed that flying into deafening rages without provocation inspired everyone to strive for ever-greater excellence. Someone was forever getting fired, deafeningly.

At our regular editorial meetings, anyone who dared make eye contact with him was apt to get Bruce's incisors imbedded in his or her trachea. Only two people were safe. One, of course, was the seldom-seen Althea Flynt, Larry’s drug-addled former child bride. The other was a Sammy Glick-ish little slimesac named Jack O— who’d somehow managed to brownnose himself into Althea’s favor after being hired to oversee Bathroom Companion because no one else would sink that low. Seated to Bruce’s immediate right, he'd snarl and sputter and seethe right along with him, like a little kid imitating his angry daddy. Everyone would have snickered — and not a few pantsed him (pulled his trousers down in front of everyone) — if not for the fact that it might have drawn Bruce’s attention. The great irony being that Bruce clearly loathed him as much as any of the rest of us did. If there was any pleasure at all in these meetings, is was that of seeing Bruce having to leave Jack's trachea intact.

Naïve country boy from Playa del Rey that I was, I’d never seen anyone in an office ascend so far and so quickly as Jack solely on the basis of shamelessness, nor a bigger monster than Bruce. The scariest thing being that a fair number of my women colleagues were known to find him very sexy. It was said that, without cocaine, he was actually a decent human being. Without Nazism, Adolf Hitler might have been remembered as a painter of landscapes, and affectionate toward dogs. I spent every lunch hour pouring enough alcohol down my throat to make the afternoon endurable.

I was hugely ambivalent about getting fired after three months. I needed the money, but the stress was killing me. (Did I mention that Althea's horny elder sister had taken a shine to me, and that her husband, Larry's Chief of Security, was widely thought to be both pathologically jealous and homicidal?)

Bruce apparently continued to run the show at LFP, to remain its alpha asshole, well into the present century. In 2004, to express his contempt for feminist critics of violent porn, he apparently ordered a three-page pictorial of women being dragged behind farm equipment. Take that, bitches! The year before, he’d featured his own twin sons, then not yet teens, in a parody ad with the hilarious title My Parents Aren't Home, Give It To Me Quick. An asshole’s asshole, our Bruce.

Meanwhile, Jack, whose idea of writing was to get out a thesaurus and organize long parades of synonyms, apparently went onto some success as a screenwriter, which I believe tells you all you need to know about Hollywood. 

I wrote and performed (in San Francisco, London, and Madison, Wisconsin) a one-man theatrical show about my experiences at LFP, which I called Wm. Floggin' Buckley. I played all the characters, obviously, the most fun being Althea, who, at our sole meeting (at which she hoped to see for herself if I were as cute as Marsha had told her), nodded off into her salad in mid-sentence. 

On reflection, I see that Jack might actually have been a bigger asshole than Bruce, who at least was about something other than ambition, even if said something were sadism.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Defiant Stupidity As an American Birthright

A terrific guitarist with whom I used to be in a band many years ago has turned into a right-wing zealot. Because he’s a great guy, and can take a joke, I sometimes respond to one of his Facebook posts, which in many cases seem based on Rush Limbaugh rants. Sometimes, just to distinguish myself from the many others whose lives seem to revolve around trying, always in vain, to change his mind, I pretend not only to share his views, but to hold even more conservative ones. As a result, a Facebook friend of his who makes Limbaugh look in comparison like Bernie Sanders took the liberty a couple of weeks ago of adding me to his Facebook group, United We Stand.

What a jaw-dropper! You absolutely wouldn’t believe what these people hold to be true! Did you know that Barry Hussein (known to the rest of the world as Barack Obama) isn’t just the bumbling pawn of the corporations we’d reconciled ourselves to his being, but a Stalin-esque dictator who dreamed up the Ebola virus as a way of decimating America’s white population? Well, guess again, libtard! It's later than you think! 

I’m also a member of at least a couple of Palinist groups, comprising (presumably) high-functioning American adults who don’t regard Gov. Palin (as it amuses me to call her) as The Great National Embarrassment, or even as a sanctimonious nincompoop, but as a clear-thinking straight talker with mad leadership skills. Mention the odious George W. Bush to these people, and they start cooing about about how much they miss him, and how much he, unlike his successor, Loves America. (As witness, I guess, his having sent 4500 Americans to pointless deaths in Iraq so he could demonstrate himself manlier and more resolute than his dad. Now that’s patriotism!)

I am writing this the day after the midterm elections, during which the American electorate once again showed itself to be irredeemably stupid. Of course, defiant stupidity, even if they call it something else, is one of the most fervently cherished American birthrights.

You’re quite right. I am feeling very intolerant of stupidity today, having heard this morning how my friend and student Arturo, the sweetest man on earth, continues to get ridiculed at his job as a hospital telephone operator because he speaks with the accent you might expect of someone who grew up in El Salvador, and how my student Arouna, whom I love like a son, is similarly ridiculed at his hospital housekeeping job.

I have advised both to ask their antagonists one simple question, “How many languages do you speak?” My guess is that, if their antagonists aren’t lying sacks of shit, they will say just one — and my guess is that they stick apostrophes in pluralized nouns, write their for they’re and your for you’re, and miss George W. Bush. My further guess is that, with both English and Spanish, Arturo speaks twice as many languages as those who mock him. His written English needs a lot of work, but so did that of a great many of the $65,000/year-to-start associate attorneys whose words I processed when I worked for San Francisco’s biggest fascist law firm in the mid-‘80s. Arouna, meanwhile, speaks not only English and French, but also two dialects of his native West Africa.

I am not hyperbolizing — well, maybe just a little — when I tell you that if I wouldn’t like to strangle my friends' antagonists, I would certainly like to disenfranchise them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

There Went My Summer of Love

We met a dormitory dance at UCLA where I was playing with my trio The 1930 Four, which was forever trying to add a fourth member. Mari came up to me between sets in her Cher hair and scandalous miniskirt and said, “Will you teach me to play drums?” Overhearing, the keyboard player mused, loud enough for me to hear, “Who’s going to teach him?" We’d never liked each other.

I knew she had a boyfriend in her native San Mateo, but nonetheless let her wrap me around her finger. I left Original Girlfriend, who I thought would be the only girl ever to love me, for her. She had panache. She was a dance major, and lots hipper than I. Her boyfriend was in a group that sang four-part harmony on covers of obscure UK bands' B-sides and bought their clothing at the extremely hip Town Squire on Polk Street in San Francisco, whereas I was still getting mine in the mod departments of department stores. She was embarrassed by my persisting in wearing Beatle boots six months after the release of the High Tide and Green Grass album, on which the Rolling Stones sported much chicquer kicks.

I of course suffocated her in that enchanting way I had as a boy. She endured it somehow, and we witnessed side by side the miracle of The Who at the Fillmore Auditorium two nights before the Monterey Pop Festival, which we also attended together.

I went home to LA while she stayed in San Mateo. I parked cars at a Polynesian restaurant in Malibu at which I was supposed to turn over my tips at evening’s end. The price of a phone call to San Mateo would somehow remain in my pocket every night, at the end of which I would be on the phone, demanding that she reaffirm her devotion. She got sick of it and disclosed that her heart had come to belong to David Somebody, who bought his clothes at the Town Squire. When I hitchhiked up to San Mateo to try to change her mind, she wouldn’t even see me. And there went my Summer of Love.

Three years later, David Somebody left her, and she phoned in tears to ask if she could come visit me in Hollywood. I was still wrapped around her finger, and agreed immediately. If being the consolation prize was what I had to do to regain her sweet, sweet love, then consolation prize I was prepared to be. She looked better than ever, and trampled on my heart, my masochism having inspired her contempt. One evening when we were supposed to go out, she left a note saying only, “You’re here and I’m not.” I stood for it. 

I saw her again four years later, by which time I’d entered my Glamorous Rock God phase and she’d acquired rather a lot to sit on. Payback time! To make her jealous, I lowered the boom on a pretty brunette at Wooey Looey Fooey Gooey, or whatever the name of that restaurant on Jackson Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown where I’d once taken David Bowie, though only around 80 of the 751 Bowie biographies have mentioned it.

We saw each other 27 years later, in May 2013. More accurately, she saw me. She and a companion were lined up outside CBS studios here in LA for a taping of The Bill Maher Show right behind me and Spousie. Twenty-four hours later, she sent me a message on Facebook — on which she proudly displays photos of her gorgeous grandchildren — to say she’d had the feeling the older rock-type dude in front of her had been I, as indeed it had. It was probably better we hadn’t spoken. 

Today is the 48th anniversary of her asking me to teach her to play the drums. Time flies when you're having fun, and when you're not 

I Can't Eat Fortune Cookies, and Now You Know Why

I cannot eat a fortune or almond cookie. When I worked as a parking attendant at a Polynesian restaurant in Malibu, I was given no actual cooked food, but allowed to dash in and help myself to as many cookies as I deemed necessary to keep my blood sugar at a level appropriate for parking cars. I deemed a great many cookies necessary.

Not too many years before, Ed “Kookie” Byrnes had made car-parking seem extremely cool in 77 Sunset StripAll these decades later, I marvel at people having entrusted their cars to someone like myself, a callow, if dark-complected, little twerp who’d had his driver’s license for barely a year. When the main lot, that just outside the restaurant itself, filled up — and it would fill up quickly — I would have to take the cars across PCH and park them behind a lumber yard. (In those days, Malibu wasn’t wall-to-wall boutiques ’n’ bistros.) Take your gleaming new Jaguar XKE across a busy highway though I’ve been driving only 11 months? No problem! 

A quarter was a reasonable tip in those days. Only those trying to impress their dates gave us dollars. I parked Johnny Mathis’s car — he was accompanied by four androgynous young men in nearly identical velour turtlenecks — and the TV star Dean Jagger’s. Mr. Jagger wasn’t sufficiently impressed by my generous assessment of his performance as the principal in my favorite TV drama, Mr. Novak, to give me more than a quarter. We had to turn in our tips at night’s end anyway.

You might imagine that the sexiest woman whose door I ever opened had arrived in a Caddy, at the very least, but in fact it was a Ford Ranchero, a working man's car, perhaps an electrician's, or a carpenter's. She seemed to be wearing a bullet bra, and wearing the hell out of it. She leered in that way of women used to being gawked at by men. For several weeks thereafter, she supplanted Brigitte Bardot in the fantasies I savored during those special private times. I cursed my lack of a knack for woodworking. 

Because we were forever competing to make ourselves seem cooler and maybe even a little dangerous, I told my one friend in the world that I stole wantonly from the cars I parked, but tthe most to which I ever helped myself was a stick of gum. I got into other mischief, though. Sometimes, if someone tipped me a dime, or nothing at all, I would say, “Fuck you very much,” mumbling the first word, as I closed his door after him. Remarkably, I never got punched in the nose. At other times, great hilarity would accrue to someone coming out of the restaurant on a busy night and identifying himself as the owner of a black Lincoln Continental. “Big black Cont!” I would shout, hilariously, to a colleague on the other side of PCH.

One night I found myself working with a new partner, a youth with bad skin, furtive eyes, and a great deal more self-assurance than you might have expected from someone with his dermatological problems. A new Corvette came onto the lot. He announced that he’d park it. Neither he nor the Vette was ever glimpsed again. 

One of the students in the adult literacy program for which I volunteer — Clemente, from Guatemala — is the only parking attendant I would dream of allowing anywhere near my car. Having been one, I know what these people are capable of.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Tears of a Junior Waiter

The only commerce within walking distance of where I spent the latter half of my adolescence — just above Pacific Coast Highway, equidistant from Malibu to the north and Santa Monica to the south — was at a restaurant called Ted’s Rancho Restaurant, overhanging the Pacific. 

The guy who interviewed me seemed as though he’d just walked off a film noir set. He had beady little eyes, slicked back dyed black hair, a cigar, and too much aftershave, and virtually oozed venality. He asked if I were interested in becoming a junior waiter. He gave me a business card — one of those cheesy pearlescent jobs — that identified him as Mr. Lucky. Under his name, in quotation marks, it said, “Your Courtesy.” I have not yet figured out what Your Courtesy was intended to convey, and it's been half a century. 

The place turned out to have no senior waiters, but only waitresses. Maybe Mr. Lucky had forgotten the word busboy. I was issued a little red jacket of the sort waiters in restaurants with red leather banquettes were expected to wear at the time, and began refilling water glasses and collecting dirty dishes in a horrible gray plastic tub that I would then carry back to the dishwasher, a wizened little Negro (it was the mid-60s!) who was forever shrieking at me for leaving the tub in the wrong place. I was being fast-tracked toward college at Santa Monica High School, and have an IQ well into the three-figure range, and by and by it occurred to me there wasn’t actually a right place. 

The waitresses weren’t good at math. They were supposed to share 15 percent of their tips with me. If one of them hauled in $15 over the course of a night’s work, she would give me a buck. I secretly lusted after the cocktail waitress, who was younger than the waitresses, and had the sort of bouffant hair that I’ve always found inexpressibly sexy. Lucky already had his hooks in her, and I was the least worldly boy in southern California, though I was staying up until well after 2:00 a.m. on weekend mornings now, and identifying, as only a self-romanticizing little dipshit could, with Ray Price’s lachrymose "Night Life" on the jukebox, which also had The Beatles and Mary Wells’s "My Guy." The night life ain't no good life, but it's my life. Sing it, Ray, for all of us hard-bitten denizens of the night.

I didn’t understand why the bartender, Abel, and head chef (LOL), Bill, seemed to hate me on sight. Only years later did it occur to me that they resented my having my whole professional life ahead, while they were stuck tending bar and cooking in a cruddy little restaurant in which, as with all Malibu restaurants at the time, the view was spectacular and the food nearly inedible, the exception being the most expensive thing on the menu, the chateaubriand, which set one back $13. (almost $100 in 2014 money). When someone ordered it, the restaurant’s atmosphere would become charged with excitement, Bill, who ordinarily looked as though about to kill everyone in sight, and then himself, might actually smile, though to the naked eye it looked more like a grimace. Even if he or she weren’t seated at the other end of the restaurant, I would make a point to go over for a peek at the high roller who’d ordered the dish. 

A few weeks into my second summer there, my first girlfriend advised that she thought we should…see other people. Oh, fat chance, Gail, given that it took every ounce of my resolve to ask you out those four months ago! I was devastated. After spending a whole day in tears, I showed up for work wearing my broken heart on my sleeve. And face. Someone at one of my tables was insensitive enough to ask, “is it as bad as all that, champ?”

“No,” I eagerly blurted, ripping off my little red jacket, “It’s much worse!” I stormed out, never again to refill a diner’s water glass, never again to be shrieked at by the wizened little dishwasher.  Confirming Abel’s and Bill’s most painful expectations, I went on to the life of great wealth and glamour I continue to enjoy to this day.