Sunday, February 25, 2007

Donning the Spike Lee Face

Apologies first to Dave K. and Lord Vader. I went to OC and didn't call. Instead I helped myself to a serving of the high-gloss world of Roger A. Hunt, which involved bars tucked into the corners of shopping centers, late-night bowls of edamame and ramen and occasionally black cowboy boots, but not, apparently, my expected birthday phone call, which I forgot to place upon returning to San Francisco.

For that, I also apologize to Roger A. Hunt. He gives me Springsteen in high-definition, and I don't even call. He must be wondering if he really turned 42 yesterday. Is it still a birthday if I don't call? Ask our old friend Phred. I haven't called him on his birthday since 1996.

Given that I've been in a lousy mood ("Cranky," S. Bullock) since November, I've decided that, rather than keep the mood locked inside, where it can fester and expand like the impact of a dum-dum bullet, I'm going to adopt a Spike Lee face. letting the entire world know that I am, like Spike, constantly lugging around ten thousand pounds of baggage and disgust.

Unlike Spike, I will reserve my heaviest baggage and disgust for myself.

Today was a fine time to debut my new Spike Lee face. Though it was Sunday, the traditional day of rest for my non-Jewish readers, I carried a Lee-esque smoldering anger throughout the entire day. Any request from Sandra Bullock or the homework-laden Jawa sent waves of quick anger through my post-Orange County misshapen frame.

I've been sporting a rerun of the 2000-2002 headache since returning home, which has done nothing to improve my mood. This headache, which basically wiped two years out of my life, and which I'm not even sure is an actual headache, comes, I think, from my neck, introducing itself via a series of weird pulsing waves through my head. It feels like there are fireworks shooting off inside my head. I wouldn't be surprised if one of these times, my head just explodes, Scanners-style, solving the headache problem but introducing a slate of new ones in its wake. Then, after the laser bolts die down, the weird, nausea-inducing pain arrives, making all light and sound the equivalent of small arms fire.

All of this is a long-winded excuse for anyone who came across me wearing my Spike Lee face today.

Spike Lee's face is liberating. Sandra Bullock's mantra is to "put on a happy face," so normally, I try to follow along, to better present us as a couple. How would people feel if they saw peppy S. Bullock dragging along a disgusted Spike Lee clone, Spike as a middle-aged Jewish guy?

We would find out.

I wore the face to the YMCA for our basketball game. Pre-game, I came face to Spike Lee face with the ironically named Brooke Shields, imposing coach of the blue team from two weeks ago. That particular farce had led to numerous parent complaints, then me calling the overmatched director of the YMCA Youth Basketball program, who then relayed the message to Brooke Shields. Expecting awkwardness, I walked past Brooke (and her powder blue polo shirt with "COACH" written in script across the front) following her team's laughable drubbing of yet another squad of patsies, flashing the Lee grimace at her. She said nothing. Lefty, she can handle. Spike Lee is another story.

My players seldom respond to my constant harping, yelling, pleading, cajoling. This game began in kind. Halfway through the first quarter, Bullock and I called time, yanked our team off the floor and tore into them (as much as we are allowed, given our community's undying commitment to self-esteem) for their lackluster play. They returned to the court a changed team.

Perhaps the Spike Lee face had something to do with this. When Spike is faced with a half-hearted film crew, does he turn the face onto them as if they are under-researched journalists or members of the obviously racist ruling class? How does the crew respond? Do they snap to attention, cranking out scenes in an efficient, professional manner?

Today's game also presented S. Bullock and I with a new challenge. Short two guards, we stuck the Jawa, normally an undersized forward, into the backcourt. He responded by playing swarming, energetic defense and dishing out passes with a frequency and zest never before displayed on-court, by him or, frankly, anyone on the team this season.

Given our shortage of guards, we had planned to play our two remaining guards three quarters each, filling in with the Jawa for the two remaining quarter slots. His play was so inspired, however, that not only did I have to briefly drop my Spike Lee face, but Bullock and I both agreed that he had earned an extra half-quarter of play.

But would this decision bring with it the whiff of nepotism? A few of our players were confused when we ran the Jawa out for the second half of the fourth quarter.

Personally, I was overjoyed to see our generally non-sporting Jawa show enthusiasm and agressiveness. Our well-adjusted players seldom display any kind of fierceness, no matter how many ways we think up to encourage them to. If it had been any other child, I would not have thought twice about giving him the extra floor time, but I was taught by my own father that when you are the coach you cannot appear in any way to be giving favor to your own child.

Fortunately, since our parents were across the gym, nobody heard Sandra Bullock turn to me --as the Jawa leapt into some guy's face, forcing a turnover -- and say, "He's so cute!"

Probably not what LeBron's mom thinks when she sees him on court, but it works in our world.

Tomorrow, I'm going to wear my Spike Lee face while I'm behind the wheel. No yelling and arm-waving for me. Just the patient suffering one feels while trying to navigate a world full of imbiciles. I have some errands to run. I'll wear the face then, too. People will find it intimidating. It will speak to the flaws they'd hoped to conceal from the world. Spike suffers no one gladly.

Maybe I'll take it far enough that when I enter the "Office of Development," at the Jawa's school, check representing either the entrance fee for 5th grade or 1/3 of the highest yearly salary I've ever commanded in hand, I'll do it with Spike's unconcealed disdain. I won't have to say a word. They'll just see Spike's face on my head and they'll understand.

Spike is power.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Orange Curtain, Among Others

Now that my previous entry apparently has established my bonafides as a racist, let me recount the conversation I just had with the barista at the Corona Del Mar Starbucks:

Him: “Is it cold out there?”
Me: “It’s wonderful.”
Him: “I like it cold. I’m going to San Francisco next week.”
Me: “Why?”
Him: “To get out of Orange County.”

And so it is with my misunderstood semi-hometown. Is it full of silicone-enhanced airheads living in enormous stucco homes hidden behind gates? Is it an endless mob of neo-Rockabilly construction guys in their 20s, casually glancing at this week’s “Cycle Trader” in search of a new dirt bike? Is it a Mexican family at Disney’s California Adventure, waiting in line for the ferris wheel with the kids jumping out of their skin and the dad leaning against a pole with his eyes closed, wearing shiny black dress shoes with his jeans?

Maybe it’s the old white guy waiting for a Coke in Tomorrowland, his plaid shirt tucked into his Wranglers, his sideburns almost touching on his chin, his watch band splattered with white paint.

It’s all of these things, plus the sun-soaked part of PCH, choked with Bentleys and BMWs, running through Corona Del Mar, which I am now staring at from inside this Starbucks.

Whatever it is, I offer you this advice: do NOT waste your money on Disney’s California Adventure more than once. You should do it once, but do NOT take that voyage during President’s Day Weekend, in the midst of a 2 for 1 special on tickets for Southern California Residents.

To sum it up: every single ride at Disney’s California Adventure, beginning with the Ferris Wheel -- which looks harmless enough until you reach a certain point, then your caged-in car slides down a pole and rocks violently back and forth for five minutes – to the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which drops you down and jerks you up until you’re pretty sure that you are going to lose the pretzel you just ate, completely embarrassing yourself in front of the Rocket Scientist, who routinely experiences mach 2 and so can barely tell that the ride is moving, is designed to make you sick.

They spin, they accelerate, they go backwards. They simulate. They make me sick.

And so it was that I wandered, dazed and ill, through Disney’s California Adventure, taking two steps forward, then three sideways, to avoid the thousands upon thousands of strangers also in the park that day.

At seven o’ clock, we gave up, left the park, thought briefly about having dinner in downtown Disney, then drove to deepest, darkest Anaheim for dinner at a really cool old school Italian place.

Orange County is also this.

The next day, Disneyland, aka the HPOE (Happiest Place on Earth), accompanied again by 50,000 of our closest friends. But there is something about the HPOE that sets it apart from the generic themeparkitis that plagued California Adventure.

For OC kids like myself, Disneyland functions as a stand in for all of the normal places people live their lives. I can walk by a spot in Frontierland and remember where I was sharing popcorn with my ex-Mormon girlfriend in 1983. On the Matterhorn, I stood nervously in line but never said a word, the better to impress my little league friends on the day we went there following our successful season.

After 31 years of Disneyland visits (as I reminded Noodles’ Mom on the Jungle Cruise – our first time there was March, 1976), it’s not quite the HPOE for me, but worth it for ten precious hours of the Jawa holding my hand and demanding that I go on rides with him. He is nine, and my time holding his hand is ticking down so loudly that I can feel it pulse in my chest every day. That there is this place – Disneyland – that can function for young parents and infants, guys in the bittersweet waning days of their omniscience dad-dom, teenagers sharing popcorn and multi-generation Church groups, can only be a gift from Walt himself. The old tyrant.

Something interesting about the crowds at Disneyland. Yes, they are fat. I had to get that out of the way. As Noodles’ Mom said, “When I come to Disneyland, I feel pretty good about myself!” More interestingly, to me, is what they wear. Everyone tries to represent their home towns, either with a t-shirt or a hat, which I really like.

Less interesting and frankly downright disturbing is the trend of buying ridiculous Disney-themed hats, headgear you would never otherwise buy and/or wear, wearing it all day and then undoubtedly stowing it away deep in the back of some closet, behind the old sports gear and Tom Cruise, and never wearing it again. Why do this?

We spent double-digit hours at Disneyland. The Rocket Scientist plotted out our strategy, deftly using Fast Passes on key rides for maximum coverage. The Jawa and his cousins, Noodles and the Artist Formerly Known as Count Burpalot but now, by parents’ request, called “Felix Ungar,” thanks to his mother’s noting that he possesses a commitment to neatness that some might find disturbing in a ten-year-old boy, had a full Disneyland experience, the kind that you refer to repeatedly throughout your life. (“Remember that time we went on Big Thunder Mountain three times in a row? And then it started raining?”)

Back to Orange County. Yesterday, as Noodles’ Mom, the Rocket Scientist, Noodles and Felix returned to the searing nightmare that is Edwards AFB, we drove to Santa Monica for a day with the Rock Stars. As usual, Los Angeles at first thrilled me, then irritated me, then completely creeped me out. Lunch at a nearby “deli” turned out to be a packed, high-energy vibe hamburger place, admittedly only 50% hipster but cool enough to remind me that if I lived in LA my nerves would be shot.

Today I dropped Sandra Bullock and my Jawa at LAX, then drove down PCH, fending off mocking emails and angrily texting Flush Puppy to vent my hurt feelings at the minor firestorm raised by the question: “Why did you notice that the tiny woman in the Toyota Avalon was black?”

There is nothing to add that won’t make me look like more of a schmuck than I presently own up to.

Other than that I was frankly relieved to cross the county line in Seal Beach. “Now Entering ORANGE (county),” and my shoulders sagged. I opened the window and the sun roof, slowed down to 45, watched suburban renewal take place on both sides of the road.

There are two ways to look at places, and even people. You can use your brain and make a list of pros and cons, add them up and make a reasoned, logical assessment. Then you can sift through your brain and your heart for all of the memories, intangibles and meaningfuls that make it whatever shade of color it is for you. No one, however convenient it may be, should throw a blanket over the whole thing or the whole person and say “this is what it is.”

Now if you’ll excuse me. I have a date with some traffic on the Newport Freeway.

Friday, February 16, 2007

In the Flow

I can't comment on what goes in in the heads of the thousands of drivers who take on the length of California Interstate 5 each day, only what goes on in mine. We are joined by common purpose, and yet seem to have nothing in common other than that we're getting in each others' way.

And we hate the trucks.

How we hate the trucks! The presumptuousness of them, as bad as the much-maligned MUNI buses at home. The trucks act as if they own the road -- particularly the stretch of I-5 running from the junction at Highway 152 (Pacheco Pass) and the Grapevine -- and even though they probably do own it by virtue of their travelling it daily, would it be so wrong for them to act at least as benevolent landlords with us as cooperative tenants?

Do they have to pass each other at 62 miles per hour, forcing us to go from a comfortable 85 (sorry CHP) to 61 in the space of a few hundred feet? Given that they are undoubtedly very aware of the consequences of their actions, can they then allow us acknowledgement of our anger? If we wave our arms and/or make pointed gestures at them, shouldn't they at least glance at us?

They do not. Because they do not care. At all.

To the long-haul trucker, automobile drivers are no more significant than tumbleweeds or a spilled load of tomatoes. We're something they cannot allow to get between them and their pre-determined arrival time. Since none of them have the luxury of a Burt Reynolds-driven Trans Am as an escort, they have to dodge the obstacles on their own.

These are the thoughts that could possibly race around in one's mind as he navigates the 240 miles of I-5 between Santa Nella and Castaic. Perhpas mose pointedly when he realizes that waving your arms after passing the 37th 18-wheeler to pull out and pass at 62 miles per hour is essentially useless and a waste of neuron firings. So is passing said truck before it's completely out of the fast lane, as an indication of your displeasure at their behind-the-wheel decisions. Once again: they don't care.

Does the tiny black woman driving the Toyota Avalon at close to 100 mph care? As she weaves in and out of traffic, invisible from behind, save for the sides of the rims of her enormous sunglasses, is she thinking about her impact on the members of the I-5 community? When she cut off that team of youth soccer players in their rented van, forcing them to brake, did she glance up into her rearview and think, "Oops! Sorry!" I'll never know.

By that time, a more pressing question forms: where do the people who work at the gas station/convenience store/Subway at exit 269 actually live? The complex, alone at the end of its exit, seems miles away from the nearest town. And yet, there at the counter, as I wait for my 6-inch Veggie Delight (extra cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, oil and vinegar on 9-grain bread), a woman who is arriving for work is telling Candy, the Assistant Manager, that she thinks her place was broken into the other night. "The front window was busted. Someone broke in," she said.

From where? Did someone drive 50 miles just to break into her house? And if there's crime out here, where nobody lives, what does that mean for those of us who live in cities, piled on top of each other with easy access to each others' valuables?

No, I'm serious. Where do they live? What's the mathematical formula that determines the probability of getting a job at the gas station/convenience store/Subway in the middle of nowhere if you live equally in the middle of nowhere, or, I guess, the exact same middle of nowhere? Is there a large applicant pool, or do the complex owners just draw a circle on a map and then see how many qualified applicants reside within that circle?

At mile 175, I decide that yes, I am a fine country-western singer. You can hardly hear the difference in the vocals I am adding to the Derailers' third album. They would be well-served by employing me to provide harmonies for their next release. That I can do this while 50 ounces of water reminds me that it would like very much to get out of my body, thank you, makes it all the more impressive.

Am I alone in wondering why Mr. Harris chose to build his valley resort one exit away from the massive slaughterhouse outside Coalinga? I have been driving this road for 23 years and I have never once found Harris Ranch, more accurately, the blob of gas stations across I-5 from Harris Ranch, to not be foul-smelling. Who, once they'd gotten ahold of the weird concept that they're going to go get pampered 75 miles from Fresno, thinks it's okay to emerge from your spa treatment only to encounter a snootful of slaughterhouse?

At 4:07 I pass Magic Mountain, indicating that I have enterered Los Angeles' orbit. On the advice of Roger A. Hunt, I tune to AM 980, where they have "traffic on the ones." This is no Kathy for KCBS in the studio looking online. They've got guys in helicopters checking out the 405, looping down to the 710 and the 605, then looking at the 91 before heading back up to see what's happening on the Hollywood Freeway. I listen intently, relieved to find that I have missed a sigalert in Castaic by 5 minutes.

For reasons still unclear, I feel like I am protecting myself from traffic by listening to 980 "traffic on the ones." I am not. When the flow slows to a crawl outside Glendale, there is nothing I can do, other than shift to survival mode and try to stay sane, pleased to know that the answer to "what's worse than traffic?" is "driving six hours and then arriving at the north end of Los Angeles at 4:07 on a Thursday afternoon."

Meanwhile, the eye in the sky is telling me that the 5 is moving well for this time of day. I look around at other drivers. Los Angeles, I decide, is the future, whereas San Francisco is the past. I see no quaint army of Prius's driven by white women with short hair and plastic-framed glasses. L.A. freeways are full of people trying to get through the day, shooting into gaps when they can, enduring. Brown-skinned, black-skinned, Asian, white, all are unperterbed by the fact that they are travelling at 15 miles per hour on a road designed for 65. They do this every day.

I am not of them, unfortunately, and after 90 minutes I begin to lose my cool. Nothing in the world, save for the Antelope Valley, is more disheartening than the stretch of I-5 between downtown L.A. and the 91 near Disneyland. It's less than 30 miles, but usually takes more than hour to travel, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the City of Industry, Santa Fe Springs and their attendant landscape of low-lying industrial buildings. "If I can just get to the 91," I think, shifting into Orange County mode, "I'll be home free."

At Carmenita Road I think, as I always think when passing Carmenita Road, "This is where Dad worked when we first moved to California." At the sign for Buena Park I think, "We stayed at a Holiday Inn in Buena Park that first week in 1976."

There we were, wide-eyed in the way that only people who've spent their entires lives in the Northeast, coming to Southern California for the first time, can be, a family of five with kids aged 13, 10 and 5, pointing out the palm trees and swimming in the hotel pool in mid-March. It was amazing. This year it will be 31 years ago and I'll be 4 years older than my dad was when we moved.

Roger A. Hunt lives in his old neighborhood. At 6:30 I turn onto his street, remind myself to park in front of the house next to his parents' house, not his parents' house, and take a deep breath of nostalgia. Today the Jawa and Sandra Bullock arrive via Jet Blue. Tomorrow we'll go to Disneyland.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Poor Sports

We Jews may be the Chosen People, but in general, we are not the athletic people. This does not mean we don't harbor dreams. In my youthful fantasies, I got the call in the ninth inning, rode the cart out of the bullpen, stepped up to the Shea Stadium mound and fired three sinkers on the outside corner, then walked slowly into the dugout while 50,000 New Yorkers cheered.

We get older and our dreams shrink. Now I would be happy to lead my team of 9-year-old Jewish kids to just one Sunday victory in the YMCA 9-11 boys' league. We had our first game today.

I am only a semi-fiery coach, but quite sensitive to perceived wrongs. Sandra Bullock, who coaches alongside me, sometimes dominating the proceedings as only she can, cares not at all for the behavior of our opponents.

Following today's game, in which we were, frankly, destroyed by a team of 11-year-old public school kids, I was livid. S. Bullock could not have cared less. Maybe it's a guy thing.

Why was I livid? Because the team we played was much larger than us, much more skilled than us, much older than us, and spent the second half smiling and laughing. The team's parents, in fact, joined them in smiling and laughing, as if they were content fans of the Harlem Globetrotters and we were the hapless Washington Generals. It was a bloodbath. They did everything but fire a bucket full of confetti at the ref.

At one point, I yelled something to one of our players, a very cute, very small girl, about getting in front of the extremely large boy she was covering. She just shrugged her shoulders. Wisely, I might add.

Being passive-agressive, possessed of a long enough memory to recall the last time I got mad at an opposing team and ended up getting called out by their much larger than me coach, and frankly being a little scared of the tough-looking lesbian (named, hilariously, Brooke Shields, I kid you not) who led today's opponents, I tried to keep my mouth shut. I shook her hand and siad nothing at all.

And then turned and announced, loudly, to my crew of concerned parents, "That team should not be playing in this league!"

Our league is purposely non-competitive. I know, it's lame, but that's what it is. We don't even keep score. Why this team of extremely skilled, extremely large, extremely agressive 11-year old was slumming in our 9-11 league is beyond me, unless their purpose was to show up every Sunday, kick the living crap out of their opponents, then smile and laugh their way home where their parents can pat them on the back, puff up their chests and congratulate themselves for having such athletically adept children.

Not that I said any of this to them. I kept my distance.

But the whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth, worse than that left by the rice cakes we had afterwards for snack. Our first game, and admittedly we are not only not very good but also undersized and co-ed in a boys' league, and we get slammed so hard that our kids are now looking ahead to yet another year of Sundays like this. Perhaps it would be better for all concerned if highly-skilled teams led by frightening women named Brooke Shields with glib, self-congratulatory parents found leagues in which they were challenged.

Let me be clear: the kids themselves, other than the laughing and smiling but who can blame them, they were bored, were fine. They played clean, they didn't trash talk. I can't imagine it was much fun for them, other than in the way that shooting a barrel full of fish with a 9 mm pistol would be fun.

I don't know what our team's athletic dreams are. Other than a couple of players, it seems like in general they'd just as soon be doing something else than chugging up and down a basketball court, listening to me yell, "GET A BODY ON THAT GUY!" and trying in vain to hoist up shots with three enormous 11-year-olds draped all over them.

Maybe our next game will be better. Maybe this league contains only one team that should be playing CYO or PAL basketball with kids their own age. Maybe the rest of the teams are like ours -- little, still learning how to play, longer on enthusiasm than skill.

We can only hope. Otherwise, look for this coach's mouth to write a check that his butt is in no way ready to cash before the season is over.

My mom always told me that my mouth would get me in trouble someday.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bad Dog!

Shack is a bad dog. He is now one week post-op and showing no signs of personality reduction. In fact, given that he has spent that week denied dog park privileges with a huge white cone strapped to his head, it's fair to say that he is probably one ticked-off little corgi. Which in now way excuses him from his bad deeds.

Back when Shack was all man, we used to leave him in the "backyard" when we left the house. I use the admittedly ironic quote marks around "backyard" because it is being very charitable to call the small, steeply-pitched space that lies between the back of our house and the way-past-its-prime, slowly dissolving fence up the hill as "yard." It's more of an "embarassment," and Shack's domain, a narrow, concrete-floored runway surrounded by five-foot tall retaining walls, resembles more that stark confines of a prison than the pastoral image most have of a yard.

It is appropriate, however, because that is exactly where he belongs.

Since his operation, we are not allowed to leave him outside by himself, because he might get hung up on something and re-open his incision. This is the theory behind the giant white cone, as well. It's not as effective, however, at protecting dogs who decide to use the edges of the cone to scratch at the endless itching that comes with having your fur shaved.

The cone is also useful at butting people in the ankles, digging in the mud and flinging things that make you angry.

The downside of the cone is that, when you are left inside and take the opportunity to chew up the already-decaying windowsill in the front bay window, the little chunks of wood that are stuck to the inside of your cone are a dead giveaway that you are the one responsible for not only the ripped up appearance of said windowsill but also the large pile of wood chips lying on the floor below the window. Hence, you are a bad dog.

Should we be surprised? After all, Shack's favorite beverage is the dishwasher. Why shouldn't his favorite snack be the windowsill?

I understand that Shack is upset. He has been castrated, denied of the thing he loves best -- going to the dog park -- and forced to wear what looks like a small satellite dish around his head. When he does appear in public, he is met with pitiful smiles and odd stares. Worst of all, he has absolutely no idea that this is not permanent. In his world, you were once a carefree intact puppy. Now you are a castrated shut-in with a satellite dish protruding from your neck, with no end in sight.

I tried to take off the dish last night, while the Hammer was over picking up her son from a playdate with the Jawa. Shack has his follow-up vet appointment today, and he hadn't been furiously trying to scratch at his incision all day, so I took off the cone for awhile. At first, he just stood there. Then he returned to his normal activities. The Hammer and I were a little disappointed at his nonchalance.

Unfortunately, he soon began scratching again, so we had to re-attach the dish. I wasn't there to see it, but I am sure it only fueled Shack's rage.

When I returned from the gym today, he was sitting in the middle of the living room, his head still encased in that ridiculous cone, looking guilty. I immediately looked at the bay window. Half of its lower sill -- including however many layers of lead paint had been built up over the years -- was gone. Directly underneath the window was a large pile of wood chips.

Shack is a bad dog.

I grabbed him by the collar and led him to the back door. Strangely, he went willingly, as if accepting that, having had his fun, it was time to deal with the consequences like a man, albeit a man with no testicles.

Now I am charged with finding some mysterious substance that is supposed to repel bad dogs. You paint it on and the dog goes nowhere near the previously irresistable object.

And let me say that our house, whose gradual demise has been mostly secret until now, is now flashing a nice big Oklahoma mobile home dweller-looking wound right in the middle of the living room for everyone to see. I plan to move the couch to the front porch today, for consistency's sake.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Man of the House

Last week, the Jawa asked me to define "synonym" for him. "It's two words that basically mean the same thing," I answered, feverishly scanning the recesses of my brain for an example, "Like automobile and car."

"Like burp and belch?"


Or like incompetent and inept, which in our home are synonyms for balding, unemployed, middle-aged Jewish guy, at least when it comes to activities relating to the preparation of food.

For many years, I have disappointed or just plain turned off people who want to discuss cooking, chopping, grating, folding, grilling, or anything up to and including Hibachi! which, I hear, has something to do with cooking but I know only as the epithet Gilbert Arenas shouts as he releases another killer j. A Hibachi, reasons Gilbert, heats up faster than anything on earth ... except Gilbert Arenas.

I have long insisted, with absolutely no guilt, that I am worthless in the kitchen. More so than in other places. During my single days, I made sure to sleep until around noon. That way, I could just wake up and walk across the street to the sandwich shop, rather than having to create anything in my own home.

In a perfect world, Sandra Bullock would return from another long day putting food on our table, only to find that said food had already been prepared and laid on the table by me, her progressive, 21st-century husband.

Not so. I will regularly get on my hands and knees to vacuum under the table, but I will not and cannot put food on top of it.

Witness the events of last Friday.

I dislike the preparation of food so much that these days my lunch usually consists of various items taken from the refrigerator or pantry, placed in a bowl on top of each other, and then eaten. An apple, some pretzels, a couple of hunks of cheese, maybe a tortilla. A spoonful of peanut butter, once I realized that not only is that far easier than actually making a sandwich but also saves you the calories of the bread.

Even leftovers are too much work. They involve the microwave, tupperware, and the dishwasher. No good.

Last Friday I was busy. I was trying to create a web site -- one which you will eventually see linked to from this page, listening to sports radio and IMing with Flush Puppy about the options available to her husband, Butter Goats, should he decide to ditch their bar and get a 9-5 job.

In the middle of this, as I was rummaging through the pantry, looking for pretzels, I came across a package of Yakisoba noodles, the grown-up version of the Top Ramen I had happily eaten so many times in my youth, when they cost $0.25 a package and I couldn't afford to go across the street to the sandwich shop. I'd seen them in there earlier in the week and told S. Bullock that she shouldn't put them in the Jawa's lunch. I would eat them. Add seasonings, full with water to the line, and microwave. Surely I could do that, as I had done so often in my twenties.

Or not.

Maybe it was the distractions -- they were discussing the Super Bowl on the radio, I was wondering if Butter Goats, after ten years of working odd hours in shorts and a t-shirt, would be able to adjust to the company man life, I couldn't get my web page to publish -- or maybe it was the sad simple truth that I am worthless in any room containing a refrigerator, a sink and a range, but darn it if I didn't leave one step out of my noodle preparation before sliding the whole thing into the microwave, entering 4:02 minutes on the digital screen and then returning to my laptop.

A few minutes later I noticed a smoky odor. At first, I did nothing. In fact, I kind of liked the smoky odor. In my mind, I pictured my noodles browned, which would do nothing to lessen the sheer joy of noodle consumption.

At 4:02, the microwave beeped. The smoky odor had gotten a little stronger, and it did occur to me to wonder what was going on.

Then I turned around.

Somewhere, on the other side of a thick cloud of brown smoke, lay the microwave. In it was a package of what used to be noodles. I looked down at Shack, whom, besides being a dog and unable to speak, was so disgusted at the large plastic cone he'd been forced to wear following his surgery that he was lying helplessly on his side, sighing. He was no help.

I may have made some kind of involuntary yelp. I sifted through the smoke, coughing. It was too thick to get to the microwave. I ran around opening windows, hoping to avoid an embarassing smoke detector activation. At least I managed that.

Eventually, it cleared enough that I could get to the microwave. The package of noodles was crushed on one end, leaking thick brown smoke. Inside, the noodles had turned black and paper-like, reminding of nothing as much as the embodiment of pure evil that closed the 1980s Terry Gilliam movie "Time Bandits."

I reached through the smoke, grabbed the package of what used to be noodles and ran outside, trailing smoke behind me. The entire house was beginning to smell like a slumber party popcorn attempt gone horribly wrong.

Once outside, I waved the noodles around, taking in the full impact of the tragedy as it unfolded. I couldn't just throw the noodles away, as they would probably ignite whatever dry surface the hit, so I went back inside, lowered my head and ran water over them. They were, indeed, evil. Then I dragged Shack, huge plastic satellite dish and all, into the living room. I certainly didn't want to asphyxiate my post-op dog.

In a rage, I called Sandra Bullock. "Those noodles said they were microwave safe!" I thundered.

"Did you open the top before you put them in?"


"Did you remember to add water?"

Silence on my end. The basic premise of any microwaveable noodle is to ADD THE FREAKING WATER TO THE LINE and then place the package into the microwave. I am useless in the kitchen, but I do know how to boil water and microwave things.

Don't I?

Apparently not. In the midst of a house full of brown smoke, I hung my head. How would I live this one down? We had dinner club in 24 hours. Would we be able to clear the kitchen of burnt popcorn smell in that time? It seemed unlikely. And with the world in turmoil, how much time would be spent specifically discussing my kitchen ineptitude? Most of it, as it turned out.

I was not finished with ineptitude for the day, unfortunately, but the rest of it turned out to be far less spectacular than the burnt noodles incident. Dropping an entire box full of blueberries onto aisle 9 is a pain in the neck for the produce guy, but the droppee can easily wheel his cart away from the pile of blueberries and return to anonymity within seconds.

Forgetting to go to Safeway in the first place is quickly forgetten when the forgetter blazes through his shopping in 30 minutes, blueberry spill included, and returns home in time to put away the groceries (weaving his way through a kitchen still lousy with brown smoke) and get to basketball practice before school ends.

Leaving the basketball jerseys in the car requires only a five-minute run back to the car during warm-ups. The aftermath of a burned package of noodles is not quite so easy to shake.

The next day, Saturday, we dropped $22 -- that is the exact amount, as calculated by a half-disgusted, half-humorously exasperated S. Bullock -- on various air fresheners and candles at Target. We came home, plugged in our air fresheners, lit our candles, and hoped for the best. "I had to clean the microwave twice," related Bullock, dryly, after I'd already cleaned it once. Despite the repeated cleaning, the microwave still carries with it a not wholly unattractive yellowish hue.

And yes, the cabinet next to the microwave still smells like burnt popcorn, because the microwave's surprisingly effective exhaust vent spewed weird yellowish liquid smoke onto it during the incident. In general, though, we had the entire event reduced to "funny story" status by the time people began arriving Saturday night.

And now our house smells like a comforting mix of vanilla and lavender, which provides a very appropriate background odor for any man's Super Bowl experience.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Bad Jobs No. 5

In Israel, there is a mandatory 3 year military commitment when you turn 18. Despite the continued urgings of my father, there is no such requirement here in the U.S. I'm not sure I agree with him on that count, but I do think that there should be at least a requirement, to be exercised at any age under 30, stating that all citizens of the U.S. must work as waiters for at least one year.

First of all, everyone should know what goes on in restaurant kitchens. They should know that, to begin, all restaurants have cockroaches. Each and every one. With any luck, none of them, known for their Courtney Love-like resiliance, appears in the dining room. Instead, they should stay behind the scenes, which of course puts them much closer to the food.

Second, unless you're working in a high-end place -- which comes with its own set of challenges -- your kitchen is generally populated with some of the more scary and possibly criminal elements of society. Again, where best to put them? Close to the food.

In California, restaurant kitchens, again, except for the high-end ones, are manned by Spanish-speaking people from South American countries, convicts of all colors, illegal aliens from Europe who are "on holiday." How "on holiday" includes washing dishes in the back of Chili's escapes me.

Third, you should be required to work in restaurants because this is where you will learn that PEOPLE WILL DO ANYTHING. Given the correct set of circumstances, the most pressing personal needs, or the correct combination of mild-altering substances, people will do whatever they need or want to do, with little regard for the consequences of their actions. If that means tipping $3 on a $100 tab, or hosting a party that begins at 1:00 a.m. when you were in a dead sleep at 12:59, so be it.

In late January, 1991, on the heels of a December that began with me having three restaurant jobs and ended, inexplicably, with no jobs and $12 to my name, I rented a car and drove to my parents' house in Orange County. Once again grad school loomed, this time in San Francisco the following September.

Also, I had this new girlfriend. Kind of looked like Sandra Bullock, lived about a half-hour outside of San Francisco. Very organized. Unlikely to ever stab me during an argument.

But the plan, as much as I could formulate an actual plan, was to make a short pit stop in Orange County, then join Noodles' Mom in South Carolina to watch over her while the Rocket Scientist blasted away at bogeys in Iraq.

Upon reaching OC, however, I got word that Noodles' Mom was rocking back and forth in front of her TV, watching CNN and making sure that none of the casualties were slightly nerdy MIT grads who looked a little bit like Troy Aikman. "It's not a good idea to go there," my mother said, followed quickly by, "HAVE YOU GOTTEN A JOB YET?"

Two weeks later, I was climbing the walls of Sandra Bullock's townhouse, 30 miles outside of San Francisco. Each day I took BART into the city, then walked into restaurants and asked if they were "taking applications." Again, for reasons unclear to this day, I felt that my best option was to get another job in a restaurant. I mean, isn't that what writers did?

As a San Francisco neophyte, I didn't yet know that nobody gets jobs at the tourist restaurants. Like any newbie, I figured Fisherman's Wharf was where the big money was. Nobody bothered to tell me that:

1) Europeans like to pretend that they don't understand this crass American concept, what is eet you say, teeping?

2) People from the outlying areas come into San Francisco and, if they know absolutely nothing, dine at chain restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf. They work hard for their money, and they're loathe to give it to you unless you earn it.

3) The worst of stereotypes can often seem true when you have just refilled a Coke for the twenty-third time: large groups of young, blinged-out black men are lousy tippers. Groups of gay men are great tippers. Old people tip 10%, but are usually so nice that you don't mind.

4) Drunk people are the X-factor. They might be feeling good, they might want to save as much as they can so they can maximize their drinking opportunities.

5) Smokers are good tippers, but I'd already learned that the previous year, working in a comedy club in Seattle.

So I got this job at the Fisherman's Wharf branch of Houlihan's, one of those vaguely Irish-themed restaurant/bars with oversized, laminated menus. I was trained by this young guy who I thought was stoned, only to find out later that he was just plain dense. And stoned. Often.

But he'd done well at Houlihan's, so he was in charge of training me. He taught me the proper placement of the garnish kale on each plate, how to make a salad, how to greet customers, and suggested that I buy several white 65/35 dress shirts, which require less ironing than 100% cotton ones.

An aside here -- restaurant workers are generally dirty. This is because we have, tops, two sets of clothes to wear to work. And even then, we have only one tie and one apron. And we generally live in apartments and have to do our laundry in laundromats. And since everyone is basically sleeping with everyone else, nobody really cares who's dirty and who's clean.

As I said, life is different in a restaurant.

It may be different now. Just as I spent my temping days during the glory days of artistic types taking $8.50 temporary clerical jobs to make ends meet, so did I wait tables during a time where everyone seemed to be working on some kind of play, painting, novel or movie. As in "Taxi," nobody was an actual waiter, except Chris Shuler, who went to Columbia, majored in fine arts, didn't mind it if I called her "Shu," and would answer, "I'm a waitress," if anyone asked what she did.

Waiters are the best, or at least were. Even at Houlihan's, which, I would quickly learn, was not just cheesy but was "corporate," making working there like selling out on top of your selling out. We had a rule book, a training manual and had to toe the line, but we were at least interesting.

Nobody at Houlihan's had any pretense, except for me, maybe, of living a normal life. Shortly before I started there, half the staff had gradually died of AIDS, so management was a bit shell-shocked. While I was working there we lost one guy practically overnight, which was especially strange because, frankly, I didn't like him. My very Puckish friend put that one in my face, though, because he was an activist and he thought I needed to know that this is how it happens sometimes.

My Puckish friend ruled Houlihan's. A young, wiry, gay Midwesterner, he'd come to San Francisco several years prior when it became apparent to him that he could not live anywhere else. He wasn't interested in sugar-coating things, and had so much energy that you half-expected him to disappear while you were talking to him, only to reappear perched on a lamppost a few feet away.

I'd been pretty deep into the restaurant life in Seattle, but there was something more intense about the San Francisco genre. Puck introduced me to all of it. For awhile, anytime something weird happened to me, he was there to either shepherd me through it or encourage me to embrace the weirdness, rubbing his hands together with what I can only describe as glee.

He also gave me the unfiltered low-down on the AIDS crisis, seeing as he was neck-deep in it. He was down several friends, boyfriends, roommates. People were coming in and out of his life, so he'd decided to become a fatalist and not let too much of it get to him. These days, he takes it very seriously as the Director of an outfit that finds housing for AIDS patients. No longer Puckish, and in precarious health, I still saw him described as "enthusiastic" a few months ago in the SF Weekly.

Who knew, as they sat down to dinner at their corny Fisherman's Wharf faux-Irish restaurant, that their waiter ("server" in Houlihan's lexicon) had recently performed a one-man show at Josie's Cabaret? Or that he had, a few weeks earlier, showered tourists with the pennies he'd been left as a tip, throwing them out the windows and shouting, "You forgot your change!"

Nobody knew that one of the waiters was a drummer from Memphis, that one of the managers was sleeping with one of the hostesses, who was dating one of the bartenders, or that one of the other managers, only a few years earlier, had been on the same University of Texas baseball team as Roger Clemens. One day, in our white shirts and green ties, he and I played catch in the middle of the Wharf tourists. He could still bring it.

And who could have sensed that, among this cohort of misfits, there were some who were committed to the "company man" ideal, albeit in restaurant terms. Ask me how it feels to be written up for chewing gum on the job because Ann turned me into management, even though her girlfriend Elaine thought it was a cheap shot.

Every so often they'd slip in a law student or biologist, just to stir things up. One guy came in from New Mexico, an old friend of the baseball-playing manager. Prone to wearing bright white tennis shoes and fraternity sweatshirts, he tried to function as if he were still a Sigma Chi, only to lose all credibility by having a very public rendezvous at a party with Puck, who did it only as a political statement, and then, in absolute confusion, taking a swing as one of the hostesses before getting thrown out onto the street by one of the bartenders.

These were the last times in my life that I saw the sun rise with regularity. The parties were great, but the job sucked. I used to walk around telling people that "If Charlie Manson walked through that door with a twenty in his hand, I'd have to wait on him." Puck said I suffered from feeling that the job was "beneath me." Well, sure. There was that.

By now, my two pairs of poly/cotton pants were starting to fall apart, and grad school was about to begin. Restaurant cliques have a very short life span. About a year in, everyone gets restless. Since most people hate the job itself, are treated poorly by management and customers, and can't count on a steady cash flow, they're constantly looking for new jobs. Everyone promises everyone else that they'll bring them along to their new job, but it never happens.

Autumn seemed like a good time to leave. Even more so that night a bunch of people came in from Hayward, joked around with me during the mean, and then left me $5 on an $85 check. Here's the great part of waiting tables: there is absolutely nothing you can do to get them to change, to understand that they've done something wrong, or to make yourself feel better.

I spun away from their table, fuming, looking for a manager. Fortunately, I stopped to talk to Bill, a bartender, an older guy (probably all of 35) who let nothing bother him. "There's nothing you can do, dude," he told me. "Just gotta move on to the next table."

No way, I thought. Not this time. I strode back to the table and confronted the diners. "Was there something wrong with my service?" I said. Reading that sentence today makes me wince.

"No, it was fine," they said.

"Well, you tipped me $5. That works out to about 6 percent.

"Yeah, well, that's what you deserve."

Bright, vibrant colors flashed before my eyes. I mean, I know that's what I deserve, even more so today, but the agreement in the restaurant world is supposed to be "I do my job okay, you tip me at least 15%." We get minimum wage, and they take taxes out based on 8% tips. So every two weeks, I'm getting a paycheck of around $100.

That's what I deserve.

I hit them back with some kind of vehemence appropriate for someone about to begin his second Masters program in Creative Writing, thinking that, somewhere up in the place where they tally who wins and who loses, I was getting some good points for berating these losers. They would crumble under my formidable wit.

So what do you think? Did they slink out of the restaurant? Did they reach into their pockets and lay down a couple more sawbucks? Did they apologize?

None of the above. They laughed at me and made some kind of gay slur, the reasoning being that, since I was a waiter in San Francisco I was gay. And worth $5.

It deteriorated from there. My only recourse was to insult their city of origin. I went for the "you're a bunch of hicks who don't know how to act in the city," angle, which upset them, enough that I looked in all directions upon leaving work that evening. For the rest of the night, I assumed they were trashing my motorcycle, somehow figuring out that it was mine.

And again, let me repeat: there was nothing I could do.

Two weeks later I was out of there. Somewhere along the line, Puck and I got this idea that it would be really cool to be bike messengers. Which is another story entirely.

My last night at Houlihan's was the first night Sandra Bullock and I lived together. It ended in someone's apartment in the Tenderloin, and then running up the middle of Hyde Street at 5 a.m., trying to get home before someone mugged me.

The next afternoon I woke up in my new, very small co-habitation apartment, vowing to never don the apron of the waiter again. Like most of my personal proclamations, this one proved false. I'd be back in the building within three months.

It's like war. You get so close to these people for such a short period of time and then they're gone. Last year Puck had a party to bring a bunch of Houlihan's people together. I went, but I didn't have much to say to anyone. Nor did anyone have much to say to anyone else. The French woman had divorced his husband, who now was gay. The no-nonsense waitress had three kids and was living in Marin. Puck's old roommate was living in Diamond Heights and headlining a Tennessee Williams revival in Oakland. His health seemed pretty good.

And Ann was still bagging on me for chewing gum. Not everyone becomes your best friend.