Monday, April 18, 2005

Of Social Formulas and Old Farts

"We're accepting applications, but we don't have any openings right now," said the Customer Service Desk jockey through his screw-you smile. He had to be all of 19 years old.

Yeah, I filled one out anyway. You never know when one of the teenyboppers could bolt from Barnes and Noble for the greener pastures (and riper eye-candy) of Old Navy or Tower Records. I'm getting good at the application thing. I've memorized my entire work history since 1997.

It had been a busy day for this unemployed guy. I'd sat up late the night before, stuffing envelopes with resumes and cover letters. That morning, after visiting the post office, I made the rounds of the malls and shopping centers where I had yet to underwhelm them with my credentials. "Survival-level jobs" is what they call them at the Employment & Training Center. Aren't they all, I say. It was now late afternoon. Barnes and Noble was my last stop of the day.

I didn't want to annoy my parents any more than I already had. Of course, they were supportive, taking me in and all. But I could tell they were disappointed. And after having me underfoot for over a month, just a little ticked off. I had disrupted their set routine, after all. I figured I'd give them a break and pass some time hanging out in that outpost of High Culture.

I've always been a bookworm. I won't bore you, Kindred Souls, with warm n' fuzzy tales of the Life of the Mind. I'll leave that to "Reading Rainbow" (Is that show still on, LeVar Burton?) or to at least the future, when I'm running low on subject matter. It's just that reading has always been a way to turn off the daily hassle and flak and escape to a more hospitable place, if only between my ears. And I needed a bit of that just then.

So I grabbed a random book from the shelves and headed over to the only empty chair I could find, one facing the magazine rack. I'd like to say that I spent the time reading Chekhov's short stories, or the new edition of Plath's Ariel . No, Johnny Culture here was absorbed by a delightful little collection called The Hollywood Book of Death. This is, basically, an anthology of stories detailing how celebrities (from the silent movie era to today) happened to leave this world of ours. No, I'm not hung up on celebrities or the macrabre. Yes, it is a sensationalistic, tragic and often morbid read. But take any average American, ages 21-65, and ask them if they knew that Montgomery Clift had an overactive thyroid gland, or that Auntie Em from "The Wizard of Oz" committed suicide. See if they're not interested. I'll bet you're checking right now. They have it, incidentally.

Anyway, while I was absorbed in tales of Elvis and Peter Duel and Clara Bow, a guy, a woman, and two young girls (roughly about ten years old) walked over and started browsing the magazine rack. Or I should say, the kids did. The adults planted themselves in chairs and started blabbing, leaving the kids on their own. Back in more innocent times, say the late 1970s and 1980s, people used to keep their voices down when they were in public places. Not today. The guy and the woman proceeded to talk like they were in their living room. I could soon tell (unwillingly) that these folks were not husband and wife, possibly divorced. The woman was innocently recounting her day to him. He was hitting on her like Bob Crane (also mentioned in the book). It sounded something like this:

She: "Yeah, so then I dropped off some blouses at the dry cleaners. . ."

He: "If they look anything like the one you're wearing, they must be beautiful. Lavender's a pretty color on you. . ."

She: "Then I had my car greased and oiled at Jiffy Lube. . ."

He: "Over on 5th and Main? Isn't that right next to that trendy new club, Noplace Else to Go? You and I should drop by there some time. . ."

She: "Janey's looking for books about soccer. She plays on a pee-wee league team. They have practice on Thursdays and Saturdays. . ."

He: "What a coincidence! My Lisa wants a book about drawing. Hey, this Saturday, why don't I drop Lisa off at Janey's soccer field? Lisa could practice drawing pictures of Janey's soccer team, while Janey practiced soccer. Meanwhile, I could pick you up and we could have lunch at the Holiday Inn. . ."

You get the picture. In the meantime, the girls were running through the store completely unsupervised. In their ten-year old minds, the bookstore was no different from the mall:

Janey: "HEY LISA!" (bellowed from halfway across the building)

Lisa: "YEAH, JANEY?"

Janey: "LOOK AT THIS! (waving book like an airport signal flag) ISN'T R.L. STINE COOL???!!"


Janey: "REAAAALLY?! LEMME SEEEEE!!!" (sprints across the store at full speed)

Lisa: "HELL NO! THIS IS MINE! (hides magazine behind her back) GET YOUR OWN!"

Damn it, couldn't these kids see that I was trying to find out why the "Chico and the Man" guy killed himself? Still, I tried to be tolerant. I sat there and pretended that two girls screaming "Bitch! No, you're a bitch! No, you are!" wouldn't distract me from my book. They weren't my kids. Mind your own business and save yourself from headaches, that's my policy.

And it was easy to ignore them. I mean, the fact that Martha Raye was hit by enemy fire not once, but TWICE, while entertaining our troops in Vietnam is darn fascinating, right? But then something happened that I couldn't ignore. Long story made short: Janey and Lisa wanted to see a movie magazine on an upper shelf. So the two girls got a step-stool that you find on the salesfloor for employee use. They took turns trying to reach the magazine. At some point, one of the girls went and got another stool and then, both were stretching for the mag. Still not satisfied, the girls then started climbing up the flimsy wooden shelves to get to the desired title. If they had, God forbid, fallen, they would've hit a hardwood floor. What did the parents, seated not 10 feet away, do?

She: "Uh-huh, so I picked up the new Brad Pitt DVD at Target last week. He's hot."

He: "Say, doesn't he have a new film out now? I think it's playing at the mall. We could see it Saturday, during soccer practice. The seats in that theater are so wide, two people can fit into one. . ."

Okay, so it was Obvious Man to the rescue. I cleared my throat and said, "Excuse me, girls, but I think you should get down from there. Those shelves are pretty flimsy. You might fall and get hurt." The girls, looking at me like I was Bela Lugosi or someone, did climb off of the shelves. But that wasn't the end of it. Suddenly, I heard voices and turned to face them.

He: "Hey! Who are you to boss MY kid around?"

She: "Janey? What did that weirdo try to do to you? Come to Mommy, darling!"

He: "Stay away from our kids, nutso! What, do you get a thrill from bossing little kids around? I'm her father, let ME worry about her! Besides, this is America, and my kid can do what she damn well pleases!"

She: "I'm getting the manager! (Storms off toward the front counter, leading Janey by the hand) Where do these people come from? In a bookstore, no less!"

He: "Yeah, (following woman, leading Lisa by the hand) let's have this BUM thrown out! If he's still here in five minutes, I'm gonna beat him like an egg!"

(Lisa, trailing Daddy, raises her delicate hand and gives me the single-finger salute.)

I left The Hollywood Book of Death sitting open on my chair and made a quick exit. I'm a Borders customer these days. I don't mean to criticize parents. I don't have kids, but I realize that being a parent is tough. I don't mean to criticize today's kids for being kids. When I was 8 years old, I was kicked out of my great-uncle Fred's funeral for throwing Butterscotch disks at my cousin. How could I criticize Janey and Lisa for their misbehavior? Then, what do I mean?

On my way out, I remembered spying a book on the clearance shelves, a novel I had read in college. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I recalled a line, probably the most famous line, from this novel: "Something is wrong with our social formulas." That's it, in a nutshell.

Or maybe I'm just getting to be an old fart.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, you sound like a lot like Rollins...roll on spiritual brother..Peace to you on your journey

6:44 AM  

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