Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Be My Guest

Image result for at your service

12 a.m. Starbucks Cafe, West Hollywood

- What are you reading?
- An email from my friend the graduate student at UCLA.
- The one that got thrown out.
- Yes. He's back home now.
- What does he write?
- Greek Orthodox Christianity appeals to him at the moment.
- At the moment?
- Before it was Sufi mysticism that appealed to him.
- And before that? I can't believe how loud those policemen are. Do they come here every night?
- Yes. The Beverly Hills Police and the West Hollywood Sheriffs both are here in force.
- I count four cars, seven men sitting at the tables. They don't seem to have anything to do with the customers.
- They don't. They talk shop with each other. Laugh at the stories people tell when stopped by them innocently going about their lives.
- Is that what you do? Innocently go about your life?
- I try to. I'll tell you a story about the innocent, or rather, if you let me, I'll tell you several stories about the innocent and not so innocent.
- I'm listening. But talk a little louder, I can't hear with all the laughing coming from over there. Why do you go to this place?
- I'm convinced there's something to be learned from the people here. The guy you see sleeping across the street, wrapped in a blanket at the bus shelter, he's a regular customer.
- What can we learn from him?
- Our own future if we don't change our ways. If we're still here half hour after closing the crazy rich women will come sit outside with us. She'll start an argument with you which will end in her calling the police and accusing you of one crime or another: stealing her things, harassment, or disturbing the peace. She once, sitting outside here, cleared absolutely everyone off the terrace after calling the police and promising to accuse one and all. The Starbucks staff won't let her inside if they see her; sometimes she sneaks in. Another edifying person to be found here is the paparazzo trying to make himself famous as the unauthorized photographer of famous people. He gets angry and shouts at anyone who interrupts him.
- What can we learn from him?
- He asked me last time I saw him if I knew the book 'Catcher in the Rye'. Why did he ask? The liner notes of a CD from a rock band he's a fan of says one song is about Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of 'Catcher In The Rye'. Did I know the book?
- I've read it many times.
- Why? What's so good about it?
- It's a work of genius.
- Really? Should I read it?
- It's not for you.
- It's only for geniuses like you. What do you know about me? Nothing. The CD notes say 'protagonist': What's a protagonist?
- The main character. Holden Caulfield is a teenager having trouble deciding whether or not to give in and conform to the expectations of the adult world. He gets upset, breaks down. He can't stand 'phoneys', people who are false.
- That's me! I'm just like him, I get angry just like him. I knew it!
- You've managed to truly shock me with that claim. Holden gets riled up at the demand of phoneys that innocence be corrupted, you get angry when people challenge your phoniness you couldn't be happier with.
- Yeah? Better watch what you say.
- Or you'll do what, Mr. Innocent?
He wags his finger, enacting a parent reprimanding a child, gathers up his cameras and computer and goes off seeking better company. What do all these people hanging out in this neighborhood have in common?
- What?
- First let me tell you about more of these characters. They're not just here. The neighborhood is crowded with them. I encounter them as I make my way late night west to east through quiet streets of Beverly Hills. We'll start from here, a tour like we did in Westwood* but this time you don't  have to leave your seat. Before you arrived there was a guy sitting where you are now who confessed to me he'd just come from getting a two girl Tantric massage. Prostitution? Yep. The oldest profession. Next, where West Hollywood borders Beverly Hills, at the ultra expensive Bristol Farms supermarket, there's often this big tough guy who chants, 'Help an elderly Vietnam Vet'. If you pass on by without giving him money he shouts out at you, 'You're EVIL!' Last time, hoping to slip by unnoticed on my bike, I was honored by being told my mother is a Nazi and he hopes she dies soon.
- What's there to be learned from him? That we're evil?
- Some of us.
- What about the guy before, the one with the prostitutes? Evil too?
- You better believe it.** Down at where Santa Monica meets Wilshire, if you're there at around three in the morning you sometimes can see the crazy young gymnast who does jumps in the middle of the street when there appears a gap in the traffic, and when cars approach, does a kind of bull fight approach and confrontation at them and jumps away at the last moment. I forgot: before you get to that corner, there's the 60 year old Harvard educated lawyer who can be met outside the cigar smokers' bar closed up for the night, enjoying in solitude one last smoke. Yesterday I got off my bike to say hello. When I'd just come back from my disastrous trip to visit my brother in Thailand I'd been introduced to him by the deal-maker I told you about.*** Remember?
- Yes. You met at the drug store.
- Right. He got me over to his place, a luxury penthouse apt. He wanted me to know both his past wealth, the decades he was spending $100,000 a month, and his present state of jeopardy in which if he didn't come up with cash soon everything would be lost. He showed me his bill for the month's rent, $3800, told me the cost of all his furnishings. Pointed out his pictures of himself, usually shirtless, with celebrities from the time he was a muscle man TV star. In fact I remembered his TV appearances, was reminded how as I kid I was annoyed by his bandit's drooping mustache. Now he'd fallen on hard times, the investment deals he'd been doing since his TV days stopped working in our times' changed economy. The past five years he put his all into a final gigantic project for a golf course and residential suburb to be financed by the Chinese. It fell through, a complete loss. Not giving up, he'd set to doing something new, packaging together a mass of internet start ups for investment. That was how I came to be at his place. I'd had some start up ideas myself. He liked one of them a lot, and wanted me to pitch the idea to his lawyer friend who was also inviting over. The friend had the 5,000 cash he needed this month to cover rent and expenses and might loan him the money if he thought the idea was promising.
- Did he?
- No. I asked the lawyer if the deal maker had been thrown out of his penthouse. No, somehow the deal maker was paying his rent. How? Doing his deals. In fact, the lawyer tells me, he just came from there. And he, I ask, how was he doing? The deal maker had told me some things about him. Before Harvard Law he'd studied Chinese poetry. He'd fallen on hard times, was sleeping on his mother's couch, working at evicting people from their houses for a demonic real estate speculator, carrying around $50,000 in money orders because his bank accounts had all been attached. This night he tells me he things have gotten so bad for him he keeps losing all his cases. The judges don't listen to anything, even read arguments, they simply decide for the side that is richest and biggest and that's not his. Ok. Want to ask what we can learn from him? No? Let's keep going west. The day before yesterday, around the same early morning hour, I saw a man a block away rapidly approaching me. This proved to be an extremely well dressed, handsome man about thirty-five who evidently knows me though I don't know him. He asks me how the writing is going, tells me he's reading my work on the internet. I'm a genius, he says. He also says I'm dead.
- 'You're dead'. What did he mean?
- Dead to the material enticements of the world. I ask him where he is going, all the while trying to remember who he is. He's going to meet his girl. Where's your girl? At her apartment. Where's that? That way. He points opposite to the way he was going. Who was this guy? A drug dealer? A gigolo? I don't know. Want to know what you can learn from him?
- No!
- Continuing. At Holmby Park, on the other side of the L.A. Country Club. late nights you can meet a middle aged Russian man dressed all in black, a bulky man a little overweight, projecting belly encased in a tight fitting shirt. With him is a little dog he'd warned me against approaching. The dog loves only him, he says, no one else. He was abandoned: I could imagine what happened to him, he tells me. As Kant and Hegel said life is about power, everything else was a lie. Kant and Hegel said that? Yes, do you know the names? He was looking after the dog, it was his son's ex-girlfriend's. His son is a big time drug dealer. His son always takes care of his girls when he breaks up with them. He sends them to school, he buys them a house. His son lives in a two million dollar house in the Hollywood Hills. He, the father, himself also is a millionaire, though he still gets up at five in the morning to go over to his eighty plus year old parents' place he bought them. He went there to wash his father, who's alone while his mother vacations in Alaska. From his parents' place every morning he then goes to the apartment buildings he owns and sweeps out the hallways. From apartment building sweeping he then goes to the pawn shop his son bought but doesn't have time to manage. The life of a millionaire, he sighs. He was a millionaire because he was willing to do what it takes, whatever it takes, to get ahead. My problem, he says, is I'm not willing. That is correct. Like one Salinger character says of another, I thought of myself as 'intricately calibrated', my adjustments easily disrupted. I could like he did do the anything required of me to do, but I couldn't do it without losing calibration. I was in agreement with employers who by their use of profiles reveal their assumption some types of person have greater capacities than other types for some things, for if not, why profile?
- What abilities were you unwilling to risk losing?
- The ability to stay innocent,
- I'll call you Holden from now on.
- In response to which argument of my intricate calibration the Russian says '#!%-#!' I'm a spoiled American man. He was in prison in Siberia. His first job in L.A. was as an apartment manager. He stole supplies from the apartment's storage which he used setting himself up as a painter. His business grew, he took on employees, he bought apartment buildings, became a millionaire. But his drug dealing son was much richer than he was. He ran the pawn shop as a favor to his son. But not as a normal business man. He was a Russian, he had a heart. He asked the story of everyone who brought something in to pawn. He did everything he could to help them out, made extensions of the loan period before he sold. I ask him to tell me one story. This is the story. There was this dentist who started taking all his things to the pawn shop. What had happened? Well, a patient came in one day, asked for a cleaning. He did his usual inspection, found a few cavities, asked the patient if she wanted them filled. Yes. So he does the work, presents his bill, three hundred dollars. But, the patient protests, the ad she saw said 'introductory special, $39.95'. That was for a first cleaning, not cavities, the dentist explains. But he didn't tell her that, she protests. The discussion gets more and more animated, the dentist raises his voice. The patient runs out without paying and the next day goes over to the office of the dentistry board and files a complaint. They call him in, ask him to give his side of the story. He tells the story, getting angrier and angrier, getting angry finally at the board members for not understanding him. The board suspends his license until he competes an anger management course. He finds a special all weekend intensive course, sits through it, and on the Monday following goes to the school office for his certificate of completion. That will be $5,000, he's told. He explodes in anger at the anger management coarse leader, leaves without paying and without the certificate, and goes directly to the office of the dentistry board and complains to them about this school they'd sent him to. When they ask why he didn't ask the price first just like his patient he got angry at didn't ask him his charge, he gets furious at them and storms out of their office. They suspend his licence indefinitely. With nothing to do all day he takes to drink. With no income he has to sell his possessions to pay his rent and so comes into the pawn shop.
- Do you believe that story?
- No. It's much too neat. I don't believe any of it in fact, not the son the soft-hearted gangster, not the five apartment buildings. For all these people I'm telling you about life's all a big show, strangely sad in their cases because they don't have anyone to show off to except me, and I'm not on anyone's stage.
- You're Holden Caulfield, a fictional character.
- Their isolation makes it easier to see the meaningless of their vanity. They are ridiculous doing their part on the stage without the other players, in having to talk about themselves to me, who isn't even allowed on any stage. When others are playing complementary roles on stage up with them, the meaninglessness of their role play is there but our sight is distracted by the drama between roles of who wins whatever is being fought over in the script. The police and sheriffs laughing it up at midnight in the West Hollywood Starbucks you'd think would be right in their element in today's police state, but they too are fish out of water when they climb onto a stage other than that their job is performed on. This is dangerous situation, you have to watch out, be careful you don't change role from being the superfluous other cafe customer to becoming their work. You better not look too long at them or appear to guiltily look away when they have their eyes on you. You know Marshalls, the discount store over across from the Beverly Center? See these jeans?
- What about them?.
- The alternatives were going naked or buy a pair of pants. I gave in. I went over to the superstore, grabbed off the rack the first pair my size, and went to wait my turn in line to pay. A cashier beckons me forward, callling out, 'Next guest!' I ask him:
- I'm your guest?
- Yes.
- So I don't have to pay?
- Yes, you have to pay.
- But if I invited you to my house, I mean if I had a house, if I invited you over to be my guest for dinner I wouldn't ask you to pay.
- Here guests have to pay. Would you like a bag?
- As your guest or customer?
- You're funny. The bag is free.
After this conversation I went on the internet to research this important matter. Found in seconds a New York Times story right on topic, the decision of stores to begin calling their customers guests. The Times found that a small chain of stores in the mid-west was the pioneer in this change, which didn't really get going until the Disney conglomerate took it up. The chain store and Disney conglomerate claimed calling people guests is friendlier that calling them customers.
- Sure it is. But it's not true customers are their friends. They have to pay.
- Of course it's not true. I don't think it's true either that the businesses' intention was to be friendlier.
- What was their intention then?
- To confuse the distinction between what is done for money and what is done out of friendship. If you go to the public library in Beverly Hills you'll see a big sign hanging over the checkout counter that says 'Customer Service'.****
-. So at big business outlets paying visitors become guests, but at the public library, visitors who used to be called patrons, because as members of the public they are owners of public institutions and are entitled to free passage, are now treated like they have to pay for the right to visit, are customers.
- On one side, paying-visits invades the territory of non-paying visits, on the other side, non-paying visits are treated like paying-visits.
- Do you think the obscuring of the difference between paying- and non-paying visits is intentional?
- Yes. And far from being friendly, the goal is to deprive the word 'friend' and what it represents of clear meaning by confusing it with what is done for money.
- Because people whose lives are more about spending money than being with friends make better customers.
- Yes.
- And the police and sheriffs at Starbucks are there, in this new conspiracy against friendship you've invented, to make sure even cafes are no longer places for friends to meet but are places you consume and if you don't watch out you'll be a consumable offered to the forces of law and order hanging out there. As happened to your friend the Greek Orthodox Christian thrown out of UCLA, who didn't think such things were possible. What do you think, by the way, of his advocacy of Greek Orthodoxy?
- I sympathize with the idea that the messiah has already arrived, no need to make the earth again a paradise, the other world awaits. But why must I be subject to that particular story? There are many other stories with the same message. For example there's Holden Caulfield's message. He wants to get away from the world of phonies and do something good, wait in the field of rye below the place where children are at risk of falling and be there to save them. Why if this world is only instrumental to getting to the other world should there be any privileged story in this world? Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Buddhist, Sufi, etc. Each thinks it has the privilege, yet the way I see it none should have it. It doesn't matter at all which should have it so long as religion too should share the status of everything else in this world of only instrumental meaning, the world worth living in and talking about only to figure out the best way of getting out of it.
- What does your friend say to that?
- I'll have to ask him. I'll let you know.

Further Reading:
The Two Worlds
No One Is Coming
* Indifference
** Prostitution & Torture
*** While You've Been Gone
**** A Visit To The Library