In the grade-school lunch line, I watched Jeremy pick up steaming Tater Tots out of their heated container. He didn’t use the provided tongs, but instead jabbed at the golden nuggets with his deformed hands. He had webbed fingers. The pointed nubs were good at skewering small, soft objects, but made for unsightly buffet utensils. If that wasn’t enough, Earl, one of the kids bussed in from the slums, whipped out his pecker when he was bored and performed spirited puppet shows. It was funny, but not a great appetizer. From then on, lines symbolized the oddness of life—humans at their strangest and most desperate. And throughout life, I’ve tried to avoid them.
Despite my aversion to crowds and lines, I headed to Los Angeles anyway. L.A. has always seemed a daunting place: The city is one big line. A building is not simply entered, and like a boring rite of passage, you wait.
In line for a taping of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, a wiry kid with greasy hair (who looked like a nerdier version of Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation) ate his chocolate-chip cookie with an unparalleled enthusiasm. He looked at the cookie, smiled, took a nibble, closed his eyes, let a crumb dangle from his lower lip, and then with an overexaggerated tongue, scooped it up with a wet grin. By the time Melissa Etheridge took to the stage, I was too distracted to enjoy her post-feminist Christmas ballad.
Later, during the hour-long wait at Pink’s hot dogs in Hollywood, I stood behind a homeless man who, whenever he moved, released a thick scent of body odor that mingled with the smell of onion rings coming from the deep fat fryer. Every now and then he’d stick his hand down his pants and then smell his fingers. By the time I ordered, the pastrami and hot-dog burrito seemed like a very bad idea.
Near the trip’s end, I dropped off a friend at the Burbank airport. The crowded terminal looked like a Twisted Sister video. Red and yellow lights flashed, horns honked, people darted back and forth. There was a thick line of cars and pedestrians. I put the car into park and watched a blond woman pick the wedgie out of her skirt. A man bit his girlfriend’s ear and she laughed. An old lady’s wig sat lopsided on her head. An officer banged on my window, shaking his head. “Go, go, go. You have to go now,” he said with gritted teeth.
“So is everyone else,” he said. “Get out.”
“Fuck you,” I said, putting the car into gear. As I slid past the officer, he yelled something, and then punched my window with his balled up fist.