The Saturday Morning Post #3

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter Two. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. One thing you did miss is that there was a major earthquake in the previous chapter. The next takes place in the aftermath.

THERE’S ALWAYS A WEI

The first thing I think of is 1994. At the time, I was living in a house in Woodland Hills, not that far from the epicenter, and it felt like someone picked the place up, dropped it, then shook it violently for a while until someone else took over and started shaking it harder. It really seemed like one earthquake on top of another. It was also long before dawn, right before 4:31 in the morning.

Today’s quake didn’t do double duty, but it certainly bounced and rolled like no one’s business. It was just past two thirty in the afternoon when it hit, and I was down in the laundry room in the basement of my place, talking to a couple of tenants, when the Earth moved.

One of them was from L.A. and instinctually ducked under a folding counter. The other was not, and turned into a statue, so I grabbed her and pulled her under the other counter. The machines danced a few inches away from the walls, plaster dust trickled from the roof, the rumbling was horrible, and the shaking was scary. The laundry room door slammed open and shut several times — proof that the old “Stand in a doorway” advice was not good. When everything finally settled, the lights had gone out. The L.A. native and I were laughing in relief, while our immigrant (from North Dakota) was crying her eyes out.

We consoled her, then grabbed the emergency flashlights that were plugged into the wall outlets. Best investment I ever made. They’re always fully charged, and when the power goes out, they turn on. Every room and hallway here had them. We made our way upstairs and to the lobby, then continued to the second floor and the dark hallway.

The only thing I could think about the whole time was whether my babies were safe. I was relieved to see that the second floor was still there. At this point, most of the doors of the occupied rooms had opened, and the residents were poking their heads out, two from each room holding flashlights. The same was probably happening downstairs in the studios.

“How are you doing, my children?” I asked, and they all eagerly answered, “All right, and you, Madam Wei?”

I swear that their enthusiasm keeps me alive. And I replied, “I’m fine, and here’s the news. No rent next month because of this disaster, but let’s put on a show!”

This was greeted with cheers and applause and genuine sounds of concern and, really, if this natural disaster seems to have done more damage than it felt like, then not only May, but June, July, August, and maybe even September might be free. And if the government doesn’t pony up… Well, I hate to charge people to learn, so let’s get back to that in six months.

The good news is that there are no injuries. Some of the dogs and all of the cats have gone into hiding, although Jun, our ten-year-old yellow Lab, is acting like we’re all playing some exciting game and she  wants in on it, and Chanming, the one-eyed, five-year-old German shepherd, is his usual stoic self about everything.

People and pack accounted for and safe, it’s time to start assessing the damage. Needless to say, anything that wasn’t nailed down is all over the place. Fortunately, I’d taken the great advice from friends to earthquake proof as much as possible, so that we didn’t have cabinets flying open or falling over, and all of the important things, like monitors, theater lights, sound and light boards, and so on were firmly nailed down, so to speak.

Our hanging lights were always triple-chained to the grids and gobos and gel frames were very securely attached to the units. Our catwalks were also anchored to the walls at both ends, unlike a lot of theaters I’d seen where they were suspended on chains and could swing freely. I could only imagine the kind of damage one of these could do to the paint and plaster if it slammed back and forth repeatedly, especially in a black box space like ours.

Alonzo, one of our chefs who had been in the middle of making lunch, confirmed that the automatic gas shutoff had done its job. Fortunately, he hadn’t been boiling or heating anything on the stove at the time, although three of the half-dozen six-foot long subs he’d been preparing to cut up and share with everyone had found their way to the floor, ingredients scattered and lost.

It’s probably about twenty minutes after the quake now, so probably about three. That gives us about four and a half hours to sunset, and close to five until the end of civil twilight, so I begin planning in my head.

While I don’t have the fondest memories of my homeland — at least, not its government — there are a few things rooted in me by my upbringing that are invaluable now. One is a sense of regimentation and focus, so the ability to know what to do and when to do it. We were also a country prone to massive earthquakes. When I was 20, a 7.8 quake destroyed the city of Tangshan, about a two hour drive west of Beijing. My university assembled a team of “volunteers,” and I’m sure you know what those quotes mean, although, honestly, most of us wanted to help anyway, because it was just in the nature of our upbringing: Your comrades need you now!

I learned more about disaster relief in the week that we were there than I ever thought I’d need to know. We set up emergency shelters, helped find survivors under the rubble, performed first aid, offered rudimentary counseling, ran our equivalent of what you’d call soup kitchens, and coordinated with various NGOs that arrived to help, as well as with the Red Army.

Ultimately, all we really wound up doing was helping the few survivors. Oddly enough, most of them were coal miners who had been underground at the time. Over a quarter million people died in that quake — possibly a lot more — and it’s called the second or third deadliest in recorded history. That’s for the planet, not for the country.

So I know my way around this stuff. The power is probably going to be out for at least three days if not more, and maybe intermittent when it comes back. There are five thirty-gallon water heaters in the building, so that would be enough drinking water for everyone for four days. We do have a pallet of bottled water in the back, so about 1,200 bottles, which is good for another nine days almost. The gas won’t be back on until someone comes out to physically reset the shut-off. Food in the fridges and freezers might last for a couple of days if we’re very judicious about opening the doors. Otherwise, we’re going to be dipping into the canned good so, other than tons of tuna salad, everyone is going to be mostly a vegetarian for the next few days.

The plan pops into my head, and I explain to everyone. First order of business, go grab the surviving sandwiches in the kitchen and be done eating in fifteen minutes. Then, we’re going to hit the streets. There are 40 of us, including me but not the chefs, so we’re going to split into four groups of 10, each one going a different cardinal direction for as many blocks as they can cover in half the time until they need to be back.

Our goal is to see what’s up with the rest of the neighborhood, and help whomever we safely can, reconvening here by 7:15 p.m., at which point the chefs, who’ve been guarding the fort, will see what kind of dinner they can whip up for us. At 7:45, we’re going to take our generator and lights out into the street, and perform for the neighbors — mostly some improv, with musical acts, and whatever choreo or scenes people are working on.

I explain my reasoning behind this, which my kids get instantly. “We are doing this to keep everyone’s morale up during these dark days, and we are going to do it every night until the power and some sense of normal comes back.”

That got enthusiastic applause.

When we all emerge into the surprisingly harsh daylight, it’s clear that things are not normal. We can hear car alarms and distant sirens, and smell smoke in the air. People are standing all up and down the block looking bewildered, and several buildings to our south have lost their façades or collapsed into the street. I’m amazed that our building looks so undamaged. Then again, it’s retrofitted many times over the year. That’s one of the reasons I bought it.

I remember a moment after the 1994 quake when I’d stepped outside and started chatting with a neighbor, and he told me, “Yep. The only time people in L.A. meet their neighbors is right after a disaster,” and he was right. I’d never seen half of these people before, but as my team headed south and started talking, I realized how many small business owners were in this neighborhood, along with tons of renters. The really funny thing was how many of them told me, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been meaning to come see something at your place, but never found the time.”

“Well,” I told them, “The show tonight is free. Come around just after sunset.”

We came to an old brick Korean Church that had splatted into the street and, unfortunately, the quake had hit right in the middle of their afternoon service. I had flashbacks to Tangshan as I looked at the dusty red pile and spotted a few hands frozen in death above the rubble. My best guess was that there were no survivors here unless the place had a basement, so I led my group on.

Farther down was a newer apartment building that had, for want of a better term, knelt north. The area over the entrance to the garage had collapsed, so that the upper three stories were not level. Basically, the north end third floor was at the level of the south end second floor. Most of the tenants here seemed to be standing in front, but I decided to ask: “How many residents do you think there are, and is anyone obviously missing?”

There was silence and muttering, and then one woman raised her hand. “Cindy in 306,” she said. “She’s retired and kind of a shut-in, but takes care of everyone’s dogs, so she’s probably home.”

“Thanks,” I tell her. “Oh, by the way, I’m Alice.”

“Edna,” she introduces herself. “I own this place. Well… this mess, I guess.”

“Where is her apartment?” I ask.

“There,” the woman points. It’s the top right corner, the part that has dropped a story.

“So… that front corner apartment?” I ask. She nods. “Right,” I reply, then turn to Adam Melendez. He’s one of my current favorite tenants. Mostly a dancer, also a poet. He’s gayer than anything, doesn’t apologize, and is incredibly masculine. He’s also 6’5” and works out. He could probably bench press a pick-up truck. In other words, the ideal rescue team member. “Come with me. We have work to do.”

He nods and follows me without hesitation. We pass through the entrance — the glass lobby doors have been thrown off their hinges, so no need to deal with buzzers that wouldn’t work anyway, then pass into the open court and take the wobbly stairs up to the third floor. When we get there, it’s like walking down a steep hiking trail, but we take it slowly, because every step is met with a complaint from some creaky board or another. It truly feels like one wrong move will bring the whole house of cards down.

We finally get to the last door, which is marked 306, although it’s ceased functioning as a door. When the floor collapsed, everything else went wonky, so the door itself has been ejected into the hall and the jamb is a weird parallelogram. Square peg in a funky hole. We move the door out of the way and enter the apartment, only to find ourselves involuntarily skating down into the far left corner, which is where the bedroom is.

“Anybody here?” I call out.

“Help!” comes the weak voice.

I smile to Adam and he takes my arm and helps me walk down the incline and through another wrecked doorway. Once inside, we find the woman, Cindy, who is basically lying in the corner of the room which is now like the bottom of sno-cone cup, if that makes sense, and it’s clear that she can’t get out. She’s maybe in her early 60’s with long blonde hair and black polyester off-the-rack dress. No shoes, and very much an Earth-mother vibe. I can smell the ashtray from here, which is so anachronistic that it boggles my mind — I thought that everyone in L.A. quit smoking around twenty years ago.

Anyway… she looks so grateful and Adam has no problem working his way down into the corner and then picking her up like she’s nothing. She fawns over him a little bit until he tells her, “Wow, my boyfriend would love to hear that,” at which point she just beams and says, “All the best boys are gay,” and this makes me feel all the better about saving her.

We manage to get her back up the hall, down the stairs, and out the door and, again, get applause, which surprises me because, really, isn’t this what we, as humans are supposed to do? Why are you applauding things that should not be extraordinary?

All right, maybe another culture gap. But, onward, as we continue our rescue trek. I think we’ve made it about ten blocks when Janisha, whom I’ve appointed time monitor, calls it. “Halfway to sunset.” There’s a building in flames about three blocks away that I’d love to help with but, reluctantly, I accede and announce, “All right. Time to head home and pick up what we’ve missed.”

We make it back at five minutes after seven, behind one group but before the other two, which both make it back before seven fifteen. Inside, we find out that our chefs have whipped up an amazing chicken salad — five pound cans of chicken plus gallons of mayo (which does not need to be refrigerated, contrary to popular belief), — along with celery, parsley, onions, paprika, lemon juice, and tomatoes. They stuff this into a bunch of pita bread they had on hand, then side it up with coleslaw and tons of canned corn. Although the corn isn’t heated, it is buttered, thanks to the pump-jugs of the liquid stuff we put on the popcorn at our theater concessions.

After we eat, we head to the street to perform and, thanks to all four of our teams having informed everyone along the way that the show is happening, we have quite the crowd waiting as we come outside. We decide to use the sidewalk in front of the theater as our stage, and begin with a musical number, something one of our members has been working on, but which seems appropriate now, a song called, “Walls Came Down.”

Metaphorically, it’s about the end of divisions between people, but taken literally, I suppose it applies to an earthquake. Either way, though, in the wake of this quake, those walls between people have come down even as the walls of buildings have. By the time it’s over, people are crying and hugging each other and applauding. Then, we launch into the improv and get people laughing.

My one big rule when we do improv is this: “Don’t be dirty.” Maybe it’s my Chinese heritage in action, maybe not, but there’s really no need to be rude to be funny. In fact, you can be funnier when you don’t have that crutch — and tonight, my kids follow that rule right down the line, and the audience loves it. After the improv, it’s a mini dance concert, an intermission, and then some solo singers and bands. After that, there are some acting scenes, both dramatic and comedic, before another intermission and a late night improv show.

And we only have three aftershocks during the whole thing, one minor one in the middle of the first improv, which the players manage to incorporate beautifully, a slightly bigger one during the first intermission, and the third moderate one about three minutes before we end the show and invite everyone to hang out and chat. In my experience, this is unusual. We did have the one big aftershock half an hour after the first — that’s almost a guarantee — but haven’t felt much since. Then again, when you’re walking around, sometimes it’s hard to feel them.

It’s about 11:30 when we’re all done, and have told the audience to keep coming back as long as the power is out, and then we all head inside and upstairs and to bed. It’s sort of surreal watching the flashlights dance up the stairs and eventually blink out as everyone vanishes into their rooms. I’m finally left with the chefs, Alonzo and Aki, who assure me that everything will be fine. I’m not so sure, but let them retreat to their rooms, then head out into the street, where I listen to the silence, and take a deep breath of the smoke and dust and everything else noxious that this event has blown into the air.

Los Angeles is not going to be the same for a long time, but I am going to do my best to help fix it.

Photo credit: Wilshire Boulevard, Korea Town, Los Angeles, ©  2016 Jon Bastian

The Saturday Morning Post #2

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter Two. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. Also,  these are not the entire chapters, just a taste of the first act of each.

* * *

SOUTHBOUND TO DOWNTOWN

This job actually turned out to be pretty sweet. All I have to do is go downstairs and across the street every morning to catch the B Train to Pershing Square, then take the short walk to my boss’s condo. Normally, I catch the 8:11 to get there. Technically, I could take the 8:23, although it wouldn’t allow me time to grab and eat my usual breakfast at Starbuck’s at 5th and Hill before making it to his place right next to Bunker Hill.

The schedule changes when he has late night/early morning meetings with overseas clients, and last night was one of them, in which case I catch the 10:11 train. Since he shifts his lunch schedule on these days, I shift my breakfast. The only rule on these days is that I don’t enter the condo/office before 11 a.m. on the dot, although I also seem to earn bonus points for being on the dot. As usual, I wave my phone and the door automatically unlocks. I know well enough to stay on the southwest corner, where the kitchen and offices are located, until he eventually emerges, usually around 11:45, from the other side of the place.

Those 45 minutes are mostly taken up by me dealing with toks, messages, and other random crap. I usually finish with all of it just about the time that my boss finally emerges from his quarters with a cheery, “Good morning, Adrian. How are you doing?”

I inevitably lie and say, “Oh, great. And you?” And he generally answers in one of three ways. “Meh,” “Fantastic,” or “Amazing.” I’d long since learned that only the latter answer is desirable, because it means that he’d sealed a really great deal the night before, and he tends to be rather generous when that happens.

Oh. His name is Toby Arnott, by the way. International marketing. He’s 35, which makes him only eight years older than me. I admire him and I fucking hate him.

“I’m doing okay,” I reply to him. “And you?”

“Amazing,” he answers, and I swear it gives me an erection. Why not? The first time he gave me a bonus after “amazing” it paid off my student loans. The second time, I managed to make a down-payment on the condo in a NoHo hi-rise I’m now living in. Oh, sure, I have two rent paying roomies, a lovely gay couple in their 30s who help with the mortgage, but I don’t mind. And my view of the NoHo Metro, Kaiser’s Medical Office Building, and points south and east is amazing.

By the third and fourth times, I decide to be smart and squirrel the money away as an emergency rainy day fund. Today is the fifth time.

He taps away on his phone, gives me a smile and raised eyebrow, then gives one final tap before he waltzes off to the kitchen. I hear the incoming ding but don’t dare swipe for the longest time. I mean, knowing him, it could say anything from “You’re fired” to “Here’s half my company.”

As I hear him happily whistling over the sound of the gurgling coffee maker, I finally bite the bullet and open the message, figuring it would be something trivial.

It isn’t. Every other bonus he’s ever given me has been five digits. This one is six, and I’m not sure whether to pass out, cum in my pants, run out the door screaming “I quit,” or all of the above.

Oh, and the first digit in that number is a six as well. If we’re going to get technical, the exact number is $623,451.26. I later learn that this is the net amount on an actual payment of $1,000,000, but the real question is “Why?”

See… guys my age get really suspicious when older people — men or women — get really generous. Our natural inclination is to think, “Okay. You’re paying because you want to fuck me, right?” And yeah, while I consider myself basically straight, in the past, and I’ll admit it, there were times when I took some cash to make ends meet and did things I wouldn’t normally have done.

Honestly, I consider it all to be training as an actor, nothing more nor less. Can’t act it if you haven’t done it, right?

But, anyway, I look at this number and my head is swimming. Is this real? Is he fucking with me? I know for a fact that he’s straighter than I am, so he’s not trying to get into my pants. And it’s just a number on screen, not a deposit to my bank yet. But if it’s real… holy fuck. Condo paid off tomorrow. Shit, everything paid off tomorrow. And condo and balance turned into the next step up. A house — which is generally an impossible dream for someone my age in this town.

Toby comes out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee in one hand and two fake egg McMuffins on a plate in the other that he makes in the really over-priced machine in there. He gives me a smile and a nod.

“Great work, Adrian. By the way, that should have hit your account by now.”

He heads back around to the residence part of the condo and, as soon as he’s gone, I’m logging into my banking app on my phone. My hands start shaking and my knees go weak as soon as I see that he’s not lying. That exact amount has been direct-deposited into savings, just like my regular paychecks, only a lot bigger.

I also start getting messages from a VP at my bank immediately saying that we should meet to discuss my change in finances. I ignore them as fast as they come in.

It also takes all of my willpower to not scream out “Holy fucking shitballs, yes!” But then I feel something else.

On the one hand, it’s been great working for this guy. Toby has taught me a lot and treated me well and, to be honest, the hours are easy, there’s paid time off and benefits, I get to run a lot of errands for him, meaning I get to drive his Tesla, and, face it, the bonuses are ridiculous. Nobody my age is making this kind of bank without being, well, a major asshole or a full-time porn star.

Although that’s kind of my one hesitation. See, Toby tells me all about what he does for a living but, at the same time, he doesn’t seem happy about it at all. “Kid,” he often tells me, “Don’t ever go into marketing. It’s the quickest way to lose your soul.”

“Yeah,” I want to reply, “But it sure as hell seems like the quickest way to make a shitload of money.”

I don’t reply this, though, because, apparently, the “shitload of money” part has ceased to interest him. And, of course it has, because why else would he have any interest in throwing so much money my way when he has no interest in throwing anything else (i.e. his cock) in the same direction?

There is one thing I’ve learned about him in the year and a half I’ve been here, and it’s that he tends to get very generous with me when he’s feeling very guilty about something else. I know that he’s making these crazy deals all the time. “Amazing” means I’m getting a bonus. “Fantastic” means he made a deal, but I’m not getting anything. “Meh” means he didn’t make any deals, although I’m never sure whether it’s because he didn’t have anything scheduled or that he didn’t manage to do it.

The first time I got an “amazing” and a bonus was about six months in, but about half an hour after that, he started telling me this story about something that had happened to him the night before. I didn’t make the connection at the time, nor did I after my second bonus. But the third time around, I realize that these are the only times he shares things like this with me. Otherwise, it’s all business talk and advice on marketing.

I don’t really remember the details of any of those stories other than they all involve Toby having a sense of failing to help someone when he could have, and while he never makes it explicit, I get the impression that he’s giving me the money to make himself feel better about what he considers a failing.

So this morning, as I remember how terribly grateful I am for the AC up here because it’s another scorcher of an April day, I get started on updating Toby’s calendar based on toks, various texts he’s sent me on priorities, so-mes and my own refined sense of how he does things and what order he prefers to deal with them. But I know that I’m not going to make it that far, because in about fifteen minutes, I’m probably going to be getting the latest Toby Tale of Failure and, sure enough, he comes out of the other side of the condo exactly fifteen minutes later like clockwork, returns the plate to the kitchen, asks me what’s next on his agenda — vid con with New York in twenty minutes to recap last night’s deal — and then casually leans on the wall next to my desk and starts telling his story, almost as if he’s delivering a monologue to no one.

I’ll spare you the details because I also don’t feel comfortable sharing Mr. Arnott’s personal 411s, but I will say that it involved a very late-night celebratory run for ice cream that had an unfortunate ending for an individual not my boss — and not his fault — but which still apparently left him feeling very, very guilty for not having done the right thing.

It’s moments like this that I really wonder whether he isn’t a saint who just went into the wrong business. I mean, if I felt one half as guilty about shit (in this case, literal) on the day-to-day as he does about these minor things that inspire him to basically gift huge sums of money to his personal assistant, I wouldn’t make it through a week.

It’s weird, really. I mean, I’m just a starving wannabe actor who lucks out with this gig at the right time. Since I’d arrived in L.A. five years ago, I’d been living in this funky sort of art commune in Koreatown. It was an ancient two-story 1920s brick and stone office building that some crazy-rich woman bought and converted into a weird hybrid of hostel and studio. Her name was Wei-Tso Yung. Although she had adopted the American name of Alice, everyone called her Madam Wei.

She had apparently been a big deal in Peking Opera back in China up until the 1980s, but then the form had started to fall out of favor for a lot of reasons. She had tried to explain it to me once, and the best I could gather is that the language it was performed in had become archaic and modern audiences didn’t understand it. Think Shakespeare to American ears, only times ten. The storylines also pre-dated Maoist China, which became problematic.

When the whole thing was modernized, especially with creative duties moving away from the performers and to the writers and directors, she rebelled, which didn’t go over well with the government. While on a concert tour to Singapore, she sought asylum, and eventually wound up in America, where she taught singing and movement successfully for a number of years, along with performing with a touring Peking Opera Company in America that followed the traditional ways — if you had to translate it anyway, the archaic language didn’t matter. She had also invested in various franchised businesses which had turned out well for her, mostly nail salons, liquor stores that made most of their money selling lottery tickets, and photographers specializing in actors’ headshots.

And so, when it came time to settle down to do what she really wanted, Madam Wei decided that it was to use her wealth to help creative people. And why not? By her calculations, she could spend twenty million a year, get nothing back, and make it to a hundred and twenty without going broke…

The Saturday Morning Post #1

Now for a slight change of pace and a bit of creative writing, because that’s what I do when I’m not being less fictional here. The following is the first half of the first chapter of what became a 90,000 word novel set in Los Angeles and comprising 13 short stories capped by a short novella that brings all of the characters and story threads together in a massive wedding celebration at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and in Grand Park in downtown L.A.. And, as it worked out, each successive short story was taken over by the point of view of someone introduced or referenced in the previous story.

This whole thing happened because of a late-night shopping trip to a chain drug store near my house that’s open 24 hours. I don’t even remember what I needed to pick up, but I found myself in line behind a middle-aged man who was buying two twenty-four packs of TP at that hour, and nothing else, and he seemed to be in a bit of a rush, so of course the line took forever.

Originally, I was only going to write the short story because the whole concept popped into my head as a whole before I even finished my transaction, but once I had written it, I had to ask myself, “Okay. Where does this character go next?” I found the answer to that question in another character starting their day in the next story, and so that set the structural pattern

None of the bad things in the first story happened in real life, but that’s why we write stories. The parameters I set for myself were that it took place in very identifiable locations in Los Angeles and happened a decade in the future. And, slight spoiler, an earthquake does figure into things because, L.A., of course — but only a few days after I finished the first draft, we had an earthquake in Southern California of exactly the magnitude and in the approximate location as my fictional one. You’re welcome! Now on with Chapter One.

* * *

THE ROCKY ROAD FROM WALGREENS

I can’t believe how crowded it is at four in the morning in the 24-hour Walgreens on 7th in the Jewelry district. It’s your typical urban storefront business, taking up the entire ground floor of a 12-story building erected in 1923. Once upon a time, its footprint probably comprised multiple stores. Then again, in those days, specialization was everything, so that the bakery, butcher, deli, dry goods, grocer, liquor, newsstand, pet, pharmacy, stationary, and toy departments were their own individual businesses.

There’s a reason they call them supermarkets, superstores, big boxes and… face it, those terms are retro. I really mean Amazon Alphabet. Same idea. Everything available under one big metaphorical roof, delivered by the same drone army. Except for those of us, rich and poor, who buy local. Like me, this very morning.

Above the store are tons of apartments. I’d read somewhere one time that this building has the equivalent of just over five acres of living space in it. For some reason, most likely the lack of proximity to schools, there are also several hundred registered sex offenders living in it. This might explain why this particular Walgreens has adult magazines, although they come wrapped in discreet black plastic with only the title logo, date, price, and UPC code printed on the outside in stark white. Well, UPC in black bars in a white box, but there’s nary a VQR or AQR code showing, for reasons that should be obvious.

As I wait in line, I glance out the windows, not missing the irony that this Walgreens is directly across the street from a similarly-situated Rite Aid — they’re direct competitors — although it’s only the Walgreens that is open 24 hours a day.

I can’t believe that anything down here is open all night long, but a few years back, right when they finished the Purple Line extension, the city started paying pharmacies in certain areas to stay open, providing them with armed, on-duty LAPD officers, two per storefront.

The real razón de ser for the extended hours is that the city also subsidizes them to keep a good-sized supply of naloxone auto-injectors on hand to be administered for free by the rotating staff of ever-present nurses (these subsidized by the county) in order to prevent yet another needless opioid death. Yes, this sort of defeats the whole “auto” part of “injector,” but by the time most of these people make it in the door, they’re on the edge of not being able to do anything ever again.

Before the program, it wasn’t uncommon to walk down certain city blocks in the morning and have to step over the bodies. They were as prolific as those e–rental scooters had once been, and just as annoying. At least the scooter companies had all folded after the perfect triple disaster. First, pissed-off residents had started vandalizing and trashing the things almost from the beginning, one annoyed citizen becoming an infamous folk hero for tossing them into the Venice canals. Certain cities banned them outright, starting with Beverly Hills, then extending to Burbank, Glendale, Malibu, and West Hollywood. Next, an endless parade of hackers kept pumping out what they called “Scoot Free” apps that would fool the system into not charging riders, and they would defeat every new patch as soon as it came out in the longest known run of continuous Zero Day Exploits ever perpetrated.

This was just about the point that the original scooters that had survived started to hit 5,000 miles of use, at which point a terrible flaw suddenly revealed itself. Because some manufacturers had gone cheap, the batteries in the things would explode with enough force to launch the entire handlebar assembly into the air at least a hundred feet — or about thirty-two if the average hapless rider didn’t think to let go. Ironically, this was one of the few times that obesity saved lives by reducing the launch altitude to a survivable height (yay, physics?), although dislocated shoulders were very common.

Those companies had all either gone bankrupt or moved to other endeavors before the summer of 2025. But that really has nothing at all to do with why this Walgreens is so crowded at four in the  morning on a Tuesday in April. I’m thirteenth in line with two checkers on duty behind the dozen registers and, it being four in the morning, everyone looks extra bad — especially more so under the fluorescent lights. I’m trying to imagine what circle of hell this resembles through the 16K HD cameras that are watching us all from every direction when I notice the customer in front of me.

He’s twelfth in line, and he has only two items — both of them family-size twelve-packs of toilet paper that I can see are labeled “triple-ply” and “ultra-absorbent.” (Ah, “ultra” — that super meaningless advertising buzzword!) I look at his face, general demeanor, and hollow desperation in his eyes, and put it together quickly. Junky. Up until probably this morning, when for some reason he couldn’t score, and the inevitable end result of suddenly going off of a powerful constipating agent is probably just starting to kick in and he knows it.

Well, isn’t this going to be fun?

I shift the pint of Häagen-Dazs rocky road from my right hand to my left to warm up my fingers and wonder how long this is going to take. My ice cream run is an occasional indulgence, although it’s usually just in and out. I have no idea why tonight is so different. Still, I know I have time, since they keep the freezers cold enough here that the ice cream stays at brick consistency for ages.

On the other hand, the glacial pace of the line isn’t giving me any confidence. I have to wonder what the hell all these people are doing up at this hour. In my case, it’s simple. I had business to conduct online in real-time with Hong Kong, Melbourne, and London simultaneously, and the only time that synced them up was a window that had started two hours ago, even if it meant that Melbourne had to stay a bit past office hours. I’m used to it, everything turned out very well, and so my ice cream run was a bit of a celebration of a job well done.

As for the rest of these people, though? It’s doubtful that any of them have just completed a multi-billion dollar deal. Most of them seem to have come here desperately seeking relief from some great physical malady. I can see that a lot of them clutch small cardboard boxes that are strapped to security devices three times their size.

Small enough to steal easily, expensive enough to care about — ergo, cures for the torments that steal the sleep of humankind. You never see those security devices on playing cards or Scotch tape, either of which can vanish into a pocket in a second. And the customers’ distresses were etched deeply into their faces and even distorted their bodies. Hell, if I were a casting director, half of these people would make it onscreen for the next Zombie or Medieval Plague thing to be shot. The other half would probably land on the exciting new reality show Poor Life Choices!

Meanwhile, the flat screens are everywhere around us, scrolling through a series of happy images of stock-photo people of all possible demographic combinations as they enjoy freedom from acne, allergies, arthritis, athlete’s foot, bloating, constipation, cramps, depression, diarrhea, ED, hemorrhoids, migraines, social anxiety, and more. (Name your malady, it’s up there.) All of these seem to involve exuberant poses on stark white backgrounds or frolicking somewhere in nature with an implied loved one or family. The predominant color palette outside of white and various tones of human flesh involves “serious medicine” blue and “snap out of it” red, both of which happen to be Walgreens logo colors.

What? I’m in the psychology of marketing. I know how this shit works: All too well, especially on those who haven’t been vaccinated against it. But as I stand here waiting for the line to take one more Sisyphean step on its way up to the summit of catastrophe, I realize that I’m standing in a pile of anti-vaxxers, to use the quaint term from my college days before we got real and called them what they really are: pro-diseasers. Except that these people don’t avoid vaccinations against the diseases we finally did kill (again) like measles and polio. They embrace the ones we still can’t kill, like capitalism, commercialism, and corporatism, all of which are ultimately fatal.

Well, fatal unless you’re actively spreading them, in which case they confer a weird immunity on you which is called wealth. But that’s neither here nor there. And, anyway — ooh. Look at all the shiny hope they’re advertising on those screens!

And as the people in line distract themselves with the magic totems of HEALTH and HAPPINESS and SATISFACTION and LOVE and SEX and POWER being projected at them, I start to distract myself with the people in line and, sure enough, it’s a parade of all of the typical personas we create and manipulate in the lab before we take them into the field.

Oh. Pardon my jargon. A “persona” is a profile created by marketing people to describe a segment of the target audience for a particular brand, product, or industry. Generally, a company will have three or four, ranked in order from most loyal customer down to “not loyal, but still buys our shit.” And yes, thank the Lords Zuckerberg and Brin, because creating personae became so much easier once social media exploded and everyone became all the more willing to unknowingly complete marketing surveys with every single click. What? You think those free personality quizzes are there just out of the kindness of someone’s heart? Nope.

Remember these important words: “If a company is willing to give you something for free, then you are the product.” If you’re fine with selling yourself for nothing, then great. It makes my job much, much easier.

A consequence of this, though, is that I’m always hunting personas in the wild and, like I said, this place is full of them.

Look right now — there’s a “Karen.” She’s with checker number two. Well, Karen is the general industry term. In my shop, we refer to her as “Expired Yoga Pants.” I watch as she wastes a good ten minutes predictably bringing up the “Nordstrom Argument,” as in, “You should give me what I want because Nordstrom will refund anything without a receipt!” I wonder if she knows that a policy like that would drive a company out of business fast.

TL;DR: Nordstrom was infamous for allegedly actually giving refunds for anything, whether they sold it or not, with the classic example being a tire, or tires, or snow tire, or snow tires, returned for a cash refund from either an experienced clerk, a new and confused clerk, or the founder of the store himself, in either Nome, Fairbanks, or Seattle. In other words, the story is complete bullshit, even though you’ll hear it in business classes to this day as an example of “The customer is always right.”

By the way, “the customer is always right” is also bullshit. The correct version is “you should always make the customer feel like they’re right.” A huge difference, because you maintain goodwill either way, although the correct version is generally impossible to achieve with a Karen.

Now, while I’m watching Expired Yoga Pants go into high dudgeon at the young woman behind the counter, I realize that the guy in front of me has started nodding up and down, and I can hear him saying the rosary under his breath in Spanish, picking up the words “Santa Maria, madre de Dios ruega por nosotros los pecadores…”

“Perdóneme, señor,” I ask him, “¿Usted está enferma?”

He glances at me with a mixture of surprise and suspicion — white guy speaks Spanish? — then replies quickly, “No, no señor. Estoy bien. Sólo es que está muy temprano.”

Before I can reply, our conversation is ended when the customer at the counter pulls the ultimate “Karen” and screams, “I want to talk to your manager,” I can almost hear some of the other people around me shrug in glee when the tiny transwoman behind the counter, who can’t be more than 19, quietly replies, “I am the manager. I won’t be talked to like that. Get the fuck out of my store. And don’t come back. Bitch.”

So much for the customer always being right. Sometimes, the business is so much more right.

Expired Yoga Pants huffs out without her goodies and, I suppose, if everyone in this line at four in the morning on a Tuesday in April weren’t so desperate to check out and get relief, there might have been some kind of applause. Or at least smiles.

All the time that “Karen” was taking up the manager’s time, the other checker is being monopolized by… well, there’s no marketing persona for this one in my industry because, frankly, we don’t care, so we don’t even spend time collecting their data. At least my shop came up with a creative name for them — “Bathtubs.” As in… they’re usually white, mostly empty, going out of style, and circling the drain.

Yeah, cruel maybe, but they’re not a victim of marketing, they’re a victim of capitalism and time — although not quite a victim in the sense you’d think. My grandfather told me that what I’d heard about his father was true: When people back then retired, they could afford to do all kinds of shit. Travel. Maybe go back to school and learn new things. This bathtub’s generation wasn’t victimized by capitalism and time by having too little of either. Rather, he was victimized by having too much of both.

People like him are also victims of themselves. They grow old and die because they refuse to stay young and think.

Casinos, cruise lines, hotels, manufacturers of all kinds of assistant devices, pharmaceutical companies, and resorts market to these people hand over fist. Why? Because the good times of three quarters of a century ago meant that they actually retired with lots of money and pensions they could live on and they probably owned real estate that they bought for a few thousand dollars that is now worth a few million. I don’t deal with those industries, although I’d guess that they probably call their versions of their personas Thurston and Lovey — either that or Rich Uncle Pennybags.

But those people must have been a total fantasy, right? I’ve heard rumors that they existed, but I think they all finally died out around the turn of the century. The ones that survive now, the bathtubs, are their kids more likely. And it’s really sad to see how being forgotten by society grinds them down to… stubs, really. Or… no, there’s probably a better word (note to self: pitch this idea tomorrow, although we’ll never market to it) Yo-yos. An alleged toy from their youth that describes what they do — they keep coming back to what they know.

Which is why I watch this old man pause for at least twenty seconds between every step of this fucking transaction, and it makes me want to throw things at him.

Clerk: “That will $55.23.”

(Take your time to view a streamer on your dev here.)

Yo-Yo: “Fifty… fif… uh?”

(Loop that vid about four times, we’ll get back to you.)

Clerk: (heroically) “Yes. Yes. How do you want to pay?”

Yo-Yo: “Oh… kay…”

And then begins the epic drawing of the sword. No, sorry… the wallet. The ancient wallet full of actual money that is laboriously pulled Excalibur-like from one of the pockets of the ill-fitting and ridiculously colored shorts that this Yo-yo wears over black socks and sandals. Yes, it’s on a chain. Yes, it has too many snaps and zippers, and yes, it’s as much a mystery to him today as it was the day that his granddaughter gave it to him ten years ago because she had no other ideas and found it when she stopped to get FroYo in a strip mall on the way to his 75th birthday party.

This is about the point where I resist the urge to ask him how he even got here or if he knows what year it is. Hell, what century? And if you think that’s being snarky, sorry. But by the time I’m that old, I’m pretty sure we’ll have cured it, and migrated off of the planet anyway.

Or we’ll all be dead. Did I mention that, a week ago, it snowed here? And today it was 110. Four in the fucking morning and it’s still 85 degrees out. In April. A week after it snowed.

Between the time that “Karen” has come and gone and Yo-Yo is halfway to counting out two dollars, some kid who’s probably about fifteen hits the other counter. He’s riding a one-wheel, busily dictating a text into the headphone/mic dangling from his left ear, and has about fifteen items in his basket. Damn if he doesn’t get them all out to be scanned in something like ten seconds, is swiping the pring on his left hand over the paypoint even before the checker announces the total and has bagged everything before she smiles and says, “Have an okay day!”

He was in and done in less than half a minute. God, I love this generation, whatever they decide to call it, although one commentator, I forget who, suggested Generation Yuzz, because that was the first letter “Beyond Z” in the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. I suppose it would also work as Generation Yass, because these kids get shit done fast.

Oh yeah — kids his age fall under a persona we call “Jacobella,” named for the two most common baby names of the decade they were born in, and nicely also delineating the idea that they really don’t believe in any kind of binary designation, whether it comes to gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, political belief, religion, or… anything. They are definitely not generation “Either/Or.” They are generation “Yes, and more.” And they are the first generation which we have not broken down by gender or sexual orientation because, honestly, that would be impossible and pointless.

They’re a tricksey bunch for marketers because they’d rather spend their money on experiences, preferably ones they can share with their friends, or spend it on loved ones or give it away to charity. Of course, the oldest of them are only just about to graduate high school, so they’re living at home, and the youngest of them haven’t been born yet, but they’ve been monetizing their lives since at least fourth grade and will probably either live at home until well into their 30s or move into group homes with at least twenty people sharing an open loft or warehouse space in the seedier parts of the edges of the centers of town, like DTLA.

In other words, in five years, about six blocks south of here, between Pico and the 10 and Hope and Lebanon, is going to be full of Yuzzes, but that will only last for about five years before the Millennials smell money and gentrify the hell out of that place, too.

But I do digress… The end result of a Jacobella following up the “Karen” and beating out the Yo‑Yo is two customers down, eleven to go, and I could continue to tick off the marketing personas all night long, except I won’t, because when we got to ten to go (another Yuzz, only buying one thing, in and out, five seconds), something I should have predicted happened.

Remember the guy in front of me? The one buying bulk TP and nothing else at that hour? The one with the wild eyes and desperate look? I pegged it — a junky who’d suddenly been knocked out of the saddle, and was soon going to face one really, really major need.

See, when you’re on any variation of the opiates that don’t kill you, a very interesting thing happens. Your intestines nope out, your asshole shuts up for the week, and everything in your digestive system turns into cement. Boom. Locked. Your anus treats your shit like it’s the gold in Fort Knox.

All well and good, until somebody lets the Night Watch go, at which point it doesn’t take long before the dragon melts the walls, the castle gates open up and the troops all flee. (Sorry about the old streamy metaphors, but I had a nostalgic rewatch of that classic HBO tits and dragons series a couple of weeks ago. )

The tub of ice cream in my hand has just barely started to soften, but I can tell by El Vaquero’s expression that his stool has gotten a lot softer, and he’s not going to make it through the gauntlet of remaining personas, which include such gems as All the Things, Chatty, Coupons, another Karen, Price Check, Sloth, and “What?”

When he’s about eighth in line, I hear the quiet but unmistakable, “¡Chingadas!” so I calmly step back…

If you’d like more from the rest of the book, let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading.

Photo Credit: City Hall, DTLA, taken by the author, © 2017 Jon Bastian