The Saturday Morning Post #14, Finale

Here is the final installment of the novella. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top with excerpts from the short stories here.

TAKING HOPE

The crowd started to thin out after A-Pop left, mostly because it was getting late, but DJGomes and VJBDJ didn’t let that deter them, and the place was flooded with pumping EDM from the end of A-Pop until the end of the party, at four o’clock Monday morning. Toby and Adrian had stayed until the end of that show, at which point both of them looked at each other, and both of them felt some kind of dread that the other wanted to leave.

But Adrian broke the silence. “So… we don’t have to hang out together, boss,” he said, “But if we’re either off tomorrow or you have a business call in a couple of hours — ”

“Off tomorrow,” Toby cut him off to answer. “So hang around as long as you want.”

“It’s totally innocent,” Adrian replied. “I mean, whether I’m on the clock or not.”

“I don’t care,” Toby said. “Do what or whom you want to, whenever you want to.”

“I would,” Adrian finally replied nervously, “But that’s okay. It’s all ace.”

“Ooh. You feel like ice cream?” Toby suddenly said excitedly.

Adrian just smiled. “Sure. But what’s open at this hour?”

“Follow me,” Toby nodded, and led him to the top of the middle of the park,where they went to the station to wait for whichever train came first, the B or the D line. Their routes overlapped briefly so either would get them to where they were going. The D line won, so they hopped on and headed back up two stations, past Pershing Square and then getting off at the 7th Street Metro. Once above ground, they walked a block down 7th from Flower to Hope and came to a Walgreens. Toby still remembered that infamous night there at about this time of day on the early morning before the earthquake, and he noticed by Adrian’s expression that he probably remembered the story, too.

“Is this…?” he trailed off and glanced up.

“Yep,” Toby replied, and they walked in.

There wasn’t a crowd this morning. The place was practically deserted. They went back to the freezer case and were confronted by what Toby knew as The Paradox of Choice. There were so many flavors that it would be hard to decide for someone who didn’t have a favorite, but Toby didn’t have that problem. He used to be a fan of rocky road, but after the quake he had drifted toward butter pecan. While it had similar qualities when it came to “mouth feel,” the flavors and aromas were far more relaxing and sophisticated.

As for Adrian, he kept wavering back and forth between all of the varieties that only involved chocolate —chocolate chip, chocolate chip cookie dough, chocolate fudge brownie, chocolate fudge swirl, chocolate peanut butter, chocolate peppermint, chocolate trio, chocolate vanilla swirl, chocolate with OREO bits, chocolate with ‘Smores, mint chocolate chip, red velvet, and, of course, rocky road.

And then there were the brands, each of which had most of those flavors, or their own variations: Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Dreyer’s, Häagen-Dazs, Halo Top, Nice (the Walgreens house brand), and Tillamook.

That all worked out to 91 possible predominantly chocolate-based variations.. Never mind all of the other main flavor bases — vanilla and all of the fruits. And don’t forget to give some room for sorbet and frozen yogurt and non-dairy. Or sizes. Pint, quart, half gallon, gallon? “Fun cup?”

Have you ever wondered why the ice-cream aisle in a store’s frozen section takes up so much room? Well, there’s your answer. And don’t forget all of the “frozen novelties” — ice cream sandwiches and bars, popsicles, fudgesicles, Otter Pops, Klondike Bars, ice bombs, and even Frosty Paws dog “ice cream.”

This was one crowded department. Now, Walgreens did tone it down by including only the brands that gave them the best margins and least complicated ordering process, so… Ben & Jerry’s, Dreyer’s, and Tillamook. If the manager had had her druthers, she wouldn’t have carried Nice, but she had no choice, for reasons that should be obvious from three paragraphs back. In order to cram it all into the space she had, she only stocked pints and quarts, and allowed in Häagen-Dazs pints of the three most popular flavors in the area, but those were only available in a so-called “coffin cooler” near the front of the store.

If you’re not getting that term… it’s a top-loading freezer with, usually, glass doors on top that either slide or lift, and all of the product is displayed stacked underneath. Retailers since time immemorial took to calling it a “coffin cooler” because you had to lift the lid to get to the cold, hard stuff.

But, Adrian and Toby don’t know any of this, and by this point it’s about a quarter past four in the morning. They’d made good time hiking up Grand Park and also lucked out in hitting the station right as a train arrived, so overall it had only taken them about ten minutes to get here.

Toby could see Adrian’s brain practically melting over the options and he really felt sorry for him, so he finally just said, matter-off-factly, “By the way, I gave you another bonus after we convinced the mayor to screw with Wendy, and it should be in your account by now. Buy yourself something nice, but the docking or hangar fees are all going to be on you.”

Adrian just turned to Toby, gawked for an instant, then opened the cooler and quietly pulled out two pints: Tillamook chocolate peanut butter, and Ben & Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie.

“Good man,” Toby said, and they headed for the checkout, where the manager that Toby had once thought of as a tiny transwoman had now become a person in his mind, because he’d gotten to know her over the last couple of months. Her name was Ramona, and she was working her way through law school at Loyola downtown. Yes, she was transgender, but Toby had long since stopped thinking of her as anything other than her preferred pronouns and gender. Or, as he liked to think of them, her real ones. She’d taught him a lot.

He also knew that most people of his class would find it very weird that he loved walking down here, often in the middle of the night, to buy things that he could have (in their minds, should have) ordered from the best names in the world: toiletries from Bolin Webb, Clinique, DIOR, Erno Lazlo, Foreo, Kiehl’s, Tom Ford, Truefitt & Hill, and on and on. “Prove your worth by having them sent next day a.m. from Harrods. Don’t cheap out by ordering American!”

“Or, for god’s sake, order your ice cream from the Langham Hotel in Chicago, Maubossin in Manhattan, or Serendipity 3 in New York, so you can at least say that you’ve paid a respectable $1,000 for a pint, minus express shipping by private jet on dry ice. Otherwise, you’re embarrassing your class!”

God, Toby hated rich people, himself most of all. He noticed that Adrian hadn’t checked yet, but this latest bonus to him would probably also be the last one — not because Toby would be inclined to cut them off, but because he had finally realized that Adrian was worthy of elevation, since he wasn’t like the others who would insist on dropping a grand into another billionaire’s pocket for ice cream just to brag about it. The last one Adrian had gotten was six digits. This one is eight. In fact, Toby had looked it up. Adrian is 27, so he made it for a gross of $27,000,000, but then structured it as a dividend payout, rather than income, so he wouldn’t get fucked on the taxes like the little people do. He’d net about $23,000,000, and Toby knew that Adrian would know what to do with that kind of money and not become an asshole.

They got into line with their ice cream in hand behind four other people, and Toby noted that two of them were “Karens.” Great. And those two were followed by a bathtub. And then Toby looked at the guy ahead of him in line and thought, “Oh, holy fuck. What are the odds of this?”

He couldn’t forget the face he’d studied so intently just over five months ago, the man he’d spoken to, and the literal shitshow that had happened. Although something seemed different about him today. He wasn’t buying toilet paper, and he didn’t have the same hollow-eyed desperation. Instead, he had a couple of greeting cards in his hand, which seemed totally anachronistic in this day and age, although medical science was getting better at keeping centenarians around, so who knew?

The transformation Toby saw was amazing. This man seemed totally together. And it was definitely the same guy, so Toby leaned forward and said, “Perdóneme… ¿nos hemos conocidos anteriormente?”

The man turned, took one look at Toby, and just stared in amazement.

“Oh my god,” he muttered. “I remember you.”

“You speak English?” Toby asked.

“Of course I speak English.”

“But that night…”

“I speak both. Oh… I guess you do too. Yeah, I just tend to go to my native language when I’m feeling distressed, which I obviously was. But here’s the thing I never forgot. You were the one person who didn’t look at me with disgust or hate when… well… you know. ‘It’ happened. And I’ve always felt like you would have helped if I hadn’t run because I felt so goddamn ashamed.”

“Wait,” Toby said. “What? Oh my god… you have just forgiven me such a huge sin… Oh. My name’s Toby. Toby Arnott. And you are…?”

“Winford,” the man replies. “Well, to friends. Dr. Quintana to my patients.”

“You’re an MD?” Toby asks, seeming flustered.

“Yes,” Dr. Winford Quintana replies, “And that was why what you saw happen happen.”

“My god, I totally misread you,” Toby said.

“Yeah, I guessed that.”

“Holy crap,” Adrian suddenly piped up. Is he…”

“Yes, and shut up,” Toby shot back tersely.

“Oh, it’s okay,” Winford said.

“How did all of that happen, though?” Toby asked, feeling very awkward, but the doctor seemed very inclined to explain.

“Pardon my French, but goddamn dumbass anti-vax parents. Our ER was jammed about a week before with tons of kids having symptoms, and tons of idiot parents trying to get the staff to only use homeopathic or “holistic” treatments, and god, I wish that I could ban people like that from the campus in a heartbeat. But… no.

“Now, I’m not working ER that night, but I am working intake with the actual urgent non-measles cases getting passed through. The problem is, the volume in ER is so high that people are getting sloppy, especially with hygiene, and somewhere along the way, somebody with giardia comes in dirty, but I don’t know it. Hospital intake isn’t a sterile environment because it’s just assumed that all precautions have been taken on the way. So… I’m not absolutely sure who, but pretty sure that the intake exam I did on this fourteen-year-old soccer player from City of Angels High School blasted me with the parasite and I didn’t know it.

“Why would I? He presented with a broken leg, compound fracture. What I didn’t know is that he’d just come back from a team trip to Guatemala. Also, he had a minor case of diarrhea, and didn’t mention (until much later to his mother when the hospital asked) that he’d basically had an aerosol shart on the way from ER to my exam. And, since I’d assumed procedures had happened, well, kind of my fault, too, for not dipping the entire room in alcohol.

“By the time I was almost home and this shit, pardon the expression, caught up with me a week later, I realized that I’d need some heavy-lifting, and, how do the kids say it? An attempt was made. And you saw it fail.”

“Anyway, since that night, I’ve always imagined that I’ve turned into a case of ‘The Fortunate Fart’ around here.”

“Oh my god, you know that?” Adrian suddenly spoke up. Toby was about to rebuke him, but Winford smiled back and said, “Yes. You’re a fan of folklore?”

“For sure, doc. Did you know Abraham Lincoln used to love to tell a version of that story, mostly as a way of figuring out whether — ”

“—whether to trust politicians or lobbyists?” they finished together, and Winford gushed. “Yes!”

“Oh, wow,” Adrian added.

“Okay,” Toby said. “So… Oh what’s that old line from the movie? I have a feeling that — ”

“— this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Adrian and Winford chimed in in unison.

“Fuck this ice cream,” Toby announced. “You, buy your cards, but I have a fantastic idea.”

“What’s that?” Adrian asked.

“Breakfast?” Toby said. “The Pantry isn’t that far away, and I feel like that place fits the theme of now.”

“What?” Winford asked. “Hungry people?”

“No,” Toby replied. “Forgiveness. You don’t know the story, do you?”

Winford and Adrian both shrugged, and Adrian sighed, then went on. “It’s a total bullshit legend, of course,” he said. “But the rumor is that this place used to only hire ex-convicts and felons in order to rehabilitate them.”

“Is that true?” Adrian asked.

Winford and Toby looked at each other, smiled, and said, “Nah.”

“But who cares?” Toby added. “Sometimes, the sentiment is far more important than the truth.”

And so the three of them walked out of Walgreens, ice cream put back into the coolers but Winford’s greeting cards safely in his suit-coat pocket, and they turned the corner and walked from 7th to 9th, taking Hope all the way.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #4

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 4. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous 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. Oh yeah.. there was also that whole earthquake thing earlier in the day…

Incidentally… This happens to be my 200th post. Wow. 

DANCING ON THE EDGE

“All the best boys are gay.”

That’s what she said after I’d taken her in my arms and mentioned my boyfriend, and it made me really happy to be rescuing her from her wrecked post-quake apartment. It got even better when my landlord, Madam Wei, invited her in as permanent second house mother. This had been a really interesting week, and also kind of difficult for me and Tony. I mean, even though we lived in a basic dorm situation, we had also managed to arrange a totally gay room, so that “sexin’ the BF” (or anyone else) was not at all weird. Plus we’re performers, so having an audience also wasn’t weird.

It was probably our artsy schedule in the weeks before the quake more than anything that had kept us from banging, but the second after the quake, the only thing we could think of was consolation fucking, and hard. Not that we did it right after, but once we’d all come back home after playing rescue squad up and down the street and giving the naybs a free (non-sexual) show on the street, you bet your ass that Tony and I finally got down to it. It was after midnight, the place still had no lights or electricity, or anything else, but we both hopped up onto my top bunk, and I railed his ass like there was no tomorrow. Which, honestly, there might not have been, since we’d kind of lived through a mini-apocalypse today.

The following dawn, I woke up with my morning wood pressed up against his hot ass, and shortly thereafter, in it. Lather, rinse, repeat before starting our day, and then in the evening I let him rail me long into the night (we’re both vers), and nobody in our room objected.

The whole thing with Cindy had really kind of affected me, and by the time we’d made it through the aftershocks and Tony and I were done cumming all over, on, and in each other, all I could think about was the shape of her apartment when Madam Wei and I went in to get her out.

See, I’m from L.A., but I was born in ’06, so this was my first major earthquake. The last big one was a little over thirty-five years ago, although I’d heard Madam Wei talk about that one a few times. Anyway, it means I’ve got no reference for things like what we saw in that building. I’m used to rooms having level floors and all the walls are at right angles — or at least some sort of normal angle.

This had been like walking into a Dali painting, although to hear Madam Wei describe it, she does exaggerate a bit. She makes it sound like the entire apartment was on its side, but if that had been the case I never could have gotten Cindy out of there without a harness, rope, and pulley. Yes, one side was definitely lower than the other, but it was more of a natural ramp than a precipice. The real reason she couldn’t get out is that she just couldn’t get a grip on the floor. Luckily, the shoes I was wearing had really rough soles.

Apparently, a major feature of disasters like this is that it’s the only time neighbors in L.A. actually meet and talk to each other — another lesson from Madam Wei — and it was pretty amazing to watch. By Friday, the third day after the quake, Cindy figured out where we had come from. She’d been staying in a six‑person tent one of her neighbors had pitched in front of their building, and so she was also in the loop when, on the day after, she and the other tenants were given one hour to go in, with fire department escorts, to retrieve whatever valuables, documents, and clothing they could. After that, the building was red-tagged, meaning that no one was allowed to enter. It would probably be torn down eventually.

“I remember when there were red and yellow tags all over the city,” Madam Wei had explained to us at dinner that evening. “After Northridge — that was the quake in the 90s — a lot of places were condemned. At least there is a good side to it. Every time after, there are fewer places that are destroyed because we learn how to build better.”

She looked a little pensive but then went on. “Because of their history with my country, I have no love for the Japanese,” she added. “But one thing they have done is learn from their earthquakes, which China has not done. Every year, their buildings and cities get safer. Ours… well, my homeland’s…” She sighed and trailed off.

Cindy retrieved what little she could, mostly clothes, a few sentimental items, and a small, metal lockbox that presumably contained either documents, valuables, or a combination of both.

On Friday afternoon, as I helped her bring her stuff up to her new quarters, she told me, “You know, it’s funny. Not all that long ago, like around the turn of the century, if you asked someone what one inanimate thing they’d save if their house was on fire, they’d always answer, ‘My photo albums.’ Nowadays, no need, because all of our photos are on our phones or in the cloud. Hell, so are most of our vital documents. Does this place have a safe?” she abruptly asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. It was an office building once. Madam Wei would know.”

“Madam… oh, you mean Alice?”

“Yeah, her.”

“I’ll have to ask.” Her tone suddenly became playful. “So, when do I get to meet your boyfriend?”

“Uh… you kind of already did. Tony, down in the lobby?”

“The real hot blond one with the sexy smile?”

“Yeah, but he’s not really blond,” I explained. People think he is because of that platinum streak he dyes in his hair, but he’s actually brunet.”

“Wow,” she exclaimed. “You’re right. He does have very blond skin, though, if that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I guess, if you’re thinking more surfer-blond than Nordic-blond.”

“Is he Scandinavian or something?”

“No. Italian.”

“Really? He hardly looks Italian.”

“Northern. That’s where all the fair-skinned, sometimes blond Italians are.”

“I had no idea,” she replied. “Learn something new every day. Are you Italian?”

“Nah. Mexican. Well, Mexican-American… Fourth generation Angeleno.” I always had to pause to count in my head back to the right number of tatarabuelos to the ones that were born during the Mexican Revolution and brought to El Norte by their parents when they were children. Their children were the first native generation, born in the 1930s. So my great-great-grandparents came here. My great-grandparents were born here.

“That’s impressive,” she said. “Most people I know weren’t born here. I’m from Minnesota, but only second generation. My grandparents were all from Israel.”

“And yet, you’re blonde,” I said, teasingly.

“Well, they weren’t born there since they were born in the late 30s. Their grandparents were Ashkenazi Jews from Germany who hid from the Nazis in Belgium during the war, then immigrated in 1948 when Israel became a country.”

“Wait… you’re old enough to be only two generations from the Holocaust?” I asked.

“Honey, I’m old enough to be your grandmother.”

“You know, funny thing, my mom’s grandma is still alive. She’s 93, out in Rowland Heights.”

“Have you checked in on her?” she asked, clutching my forearm and showing utter concern.

“You kidding? Abuelita Ramona texted me five minutes after the quake. She’s old, but she’s really on it.”

I didn’t even realized it until we finish our conversation and I head back to my room that, well, we had a conversation, and it had been easy and spontaneous, and the thing is, that’s not something I generally do with strangers. It takes me time to break the ice. But with Cindy, she just created a natural trust in me, and an ability to share everything. I’m really going to like having her as our second house mother, which Madam Alice had already explained to me and Tony was going to be her new function.

Oh — and seeing her with the dogs and cats is inspiring. She clearly loves all animals and they love her. Even our white German shepherd Dan-xiao, whose name means “timid,” took to her immediately.

Friday night is another street show for the crowd, this time starting with the dance before moving to a second-act long-form improv show and ending up with a bunch of scripted comedy scenes. At the same time, our visual artists deploy themselves up and down the streets to do paintings, sketches, caricatures, and sculptures of willing subjects, collecting small donations for their efforts, which are all going to go to the Red Cross.

Oh yeah. They finally move in on Friday and set up their tents and shelters, and at long last people are getting hot food and “new” used clothes. One of the best things they bring are free phone-charging stations that are fast. Since we’re all going on well over 48 hours without electricity, a lot of people’s phones are either dead or in severe power-saver mode. A lot of us, like me, are realizing that while they’d be important later, taking lots of pictures now is not the best use of our batteries. They also have apparently set up functioning and open WiFi. There are rows of porta-potties, as well as shower tents, and various government field offices providing everything from EBT sign-ups to vouchers to outright cash disbursements.

Some of the guys in my room quickly dub it “Federal Row,” and the waggier ones among them jokingly say things like “Oh noes — we’re getting the socialisms!” even though most of us are hardcore socialists to begin with.

They’ve also set up OLED displays everywhere, and they’re showing the news, although a lot of it is being streamed in from outlets in other cities or international sites. This is when we all finally get the three bits of information that every native Angeleno starts asking themselves at the first sign of shaking: How big? How far? And does it get a name?

We finally get the answer. 7.3 Roughly fifty miles east and slightly south of Downtown L.A. And it’s now being called the Riverside Quake. We also get news that communities like San Bernardino, Redlands, Fontana, and Rancho Cucamonga, among others, have been severely damaged. The Moreno Valley has been particularly hard hit, with fires everywhere. If you’re not from L.A., you won’t quite get it, but these are places that most Angelenos only normally think of as things they see on freeway signs on the way to somewhere else, like Palm Springs or Vegas.

Suddenly, everyone does seem to care.

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