I moped with insatiable longing for things unexplained that afternoon inside Norms.
It was a typically self-involved day alone with my own incompleteness.
Norms on La Cienega, always a familiar refuge from the desolate emptiness of my crumbling bungalow in Reagan’s America, promised at least a modicum of tragic entertainment value.
Seated near me at the counter was an ashen derelict nursing a glass of ice water in which floated an eddying mess of suds and food particles and stringy backwash.
He read a crease-worn paperback that, from my angle, appeared to be The Autobiography of Larry Tate by Allen Funt, though I could be quite mistaken.
My eyes have gotten worse lately, worse than my memory.
I hadn’t read The Autobiography of Larry Tate, but I did come across an excellent review of it when it first came out. Though the author of The Autobiography of Larry Tate writes under the pseudonym Allen Funt, it turned out he’s a dude I went all the way through school with, real name Wayne Paul Nader.
According to the review I read, author “Allen Funt” spends most of the book denouncing civilized behavior as some kind of cultic brainwashed conspiracy. The rest of the time he shares stories from the childhood, adolescence, and adulthood of the “real” Larry Tate, not the fictional construct we see in the TV series, and it’s all formatted like an automobile owner’s manual, so it can be read in any order which is probably a much more realistic depiction of time than the traditional chronological narrative.
By the time I was sitting in Norms that day, the book had already gained an underground following mostly for its opening line:
“Call me Derwood Kirby’s boss, or not.”
Its subversive message and rebellious tone made The Autobiography of Larry Tate by Allen Funt a manifesto for really smart fucked-up teenagers who somehow still remembered Bewitched and Candid Camera.
“Allen Funt,” aka Wayne Paul Nader, also made news headlines not long after his book came out, having been arrested for dancing naked down the aisle of the Cathedral of St. Vibiana in Los Angeles during Easter Mass, holding this erect lightning rod between his legs and screaming, “He is risen!”
None of this surprised me, neither the book itself nor the naked cathedral incident. He was one of the freakiest kids I ever went to school with, Wayne Paul. When the story first broke about his arrest, all his neighbors and his former teachers expressed surprise, that they thought he was just a normal quiet guy. But, dang, dude, we, his classmates back in the day, we knew.
Dang, dude. He was out there.
He wore these purple corduroy pants, and he had long hair that hung over one eye, and he would always come up and touch you with spidery fingers and say “tickle my legs” in a munchkin voice.
Anyway, that afternoon at Norms this indigent specter was sipping at the ice water, enthralled in The Autobiography of Larry Tate, while I sat sadly a few stools away, avoiding the pathetic piece of cherry pie I had ordered (is there anything sadder than pie?), letting the ice cream atop it ooze down the sides and fill the plate with soupy vanilla puddles which slowly joined into one pool, more like a moat.
Why had I come there?
Perhaps as a means of bearing witness to the slow passing away of my species, my one true purpose.
I floated bits of napkin in the melted ice cream and thought about a girl for whom I felt passionate unrequited love.
I ran down the familiar litany of phrases I would never use to tell her of my feelings during the myriad confessional scenarios I would never actually let transpire.
It was a productive afternoon indeed.
There were several other homo sapiens living their own tales of woe around me.
A fallen dowager applied make-up and brushed her dyed hair before a hand held mirror, which action would not have seemed extraordinary but for the fact that she continued for over an hour and was still fast at it when I was finally forced to leave.
I attempted to eavesdrop on the conversation she was having with herself, but it was just so much muddled muttering about a guy called He who had done all kinds of insensitive neglectful male bullshit to a girl called She.
What I understood of it, though, validated all the romantic relationships I had successfully avoided.
An elderly gentleman raised spoonfuls of chicken broth to his purplish quivering lips and slurped loudly while staring straight ahead at the halved grapefruits and cantaloupes and bowls of jello with whipped cream on top in the glass display case behind the counter.
Next to him, a pudgy gnome wearing a service station attendant’s uniform with Ramrod stitched into the left breast pocket was pulling postcards from a shopping bag, saying to his shaky neighbor, who wasn’t listening, “And here’s one from from Sydney, but my friend’s name isn’t Sydney, you know, only he went to Sydney, Australia, on vacation, and this one’s from a gal I used to go with a long time ago; she’s in Hawaii now with a husband, but I think she still has a thing for me; why else would she be sending me a postcard, right? And then there’s this one from the President Of The United States, Ronald Reagan himself, asking me who would I rather fuck:
Samantha Stevens from Bewitched or Ann Marie from That Girl? Personally, I’d do Ann Marie first. I’d fuck that girl. Get it? Nyuh? . . .
It’d be like Mrs. Livingston riding the throbbing rod of Mr. Eddie’s Father. I’d be greasing that thing, like a piston. There’s a reason they call me Ramrod.
But the one I really want is Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island. Dawn Wells herself sent me a postcard once. But I kind of wore it out.
Oh, and here, my friend, check this shit out: I am about to show you a postcard from a ghost, no kidding, see the postmark? Limbostan. Ghost country. Creepy, huh?”
And on and on he paraded these communications from afar.
The old guy just kept lifting that lukewarm soup to his lips.
Insulted at the lack of interest, Ramrod scoffed, “You know, that soup looks like piss.”
“Yeah, well, listen, you smell like real shit, man.”
“Hey, that’s my colostomy bag, buddy, I can’t help it, you know.”
“Yeah, well, just watch what you say about my soup. I’m enjoying it fine. I don’t give a good god damn what it look like. I’m just tryna get some nourishment. And I’m tired of listening to your crazy-ass bullshit about people you pretending to know.”
“Well, fuck me for tryna be friendly. Cheeses of Nazareth!”
The walls of the coffee shop were adorned with oil paintings for sale, $19.95 each, $29.95 for the ones on black velvet.
Seascapes, portraits of Elvis, dogs playing poker, James Dean and Humphrey Bogart talking to Marilyn Monroe in a diner,
girls with large breasts leaning against hot-rods, several sad clowns.
I asked the manager if there were docent tours available.
He accused me of being too “retro-chic ironical” (as he termed it) and told me to “take it to Silver Lake.”
One curious couple seemed interested in a portrait of Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz flanked by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. The male-half of the couple stroked his chin as the female-half remarked, “Wouldn’t it look good in the den?”
“Yeah, but that’s a lot of money for a painting, don’t you think? $19.95. I don’t know.”
“It’s an investment!” shouted the restaurant manager, running over to drive home the sale.
“I don’t know,” continued the intrinsically exploitative male, “Do you have one with Toto in it?”
The manager sadly told him no.
The couple looked at each other and shook their heads and left the premises, heading home to have sex probably because that’s all he ever wants to do and she does whatever he wants even though she hates it most of the time unless she’s a little drunk and even then she always cries after, sometimes during.
They would’ve been better off as characters in a different story.
“Philistines,” the manager snarled as he went back to poring over a menagerie of ledgers and calculator tapes strewn across the corner of the counter.
How can so much sadness persist, and in such oblivious ignorance of itself?
Having no reason to go home, watching the steamy cloud-castles in my coffee swirling like vortices, I contemplated nothing and what it doesn’t mean and the way she holds a cigarette and tucks that lick of hair behind her ear and smiles at my jokes and how I can’t allow myself to let any of that matter, when I became aware of being watched.
I looked to my right and met two black eyes attached to a gaunt face formed around a loose, lazy mouth.
“I won’t hurt you,” he held his hands up, “I swear.”
“What do you want?” I asked, bowels suddenly churning.
“Could you call my mother for me?”
This was a grown man.
“I don’t know how to use the phone,” he explained.
“What do you want me to tell her?”
“However you can somehow get her to come rescue me before I hurt someone I’d sure appreciate it. Otherwise I might kill somebody, and I don’t want it to be my fault. But if my mother comes it doesn’t have to happen,” he said.
Suddenly very anxious to help the man, I escorted him to the payphone outside Norms.
He gave me a number that was written down on a carefully folded piece of paper he had removed slowly from his left breast pocket. Above the number the word HOME was printed neatly.
“What’s your name?” I asked as the phone rang.
“Rod — ”
“ — Uh, hello,” I told the woman who answered, “I’m here with . . . Rod? He seems a bit confused. Is this his mother?”
“Honey, I’m not his mother. This is The Home. That man is dangerous. You need to call the PO-lice. They’ll bring him back here.”
Dangerous? What did that mean?
The air began to smell like helium.
Was I about to be murdered outside Norms on La Cienega?
I called 911. They put me through to the PO-lice.
“Yes, I’ve got a very disturbed man here who says he needs a ride to The Home,” I said.
“Just stay cool. Where are you?,” gasped the cop.
“Outside Norms. On La Cienega.”
“All right. Got it. Stay cool. What’s the guy’s name again?”
“Shit. Damn. Rod. All right. Just stay cool; I’m dispatching cars right now. Tell Rod you’ve gotten him a ride home. But stay cool. Tell him his mother’s coming. Whatever you do stay cool, OK? Don’t panic. That guy’s a leprechaun lunatic. But stay cool. And keep him outside Norms.”
“All right. Bye,” I said, tryna stay cool.
I told Rod that his mother was coming to take him home. He smiled a childish grin.
“I’m gonna invite you to my birthday party,” he said warmly, “You’re gonna be the guest of honor. Today’s my birthday.”
I patted his shoulder. “Happy Birthday! How old are you?” I asked, looking at his crease-worn visage, beginning to get the picture.
“Nine,” he answered, “I’m nine years old.”
He picked at his lower lip.
He wasn’t going to hurt anyone.
He was no more dangerous than the Lollipop Guild.
“Call me if you can come to my birthday, Mr. Derwood Kirby’s boss,” Rod said.
“I will,” I said, looking around for a smiling Allen Funt, hoping the whole thing was indeed some kind of Candid Camera prank.
“There’s gonna be a party in Heaven,” Rod called to me, as I headed for my car to make my getaway (because when all is said and done I’m a pussy), “And clowns’ll come and sweep away our sad times, I promise.”
I waved through the window at Rod as I drove past him sitting on the bench outside Norms.
I turned right onto La Cienega Boulevard and headed north, away from Norms, toward everything.
In my rearview mirror I could see the cops converging on the lot, surrounding Rod, guns drawn.
I have no way of making sure any of this actually happened. I don’t even know if it was really Rod’s birthday or not.
Maybe he was lying.