By Rodger Jacobs
Sometimes I’ll read something written by a colleague – novel, screenplay, magazine piece, what have you – that will instantly expose all of my weaknesses as a writer just as sure and as painful as that jolt of electricity through the jaw that warns of an exposed nerve in a molar.
On a recent Saturday evening I avoided a looming deadline on an Op-Ed piece by settling in with a couple of chapters from Michael Scott Moore’s novel Too Much Of Nothing, a coming of age novel set in mid-80s L.A. Consider the following passage:
“My old house is a half-hour walk from the pier, first under the sodium lights of Calaveras Boulevard and then along Pacific Coast Highway, past the white-lit auto showrooms and neon restaurants that seem to doze under a salted, sea-smelling mist. Our stretch of Pacific Coast Highway is nothing like the legendary road through Malibu, along those dramatic mud-sliding cliffs and precarious houses. It’s a dingy business strip, with low-rise office buildings, fast-food joints, and a few Jiffy Lubes.”
I know it’s not Raymond Chandler but it sure as hell evokes the physical landscape with a stylistic flourish that I am completely inept at. “Sodium lights” and “sea-smelling mist” and “white-lit auto showrooms.” No, it’s not Chandler. It’s an Edward Hopper painting set to words.
After reading that evocative passage by Mike Moore, I would like to say for dramatic flourish that I hurled the book against the wall and cursed my ineptitude at describing terrain in such an evocative manner. But the fact is I love books too much – the touch, the smell, the feel of the binding and the paper - to ever fold down a page corner as a marker, let alone turn one into a Frisbee. What I did instead was softly close the book cover, insert a book mark at page 73, and called the restaurant downstairs to order dinner.
The cafe in the Glendale hotel where I live is never terribly busy except for Saturdays around noon when the Comedy For Less traffic school that meets in one of the conference rooms breaks for lunch. The food is far from outstanding but it is palatable and easier on the digestive system than the fare available at the nearby Jack in the Box or the microwaveable bowls of Dinty Moore beef stew available from the Shell gas station across the street.
I phoned in a chicken dinner to go, watched Dr. Phil on Larry King Live while waiting the requisite ten minutes, then began my brief trek down the serpentine hallways with must-scented carpeting to the elevator.
On any given evening I can count on paying for my meal and being back in my room in under five minutes. But on this Saturday evening as I ambled into the restaurant tucked into the north-east corner of the hotel, there was another customer at the counter intruding on Behruz’s attention.
Behruz, a 30-year veteran of the food service industry, is the owner of the Pioneer Café. An Iranian immigrant, Behruz is a generous and self-effacing man who will bend over backwards to accommodate his customers.
The customer demanding accommodation when I ambled in to pick up my chicken was a stocky man with a head of grayish-black hair that appeared to have the texture of a Brillo pad. He wore a khaki Army jacket, pressed jeans, boots, and his feet shifted continually as he spoke as if he was practicing dance steps.
“All I need is a sixteen ounce glass,” he was explaining to Behruz.
I could see the styrofoam container holding my dinner resting on the counter awaiting pick-up but I laid back, my shoulder against a wall, while Behruz dealt with Mr. Brillo.
“I can’t give away glasses,” Behruz explained.
“I’ll bring it back,” the man practically whined. “I just need a sixteen ounce glass.”
“What about styrofoam?” Behruz offered. “Will a styrofoam cup work?”
“Is it sixteen ounces? It has to be sixteen ounces.”
“They’re twelve ounces,” Behruz replied in his perfectly-clipped English. “Why don’t you try the bar next door? They have lots of glasses.”
The man with Brillo hair dismissed the suggestion with a wave of his hand. “They only have small glasses. I need a sixteen ounce glass. Don’t you have a glass you can give me?”
Behruz flashed a hopeless smile and shot me a look while addressing the man. “What kind of business would I have if I sold all of my dishes?”
“How much would you sell me a sixteen ounce glass for? A tall sixteen ounce glass?”
Behruz had to think for a moment before suggesting that two dollars might be the right price for a sixteen ounce glass.
The man nodded and danced to the other side of the counter, noticing me for the first time. I stepped forward, proffered my credit card to Behruz, and tried to avoid joining into the conversation in any way, shape or form.
But Brillo Hair had other ideas.
“I have two ten-year old girls,” he suddenly announced, apropos of nothing. “Two ten-year old girls going on twenty-five.”
I nodded politely.
“I took them to see that movie 'The Day After Tomorrow' this afternoon,” he continued.
“How was it?” I wearily asked.
“Great. Lotta special effects.”
“That’s what I heard.” I signed the credit card receipt and scooped the container off the counter.
“Dennis Quaid is good in it.”
“Really? I used to know him years ago,” I said, starting for the exit.
“He seems like a nice guy,” Brillo Hair said.
“He was a jerk. But that was a long time ago.”
I left without another word. I started for the elevator with my dinner in hand. This is what it comes down to, I thought. Mike Moore gets evocative L.A. landscapes to write fluidly about and I get a man desperately searching for a sixteen ounce glass.
© 2004, Rodger Jacobs
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