Saturday, April 2, 2016

Gullible's Travels

I was walking to the bank early one Sunday morning sometime in 1987, and I was approached by an older, homeless, Native American guy. We walked together on Sunset Boulevard for a few blocks, chatting. I had just moved to Los Angeles to become an actress and was living up the street from Rock and Roll Ralph's. He was pretty drunk, but nice enough and not creepy in the least. I gave him my phone number and told him to call me if he ever needed anything. Yeah, before I became a parent, I used to be really nice. He wished me luck in my acting career, told me I reminded him of his daughter, and we went our separate ways. Isn't being a good person awesome?

A few weeks later, the phone rang. A man's voice asked for me. I said "yes, this is she...?"
He said "I got your number. I work down the street at the Pussy Cat Theater, and I was wondering if you'd like to come audition." 
I was quiet for a second and said " did you get my number?" wondering if it was written on a bathroom wall somewhere or if the talent manager I  had just parted ways with was feeling vindictive. He said that "a guy" had given it to him and then asked me if my hair was still red, how old I was and a whole bunch of other none-of-your-business questions. What I wanted to know was who the fuck gave him the number, but he kept saying he didn't know the guy's name. We went around and around for about ten minutes when it dawned on me: that smelly, drunk ASSHOLE that I was trying to HELP had probably traded my number for a peep show or God knows what else. EEEUUUUUWWWWWW. I explained that I had no intention of coming in for an audition, asked him to lose my number and hung up the phone. That was the last time that I gave my number to a drunk homeless guy. Yeah, I totally have a learning curve.

A similar incident occurred a few years later, slightly farther east. We had moved to the black little heart of Hollywood, near Western and Hollywood. We lived for two years amongst drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves, oddly oblivious to the extreme danger surrounding us on all sides.
One day, I was lying around- having an actor's day of doing absolutely nothing-when the phone rang. I picked it up, and John Waters said, in his lovely, velvety Southern accent:
"Hello, my name is Mr. Purdy and I am doing research for high school students. It's a survey about human development. Can I ask you some questions?"
Okay, so it wasn't JohnWaters, but Mr. Purdy sure sounded exactly like him. I absolutely LOVE John Waters so, naturally, I said yes.
"How old are you?" he asked, very officially.
I answered him.
"How old were you at the first time of sexual intercourse?" His tone was very male nurse.
I answered him. It's anonymous, right?
"What is  your cup size?" he continued, in a monotone data collection way.
I answered him. Hey, I'm helping high school students, right?
"What color is your pubic hair?"
I answered him. But I was confused about how this would factor into the research.
"Like...a strawberry?" he replied, with the last syllable lilting up ever so slightly.
" a strawberry..." I trailed off as it hit me. EEEUUUUUWWWW.
I slammed the phone down and Oh My GAWD-ed around my apartment for a few minutes, marveling at my own stupidity. What a bizarre pervert Mr.Purdy was! No heavy breathing, no groaning- just rapid fire health form questions? Truly strange. He called back a few months later, but I nipped that shit in the bud as soon as I heard his voice. Because I totally have a learning curve.

Cut to the present. I was walking through the large parking lot at Ventura Blvd near Laurel Canyon a couple of  months ago. I was on my way to return some pants to Lulu Lemon and get my requisite affirmation from the yogini-in- training behind the counter when a small, dark, sweet-faced, bald, toothless man in his late fifties approached me. He was holding some official looking papers in one hand.
"Excuse me", he said, waving the papers around, "Can I ask you something?" 
I stopped walking. He put up his hands, as if I had recoiled from him. I hadn't. 
"Oh, no, don't  be uncomfortable talking to me....My name is Gilbert. I'm a neighbor."
 He laughed nervously and pointed towards the other side of the street, as if his white picket fence was just around the corner from the Starbucks Coffee shop. His mood became abruptly somber.
"I was just at the CVS", he said. "Well...I have full blown AIDS...."
He trailed off and put up his hands- goalie style- as if I'd made a face or taken a step back. I hadn't.
"Don't worry", he said,"You won't catch it... it's not contagious." 
He dramatically pulled up his right sleeve to reveal a severely shrunken, emaciated upper arm. 
As his sleeve rose up, I was transported back to 1999 when I lived in a ground floor apartment off La Brea and Sixth. I opened the door one afternoon over fifteen years ago, and he, the exact same Gilbertwas standing there and said EXACTLY the same thing. Word for word. Except for the contagious bit. That part really pissed me off- do I look like a fucking moron? Does anyone actually think AIDS can be caught from talking to someone in a parking lot?  
Back then-before Motherhood had wrung all the kindness out of me- I asked which apartment he lived in, and he wrote it down, with lots of pointing and gesturing, like he'd lived there for twenty years. Just.Like.Today. "A neighbor..." I gave him some money for the medication he supposedly needed, and he departed. More like vanished. After he left, I went outside to verify the address (out of sheer curiosity) and discovered (surprise!)that it didn't exist. He was long gone and so was my money and another small chunk of my trust in humanity. 

I have to say, as I've gotten older, I've gotten much more cynical. I used to feel that it was better to give the money to someone rather than risk not helping a person in need. Now, I'm like the bartender in "The Grifters" who sees John Cusack coming from a mile away and gives him a vicious jab in the gut with a baseball bat when he smells the con. I'm all out of patience for con artists and perverts.
As I looked at his arm for the second time, a lot of things came to my mind to say to Gilbert 2016, but all that came out was:
"I know you. You came to my door over fifteen years ago with the exact same story."
Then I walked away.
He scurried off as I contemplated what had just occurred. Learning curve, yes, but conflicted, too.
I mean, he could have been surviving all these years. Probably not, but I suppose it's possible.
I kind of wanted to congratulate him.
"Well done, Gil!  Same exact script for all these years?! How remarkable!"
I wanted to shame him.
"I know AIDS, Sir. I've lost friends to AIDS. You, Sir, do not have AIDS" 

I despise con artists like Gilbert. And Mr Purdy. And that creepy homeless guy. They provide us with material but at the same time manage to make us feel stupid and vulnerable. They rob us of our better nature. They prey on the best parts of us- the tender, kind parts. Gilbert is actually the better man because he didn't see me as a walking vagina. The others saw something to be exploited because I was young and female. I want to raise my girls to be kind and helpful, but it will most certainly be tempered with a course or two of verbal and physical jujitsu. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Killer Instinct

Little wants a "casino" party this year. This was presumably prompted by our family movie night choice of "Rain Man" last weekend. She wants to donate the earnings to an autism charity in lieu of gifts. Little is pretty awesome.
I love to throw themed parties and immediately took to Pinterest to see what people even crazier than I am have done for a kid's casino party. There were thousands of giant dice shaped cakes, every variety of wheel of fortune imaginable, perfect replicas of casino floors on a sheet cake, incredible ornate playing card displays made entirely of spun sugar, a functioning slot machine made of cake, a Joe Pesci standee that said "Listen to me Anthony. I got your head in a fuckin' vise. I'll squash your head like a fuckin' grapefruit if you don't give me a name. Don't make me have to do this, please. Don't make me be a bad guy, come on." Perfect for a kid's party, right?
Gambling is a strange hobby, and my personal fascination is with slot machines. What possesses seemingly rational people to sit for hours putting their hard earned money one nickel at a time into a machine that dings and lights up and gives you back a pittance in exchange is beyond me. Although- we know a guy who won ten million dollars playing slots, so there's that one person, but on the whole, it's a pretty fucking weird way to throw away money.
However, a real live slot machine also happens to put the "casino" in "casino party". I went to Craigslist because, like AAA, it has never let me down. I love me some CL,  and right away I found an affordable, thoroughly strange Japanese slot machine named "Muscle Tomato" for sale in Burbank. It was perfect. Most of the other slots available didn't really work or cost way too much to be amusing for a nine year old's birthday. This one was described as fully functional and had a bag of tokens and the keys and a printable manual. CL comes through again...yesssssss.
I took a picture of the ad,  dropped the kids off at school and texted the seller around ten. The reply asked for me to call to set up a time to see it. It was a little odd- in  my experience CL transactions are limited to texting/emailing and part of the fun is arriving at the location and wondering what the hell the person is going to look like. It's never what you think.
I called.
"Hello?"(muffled man's voice)
"Hi, I just texted you about the slot machine?"
"Uh, when can I come see it? I'm available today until 2, Wednesday through Friday from 9-2"
"You can come today at 11:30".
"Ok, and it works?"
" It works? The machine? It's for a kid's, uh, bat mitzvah". I'm actually not sure why I said it, since it isn't for a bat mitzvah, but it seemed to give it more importance than just a regular party.
"For a what?
"Uh, a sweet sixteen party". Again, I guess I didn't want to explain bat mitzvah so I figured Sweet Sixteen was an easier example.
"Oh, because you said bat mitzvah before... But it doesn't matter...come at 11:30". Instead of asking him why he said "what?" if he heard me say bat mitzvah, I asked him his name.
"Norton", he replied and hung up.
I went into the grocery store for about thirty minutes, obsessively pre-planning the casino party in my head.
Should we have cocktail waitresses dress up like tomatoes? 
Should the food be tomato themed?
Would the kids drink virgin bloody mary's?
I'm clearly off my medication...or I missed my calling.
When I got back to the car, I looked at the photo I had taken of the ad to make sure I wanted this particular slot machine enough to drive all the way to Burbank instead of doing other important things like errands or spending time making our home less Hoarders-like. The Muscle Tomato was obscured by his contact info, so I searched for it again on CL. When it popped up, the price had gone up sixty dollars. I double checked the picture I took- it was not the same price.  The current ad had coincidentally been reposted twenty nine minutes ago- exactly when I had hung up the phone with Norton.
My first reaction was to think-in Ralph Kramden's voice of course- "NORTON!?!? Trying to get one over on ol' Ralphie boy, eh?!?!?Why I oughtta...."
I texted him.
"The price is ***,yes?"
He did not reply.
I began to drive to Burbank, where Crafty Norton lives and went over our conversation in my head.
Was it the bat mitzvah comment? Does he hate Jews? Is it because I'm female? Does he think I'll be too scared to confront him about the original price being sixty dollars less? Do I whip out my phone and show him the photo first or wait until he's done his spiel?
Then it hit me. I'm female. I'm a female that is driving alone to a strange man's house to look at an old slot machine.
Despite my age being statistically out of the "rape zone", no one knew where I was going.
I had just seen"Room". I'd read a shit load of true crime. "Silence of the Lambs " was still really palpable twenty five years later. Yes, that was twenty five years ago...
I turned on the radio and the news just so happened to be chronicling the crimes of the Grim Sleeper, a Los Angeles serial murderer who killed nine women, one teenager and is suspected of killing eight more women whose pictures were found in his apartment. I wondered if they found any slot machines...
Despite his name sounding like the guy you talk to in Accounting, I started thinking about what Norton may be up to while he awaited my arrival. Was he readying the chloroform as I exited the 5 freeway?Or trying to remember which key opened the cage that he keeps in the basement? I drove on, in a slight panic that I might not survive this experience, wondering what they will nickname Norton after all the bodies are discovered. The Slot Machine Slayer? The Muscle Tomato Murderer? I debated just turning around, but I really wanted the slot machine. I guess you can say that I'm either willing to die for a good bargain, or I'm just a really committed party planner.
For a brief moment, reason set in, and Norton suddenly seemed like a really lame serial killer.Were old slot machines even an effective tool for luring women into one's diabolical lair? How many naive women were looking for used casino games on CL at any given time? It can't be very many...
But he only needed one.
I texted him again.
"Please confirm the price"
He wrote back.
"only for you".
Only for me? Is that because he knows I'll be dead? What does that mean?
I arrived at the address and cruised up and down the street. It's an average looking block of houses and duplexes near Warner Brothers Studios. There was a sofa on the curb, but then again, in LA, where isn't there a sofa on the curb? A woman was watering her lawn next door to Norton's place, an old yellowed stucco two story apartment building with no visible windows and a single solid door on the bottom that screamed "I'm being held captive in the basement". I resisted the urge to remind her about the drought, thinking she'd be a lot less likely to call the police for me if things went south.
I parked outside and decided to text him and tell him that he needed to bring the slot machine outside.
"I'm not comfortable going inside without my husband present". It occurred to me that he might think I was Orthodox and could jack up the price again.
Norton came outside two minutes later. Disappointingly, he was not wearing his Honeymooner's namesake's trademark white T-shirt, open vest and beat-up felt hat with the upturned brim (a hat Art Carney paid $5 for in 1935 while still in high school). Burbank Norton was in his late sixties, gray hair, blue sweatshirt, tan shorts and flip flops sporting some of the most un-pedicured feet I have ever seen. He seemed less serial killer and more bachelor/antiquarian, a designation that comes with a completely different set of caveats. He crossed the lawn and opened the single door where it looked like all the torture devices would be conveniently stored, and the Muscle Tomato slot machine was right there in the doorway. I stood cautiously outside on the grass and watched him demonstrate how it worked. He was making funny,vaguely racially tinged jokes and being surprisingly charming for a potential stone cold killer.
I asked how much it weighed and he said "Eighty pounds. When you asked me to bring it outside, I was wondering if you understood how heavy it is..". I sheepishly explained that I got freaked out because they just announced the trial of the Grim Sleeper on the radio etc. He paused for  second, looking at me sideways, and said, "Killers don't generally have a sense of humor...".
I didn't bother to ask if he'd ever heard of Ted Bundy.
He made a joke about not having killed in awhile, but now he was suddenly feeling the urge again.
I laughed, kind of, and backed up a couple of feet. As he carried the slot machine to my car, I took note of how easily he managed eighty pounds and wondered if my dead weight would have been a challenge. I'd like to think so.
I gave him the cash. He then asked me, in rapid succession, if I knew what the BMW logo on my car stood for, then if I knew how to say good-bye in German,  and then said "Bonne Chance, know what that means"? . I wondered for a second if Bundy gave any of his victims pop quizzes before he kidnapped them. It's actually not a bad distraction technique, but I just shrugged and got into my car. I sped away with the slot machine in my trunk, adrenally fatigued but alive.
And don't even, Burbank Norton. "Bavarian Motor Works; Auf Wiedersehen, and Good Luck, Motherfucker".