Sunday, August 27, 2006

make three wishes

We had just walked by the Eureka Barbershop when a man leaned out of a nearby second story window and called out to us:

"I'm your Fairy Godmother. I will grant you three wishes."

It's an odd conversation-starter, even if you run into one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. I was completely unprepared for this free-lance Fairy Godmother. I had no wishes at hand. Not two. Not one. None. I was struck dumb, a wish 'tard.

My companion came up with three wishes on the spot. With no malice nor criticism intended, I have to point out that they weren't very good wishes. Nor were they original. Instead, they were grand -- the usual bid for world peace -- and vague -- something about happiness for those at hand and for Mr. Lumpy, the cat, who was waiting at home for us at the top of the steep hill we were about to climb.

You should always have three wishes prepared for occasions like this. Otherwise you'll waste them on something unfulfillable (the world peace thing), something unknowable (the happiness thing), or something too connected to momentary comfort (the "fly us to the top of the hill" thing).

Lumpy would've done better. He'd have gone for nine cans of Fancy Feast, assorted, heavy on the Chunky Chicken, his current favorite. All the good varieties; none of the notorious aspic flavors. (A cat who licks himself clean is blameless for harboring a profound suspicion of aspic. Aspic. It just sounds so wrong.) And three jars of all meat Gerber babyfood (Chicken, Turkey, and Ham). And maybe one of those deli containers of Honey Ham, extra thin sliced. Served all at once. Buffet style. As much as you can eat. Like they do at Luby's or in Las Vegas.

It's a pretty good wish, given his preoccupation with food.

I don't even know if that's one wish or three by our Fairy Godmother's rules. But even if that consumed all three wishes, Lumpy would be satisfied. It would be a feast, served just the way he liked it: the best flavors all at once. He wouldn't even need to go on a Princess Cruise to get it.

But we're stupid. I could tell right away that the world peace wish was out-of-scope for our Fairy Godmother. Just one look at the Middle East proves it. On the other hand, you don't want to wish for anything too trivial: I hadn't worked on that zit on my chin or I wish I'd drunk 8 ounces of prune juice instead of 16. You want to wish for the attainable, but you want to make your Fairy Godmother stretch his powers. Here. Let me try again:

1. I wish the yellowjackets in our front yard would move to Utah (the Beehive State) without further ado.

2. I wish the yellow mushrooms that grow with my houseplants were edible so I wouldn't have to keep going to Safeway; it seems unfair that you can't just shop once and be done with it.

3. I wish the Colbert Report would get a sponsor other than Girls Gone Wild or Axe Deodorant Body Spray (now appearing as that obnoxious Clix ad). These ads make me feel like a demographic outsider for my favorite program.

4. I wish I could tumble as well as Stephen Colbert or Amy Sedaris. (Damn! That's talent!)

5. I wish the pig catapult had been more entertaining, given the huge buildup I gave it over the last couple of weeks.

See. That's five already. Surely there are three wishes among those that our self-appointed Fairy Godmother could've delivered on.

Peace and happiness. You could tell that our Fairy Godmother was going to turn away from his second story window and snort derisively into the room. Which was no doubt filled with people laughing at our expense.

"Ha!" He'd say. "Told you so. The neighborhood's going to hell in a hand basket."

Perhaps the Pig Catapult's lack of success is a direct reflection of that. The store where we bought the Pig Catapult used to carry sly products like Strap-On Barbie and an assortment of other Castro-appropriate paraphenalia such as jumbo economy-sized tubs of lube. Now it carries normal superhero comics. Not even 'zines or comix or the artier graphic novels. Just Marvel and DC and that sort of stuff.

X-Men instead of XXX Men.

Maybe the comic books are a good lure for cute teenage boys. But I doubt it. If that were the strategy, you'd probably want skateboards, cigarettes, and Mike's Hard Lemonade, not the goofy stuff you'd buy at Archie McPhee. (At Archie McPhee, you can buy a Chicken Chucker, a Boss Tosser, a Nun Chuck, a Cattle-pult, and other flingers in addition to a pig catapult.) This sort of stuff just attracts the nerds.

Yep. Sad to say, but I'm afraid the availability of the pig catapult is a harbinger of the neighborhood's decline.

I can't figure out why the pig catapult is so disappointing. What is it? Unlike Clix, it works as advertised. I can fling a pig from one end of our tiny upstairs to the other. In fact, I've been finding the small pink plastic pigs scattered hither and yon, beneath the couch, halfway down the stairs, in the nest of wires under our ad hoc media center. (When I say "media center," I mean a jumple of obsolete stereo components and players which are hooked together using adapters from Radio Shack, a store which must have a branch in Purgatory's outlet mall. Electronics of the Darned.)

But I was talking about the pig catapult, not about my obsolete electronics.

The problem is, once you get over the novelty of the device, you can't help but wonder: Why is it fun to fling plastic pigs? You fling a pig or two, hunt for it for a few minutes, then go back and do it again. Boring. If I wanted to be a Golden Retriever, I would've been reincarnated as a dog.

My own troupe of pigs knew that the new catapult was a bust right from the start. I put the mysterious object -- the pig catapult -- on the coffee table, and they gathered 'round to take a look. They gawked briefly at their plastic cousins (my pigs are members of a rubber species) and then coaxed one of their own kind into the launching apparatus.

The pig who'd succumbed to piggy peer pressure was all, "I don't know about this, you guys."

But they talked him into it and across the room he flew, landing with a slightly more compelling thud and somewhat less dignity than his smaller plastic comrades.

"Ouch. They don't pay me enough to do this," was his unenthusiastic response. I knew instantly that I'd have to schedule an extra session with the pig therapist this week.

I aimed the thing at Lumpy. He was notably unimpressed and continued washing his face.

I aimed it at Mark. He too was unimpressed and snapped my picture.

I aimed it at myself.

"Any more funny business and the girl gets it!" I told the pigs, Mark, and Lumpy. I'd never before considered suicide by stunning myself with a flying pig, but sometimes you have to seize the moment.

I had the pig flinger locked and loaded and pointed directly at my temple. Mark turned on motorcycle racing from Braselton Raceway in Georgia. Lumpy snuggled up to the plaid stadium blanket I'd gotten from Hertz Rent-a-Car some years ago and settled in for his morning snoozeroo. The rubber pigs went back to debating whether they'd recognize the International Astronomical Union's decision to disenfranchise Pluto as a real planet. (In case you're wondering: the pigs have officially parted ways with the IAU, deciding instead to start their own PHBU, the Piggy Heavenly Body Union, pronounced fiboo. "What's truthy is also true," asserted the pig who'd been flung and might've suffered a minor blow to the head.)

In this hothouse environment, no one was impressed by my suicidal gesture. Nor were any of them entertained by it. Instead, it was the cause of considerable (if discreet) eye-rolling.

Sometimes I wonder why we fall for this shit, you and I. We buy these clever little things -- cars with rolling eyeballs, levitating magnetic spaceships, Magic 8 Balls, Super Bendies, Wind-up Nuns, Buddhist Monks holding cell phones -- and we think they'll somehow keep us entertained. This isn't even recent. When I was a kid, I succumbed to that ad that featured a hundred magnets for a dollar. The kid in the picture had assembled an adorable Scottie dog entirely out of little magnets. Ha! If only. It was hard to do anything even remotely interesting with the weak chicklet-sized magnets.

And it's hard to do anything even remotely interesting by flinging pigs. I should've stuck with my reliable rubber pig cohort, rather than expecting the remarkable from a product you might order from Archie McPhee. In fact, I've noticed that many of our visitors have the disquieting habit of assembling the rubber pigs into spontaneous pig orgies without any prompting from us (or permission from the pigs themselves, for that matter).

In the end, that's what I should've wished for from our recently materialized (and hairier than normal) Fairy Godmother:

"Make the less advisable of the living room tschotchkes disappear."

That's a wish he would've respected. Maybe he'd have thrown in new window treatments as well, although I doubt he could've done anything about the yellowjackets.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

b season

I walk down the big Castro hill, shopping list in hand:

d cells
b poison
q tips
pig catapult

It looks like a fool's errand, doesn't it? But it isn't. I don't know what to do about the bees and -- to make matters worse -- my ears are dirty. That explains the d cells, the b poison, and the q tips.

I'll tell you about the pig catapult later. At least you know that it's not an impulse purchase. I've been thinking about it all week. A pig catapult. A pig catapult! What'll they think of next? My own pigs seem less than eager when I describe it, but I've only had a week to convince them. A pig catapult! Who wouldn't want one?

The list should probably be in alphabetical order, but it isn't. Nor is it chronological. But it may be the best-sounding list I've made in a long time: d cells. b poison. q tips. pig catapult.

The D cells are for the security guard-sized flashlight that I'm going to use to go look at the bees after dark. When I've mustered my courage. When it's cold and they aren't buzzing all over the place. When no-one -- including the bees -- can see me outside wearing Mark's welding helmet. Right now it seems more important to blog about the bees than to go look at them with the big flashlight. What if I wake them up? What if they're crabby when they're awoken by a stranger in a welder's helmet carrying a big flashlight?

To call it "b poison" is misleading; they're not actually bees of the sort that inspired Jaina's many tattoos. Those bees are good bees. These are bad bees.

Do be a Do Bee, don't be a Don't Bee.
--Miss Connie from Romper Room
These are most definitely Don't Bees.

They're yellowjackets, which are social wasps. And not the kind of social wasps with summer places out on Martha's Vineyard. These social wasps seem to have colonized the short slope between the second and third terrace in our garden. I wouldn't say they've gentrified it (the way wasps do) and sent the slugs moving on. It's more like the Donald Trump of yellowjackets came by, straightened up his hairpiece (that is a hairpiece, isn't it?), cleared his throat, and announced he was going to build a Big Tower or file for Chapter 11 trying.

Actually it's not a tower. Did I say it was a tower? It's a hole. A BIG hole. A BIG MOTHERFUCKING hole. With bees flying in and bees flying out.

You really don't notice them from up here in the living room, but I was down on the terraces when I first spotted the hole. Gardening. Gardening as much as I ever garden. For me, gardening means that I take a pair of clippers and snip at this and hack at that and maybe uproot some of the smaller, uglier plants that are more likely to be weeds. I also cut the blooms off the Agapanthus (aka shopping mall plants) because they seem to be enormously fertile; every seed seems to produce another Agapanthus. It's as if they're in some kind of purple fundamentalist plant sect -- reproduce, reproduce, reproduce; it's God's will. We are the chosen plant. And I try to keep the equally abundant wisteria in check too as it snakes around the poor asparagus fern (d. Meyer) and chokes the lemon tree.

Snakes? Did I say snakes?

If there's one thing I won't talk about these days, it's snakes. Last night both Jon Stewart and my hero Stephen Colbert could not resist the damned Snakes on a Plane bit. I, however, will show some restraint and not say a word about motherfucking snakes or motherfucking planes. See. It's so easy not to say it. (Geoff Nunberg didn't mention it on the Colbert Report, even though Snakes on a Plane is clearly a linguistic phenomenon rather than a cinematic phenomenon.)

Anyway, it's not snakes living in that hole on the slope between the 2nd and 3rd terrace; it's yellowjackets, the kind that'll snatch an unholy chunk of burger off your plate at a picnic and do the backstroke in your Coke while they wait to rip the end off your tongue. The kind that eat FLESH and love it.

There I was, on the third terrace hacking and snipping and tugging and grubbing. There seemed to be a lot of movement at the threshhold of my vision. I didn't have my reading glasses on, but it appeared to be purposeful insect activity. Lucky for me, I couldn't tell what the flying insects were. So I went ahead and snipped futilely at some aggressive ivy creepers and encroaching pyrocanthus twigs.

I'm a terrible gardener. Ivy makes me break out. And I can't keep my attention focused on any one thing when I garden. I start pulling weeds here, and I notice that the papyrus thicket needs thinning there. Then I start snipping at the ivy again. And pulling out oxalis. So it took me a long time to notice the big scary hole. And from my brief foray into entomological web sites, that big hole is an opening into an even larger yellowjacket nest.

There's a time to garden and a time to not garden. There's no reason to destroy the beauty of untamed nature. At least right now there isn't.

Thus the b poison. (I hope you didn't think I was going to clean their little yellowjacket ears with the q tips.)

The b poison is from the plant store that's next to the pig catapult store. It's where I bought the soil that produces the yellow mushrooms that have infiltrated my houseplants. It's socially responsible b poison. I wonder if it works? Perhaps I should just feed the yellow mushrooms to the yellowjackets. Make them a yellow mushroom burger, perhaps.

There are instructions on the bottle, but they don't really discuss yellowjackets. They're focused on slow-moving insects like tomato hornworms and a phids (which alphabetically precede b poison). It's no trick to get rid of tomato hornworms. They're not hard to catch, nor are they particularly bright. I beat them at dominos every time. And checkers? Those guys are 'tards! You don't need instructions for dealing with them.

But yellowjackets. They're a different story. They're the bad boys of the flying insect world. I'd feel much better doing research on the yellowjackets than I would, say, shining a flashlight down their hole and attempting to feed them b poison in an angelfood cake with Spam frosting.

I eventually found a helpful agricultural website run by the University of California's Integrated Pest Management Program. I can tell that these guys are board-certified entomologists; the program's director, Rick Roush, is pictured examining a slender green insect, perhaps a tomato hornworm who's been on the South Beach Diet. Rick has an expression of wry merriment -- just the kind of look that you'd trust if you wanted to learn about the habits and foibles of the wily western yellowjacket, Vespula pensylvanica (which the web site helpfully informs me is sometimes called the "meat bee").

Meat bees, indeed. Here's what I learned:

  1. If they're in the right setting, yellowjackets are good guys, eating harmful insects like tomato hornworms. You can think of them as Hell's Angels on a Toys for Tots run: setting is very important.

  2. Our garden is not the right setting. You can think of it as a dark bar with cheap booze and a bathroom like the one in Trainspotting. It'll bring out the worst in a yellowjacket.

  3. The colony -- which may already host as many as 4 to 5K workers and 10 to 15K ugly little larvae -- will continue to grow until late fall. The worker yellowjackets carry the larvae on their chests in Snuglis ala Noe Valley parents.

  4. In places where it freezes, yellowjackets die in the winter. In San Francisco it does not freeze during the winter, so the nest just gets bigger and bigger.

  5. Don't shine a flashlight into their nest; it irritates them.

  6. Don't irritate them.

  7. Poisoning them irritates them.

  8. Hunger irritates them.

  9. Saying "snakes on a plane" irritates them.

  10. They're irritable by nature.

  11. There is no distance that's far enough away to spray them with the aerosol bug killing stuff, let alone to apply environmentally-friendly hardly-toxic-at-all liquid from the store down the hill. Forget about upgrading to Raid.

  12. You'd be well advised to call a pest control professional.

  13. Wear protective clothing while you're calling a pest control professional. Remember that yellowjackets can fly 6 to 7 mph, almost as fast as a human pursued by yellowjackets can run.

  14. There are 14 yellowjackets to a dozen; that's why it seems like there are so many hovering around the nest.
I think I got the message. Irritable meat bees. Pest control professionals


For years I've been obsessed with those Western Exterminator trucks with the 3D vignette featuring a rat with a fork and knife in his paws and a guy in an opera hat wielding a hefty mallet. This is my chance to see one close up.

Yellowjackets, watch out! If you're going on that Toys for Tots run, now's the time.

I haven't forgotten about the pig catapult. It'll have to wait 'til later this week. By then I'll have the pigs convinced that the catapult is fun and my ears'll be clean.

But I'm not making any promises about the bees.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Mistah Elvis -- he dead

It's been 29 years to the day since EP officially left the building. 29 years!

29 years and a day ago, Elvis Presley was something of a joke, fat, sequined, a relic. Relegated to the Oldies station. A distant memory in a year when you could've gone to see the Ramones, the Clash, the Talking Heads, or Iggy Pop perform live. His last hits -- in a statistical sense -- had been In the Ghetto and Suspicious Minds. See what I mean? A joke. Dying was the best career move he could've made.

Since then, he's been deified. Put on postage stamps. Commemorated and celebrated.

And how will you remember The King on this auspicious occasion? It's not a major anniversary, 29 years, so go easy on the pomp and circumstance. It's so tempting to overdo on occasions like this. But here are a few ideas:

Since he died while he was on the pot, straining against constipation, maybe it'd be just right to swig a prune juice and vodka. According to the Linguistlist listserv, in Hong Kong, this combination is referred to as a My Favorite. And at the Virtual Bar, it's a Harlem World Seven. Or a Pile Driver. A toast to the King! Taking Care of Business! Here's to EP! We could even rename the drink in his honor:

Elvis Could Still Be Alive if He Drank This.
But Elvis was a teetotaler, so maybe that's inappropriate. Perhaps we should focus on something that's more in line with his habits.

Me, I tend to go for a replication of Elvis's last meal: a whopping big bowl of Peach Sealtest ice cream (4 scoops!), garnished with a dusting of codeine, morphine, Quaalude, Valium, Placidyl, Sinutab, and Nembutal (go light on the Nembutal -- the bitterness completely overwhelms the delicate peach flavor; I've also left out a few pharmaceutical elements, either for reasons of aesthetics or availability). Grind up the pills, open the capsules, and sprinkle the powder on top or mix it in, ala Ben and Jerry. I eat this creation sitting in bed, watching TV, just like Elvis did that fateful night in 1977.

Of course these days you can just pop one of Elvis's movies into the DVD player and watch something that's just perfect for the occasion. Might I recommend Paradise Hawaiian Style? It's reviled by critics and fans alike, so it takes real fortitude to sit through it. If you really want to make the most of your memorial ice cream treat, fast forward to the duet featuring young Miss Donna Butterworth and Elvis singing Queenie Wahine's Papaya. Not only is it vaguely obscene; it's also perfect for you to sing along with. It's not hard to learn. Here you go:

She sells sea shells by the seashore
But I know a girl who sells so much more

Queenie Wahine's Papaya rates higher than pineapple, pumpkin or poi
Please pick her papaya put Queenie Wahine in perfect perpetual joy
'Though some people's palates prefer pickled salads
For pudding pick popcorn peach pie
Oh Queenie's papaya you'll truly desire
When that Queenie Wahine passes by

[repeat ad nauseum]

It's not so hard to sing if you wait about 30 minutes after you eat your ice cream treat. Makes it much easier. Almost painless. Honestly!

For those of you who are members of the Factinista, you might want to get a prescription filled at the Prescription House, Elvis's favorite pharmacy. Just for old times' sake. That's at 1800 Union Avenue, Memphis.

But the best thing of all is to finally make that pilgrimage to Graceland. That's the truly apt tribute for the faithful. You might -- if you have the balls, as Stephen Colbert might say -- try to gain illicit access to the actual Death Bathroom (or DB, as it is referred to by the cognoscente). Our past experience shows that it's not easy, but I'm certain it'd be rewarding.

In fact, some years ago, before our first trip to Graceland, Marcia got up the gumption to quiz the Graceland management whether it was possible to take a quick peek at the DB.

"No," they told her. "No-one's allowed up there except the family."

So instead, on our first pilgrimage to Graceland, we wandered around and gawked at Lisa Marie's swingset and all of the other authorized artifacts that remind you of why it's best not to view a celebrity from too close-up.

Nor did we make it to the DB on the 25th anniversary of Death Day, when we once again found ourselves at Graceland on a warm, rainy August night. Here's what I wrote when we straggled back to the house on Harbert:

Graceland, 10pm. Elvis Presley Boulevard is closed to through traffic. We park on a nearby street. Black kids are hanging tough on neighboring lawns. “Elvis is DEAD!” they shout and laugh. They’ve been entertained by a steady stream of overweight overwrought white people who’ve been passing by all evening.

It's raining. Someone has been selling disposable orange rain ponchos to the milling throngs. A surfeit of orange transforms the crowd into Moonies. A three hour line snakes up and down EP Boulevard for those who wish to file past the grave site.

Three hours.

Every lost soul in Memphis is standing in this line, clad in orange ponchos or white jumpsuits, carrying candles and other tokens of their esteem.

A heavy-set black woman sits in a lawn chair on the median strip. She looks like Elvis’s nighttime cook, Pauline, who was on duty that fateful night 25 years ago.

We wander amidst the serpentine lines of Elvis fans. Like us, they are each in a private daze. The Graceland shopping complex is open and promises to stay so all night long. Opportunists mix freely amid the Lost. There's a line-up of wheelchairs as if Graceland were a Southern Lourdes. Everyone seems to be getting older and fatter as the night wears on. Flesh overhangs the sides of wheelchairs. Pallid faces glow in the candlelight.
I'm sure there'll be something similar, although less grand in scale, tonight if you want to attend the celebration and make your own way to the Death Bathroom. There's still time to rev up the Lear Jet and zip out to Memphis!

Finally, if you can't bear to leave your chair, you can do what I did this year: do Elvis commemorative searches. The thing is, you don't want to search for Elvis yourself; that'd be so ordinary. What you want to do is watch other people searching for Elvis. After all, isn't the most famous picture of Elvis the one where he's getting his Junior DEA badge from our own beloved Mr. Nixon? I'm sure Elvis himself would approve of such a well-meaning privacy violation.

The best way to do commemorative searches is to use that AOL data that was cut loose a few weeks ago. Oh, look! AOL user number 279449 not only searched for Elvis ("Elvis has not only left the building he is dead"), but also for "banana pudding with cool whip and sour cream" and "younger man older woman." She clearly knew what Elvis was all about. Although I'm sorry to hear about those "tiny bumps after tanning bed use" and "signs of depression." Not to mention the "can't get an erection" and "how to firm up saggy legs." You can learn more about Elvis's fans than you can about the King himself.

I guess there's a cost to Taking Care of Business. [If you have any doubts that the AOL data represents a privacy leak, follow the link to AOL user number 279449. Your doubts will vanish. Especially when you hit "28 year old man who prefers little girls."]

Mistah Elvis -- he dead. Rumor has it that Joseph Conrad was a huge Elvis fan.

Monday, August 14, 2006

shopping after midnight

I habitually postpone my grocery shopping until after midnight. That's when the tony stores -- Whole Foods, Andronico's, Draeger's, Mollie Stone's -- and the foodie stores -- Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, and even Trader Joe's -- are all safely closed, shut tight for the night. Nobody whips up a little amuse-bouche that late at night; no need to rush out for some monkfish liver and quail eggs. (I'm amused to see that Monterey Market's web site has been hacked. I didn't know that the slow food movement had such passionate enemies.)

But after midnight is when Safeway and its all-night kindred major grocery store chains shine.

Slow food? Fast food? Nah -- you're thinking of something else, something upscale, something downscale, something trendy, something greasy and enticing. This is medium food, cuisine for the lazy, the mediocre, the not-too-hungry: food for people like me. It's neither so lip-smacking that you have to wolf down half of it on the way home nor so disgusting that you can't bear to look in the mirror after you've eaten it.

Medium food. Ordinary food. Safeway Select packaging and affinity card bargains.

But it's medium food in the middle of the night. And that makes it special.

In the middle of the night you don't find whole families stalled out in the cereal aisle. Nobody's Ritalin is wearing off ("Sweetie, don't knock that over! Someone's going to lose his videogame privileges tonight. I mean it!"). No chubby little fingers grabbing at the stock shelved at impulse purchase height, spreading nursery-school diseases among the general populace. Nope. It's people like you and me shopping late at night.

Purple-haired punks who don't want to be seen doing anything so normal as buying Baked Lays Low-Fat Potato Chips. Speed freaks cruising for Snickers Big Bars and Scotch tape. Drunks replenishing their Safeway Select Premium Vodka stash. Gangstas and their posses boosting 48 oz. plastic bottles of Mountain Dew. The recently divorced and the career unemployed. The night shift workers. The EMTs, the stalkers, and the sociopaths. We're all attracted to the bright lights. SAFE WAY.

The only person pushing a supermarket cart at this time of night is me. Most people have a small red basket hooked on one arm or an item or two in their hands (or indiscreetly protruding from a pocket or purse). They're not shopping for much: their needs are immediate, urgent, compulsive.

Except me. I'm planful. Not only am I pushing a cart; I'm consulting a long list. I stop now and then to cross off items with my Uniball ONYX fine point pen.

Lunch meat
Lemon grass
Mrs. Renfro's Jalapeno Slices

The list is long and detailed.

I cross them off methodically, one by one, as I fill my cart with medium food. Soup. Green peppers. Garlic. Microwave popcorn. Nothing too good; nothing too bad.

You have to be creative to shop after midnight.

"Just how similar are jicamas and kohlrabi anyway?" you ask yourself.

They're both root vegetables and they're both shaped like alien spacecraft. But kohlrabis are in stock late Sunday night; jicamas are not. Surely a substition can be made.

That's the way it is in the wee hours. You have to be adaptable: the produce section's been decimated. You'd think people actually liked to eat broccoli.

And corn? Nobody ever has enough corn to eat, even after they've consumed gallon after gallon of corn sweetener (annual per capita corn sweetener consumption increased to 79 pounds in 2003). The corn display looks like a flock of magpies has recently descended upon it. Corn silk clings to every damp surface. Husks are scattered hither and yon. Only a few sad abandoned ears -- ears with misshapen kernels and brown rotten spots -- remain.

But it was broccoli I was after, and much to my surprise, I could put together a half pound of the stuff gathering from the edges of the bins and combining crowns with flowerets, organic with locally farmed.

Face it: broccoli has as many cuts as beef.

It's not until I got to the in-store bakery that I realized why medium food is the answer to all the universe's unasked questions. As I examined the the last straggling Bismarks bathed in the surreal light of the donut case, I noticed the crucial message overhead:


Got that? Not 12, as you learned in elementary school. Not 13, as in "a baker's dozen." But 14. As in, "We'll go you one better." As in, "We're a nation of abundance." As in, "Too much of anything is just enough."

That's what it's all about. 14 when you wanted 12. When 6 would actually do. You've got 14. Now deal with it.

The store staff is in the middle of reshelving by that time of night. Stacks of boxes are everywhere, creating a splendid obstacle course for me and my grocery cart. It's a slalom ride down the catfood aisle, especially if you make challenging rules for yourself. Push off once and don't put your feet back on the floor 'til you get to the end of the aisle. Mind those greeting cards!

Even though those piles of cardboard boxes look sturdy, it's surprisingly easy to knock 'em down.

Every once in awhile, an over-eager shopper (such as myself) breaks into one of the unopened cardboard boxes. Sure, I don't really need Tide today. But it's really nice to know there's enough for me to buy the sale maximum. ("Limit 6 to a customer!") It's one of the perqs of shopping late at night.

The cereal aisle is always the most problematic venue in the store, even if you go to Safeway bright and fresh in the morning. So many choices. There's the major label stuff, the Post Grape Nuts (although surely no-one eats those rock-hard little cardboard nuggets, do they?), the Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes ("They're GRRRREAT!"), the General Mills Wheat Chex (a crucial ingredient in classic Chex Party Mix as well as being adjacent to this complete breakfast).

So many brands! So many flavors! So many variations! With red berries or without? With nutty nuggets or without? Vitamin fortified! Essential nutrients! Brown sugar and cinnamon! A big delight in every bite!

My head is already spinning by the time I get to the store brands. The Safeway Wheat Pockets. The Tasty Toasteos. You can convince yourself that they taste just the same as the name brands. Just the same. Not at all strange. You don't want to pay for the advertising, do you?

Yes, they taste just the same, except they're off by just a little bit. I don't know what it is. You have to suspend disbelief and say it over and over. They taste just the same. Repeat it like a mantra for the cost-conscious. Just the same. Just the same.

Nah. They're not.

And there are always the obligatory odd natural and organic cereals that taste like ass: the Wheetabix and the Barbara's Puffins. They've gotta be good for you. Certainly you can't be sidling up to that big bowl of mushy Wheetabix because it tastes good. It tastes like ass! You might as well crouch down next to the cat and have what he's having. Uncle Sam cereal? You do know about flax seeds, don't you?

Finally there are the scary big cello bags of flakes with marshmallow nuggets. I don't want to talk about those. They bring to mind trailer parks and powdered milk. Cousins marrying cousins. Built-in dinettes with vinyl cushions that stick to the skin on the back of your legs. No. Let's not go there. This is a midnight shopping trip, not a descent into rugged terrain of the human psyche.

I myself like to eat cereal that's been endorsed by celebrities. If Eggo Maple Syrup Cereal is good enough for Johnny Depp wearing eye liner, it's good enough for me.

Actually, what really happens in the cereal aisle is more dangerous than I'm letting on. I usually go for the high-shelf cereals. A girl like me (we'll say for the sake of vanity, petite) has to climb to get a box of Shredded Wheat. During the day, this kind of thing usually brings a stockboy running.

"Can I get that for you ma'am?"

Ma'am. I hate being called ma'am. No. You can't get my goddamned cereal for me. I'm gonna scale the giant wall of cereal and get it myself.

Late at night, I don't have this problem. The 5 stockers that staff the store late at night are busy keeping their eyes on the other shoppers (the guy stuffing pork chops down his pants and the wino paying for his entire order with pennies) or they're flirting among themselves (it must be lighting that attracts them to one another?). They're definitely too busy to bother with someone who is doing a Human Fly imitation in the cereal aisle. Ordinary, ordinary, ordinary. Nothing to get excited about.

The worst part of these late night shopping trips is the checkout line. There's no such thing as a 9 items or less line at 12:23am. You get in the one line. You wait. You pay. You go. Except everyone else has one or two items (and that pack of Winston Reds or Merit Ultralights they'll buy at the checkstand). I come wheeling up with my month's worth of groceries, complete with obscure and numerous vegetables -- lemon grass, kohlrabi, a sack of 20 limes -- all of which require the proper code be entered, and everyone behind me in line glares.

So I'm faced with the obvious dilemma. Do I let the guy behind me go ahead? How about the guy behind him with a Lean Cuisine and a bottle of Chablis? And the sour-looking lady with the Hershey bar -- how about her? No-one else has this many items.

I keep it simple. The cop with the bottle of Refreshe drinking water? He gets to go. He's got a gun. The armed robber behind him? He gets to go. He's got a gun. The loony dude with the People magazine with Jodie Foster on the cover and a faraway look in his eyes? He gets to go. He's got a gun.

The rest of you? You gotta wait your turn.

My vote, by the way, is to keep Pluto as a planet. It's very destabilizing to have facts you once memorized turn into nonsense. 9 planets. There are 9 planets. This isn't like String Theory, where you expect it to go bad at any instant.

This is truth. And truth, like Hostess Twinkies or other fine medium foods, doesn't go bad overnight.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

farewell, my lovely toothpaste, farewell

Like my favorite pink Canadian Wake-Up tablets, my travel toothpaste has French packaging: French ingredients, French manufacturing information, French promises. Minty fresh French breath. Approved by French-speaking dentists. It's undeniable: my teeth feel cleaner when they're brushed with French-language Colgate. Best of all, it tastes just like regular Colgate toothpaste: exotic packaging, same old familiar taste. What more could I ask for?

The ability to take it back home with me.

That's right. Again I've gotten caught in the middle of a trip when the notorious terror threat alert level has changed colors, gotten warmer -- when the terror-o-meter shows signs that we're registering a collective fever. The fever is so high that we're hallucinating evil at every turn: at the bottom of every Venti Starbucks; in every travel-size bottle of Alzheimer-inducing Ban Roll-On; in shiny-hip containers of Cat Fight Hair Gel. The threat is in the liquids this time, and we're taking the whole thing pretty literally.

But isn't this just the time you'd need a little hip flask of Maker's Mark? A nip to take the edge off the nervousness? A short swig to keep the boredom and irritation in check.

And you don't want your hair to be less than CNN-ready when a trip to the airport is apt to be a media event. You're going to want to keep that bedhead looking ready for the cameras.

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.

At the risk of sounding treasonous (or even just incautious), are we over-reacting? Yes, I know this has been reported as a close call, and certainly I'm grateful the suspects were apprehended in time and that TSA officials have become super-extra-hyper-vigilant. But I wonder if all this dehydration works. These guys weren't apprehended at an airport; they weren't snagged by TSA workers plowing through their overstuffed carry-ons, wanding their underwire bras.

At the hotel breakfast buffet, I watched my fellow travelers load up as if it were their last meal. Cling peaches in heavy syrup. Jimmy Dean sausage, egg, and cheese sandwiches. Bathtub-sized bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Stacks of fresh waffles lubricated with whipped cream. Stale blueberry Danishes and cherry popovers. They were packing it in, chowing down in twosomes and foursomes, studying MSNBC on the TV across the room as if they would be quizzed later.

I could hear them nervously conferring among themselves. "How early should we get there? I heard five hours." The focus is on logistics, but I can bet they're thinking, "Wonder if they got all of 'em? Maybe I should just stay here, move to Seattle, use this as an opportunity to settle in." And I'm afraid that some of them were crediting this administration for their hypothetical rescue.

"Oh, sure, it's a pain. But we have to do what we have to do," one hearty fellow traveler tells me as I doctor my coffee with a diverted milk container (avoiding the Irish Cream Coffee Mate) and mumble about going home without my beloved French toothpaste and my perfectly innocent contact lens solution.

It's funny how we sometimes surrender without a thought. A thought about the implications. A thought about the effectiveness of the procedure.

On the other hand, is that a bottle of Axe Deodorant Body Spray I see in the overflowing garbage can?