los angeles (los feliz)
I was milling around Skylight Books on Vermont last week waiting for traffic to die down on the 5. The ever-positive Google Maps guesstimated 30+ road-snarled minutes lay between me and my front door for a few mile journey. In truth, I’d have to be there till the store closed or even later before traffic could be considered “manageable.” In LA, you have to just give in and turn the music up to deal with the crawl. Or just not go anywhere ever.
So here I was looking at books I couldn’t afford but mentally filing away titles to check out later when once I did have money (and by which time said titles would most likely be out-of-print).
I had just stepped into the Young Adult section when suddenly from nowhere approaches this older African-American man, 50s or 60s, stooped shoulders, graying beard stubble. I noticed him because when I looked over at him he stared intensely back at me. The stare was accusatory. Like maybe I had done him wrong.
I looked away guessing I had just looked over at the wrong moment. He was probably just thinking about something else, not directed towards me at all.
I had gone back to pondering the book selection again when I realized he had stopped and was still focused on me, his expression not having changed one iota.
When confronted with potential hostility, my mental course is to either assume the person is crazy and try to relocate myself away from them or conclude that I am in the wrong and attempt to correct the situation. I moved towards a simple, clean exit from the situation, literally, by leaving the store. Sure, I’d be in traffic hell, but random crazy encounters with folks are a common occurrence in LA.
Still undecided, I stayed put. Meanwhile, the man continued his angry stare.
As the seconds crawled by, my instincts about this gentleman moved towards the assumption that he was probably plain-ass crazy. I knew crazy, probably am a little myself. Anyway, I felt positively accustomed to crazy by this point in my life. I had lived in Florida, including Miami and along the Gulf Coast. I had biked throughout Boston and had the near-death experiences to prove it. And, most recently, I had just escaped from an unpleasant living situation in Ktown with a roommate who concluded that I wanted to kill her and had threatened to call the cops because I was using a knife to cut an avocado.
That last experience in particular had reinforced the idea that crazy people tend to not give up when you walk away. They may well pursue you until you confront them. Usually the confrontation would end the weirdness — but also maybe not! — as an unproductive encounter in Portland, Oregon had proven, although the only casualty had been a large bottle of aspirin in my backpack after the homeless man had shoved me and made me fall backwards onto the sidewalk in front of dressed-up diners in broad daylight.
Anyway, I digress. Back in the bookstore, I made my decision.
I returned the man’s stare, the same mistake I had made in Portland years before. I guess, though, when you get older you worry less and embrace your inner crazy more. There’s a buildup of experience, maybe like plaque on teeth, that cauterizes you to the full effects of a situation, filtering out what’s unimportant, keeping your emotions more in check.
Honestly, I was baffled by what I could possibly have done to him. Did I stink? Had I worn an offensive clothing choice? (Probably. My solid color choices often made me wonder if I was accidentally stating my allegiance to a gang when I was out in public.)
Or was it more complicated than that? Who can know the mind of another? Maybe it was metaphysical. A past-life encounter perhaps. Maybe we had been rivals over the heart of a beautiful maiden and had dueled to the death and I had won, even though in this life I had never been the victor of anyone’s heart through sport or sacrifice.
My mind raced. I wondered what would happen next as we continued to lock eyes.
Crazy people don’t need a reason. I kept waiting for him to charge towards me screaming for blood. Maybe he’d shove me into the bookcase filled with graphic novels and it’d create one of those domino effects we’ve all seen in movies. The police would arrive, pull the frothing, rabid man away from me. I would get home later, have a whisky, and make a post on Facebook about yet another wacky encounter I’d just had in “The LA.”
There we were, in the middle of that indie, hipster, peace-abiding bookstore, having our little stare-off. While I don’t have any important special talents, in this case I was getting to exercise one that some in the cat world knew. This gentleman surely did not know waking up that day that he would encounter someone who can actually out-stare any cat you place in front of him. Well, I can.
It’s a hobby of mine really while I stroll a neighborhood and peer at different houses during my walk. There might be a cat in the window, behind a hedge, or chilling on a porch chair, but I will play this game with each one to see who can outlast the other. To spice up my online dating profile, I have thought about including this hidden talent, but have managed to hold off so far. I think my super-ability may have been born in a Meisner class I had taken years and years before. The basic principle was to bore a hole into another actor’s brain through relentless eye contact. Thus, one could feel connected with that other person or something. After that class I found myself too often making long eye contact with perfect strangers on the street just to see what was going on up there. The eye contact never lasted long and I usually avoided the burlier set.
Anyway, back in the bookstore, what followed was a painful fifteen seconds of unblinking. Imagine this scene if you can: two grown men in the Young Adult section of a hipster bookstore in Hollywood wordlessly staring at one another. Actually in LA no one would even think this was too weird probably, because essentially NOTHING is too weird here. Even if in mere moments we were at each other’s throats in a bare-fisted bookstore brawl. Still, when you strip away the ennui we as a society have reached with anything that is not extreme and truly over-the-top, this was a ludicrous scene and I thought that these might well be the last moments of my life.
Finally, the fog lifted. I decided, why not ask him what he wanted and then maybe we could move on with our lives without brawls or bloodshed? All this weirdness and male posturing was just too much.
Before I could do anything, though, suddenly the man RAISED his arm–
…and held aloft–
It was on. It seemed that my previous belief that death was calling and I just had to pick up the phone was no longer out of proportion. This man had come into a live bookstore armed with a hatchet.
It is serious business in America these days, mass killings. Not a laughing matter at all. Unhinged, overarmed, overzealous, usually white, usually men, acting like lethal two-year-olds in a public setting whether the workplace, a school, or an outdoor fair. I’d never heard of an attack in a bookstore before, but then again bookstores had been eclipsed by online habits about the same time as mass killings became a more likely negative outcome to one’s life. Also, while hatchets probably aren’t the typical way in which mass casualties would be committed, it wouldn’t be impossible to go on a rampage with a hatchet. They would certainly do the job.
He raised the weapon to chop-off-arm position. Desperately, I searched for one of the later Harry Potter books on the shelf nearby. I needed one that easily clocked in at 800 pages and was hardbound.
Still, as my eyes probed for a blunt object, it seemed odd to me that a man would carry a hatchet with him anywhere, let alone into a bookstore. Is that really the most sensible means of mass casualties or self-defense, pick your poison? It might make getting a table for dinner a little awkward, for example. Part of me reminded the other part me that that’s what crazy people do: they carry weapons and any ol’ thing will do, be it a gun, a knife, or a hatchet. We live in an unpredictable, bizarre world and random acts of violence were now expected by much, if not all of, humanity. I was just the latest hapless target.
In spite of this train of thoughts, I decided to take a closer look at the weapon he was brandishing. Soon-to-be murderees probably do this out of a sick fascination about that short moment before you die, trying to document everything before the bullet ripped through their skulls.
It was puzzling. This particular hatchet was actually pretty tiny, no larger than the man’s hand. The hatchet was more like a novelty item–a derringer maybe–which would make it more portable, but probably increasing arm-chopping time in the process. I started to imagine where he procured this. Maybe in a copy of SkyMall while on a trip to Greece or the Fiji Islands. The hatchet might have a straight-forward, no-nonsense name like “Your Personal Hatchet” or “Hatchet Friend.” Maybe it was presented as an alternative to pepper spray for women who wanted a little more confidence in their purse and less chance of suffering eye damage in the event of wrong-blowing breeze.
It was then that my eye absorbed the sheen coming off the hatchet’s bright red handle. It reflected the overhead store lights in a plasticy, cheap way. What kind of useful hatchet is made of plastic? My brain helpfully supplied that this would aid in getting through metal detectors at the airport. I could then imagine the entire judicial system upended by these small, deadly weapons that could be sneaked into courtrooms.
Then, my eye followed the length of the hatchet’s little red handle. There, dangling from the end was…
Suddenly, all the brain chatter ended and light finally shown on my overwhelming level of mind-fuck. Finally, FINALLY, I understood.
This man, who I had concluded was a marauding, hatchet-wielding lunatic that I had perhaps wronged in a previous life, was simply offering me the bathroom key.
I realized then that the YA section was near the bathroom. Quite close, in fact. Naturally, upon leaving the lavatory when this man saw another grown man in the YA section, he was polite enough to offer said waiting man the bathroom key because why else would a grown man be on purpose standing in the YA section? Of course, the waiting man was surely just killing time until the bathroom became available. And now this same waiting man didn’t seem to understand a simple gesture of generosity.
How thoughtful for him to offer me the key and WHAT AN AWFUL BASTARD I WAS to have assumed that this hatchet-key wielding man was crazy, had invaded this sanctuary of a bookstore, and was threatening me for no other reason than because crazy people seemed to find me.
His combative-seeming attitude had certainly sent off some mixed signals. I mean, would it have killed him to have used a word or four? Like “Here’s the bathroom key.” No, nope, nothing at all. Instead he chose the Intimidating-Stare path.
With this level of communication in our society, no wonder there are so many gun deaths, so much road rage, so many holiday massacres, so much cancer, so many yoga classes, so much pot, and so many happy hours. North Korea wants to blow us out of the water. Was I supposed to understand through all his glaring and intimidation that he assumed I’d been impatiently waiting for his slow ass to come on out of the john and give up the damn bathroom key already?
Were I the kind of person who placed bets on people’s motives simply by their facial expressions, I’d have initially assumed that he saw me as a dark demon, lying in wait in the Young Adult section that night to exact the toll of his soul for foolhardily crossing my path.
In this case, though, restraint prevailed and I did not become the angry and unhinged and shove him into the children’s books and turn Thursday night into a knock-down, bookstore bloodbath. I wanted to get all ragey and make up for all the cruelty I’d experienced since moving from Texas.
Instead, I shook my head and whispered, “No, thanks.”
And that was it. With deadly seriousness, the man continued on toward the register to dutifully return the hatchet key.
I have to say, I was pretty relieved that our encounter had turned out so benign. As we do in these circumstances, I chuckled to myself at the inanity of the whole moment.
Later, while stranded on the 5, I wondered about that magic moment when whichever Skylight employee first decided to employ the use of a toy hatchet as its official bathroom key appendage.
We definitely need more random acts of senses of humor in this world, I’d say.
Though maybe a little less unwarranted staring.