Friday, July 22, 2011

Getting Jacked

Here's a revelation: the older a man gets, the more he turns into Jack Lemmon in The Out of Towners (forget about the horrible remake with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn). Or maybe Spencer Tracy, in his last film role in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, when going out for a simple ice cream cone turns into a near-calamity.

What I mean is that simple tasks that you never gave a second thought to suddenly become fraught with obstacles and obfuscation, turning you into the penultimate existential everyman.

Case in point: last week I was filling my gas tank at a station near my home -- Twin Peaks Petroleum, actually, located at 598 Portola Drive. I go there only because it's nearby, and I'm a creature of habit. I knew that my tank was fairly empty but also was aware that there had to be at least a half-gallon of gas left. Imagine my surprise when the dial on the pump rolled over to 10.065 gallons -- because my 2008 Honda Fit holds only ten gallons of gas.

Thinking there must be an error and not having time to fully deal with the issue, I resolved to check this out on my next fill-up. So during the past week I paid careful attention to my mileage, noting that, because I'd been driving mostly freeway miles, I was getting close to 30 mpg and would get 300 miles to the tank. The gas tank light is supposed to go on when there's one gallon left but seems to be actived at about one-and-a-half gallons, so when it turned on at 246 miles, I drove an additional 20 miles, knowing there was at least a gallon left. I returned to Twin Peaks Petroleum and the same pump I'd used last week, where the dial indicated 10.222 gallons (see photographic evidence).

In the past three years I've filled that tank more than 100 times, and even when I've pressed my luck and had only a few molecules of fuel left, it never exceeded ten gallons at any of the dozens of stations I've visited. So I went in to the cashier's office, where I explained to a young Middle-Eastern man that this was the second time in a week this had happened at his station. How did he explain this?

"Maybe you have a leak," he said, looking sheepish and guilty.

"Yeah, maybe the extra gas is in the back seat," I said. "Maybe I'm out here making Molotov cocktails."

I asked to see the manager and was told that the owner was not present. The cashier dutifully wrote down my cell phone number on my receipt and promised that the owner would call me. "Yes, I'd really like to hear what he has to say for himself," I said, "because anyone who fills up with that pump is getting screwed out of about $4 every time. And who knows if the other pumps are miscalibrated, too."

Of course the owner never called me back. But I did file a claim with the California Department of Weights and Measures. Isn't that what Jack Lemmon would have done?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Jingle Jangle Junkies

My downstairs neighbors Tristan and Elle
(I know, but let's get past that) are the kind of young couple I really admire -- they sign a rental agreement and then just do whatever the hell they want with their apartment. They've ripped out the cheap sixties-era pasteboard shelving, installed lighting that activates when you trip the sensors, put in metallic splashback tiles, replaced the nightmarish kitchen linoleum with terracotta tile, and painted an entire room in black chalkboard paint so Tristan can cover the walls with formulas and theorums that have something to do with whatever it is he does for a living. I even heard his footsteps on the roof the other night when he was installing some sort of antenna up there. Sure, they'll never get their deposit back, but in the meantime they're getting the most out of their living space.

So I was talking to someone at one of their cocktail parties one Saturday evening and overheard something that made me like them even more. "What did you say about wind chimes?" I asked Elle over the jumbled noise of music and voices.

"I hate them," she said, then proceeded to tell us how a neighbor had hung a particularly jangly set of chimes on a nearby balcony. "Is there anything more intrusive in a crowded neighborhood like this? I put a note on her car that said 'Please take them down,' and she tore it up and put it on my car."

As a lifelong foe of the imbecilic wind chimes, I could appreciate Elle's dilemma. Sure, if you live in the wilds of the Santa Cruz mountains and you enjoy listening to a metallic cacophony that sounds like the onset of a schizophrenic episode, hang your wind chimes and your Native American dream catchers and your silk-screened gecko banners to your heart's content. But when you live in a densely populated hillside neighborhood in the middle of San Francisco, the wind chime that soothes your simple, babylike mind as you drool your way to sleep is the aural toothache of a hundred neighbors.

"So what did you do?"

"I put a hundred dollar bill in an envelope and slid it under her door. The chimes came down that same day."

Who says kids today don't know how to get things done?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

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I've never had much interest in watching frat boys attach baby alligators to their nipples or detonate Port-O-Potties, so I was only marginally aware of the key players in the Jackass franchise. So when a more obscure cast member named Ryan Dunn --whose most infamous prank, apparently, was cramming a toy automobile up his colon -- fatally crashed his Porsche at an alcohol-fueled 130 mph and claimed the life of his 30-year-old passenger, Zachary Hartwell, it reminded me of a few other people who were unfortunate enough to become cultural footnotes simply because they hitched their wagons to an unstable star.

Late one hot evening in August of 1969, an 18-year-old boy named Steven Parent stopped to visit a casual friend who worked as a caretaker at an estate in the hills above Los Angeles. As he was about to activate the electronic gate to leave the property, he encountered a man who slashed at him with a Bowie knife, cutting the band of his wristwatch, and who then shot him four times in the face and chest. He'd had the incredibly bad luck to stop by the same night as the Manson family, who proceeded to viciously murder eight-months-pregnant actress Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski, and three others. Parent wasn't carrying identification, so he was initially listed as homocide victim "John Doe" while the vastly more famous victims became part of a media storm. Parent's father, a contractor, complained that his son's murder was treated as an uninteresting detail in the deaths of a prominent actress, a Folger's coffee heiress and a celebrity hairdresser who was the inspiration for Warren Beatty's character in Shampoo.

Here's another one that's just as tragic. Imagine your good friend phones you and insists you meet this incredibly amusing painter she's having an affair with, so you decide to go out to Long Island for a fun weekend of mild bohemian mayhem. The next thing you know you're standing up in the back seat of a 1950 Oldsmobile with a monstrously drunk Jackson Pollock at the wheel, screaming to be let out of the car. That's what happened to poor Edith Metzger, a 25-year-old woman who had managed to escape Nazi Germany but couldn't elude the self-indulgence of a mid-century art star and enfant terrible. The car flipped, crushing her and killing Pollock, while her friend Ruth Kligman survived (she died just last year, 54 years after the tragedy). Thanks a lot, tortured artist.

As for Ryan Dunn, the joke goes: Ryan Dunn died the way he lived -- with car parts up his rectum.

Too soon?