"Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." ~ John Stuart Mill
Sunday in the New Normal
Long before a trio of hijacked airliners changed our collective self-identity, this country was becoming an increasingly difficult place to live in. I have no interest in enumerating the social ills that plagued and continue to plague our nation before the admittedly horrific event we have dubbed "9/11" went down. But one thing is as clear as the message of tyranny behind the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes: Before the Twin Towers were reduced to heaps of molten, twisted metal, it was safe to go to the airport without underwear, and a man buying a few cases of bottled water was probably just someone with an aversion to the tap variety.
I returned to Los Angeles last summer from a self-imposed exile in Northern California to complete a screenplay that my business manager had high prospects for. My girlfriend, Jill, and I were uncertain where we wanted to live in this land of hard cracked sidewalks and choked palm trees, so for the interim, we took a monthly room at a residency hotel in Glendale.
On a recent Sunday morning I staggered bleary-eyed to my fifth floor balcony with a view of the Los Angeles skyline--if you've never seen the skyline of downtown L.A. you aren't missing much--and fired up the first cigarette of the day with one hand while juggling a cup of coffee in the other. The coffee had been prepared with tap water. I leaned against the steel railing, exhaled a plume of smoke, and observed the grounds below. Just a quiet Sunday morning.
But then something with ominous portent happened.
A van pulled up to the curb. A portly man emerged and removed from within the vehicle a large hand cart. And upon that handcart he began loading cases of bottled water. We're talking five or six cases of purified water, enough to last the average family a few weeks, at least in the event of some calamitous disaster.
Now, one of the annoyances of living in this particular residency hotel is that management only grants the residents a $50 line of credit for telephone use. Once you have exceeded that credit--very easy to do when local calls alone cost 75 cents apiece--your phone service (and, in my case, internet service since I use a dial-up provider) is disrupted. I mention this only because that particular Sunday morning I had exceeded the phone limit, had not paid the bill yet, and therefore had not yet gone online to get my daily fix of news and information.
So, I'm watching this portly fellow unload his cases of purified water, sipping my lukewarm coffee contrived from Los Angeles tap water, and I'm suddenly thinking, "What the hell's going on? Why is that guy stocking up on water? What does he know that I don't know? Did something occur that I'm not aware of because I haven't dutifully watched the news for the latest terrorist scare yet? Like, perhaps, the evil-doers have poisoned the L.A. water supply?"
Suddenly my coffee tasted worse than before.
I didn't want to turn on the television because Jill was still sleeping. I slipped into some clothes, wandered off down the serpentine hallways of the hotel, made my way to the desk, and paid the phone bill. Back in my room, I logged on to the net and found that the only breaking news story was of another attack by insurgent forces in Iraq .
Now my coffee tasted better.
But not for long. A half hour after Jill slid out of bed, the inevitable e-mail we were dreading came through. Jill's terminally ill father was taking a turn for the worse and the almost 24-hour care he required was creating a terrible strain on Jill's elderly mother. How soon, Jill's mother pleaded, could she come back home to assist Dad in what were obviously his final days?
There was no question about it. Jill had to leave and leave fast. The flight was booked with the requisite warning that all passengers had to arrive at the airport no less than two hours before scheduled flight departure. And then, amidst the hasty flurry of shoving clothes and personal items into an overnight bag, panic really set in.
"I don't have any clean panties to wear," Jill shrieked.
I didn't quite comprehend her hysteria.
"I get thoroughly searched every time I go through airport security. I mean, thoroughly searched."
"We don't have time to wash a pair of panties," I explained, "so you have two choices: the airport security gal gets a cheap thrill if she leans in that direction or she gets a handful of dirty panties."
Jill selected the cheap thrill option.
This is all part of what the media has dubbed "the new normal," a multitude of small disruptions in our daily lives, some of them practical, many of them media-induced with the constant worry over the national threat level and the prospect of a future terror attack that will make 9/11 look like a cake walk. Forget all this talk about the Constitutional freedoms that are being put through the paper shredder, what we're really losing that's all the more valuable is peace of mind, the freedom to not worry about why that man bought so many cases of water or what airport security is going to think when they shove a palm down your pants and find naked flesh where undergarments should be.
Later that afternoon, with Jill safely ensconced on an airliner back to Northern California , I take a leisurely stroll down Brand Boulevard in Glendale. I pop into Weinstein's Fine Books to have a look around. Aside from rare books and other arcane materials, Weinstein's also sells used video tapes and DVDs.
There's a scraggly-looking guy perusing the videos--imagine Al Pacino when he played Serpico with the knit cap, flak jacket and wild beard and mustache. Serpico grabs a video off the shelf and stares at it in stunned disbelief. He carries the video over to the proprietor, handling the plastic case as if the contents inside were holy writ instead of a cheap B-movie.
"I was in this movie," Serpico declares, "And you know who else was in it? That girl that Phil Spector shot. Lana Clarkson. She's in this. If you put up a display that says Lana Clarkson, the girl that Phil Spector shot, is in this movie, you might be able to sell it for more than it's worth."
I tried to find comfort in this quirky little episode of the "old normal" but in the end all it did was provide insight into why "the new normal" has been allowed to come to pass.