The choices appeared to be simple, die or die in the arms of an insanely beautiful woman. That one or the other was going to happen was without question. That I was twenty-one and standing in line at a Rite Aid holding flu medicine only seemed a cruel and unworthy end to a life that once held so much promise.
Luckily, as I’d come to know all too well, Rite Aid’s invariably have way too few people manning the check out lines and way too many employees roaming the aisles aimlessly, whereas a Smart and Final or Sav-On are both uniformly efficient in their customer service. But Rite-Aid was closer to my apartment and convenience trumps service any day. The first rule of sales we learned in our four am orientation classes was “location, location, location.” Rite-Aid was close, I felt like death, Rite-Aid won. This is true of most things, closer is better. Closer to your home, closer to your workplace, closer to eye-level, the more apt you are to patronize or buy. You eat out at a chain restaurant because it’s close by. You shop at the mall because it’s close by. You buy a certain cereal because it’s on the shelf closest to you and you don’t have to bend down. That’s why we’re overrun with mediocrity, at least it’s not too far away.
That the employees walking the aisles like zombies at a Rite-Aid are virtually worthless as well only compounds the irony. You may ask, “Where can I find flu medicine?” and be sent to the greeting card aisle. That would help if I wanted to send myself a get well card but truthfully all I wanted was to suck down some medicine and get the five hours of sleep I had waiting for me before I had to wake up and start a hellish work day. That Rite-Aid even had flu medicine in stock came as a bit of a shock given how much time I’d spent in them and how poorly they were managed. Check down any aisle and twenty-five percent of the stock will be empty. I’d recently spent a week combing Rite-Aids for brown shoe laces. Somehow all eleven stores that were part of my sales territory were out. Forget that the first Sav-On I went to had them, and the first Smart N Final I went to had them, the game was more enjoyable to play in Rite-Aid. Forget also I didn’t need brown shoe laces, it was the arbitrary nature of the hunt that made it more fun. And by fun, I mean anything to take my mind off the drudgery of my life.
So I had some time to steel my nerves and my stomach and find something pithy to say to win this beauty’s love forever as we both waited impatiently in line. Unfortunately, the electrical synapses in my brain were striking at an exceedingly slow rate, numbed both from the last six months of spirit-crushing torture that had been working as a saleperson for a wine company and the ravages of a flu that seemed to be gaining on me by the second. Could I slug down the medicine while waiting in line and forestall the drowsiness to come? Or would death be at the hands of my white Chevy S-10 pick-up truck slamming into oncoming traffic when I fell asleep behind the wheel? As the dreams of sweet death overtook me, I realized the beauty had said something to me.
“Can you believe this?”
“I can actually, I spend a little too much time in Rite-Aids. I’m an aficionado of the places really.” She laughed sweetly and I melted. Both from the heat flash coursing through my body and the thought that this conversation might lead somewhere.
It’s from this winning turn of phrase that the next seventy-five years of wedded bliss were mapped out in my mind. In my haze we struck up a conversation, all the while I’m hoping the one pimple-faced clerk behind the counter had to do a price check on Alpo dog food so I could work my magic a little longer. I gamely hid the flu medicine and noticed the contents of her basket, shampoo, orange juice, toilet paper. Two-ply toilet paper, we spoke the same language.
By the time she made it to the front of the line I had a date for Friday night and a new outlook on life, maybe the world wasn’t so bad after all. It’s when I heard her ask if they had brown shoelaces in stock it’s decided, she would be my wife, mother to my children and savior to my soul.
I chugged the flu medicine and took my chances on getting home. Things were looking up.
By Friday I was feeling better than ever. Forget that a week of selling wine in Southern California to chain drug stores is an exercise in futility, anger and madness.
It didn’t matter that every Friday night I came home from an exhausting fifteen hour work day, seventy-five hour work week, to pass out in my barely furnished apartment until late afternoon the following day, tonight was the start of a new life.
That I’d spent six months since graduating from Northwestern with the ignominy of carrying a feather duster and bribing shady men to buy more port wine was all behind me. Because for the first time since arriving in Los Angeles I was taking a beautiful woman out for a wonderful meal.
The first problem was what to do about the truck. When I took the job selling wine it was always viewed in my mind as a stop-gag, a way to get to LA. That the company that hired me gave me a large salary nowhere near commensurate with my experience, a cell phone with unlimited minutes and a car was merely an added bonus.
But the car turned out to be a white Chevy S-10 pick-up with a cap on the back, not even some cool, kick-ass truck. It was filled with promotional materials for wine, brandy and wine coolers and came complete with an air conditioning unit that never quite worked on the hottest summer days and a tape deck that was more an embarrassment than an accessory. It also happened to be filthy and smelled.
It was decided these were but minor affronts. A true date entailed me picking up my future wife, not meeting at a restaurant. The story would be better for the kids. She would look past these things and see me for the man I was to become, not that man I may have been. Plus, I had no other choice. I was running late and my hovercraft was in the shop.
I got dressed in my go-to outfit, a pair of jeans and bright yellow silk shirt with a black leather jacket. I looked like a giant Jewish bumble-bee. I’m over that phase now thankfully.
I’d decided to take her to Chaya Venice, between Marina Del Rey to the south where I lived and Santa Monica to the north where she did. I choose it because I passed by it once and enviously looked at all the beautiful people inside eating, laughing, enjoying their youth while mine was mired in disappointment, sadness and loneliness. And because it was the only restaurant I could think of where the servers wouldn’t be eighty and the clientele wouldn’t be dead. Those were the only places I frequented along my sales route because they were fast and cheap.
When the door to her apartment opened she looked more incredible than I remembered. The urge to start crying was strong. It had been months since I’d been on a date, the balance between me and complete bat-shit insanity was very thin. She said I looked nice, apparently Jewish bumblebee chic worked for her and away we went.
As I explained away the truck and spoke of how I came to LA to tell stories and never again live in cold weather (they were equally important in my decision to move west and not to New York), she laughed and told me about growing up in Northern California, how she wanted to go to medical school but was putting it off for a year.
Pulling up to the valet I realized this was only the second time I’d given up the keys to the truck. The first time involved a disastrous night at the Mondrian Hotel, home of the famous Skybar, a place on every transplant to LA’s register as the place to see and be seen, a place where the valets looked on in confusion at my dirty truck, none of them wanting to be the one to have to park it. The night began poorly and went downhill from there, when a friend gave me twenty dollars to get the table drinks and I came to find that was the cost of one vodka tonic.
But tonight was to be different, the valet dutifully took the keys and my beauty laughed when I told him to “keep it close” with a wink.
I had pulled my card of working in the wine industry to secure a good table, able to both look out at the restaurant in its entirety while also being beside the window which afforded a first hand glimpse of Main Street and its nightlife.
The menus handed off, I ordered a bottle of wine for the table, able to discuss with the sommelier the merits of a particular Pinot Noir we had sampled at work. It was better than anything I sold and I took great delight in ordering a wine that I didn’t spend all day hawking. It was also well outside my price range. But tonight, we live like kings! As we perused the menu the urge to cry hit once more. It had been months since a meal consisted of more than what I could eat in the least amount of time possible. A typical lunch was spent in five minutes at some place that specialized in pie and annoying aphorisms, a typical dinner spent hovering near the microwave on the verge of collapse.
We decided on sushi to start and each ordered a fish entree. Swimmingly, the night was going and my luck was changing. All I needed was to stay positive and good things were in the offing.
And then the waiter tapped me on the shoulder.
My head slowly lifted from the table, the world askew as my brain tried to process what had happened. My date looked at me with little concealed contempt, the waiter looked at me with unbridled embarrassment. I’d fallen asleep at the dinner table. Apparently mid-sentence no less. The stress and strain of a job I hated, of a work week that started too early and ended too late, coupled with just getting over being sick and having a glass or three of wine sent me straight to slumber, my arms dangerously close to slathering themselves in the butter dish, my nose tickled by the soup spoon.
My crooked smile did little to rectify the situation. There were two things I realized. The first was I wasn’t getting laid. The second was major changes had to be made in my life. And quickly.
I was quitting my job. And I was buying a Zagat Guide and eating at every restaurant in it.
Little did I know, this was the birth of The Monster.