California People…

What would be the best lead for this essay? How to best describe the feelings of a little boy from the rural Wyoming who has found himself in the valley of the damned? Well, I’ll start soft. It wasn’t the first time my brain said “welcome to California”, but it was the first time I wanted to physically shake someone I didn’t know.

The scene: Wild Oats (an organic vegetarian-friendly supermarket).

Dramatis Personae: Me.

The Cashier

The Chapstick Girl.

The Old Japanese Banana Man

I finish work in North Hollywood and make the 18 mile commute back home, stopping along the way for groceries. Now, for those of you in Wyoming, or the MidWest, or anyplace where people believe in walking or public transportation, this 18 mile commute generally takes between 35 minutes and an hour and a half. This night was more the latter. At this point in my stay, I haven’t discovered a decent radio station (And come to think of it, I really still haven’t), so I’m listening to Tom Leykas on talk radio. Tom, for those of you who have not heard his special brand of magic, is not what we would call PC, or female friendly, or, most of the time, remotely funny. But sometimes there are some interesting conversations on the show, and every once in a while he makes a good point. Needless to say, this was an off night for Tom, and by the time I get back to Pasadena I just want to collapse. But first, I need food for the coming week. The shopping is mercifully short and the night’s looking good. Until I get to:

The line.

Now, I have to wait to pay for my organic fruit leather and soy milk (a long story in its own right, and something I will go into much detail about at a later date), and there’s an old Japanese man trying to ask the cashier questions about a banana, and generally slowing the line down and making a long night even longer.

I have to people watch, something I usually love to do, but am not in the mood for tonight. Wild Oats only has magazines about yoga and alternative lifestyles at the checkout stand. I could have used one of Cosmo’s fine diatribes about the intricate points of “scoring a fab makeover that will make your dude drool”.

But I watch, because now the Banana Man is waving the banana at the cashier and tapping the side as if discussing the working components inside of the banana.

I glance behind me, nothing much to see, just an ordinary looking quasi-hippie girl in line. I decide to go back to banana man– but wait. What the girl seems to be very interested in the chapstick. I mean, really interested. She’s going over each one of these things like fine diamonds, weighing them in her hands and doing side by side color comparisons.

This is people watching at its best.

And then it happens.

She uncaps the first chapstick and rubs a stripe on her hand, sniffing her hand and dabbing the chapstick with her tongue before closing the tube.

No big deal. A lot of people like the taste of– OH MY GOD! She put the chapstick back on the shelf.

Let me repeat: She placed the filthy chapstick back on the shelf.

There is an opened and hand-swiped and hippie-tongued chapstick waiting for some poor unsuspecting soul to sweep up and what the hell is wrong with you, quasi-hippie?

Can we forgive her this one sin?

I don’t want to. I’m not trying to hide my slack-jawed awe of this product testing.

She opens the next chapstick and it gets the same treatment. Swipe on hand. Sniff hand. Rub hand. Smell chapstick. Tongue chapstick. Close. Return to shelf.

I watch and watch, starting to sweat. I’m throwing nervous glances to the cashier, but he’s still involved with Mr. Miyagi and the banana.

And now the girl is on to tube number three, four, five.

Do I shake this girl? Punch her? Yell “Miss, people have to use that chapstick! Is this some kind of human guilt thing, making up for the years that animals have been product tested and you haven’t?”

But I remain silent.

The banana jam has cleared in front of me. It’s my turn.

The girl closes her chapstick and smiles at me.

“This one!” she says, as if I was encouraging her treasure hunt for the special flavor of chapstick.

I pay. I run from the store and hide in my sleeping bag. I may never be able to buy chapstick again. Or deodorant. Or anything that could be easily opened and hippie-tested.

The pollution does not affect the brain here in California. It’s the experiences with other people, in a state so ridiculously laid back, so friendly on the surface and scared underneath, so closed-minded, selfish and frightened.

California, here I come.

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