Dear Dirty America


Los Angeles Festival of Books: Too Many To Read

April 22
21:00 2013
Los Angeles

photo by Kent Kanouse

Lest you get full of the other stuff first

A small black girl with sharp dark eyes sits across from me at the USC food court. All around us folks use their teeth  to tear into slices of pizza, or their forks to scoop tangles of Asian cuisine into their mouths.

The girl, who must be only four or five, catches my eye from time to time. Her mother had gone back into the food court to get drinks for them. The girl’s grandmother sits next to the little girl and digs into a messy pile of fried, saucy noodles and indecipherable tangles of vegetables and chicken.

The girl, whatever her name is, peels the pepperoni off her personal pizza and stuffs the floppy red disks into her mouth. Every few moments the grandmother chides the girl. “Don’t just eat your pepperoni,” she says. The girl’s tiny fingers glisten with grease. I cringe when she touches her face, or scratches her head. Those bountiful braids soak the moisture right off her finger pads.

“Why not? I don’t want to get too full of the other stuff. Peppernini,” she mispronounces it, “is the best part of all.”

We’ve got a philosopher, I say. The grandmother frowns at me. But it’s true, I wanted to tell the woman. This little girl is being born into a technocratic prison of war, poverty, bleak hopes for prosperity or dignified living, and probably a lifetime of debt and monumental piles of garbage. Let her eat the pepperoni first, for the first few years of her life, and let her in on this horrible adult nightmare the rest of us are trudging through, later.

It’s either that, or don’t let her eat shitty food at all. No pizza. No processed foods. No birthday cake, either. Start her on a rigid diet of fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole grains.

Just checking backpacks…just checking backpacks…just checking…

This little girl was a source of comfort to me after I’d witnessed a scuffle a few yards east of the USC stage, where a band played Spanish music. I noticed a lot of jostling and a crowd forming, so I stepped over to get a closer look. A man had his hands raised in the air. “Just checking backpacks,” he was saying over and over again.

What’s going on here? I asked a red-faced girl. She squinted her eyes and told me the guy was going around tapping on the backs of people’s backpacks.She swallowed, like it was painful to talk. “Anybody with a backpack,” she said, and then demonstrated, “he’d knock on it with his knuckles.”

The man in question was being pinned between two athletes who carried backpacks. They didn’t like what he was asserting. “How could I know?” the man asked. “I am doing it to everybody,” he pleaded. He wore cowboy boots, but he looked more like Billy Crystal from City Slickers.

“He’s making sure nobody’s caring pressure cookers,” the girl said. I nodded. He’s doing good work, I guess, if that’s his intention. But it’s irritating to common citizens. Especially when  the cops stop and frisk people, I said, like they do in New York City. And of course, they’ve got a predilection for choosing Latinos and Blacks. At least this cowboy doesn’t seem to be discriminating.

“It’s still not a good thing,” she said back to me.

It’s his intention that’s good. We’re all a little paranoid. Society’s falling apart. The criminal horror we’ve allowed our politicians to wage overseas has begun coming back to us like a fleet of long-forgotten boomerangs. We’ve thrown so many out, and now they’re whipping back around again. How silly we are to think we’re the only people who matter in this world.

The girl walked away. Two security guards walked up and questioned the young muscled men badgering the guy in cowboy boots. “He hit our backpacks,” one of them said. “Yeah,” the other jumped in. “He’s going around hitting the backs of people’s backpacks. We don’t like it.”

The taller, fatter guard eyed the backpacks. “You didn’t feel anything weird in there, did you?” he asked.

“No, sir. Didn’t expect to, either. But I’m checking everyone.”

“So long as you don’t discriminate any certain races or types of people,” the guard said, “then it seems reasonable to me. We need extra vigilant eyes out here to help us do our jobs.”

The athletes scoffed, as did the guard’s thinner partner. Their voices erupted in argument, and I walked away.

Just another thoughtful citizen at the Los Angeles Festival of Books.

Too many, too many, too many books to read

A middle-aged, soft Jewish man talks to a woman across the table about all the books he bought at last year’s festival. “And would you believe it?” he asks her. “I’ve only read a couple of them. I still need to get through the rest!” They’d finished their plates of food long before I had sat with mine.

Hundreds of folks stand in line for a free
2-ounce McDonald’s smoothie,
which normally costs $2.49 for a large

He supposes he’ll buy more books than he needs at this year’s festival, too. His female companion nods. Her gorgeous curls of dark hair hang halfway down her back and give me that primal male shudder that links into my DNA from all the way back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden, to our first ancestors who, kicked to the dusty desert curb, left not disconsolate, but weary just the same.

The man’s comment about having too many books sparks my interest, because I had been feeling depressed walking beneath the hot sun, and beside the dozens of glaring white tents filled with books and people trying to sell books. Their books, other people’s books. Mainstream books. Genre books. Edgy books. Small press books. Cookbooks. Old, rare, and collectible books. Philosophy books. Underground books. Revolutionary books. Religious books.

What writer can compete with all of this? I’d thought. What does a writer have to do to alert the general public about his own work? Is it even worth the fight? To scrape and claw and pester and promote to every possible book lover out there, hoping to add just one more to the audience list.

It always seems hopeless for a writer in the midst of so many others, known and unknown, scrappy and confident. The poets, the fiction writers, the bloggers, the journalists, the experts, the exciting lives being turned into memoirs, the celebrities and politicians. There’s only so much consciousness to go around, and it’s awfully exhausting to keep trying to jangle that line in hopes of getting more attention.

But there I am, eating my own pizza and drinking a soda (which I hadn’t done in over four years), listening to one man who actually buys too many books, and hopes, someday, to read them all. How many books can one person read in a lifetime? One a week would be a generous assumption. That would be 52 a year. That would mean a little over 2500 for a man who lived 68 years (assuming he began reading seriously at around eighteen years of age). But who reads a book a week? Not that many people.

So imagine being a writer and trying to think of the next great story to beat out all the other tens of thousands of new books on the market — ebooks, self-published books, heavily promoted books from major presses, and bundles of new publications from small publishers. And then add to that the centuries of classics that must be read.

I leave the USC food court with what would have been high hopes that maybe there really are plenty of readers out there for every author’s work, but that pizza and cola must have created a heavy, sludgy feeling in my guts and crashed my burgeoning mental state. Best to stick with vegetables and fruit, I think, rather than get run down by cheese and bad oils and too much white bread.

Just like my friend Dee-O, the music critic who started his strict vegetarian diet and suffered an out-of-body experience, where he listened to the greatest orchestra he’d ever heard. The vibrations of the music tickled him on a cellular level. When he crashed back into his body, he found no music to be satisfying, no matter how loud or how dynamic, after what he’d heard in the astral realm. “It’s so tinny!” he hollered. “It’s so hollow. Even Bach. Even Vivaldi. Earthly music is flat. Undimensional.”

Come to think of it, I should have picked up a Theosophical Society book for Dee-O. Maybe The Astral Plane: its scenery, inhabitants and phenomena. Help him navigate through his spiritual surprise.


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