Reality: Life In Hell

I left Los Angeles weather behind in San Francisco and was greeted with San Francisco weather in Los Angeles when the glassdog jet touched down at LAX.
Typical. It was like me, being me, to bring the poor weather with me and leave the sun behind. As a weather deity, my choices left much to be desired.
I was flying into L.A., which I like to call Hell, to sit my ass on yet another worthwhile panel at yet another Web conference to get myself into yet another set of troubles and self-inflicted problems from which I would no doubt find it hard to extract myself. My mouth, once it gets going, delivers me unto evils untold simply because I have yet to figure out how the brain and the voice are supposed to function together.
This trip, again, was foisted upon me unawares, this time by that DataDiva herself, Shauna Wright.


So Shauna, she says, she says to me, she says, she says, “Lance?” she says, she says, “Lance, can you appear at WebLA in LA, Lance?” She says, “I’m moderating a panel on something Web related and since you know all there is to know about the Web and, even more than that, you’re willing to hang your ass off the cliff to get it shot off when you start poisoning the air of the conference room with your opinions about this, that and the other thing, could you fly on down there and sit on my panel and try not to spit too much when you spoon your vehemence over the audience?”
“What,” asks I, “is the topic?”
“Does it,” she replies, “matter?”
“As a matter of fact,” says I, “it do. Because in this case, I would have to go to Los Angeles which is, and I think I speak for many a soul out there in Silenceland, hell. Hell on Earth. Hell incarnate. Hellishly hell-like in a helloidinal manner.”
“Hellish?”
“No ?ish? about it, dear. Satan lives there and produces all the television we have to watch. He made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star. More than that, he pays Bob Carney twenty millions of dollars to…”
“Bob who?”
“Bill Corey!”
“Bill who?”
“That idiot who talks out of his ass!”
“George W. Bush?”
“No, not figuratively! Actually talks out of his ass!”
“Oh, Jim Carrey!”
“Yes! Dick Conroy! Satan pays Dick Conroy twenty millions of dollars…!”
“You’re spitting right now, aren’t you?”
“Drooling is not spitting.”
“It’s certainly on the path toward spitting.”
“It’s in the neighborhood, I?ll grant you that.”
“Right around the corner, when it comes down to it.”
“Nearly right there on the lawn, yes.”
“It’s about freelancing.”
“Spitting is about freelancing?”
“No, the panel is about freelancing. Spitting is a manly form of lactation.”
“Wow, that was really arbitrary!”
“Thanks. Are you drunk, by any chance?”
“It’s 11 o’clock in the AM, Shauna. Of course I’m not drunk. How could I be drunk on only three bottles of Bass and a pitcher of Bloody Marys?”
“Tell you what, I?ll call back in, say, 20 minutes? Think you?ll be drunk by then?”
“Probably.”
“Okay.”
20 minutes and four ales later…
“Hi, Lance, it’s Shauna!”
“Shauna, who?”
“How’d you like to go to Los Angeles at the end of May for no reason whatsoever?”
“Love to! Honey, do you have any limes?”
“You asking me, or is some professional with well-muscled thighs and oiled palms in the room with you under the desk?”
“What? Shauna who?”
“Great! See you in L.A.!”
And then…
Landing in L.A., I glanced out the window at the miles of tiny square buildings, hoping to God that the jet’s engines would suddenly catch fire and we’d pull up, aiming for the naval yard in Long Beach and plunge our burning carcass of flying Lear Jet at the largest petroleum tank we could find and hopefully start a conflagration the likes of which have not been seen since Mrs. O?Leary’s temperamental cow kicked over the lantern in Chicago. I wanted nothing more than to see the whole fucking place explode in balls of flame and boiling blood, the pits of hell opening up in Northridge to finally swallow whole this sister city to Hades and all it’s silicone- and hairplug-implanted populace like a whore going down on Charlie Sheen’s willy on Sunset Boulevard.
Instead, I downed the last of my Bombay Sapphire and crunched the ice into pulp until my teeth ached. How had I gotten roped into this? And yet there it was on the calendar, and there was Gerald, my Scandinavian manservant (how did he ever get his skin that clear ? what did he know about Kiehl’s that I didn’t, for fuck’s sake?) holding my packed satchel for me as I finished my usual morning repast of three mimosas and a plate of creamed herring (which I never ate, but I loved saying to the plebes at World Domination HQ just to watch them gulp uncomfortably).
“I’m going where?”
“Los Angeles, Lance.”
“I’m doing what?”
“A conference, Lance.”
When had I allowed the man to behave in so informal a manner? Oh, yes. The hot tub incident. Something about an avocado, some KY Jelly and a bet. Pictures somewhere, apparently. Damn his perfect skin! “I’m getting paid how much?”
His brow arched. He did that really well. I wondered if he practiced in the mirror to perfect that combination of disdain and strained patience. He set the bag down and pulled my PalmV from his hip pocket. “Nothing about recompense, I’m afraid.”
“A freebie! Me? In Los Angeles?” I snatched the Palm from his hand, dropping it to the floor in the rush. As he bent to retrieve it, visions of avocados filled my head. “That’s impossible! There’s no way I would agree to that!”
He was fiddling with the stylus, the dark stick a blur in his capable hand. “A miss Shauna Wright made the appointment. Three weeks ago.”
“What time?”
A slim, knowing smile came to his lips. “11:22 AM. Sir.”
Fuck.
“You don’t have time.”
Apparently I’d said it aloud. “What, I’m on a commercial flight?”
“No, Lance, the jet is fueled and ready.” I let him start calling me Lance some time ago. The familiarity, as the clich? went, bred contempt. But the good kind of contempt, the kind you have to pay for. “But you have an appointment in Los Angeles this afternoon to meet with Adam.”
“Adam?”
“Rakunas.”
“Rakunas?”
“Adam Rakunas.”
“Oh!” Damned amyl. “And he’s…”
“In Los Angeles.”
“No, I mean why am I meeting with him?”
He searched the database. “Friendly visit.”
“I must be losing it.”
“If you say so.”
So…
LAX, and the ‘X’ stands for Hell, is a sprawling technological marvel where they don’t allow you to leave with your own luggage. Armed guards are posted at every 20 feet to make sure you do nothing wrong. Salivating German Shepherds line the check-in and check-out points. You are issued your gun when you exit and must fire on at least three vehicles before you hit the 405 or they charge you additional fees when you try to leave.
I got a Baretta, but that was okay. I prefer a .45, but can make do with almost anything in a pinch. I amused myself playing “Gay Or European?” in the terminal until my luggage showed up. I was certainly not about to carry it myself all the way from the jet to the curb. Who do I look like, Justin Hall?
“Where to?” asked the Indian taxi driver, aiming his Uzi at an orange salesperson (the fruit, not the color) who looked like he might come over at any moment to offer us his wares. And, no, not the good kind.
“Santa Monica.”
“Lincoln?”
“What?”
“You’re saying that way too much in this story.”
“What?”
Adam Rakunas would make a great bear if he lived in San Francisco. Seriously, he could walk into The Castro and be accosted by an almost unlimited number of men whose predilections follow in that particular oeuvre, a term I use incorrectly all the time but which no one ever calls me on. Not to mention the dangling participles.
I would be meeting the gaming magnate at his palatial estate (paid for entirely with rolls of quarters) overlooking the ocean and a Vons in Santa Monica, where old people go to linger on interminably as they drive cars way too large to be considered anything other that road boats, getting in your way at every opportunity and looking way too depressing as a reminder of where you?ll be someday when everyone else has died and you’re left with nothing to do except drive your huge car to Vons to buy lots and lots of frozen orange juice and hassle the clerks because you think they didn’t take the discount off from your coupons and your Vons Club card even though they’re not stupid, just lazy, but what do you care because you have all the time in the world and the biggest set of wheels you can afford to insure, because you’re afraid that everyone drives like a crazy person when actually they’re just trying to avoid you as you swerve and careen into lampposts and mailboxes and children in crosswalks and what are those children doing out of school on a school day anyway? Damn it!
Rakunas had, by and large, eschewed the glamorous life of a Web Deity for the less glamorous but seemingly sexier lifestyle of the video game producer. This was alotsam more appropriate for your average USC dorm room. Plastic sharks on the kitchen windowsill; empty Byrd’s Eye frozen food containers hotglued to the ceiling; Christmas tree lights used like airplane emergency exit markers; your mother’s couch with the Mexican-inspired throw purchased from Pier One near the stereo equipment constructed entirely of old PacMan games; wooden nutcrackers in the shape of Rula Lenska; sets of Star Trek collector’s plates; Barrel of Monkeys games-in-progress; oriental rugs with stains you don’t really want to know from what; bowls of bananas turned black long since; underwear for assorted sexes, some of which you?ve never seen before and can’t figure out how to wear; wide-screen flat-panel TV screens with stickers on them from the {fray} and Unamerican.com; photographs of women’s body parts where you can’t tell exactly what body part you’re looking at, but there’s always a nipple…
He greeted me with a bear hug, as would be expected.
“Adam!” I said.
“Lance!” he said.
“Adam!” I said again.
“Lance!” he responded.
“Are those black bananas?”
The Rakunas Estate sits amidst a jungle of overgrown vegetation that hides it from prying eyes. The interior is a maze of rooms and hallways leading into themselves, like a huge, real-life Doom scenario. Velvet paintings of Roman orgies sit beneath softly humming black light chandeliers. Monkeys scream from the hanging gardens, very likely in a language forgotten since Babylonian times, and handmaidens stand at the ready with large palm fronds to move the beer-soaked stagnant air through the dark manse. Adam was, as usual, wearing a pair of bright yellow surfer jams and some flip flops on his feet made from reconstituted dune buggy tires. He smelled of weed and Aqua Velva and his teeth were huge.
Or maybe I was drunk. It seems like I was drinking something in the limo, or maybe it was all that brown smog pouring in through the windows like gravy that was making my eyes sting, now. I started to cry involuntarily ? always a bad sign. “What’s wrong, now,” he asked testily. He knew what I was like in my dotage.
“Nothing. I’m just tired.”
“It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon!”
“I’m sorry, did you have a point to make?”
He started to retort, but realized it was pointless. “How are you?” He placed his arm across my shoulder, smiling in that way of his, which is to say great big and white.
“All right. Better than Carl.”
“That’s not saying much.”
I nodded. “Work is a bitch. They all just take and take and take. I’m being bled dry, I tell you!”
“I haven’t seen anything new you?ve written in two months.”
“Dry, I tell you! Bled dry!”
“Can I get you something?”
“Everything, dear boy, simply everything.”
We walked across the bricked patio as the parched Los Angeles sun beat down upon us, filtered through the banana leaves and palmetto fronds. A strange-looking bird flew past me, or a Frisbee tossed by one of the nubile handmaidens perhaps, and I tripped on an empty coconut shell. Adam’s beachboy bachelor pad was looking a little too made up to my eyes, as if he’d hired a Hollywood set decorator who’d raided every antiques dealer from Zuma to Point Magoo. Still, one could not argue with atmosphere, could one?
“I have some tequila from Eddie and Valerie, or maybe you’d prefer your usual?”
He knew me too well. “Please.”
He grabbed the Sapphire and poured a deep one, the ice cracking like my head. “You here for the conference?”
I rolled my bloodshot eyes over at him. “What else could drag me from my hole?”
“What’s the topic?”
“Freelancing.”
He handed me my drink, saying, “I didn’t think you did that sort of whoring.”
“Everyone on the Web is a whore,” I said brightly, feeling the gin rinse my gums with its pleasant juniper fizz. “Didn’t Shauna mention the topic?”
Shaking his head as he headed inside, he said, “Yes, but I chose to forget it.” He took a deep draught of his Tequila. “Drue’s coming, too, right?”
“Think so. Not sure.” I dipped my fingers into my drink, toying with the cubes. “It’s not my job to keep track of everyone’s schedule. That’s why I have… I have… shit.” My Palm was nowhere on my person. I tried to wrap my fuzzy mind around some memory of where it was. Avocados danced through my head. My sphincter constricted. I tried with all my might to dredge up some semblance of truth from deep down in the dark recesses of my memory. “Drue’s giving the usual schpiel on apparition infostructure.”
“Information architecture.”
“Whatever. The one where she goes on and on about nutritional spice racks.”
“Navigation space tracks.”
“Whatever. Is this my drink? I think it’s done.”
Pretty Soon…
We wiled away the hours discussing Kierkergard and watching porn. But mostly porn. Los Angeles has terrific porn. I think it’s the main export. That or selfish pricks with cell phones driving BMWs way too fast down residential streets. Which, to some people, is porn. Drue staggered in at 2AM with a small poodle in her backpack she kept referring to as Drexel. “Drexel,” I remembered saying, “is not a name for a poodle.”
“You have a better suggestion?”
“Dropkick.”
She set the dog aside, sneering (the dog was sneering), and joined us as we watched more clown pornography. Honestly, it’s amazing what you can find nowadays with the simplest of mistyped searches at Google.
I don’t remember much of what happened from that point until I found myself in the backseat of a rented convertible on what I presumed was the following morning cruising along the 405 at the blistering pace of 15 miles per hour.
“Is this the rush hour,” I asked, a non-driver and one unaccustomed to riding anywhere in a vehicle without a top where just anyone could look at you and whomever was sucking you at the moment.
No one, at the moment, was, so it was just as well.
“It’s always rush hour here, dear,” said a gravelly voice from the vicinity of the front passenger seat. “This is Los Angeles.”
I groaned. Why did everyone have to keep reminding me of that? “What time is it?”
“9:30”
“In the morning?”
Shauna turned around to face me. “Yes dear. Hence, the sun.”
“I was under the impression that this was what night looks like here. Isn’t the daylight twice as bright and fries the skin to a crisp without SPF5000?”
“Normally yes, but some weather deity,” she said, glaring at me, “seems to have ordered this gray stuff.”
“Not my fault,” I mumbled. I began to blink repeatedly and gaze around in unfocused confusion before a hand appeared in my face grasping a fifth of bourbon. “Should you be drinking when you’re driving,” I asked Drue.
“Darling,” she said (before I could stop her), “this is L.A.”
We eventually found the concrete monstrosity from which Shauna and I would be spewing nonsense in one large room, while Drue did her business in another. As usual, we would switch off to see each other’s presentations, filling the empty seats always left in the front row for any conference presentation. If there’s anything one can count on about a conference presentation, it will be that the room is either too cold or too hot, that the microphone will not work until you are commenting about the inefficiency of the conference promoters, and the front row will be completely empty until the other presenters appear so they can make faces.
We were 20 minutes late arriving, which we referred to as “fashionable” but the organizers called “breach” until I reminded them that I was being paid exactly nothing for this entire tax-deductible trip upon which (along with whispered words and phrases like “litigation” and “my lawyers make Hannibal Lechter look like a Vegan”) they relented, unhanded me and allowed Shauna and I to pass more or less unmolested to the stage.
Frankly, between the thermos of Stoli and the faint but insistent buzzing of the audio system in the auditorium, I don’t remember much of anything that was discussed. I know that the topic concerned the world of freelancing, but I’m not entirely sure if that meant freelance Web development or freelance prostitution… which often feel like the same thing anyway. Chances are I used the word “whore” either in reference to myself or others, but not is a disparaging way. So I used the non-disparaging “whore” as it were. There were questions and comments and then, for Chrissakes, more questions. I was left worn and battered and looking quite charming and attractive in a cheap, sullied sort of way. Shauna persevered as usual, somehow retaining her indomitable spirit in the face of unrelenting audience participation. Not a hair out of place, and with that much hair that’s really saying something.
What did I say? It might have gone something like this: “Freelancing blah blah blah not for the weak blah blah time management yodda yodda accountant etc.!” There, you just spent $450. Feel better?
After a pause outside the auditorium to down a couple of those cunning little airline bottles of Jack Daniels, I followed Ms. Wright to where we imagined Drue would be speaking and, sure enough, she was.
I caught a nice nap.
Next…
Before you can say “clean up your own damned vomit!” we were on the street and looking for action. As luck would have it, whom should we encounter in the same predicament except Greg Knauss.
To be quite frank, we were scheduled to meet for lunch that day, but the schedules of the digerati are magical and constantly in flux. You might say you were going to meet on Tuesday at noon for lunch, but you would show up on Thursday at 4PM and wonder where the hell everyone was and why they were always so rude to you all the time. So when I mention that luck had a part in the meeting, I’m not exactly lying.
Whenever I meet Greg, I am reminded how beautiful I am. That’s because the first phrase to leave his lips no matter whom he may meet is, “I love ya babe, you’re beautiful!” Methinks he has been spending too much time reading his own press releases, but if anyone deserves to have Gone Hollywood, it would be this man.
He had a redhead on one arm and a brunette on the other. The whole family man, woe-is-me, suburban sadsack mien he’d so successfully adopted for his online persona worked as a perfect fit for his writing style, and if the world would rather read about a man’s trials and tribulations dealing with supermarket check-out line, the nightmares of parking the car and how cute and unusual babies were rather than the truth, who were we to disillusion them?
“You’re looking quite fetching yourself, big boy,” I said, accepting those damned Eurotrash cheek busses with only mildly nauseated detachment. Not that he noticed, of course. Then he looked at Shauna, yelled, “Gorgeous! I love ya babe, you’re beautiful!” and play-kissed her face as well, finally ending the round of weird and uncomfortable lip-based greetings with Drue. He introduced the two girls as Kimberlee and Cindee (I always attached double-ee’s to his sex-pet concubine’s names, since they always ended in ?Y? but I couldn’t bring myself to think of them as much more than living, breathing, heaving Barbie dolls) and then patted them on the ass and told them to scoot along and get their nails done. They gave him twin “Oh, you!” looks and actually scooted along. Breasts do amazing things mid-scoot.
“Where shall we nosh?” I asked looking around the fairly depressing streets of whatever Los Angeles suburb we were standing in, as if one could tell the difference between one and another.
“Right this way, my fine young cannibals,” he said, throwing his lean, muscular, tanned arms over the two girls? shoulders while I trudged along behind, searching my Prada bag for a stray bottle of airline Dewers.
Another funny thing about Greg, which you dear reader must be realizing about now, is that all those people he writes about that annoy him? He is all those people. So the joke is, of course, that he’s laughing at you as you laugh with him about those annoying, self-satisfied, holier-than-thouers which he’s making fun of as the person he isn’t really at all.
We found a Mexican Restaurant (A Mexican Restaurant? In Los Angeles?!? Shocking!!!) and sat ourselves in a red vinyl booth to suck back Cadillac Margaritas and chow down bowl after faux-wood-paneled plastic bowl full of over-salted tortilla chips and something approaching ketchup (but it was curiously crunchy) while awaiting our humorously named burrito lunches—mine going by the label of “El Burrito Fantastico!”—and talked about how fabulous we all are and how un-fabulous nearly everyone else is.
Before you go judging us, please remember that you weren’t there so I could be making all this up and we never actually agreed that you, whomever you are, are inferior in every way to us and have no right to even be reading the words we gift the world. Okay, Mr. and Ms. Judgmental? So just cool your jets and go suck your Diet Pepsi.
“Lance-o! Mi amigo! Que pasa?” Greg smirked a world-class smirk and winked and actually did that finger gunshot thing, but on him it worked. Which I hated. “You getting your regular daily allowance of the ol’ in-out, in-out?”
“I get by,” I lied. Shauna nearly choked. I blame it on the ketchup.
“What’s your flavor these days, anyway? You still into the hairy apes?”
“Why is it,” I asked, “that whenever I talk to you I feel like I’m in an episode of Playboy After Dark. Is Joey Heatherton sucking any part of you under the table?”
“Ha ha ha!” Greg actually laughs like that. I never thought anyone actually went ‘ha ha ha’ until I met him. It’s sort of eerie. “You kill me! Seriously, seriously, how they hangin’?”
“South.”
“Mmmwah,” he said, setting his Margarita down. Sure, it wasn’t a real word, but how often did we manage to use those anyway? I was distracted by the twinkling of his sky-blue eyes and the flashing of his white teeth, so I didn’t exactly hear whatever it was he said next, but that was okay because my Burrito Fantastico arrived and it was time to play with my food.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy. But try spending an hour with Dean Martin some time. Keep in mind that Dean Martin’s dead.
Finally…
I was urinating when my pocket started vibrating. And, no, that’s not innuendo. “Hello,” I said, shaking the dew from the lily. (Which is innuendo.)
“Lance?” It was Gerald. “Where are you?”
I gazed around in a Tequila-induced haze. Everything was shiny. “Las Vegas?”
“From the acoustics, I’d wager you’re standing at or near a urinal in a cheap Mexican Restaurant outside Los Angeles.” I narrowed my gaze and tried to stop weaving to and fro, trying to see if that was Elvis or a toilet stall. “The jet is waiting.”
“Waiting for what?” I managed not to slur, but I was also trying to avoid words with S’s in them.
“You, sir. I believe you’re time in hell has been served.” I smiled. “For this year.” He really knew how to twist that knife. “Come home. A case of Shiraz-Mourvèdre arrived from Webvan…”
“Penfolds Bin 2?”
“Of course.” His voice sounded like honey in my ear, even through the static and the sound of Elvis flushing.
“Warm up the Jacuzzi, Gerald. Daddy’s coming.”
“Please don’t say that, Lance. It scares me.”
And so it was time to leave Los Angeles behind. The mountains covered with beige deep-pile carpet, the endless freeways choked with the gleaming sarcophogi of the slowly rotting corpses of its populace, kept breathing only through the grace of God and three million tons of silicon breast implants and plastic pec inserts. I said goodbye to Shauna and Drue, who were staying behind to visit cemetaries and pour alcohol on the graves of their favorite suicidal movie stars, and to Greg, who told me (just for good measure) that I was beautiful, and that I should never change.
The sun came out as my jet took off. And as we rose into the brown, brown sky, I smiled. Not just because I had a glass of Sapphire in my hands properly chilled and someone was masaging my feet, but because the entire city of Los Angeles was sliding into the ocean, and I was going home

February 15, 2001

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