Monday, January 18, 2010

Thin Veneer of Civilization

I go to McDonald’s. I’m sitting there eating a breakfast burrito watching CNN, minding my own business. Some guy saunters up and sits fairly close to me, his eyes initially on the TV, mumbling about this or that. I can tell he wants to strike up a conversation. He’s almost in my line of sight. With peripheral vision I observe him trying to make direct eye contact. I could look away from the screen, gaze out the window in the opposite direction, and ignore him, but I refuse to let this stranger alter my actions and ruin my bliss. Try as I might, though, it’s difficult to carry on as if he weren’t there, whoever this moronic primate is. I feign even greater interest in the news in a vain attempt to ward him off. Will he have the audacity to disturb my pensive mood?

The anchorwoman is reporting on a speech the president will address to American school children later in the day, but only half of my brain is paying attention. I’m reading the streaming text at the bottom of the screen. It feeds out one-sentence reports on U.S. casualties in Iraq—four soldiers killed by a bomb in Baghdad—and one death in Afghanistan. I wistfully, and somberly, think about these lives as a mere blip on the TV screen and reflect back on my deployment in Afghanistan when I would watch the news with fellow soldiers and ex-military contractors, disheartened at what passed for breaking stories back in the States—like the earth-shattering death of bimbo B-actress Anna Nicole Smith, for example—and contrasting the glitzy newscasters and sound bites with our own lives: a vexing routine of dodging rockets and mortars, reading reports of casualties downrange, and attending impromptu Fallen Comrade ceremonies in the middle of the night. Now I’m back on this side of the world, I ruminate, watching CNN and imagining the seemingly forsaken and forlorn soldiers, crimson heroes who sacrificed limbs and lives in a foreign land. It’s surreal.

“So, anything interesting in the news?” asks the rotund 50-year-old body-space trespasser. Pensive mood disturbed: mission accomplished. I glance at him only enough to see his fatuous grin. Without being overtly rude, I use body language and tone to suggest I don’t want to engage in any conversation whatsoever, that he’s intruding upon the fortress of solitude, that my purpose in being here is decidedly not to speak on familiar terms with wayward strangers. “I don’t know,” I reply curtly. I realize my mistake shortly thereafter, the mistake of not being more forceful and rude at the outset. Later I will think of Woodrow Wilson who didn’t heed General Pershing’s advice to march into Berlin and let the Germans know beyond a doubt who lost World War I. Unlike our 28th president, I discovered the fruits of my mistake in my lifetime, namely about 45 seconds later. But at the time, with just this brief exchange of words, I felt more like Dr. Doolittle, what with this guy’s bovine acuity, asinine expression, and simian mannerisms.

“Skippy” walks away and I think this is done. Now, burrito consumed, I can make love to my Sausage Biscuit w/ Egg and continue pondering the tragedy of war. But he returns, coffee cup refilled, and has the temerity to take up his seat again. He’s talking at the screen so that others in the restaurant—me above all, I come to realize—can hear him. He’s spouting off something about education. My muscles tighten up and I think homicidal thoughts. “So do you have children?” he dares so ask. In situations like this I use a technique that keeps me from understandably ripping out his testicles and stuffing them into his erstwhile yapping mouth, which by the way is simply nature’s way of saying you’ve overstepped your bounds. I count to three slowly in my mind and breathe deeply, thus allowing a cooling off period and an opportunity to formulate words instead of responding with violence. “No, but I do have a Ka-Bar combat knife in the trunk of my car and would love to plunge it into your neck. I would also request that you not ask me, someone whom you do not know, personal questions. In sum, I would do these two things, but not necessarily in that order.” I want to break into an evil smile, but I don’t, for I fear he would misinterpret the gesture and not take the threat seriously.

At that moment I think about the thin veneer of civilization and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. This societal façade can dissipate in an instant like fog meeting a sunny dawn. How similar we are to the beastly world! The Darwinians had it right. What kind of deranged chimp can’t pick up on simple body and verbal signals and risk the blade of chastisement for his audacity? He could not discern even the most basic of clues, as if his Neanderthal brain was navigating somewhere between the Scylla of Shit and Charybdis of Shinola. My stream of consciousness led me to James Huberty, a 42-year-old security guard in San Ysidro, California deciding he’ll walk down the street to the local McDonald’s armed to the teeth and take out forty people. Don’t misunderstand me: Huberty is rotting in hell, or, for you atheists, he’s rotting in the memories of the living from generation to generation. If you were to fill an entire McDonald’s with these pudgy middle-aged Skippies, I would not be tempted to take them out. That’s because, warts and all, I’m still a Mensch. This guy, however, Mr. Garrulous, who stormed my tranquility like a Hobbesian invader, a caffeine-intoxicated stalker who must subject others to the tyranny of his self-styled witty remarks about this, that and the other, is no better than the beasts of the field and, to employ Darwin, bears the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. He’s probably a pedophile too for all I know.