Monday, January 07, 2008

The Sbarro Incident

(you've waited more than a year for this. I apologize for the delay. But, with passing time, there is perspective)

December 28, 2006. Las Vegas.

I'm hungry. I'm tired. I'm on a family gambling trip and I'm mostly alone - walking the cold streets and long hallways of the Strip. I'm searching for meaning. I'm thinking of giving it all up. I'm single, I'm tired. I'm hungry.

It's about one in the afternoon. It's Thursday. I'm flying home the next day. I've lost some money, too much money. Fucking blackjack. Goddamn poker.

I'm staying at the Paris hotel and casino. There's a fake Eiffel Tower there. There are families with children. The place feels jittery. I want to go outside.

I walk out the lobby door, only to meet her eyes at the same time she meets mine. It's my ex-girlfriend from 11 years ago. You know - the Mormon. The 10 Percenter from the good part of Long Beach. She's with her new boyfriend. We say hi, she introduces me. He looks like Jeff Foxworthy on a bad day. She looks like she did in 1995 and so do I, except for the gray. We say goodbye. This story isn't about seeing her. But it didn't help.

I walk toward the street - Las Vegas Boulevard - thinking about how far I need to walk to truly come to an understanding. I reach the sidewalk. I turn back around. I'm too hungry. I need food. And caffeine. I need a fresh start. This is my last day ever in Las Vegas, I tell myself. I'm never coming back. Might as well make the most of it.

I decide to get a latte and a pastry from the "French" bakery in the hotel. I've just purchased a newspaper - the always comforting-in-Las-Vegas Los Angeles Times. I just want to sit and read and eat, energizing myself for my last day here. Never coming back.

The bakery line is too long. There are no open seats. I need to go somewhere else.

Paris is connected via a long hallway with its "sister" property Bally's. I remember from my unsuccessful trip to Bally's sports book the night before that there's a food court nearby. I want pizza. I recall a Sbarro there. I haven't been to Sbarro since the early nineties. But it'll do. Pizza and a Diet Coke and the sports section of the L.A. Times. All I need.

(Sbarro was actually a common destination of mine in the mall-going eighties. It was at the Sbarro in the Minneapolis City Center where a man seated next to me implored me to fold my slice of pizza. "That's how we do it in New York." "Go fuck yourself," I thought, "I lived in New Jersey. No one tells me how to eat pizza." But that's just what I thought. What I said was nothing. My penchant for random justice-inspired confrontation had not yet been formed. I was only 18.)

The line at Sbarro is blessedly short. I'm a little distracted by hunger, ennui, and sensory overload. But hey look at that - they have a really nice looking veggie pizza, with lots of olives. I order two slices of the veggie. And a refillable Diet Coke cup.

There are actually two lines at this Sbarro - twin approaches to a central cash register. I'm the only one on my side. I have a vague sense of the people on the other line - a family of several people, a bit slow on the uptake ("why is my cup empty?" I hear one of them ask; "why are there two lines?" another says). But they really don't resonate with me. It's just a vague sense. It was later that I realized that the people who populate this "incident" you're about to hear of are the same people who asked the stupid questions.

The funny thing is I shouldn't have been there. I was on my winter break from my job. I should have just stayed in Los Angeles and relaxed. My apartment needed cleaning. My script needed revising. I should have just said no to the family pressures.

But I was there - alone, at a chain pizza restaurant in a food court in a mid-level casino in the holiday season. I was there.

I sit down at a table for four. It's a square table. Four chairs, one on each side. These details are important. I fill my drink cup. I sit down. I get out the sports section. I'm happy for a moment -
yes, I'm a complex man of unique interests but sometimes there's nothing better than eating pizza and reading basketball box scores.

I'm lost in the revelry of the food and the newspaper for only a few seconds. I see an elderly man at a crowded table near me (one of those half-booths) stand up. He's holding an empty tray, from which he's just removed his food. I don't know why I'm watching him. He's probably just going to put the tray over by the trash can, atop the others. Nothing to see here.

Except: he puts the tray on my table, with me sitting there. Eating, reading. The trash can is another five feet away, but he doesn't want to walk that far. I study him. Though he is old, he is not weak. He looks sturdy enough to have been able to walk a little further, to not put his discarded tray on my table.

I should have let it go.

I shouldn't have said a word.

I should have been the better man.

"Excuse me," I say, "please don't put your trash on my table."

Now can I really consider a red plastic tray to be "trash"? Probably not. But there was a discarded straw wrapper on the tray.

"Trash?" the old man asks, incredulously. "It's just a tray."

I point to the trash can next to my table. "You couldn't have walked a few more feet and put it where it belongs."

He was silent for a moment. I studied his table mates. The people from the other line. There were five others. An older woman (his wife?) A younger couple (his child and spouse?) Two children (his grandchildren?)

"No one's sitting there," he responds in a thick southern accent.

Did he just say that? Yeah, I'm eating alone. Yeah, I got no one else. But what the hell does that have to do with what he did?

I do the only thing I can think of, under duress. I lie. "Well, I am waiting for somebody." I don't know why I said this. I believe that most people would have at least been annoyed by the man's tray-discarding actions, even if they wouldn't respond verbally. There was no need for me to justify my reaction.

Perturbed, the man stands up. He says nothing. He takes the tray off of my table. He walks to the trash can. He places it where it belonged all along. Though, it should be noted, he does not throw the straw wrapper in the trash. I would have.

I decide that his reaction was sufficient. My lie was a bit asshole-ish but hey at least he made a gesture. I return to my pizza and paper.

A few minutes pass. I hear a younger voice from the other table. "I thought you said you were waiting for someone." It's the younger man. The old man's son, I decide, though I will receive no confirmation of this.

Childishly, I think, hey they started this in the first place, why the hell would they start it up again, when the tension seemed to have dissipated. Like Lincoln and Andy Pettite, I decidedthat honesty is best. "I lied. There's no one coming."

"You're a jerk," cries the old man. I admire him for his old school taunt. I'm not a chump or an asshat or a player hater. I'm a jerk.

In the mid-90s, while researching graduate schools and dating the Mormon, I briefly considered law school. My father and my Bay Area (beloved) aunt told me, on separate occasions, that I argued "like a lawyer." I humored myself (and my relatives) my taking the LSAT. I scored high enough to apply to some above average law schools. But my heart wasn't in it. I stuck with my psychology/statistics track. But they were right - I argued like a lawyer - specifically a win-at-all-costs liberal minded defense attorney.

It is this inflated sense of justice that compels me to pursue the overly logical debate with the old man and his son. Again, I'm aware that this is nothing but a tray with a straw wrapper on it and I should be the better person and let it all go. But I'm in a bad mood. My lunch and my sports section is over and they have been sullied.

"Hey - you're the one who put your trash on my table."

"It's not trash. It's a tray."

"Well, it showed a lack of class. It's just laziness."

"You're a jerk."

"Look," I say to the son, not being able to get through to the old man."You know what he did was wrong. You seem reasonable. Can't you just admit he should have taken the tray to the trash can?"

You see, I had seen a glimmer of embarrassment on the younger man's face and that of his likely wife's when papa put the tray on my table.

"It's not that big of a deal. Why are you hassling my family?" answers the younger man, in the same southern drawl. Texas, I decided.

In one sense, he's wrong. I'm not hassling his family - just the old guy. In another sense, he was absolutely right - the grandkids don't deserve this. My relaxing lunch in the casino food court was ruined but I'm only one person. What about the other five people's lunches?

The duality is getting to me but I'm done with my lunch. Now, I can do it - I can walk away. I should walk away. I will walk away.

I fastiduously throw my trash out. I leave the newspaper next to the tray pile, so someone else can read it, ideally under better circumstances.

The story would be over if it wasn't for the fact that the family of six get up from their table at the exact same time as me. I don't remember what they did with their trash.

The Bally's Sbarro is at the very end of a long hallway. Unless one plans on spending time at the nearby sports book, there's really only one way back to the rest of the casino, to the hotel, to the street, to the parking structure - that is, to walk the long hallway of shops and other restaurants. I walked that way. They walked that way.

So what happened to me and the Mormon who I had run into earlier that day? Why didn't it last? Well, there were many reasons - the tithing, her annoying Big Dog-apparel-wearing roommate Debbie, and the fact that she was the one who said the worst thing anyone has ever said to me. But we had some good times. And I was hardly heartbroken. She taught me about potato tacos. And she liked Natalie Merchant too.

I let the family pass me. I pretend to look at my cell phone, so the whole ordeal can mercifully end. But it doesn't end for one reason and one reason only: the younger man and his wife are laughing.

Again - for the last time - Ali, let them laugh... you're the better man... you live on a hill in Los Angeles... you have a Ph.D.... your blog is widely read and you're thought of fondly by many people. Let them laugh. Let it go.

"What's so funny?" I call out to them, ahead of me.

The young man stops. His wife pulled him, as if to say "Come on, let's go." She gives up. She and the others, including the old man, keep walking. The young man waits for me to reach him. "I just want to thank you," he says.

"Thank me?"

"Yes, thank you for providing us with entertainment over lunch. We got to see a show for free."

Entertainment? Show? What the fuck is this about?

"Again, all I'll say is that he shouldn't have put his trash on my table. I'll live the rest of my life knowing that I WAS RIGHT AND HE WAS WRONG."

Yes, I'm a little over the top. Perhaps I was "entertaining."

"Look, he's an old man. Don't you think you overreacted?"

Yes I did, I knew. "No I didn't overreact."

"Well thanks again for the entertainment," he says, walking away from me and joining the family.

I see the old man turn and realize that his son (in-law?) is talking to me. He snaps.

"Are you following me?" he yells hysterically. "Are you following my family?"

(note to people with families: please don't play the "family card" with single and/or childless people; we hate it.)

"I'm not following you. I'm walking in the same direction as you," I say truthfully, before adding "But since I'm here, you could apologize to me."

This is taking an ugly turn.

"Apologize?" he yells, "I'm not apologizing to no one."

(Technically this is a double negative, indicating that he is indeed apologizing.)

"Yes, just apologize for putting your trash on my table. You'll feel better."

The young man intervenes. "Look, just cut it out. It's over."

I regain my senses. "You're right."

"And thanks again for providing us with such great entertainment"


All the while, we're walking in the grand endless hallway, approaching the Paris split. The young man stops. He walks toward me. "I have an idea of how we can resolve this" he says, with a serious look on his face.

Oh yeah. It's on! He's gonna challenge me to a fight. Sure, I haven't raised my fist since the "Westwood 'Mission: Impossible' World Premiere Incident" of 1996 but I can take this guy. He's 5'9", 170 tops. I'm 6'1" and a (then) muscled 220. If he wants to "resolve this" outside, I'm not backing away.

I misread the man.

"This is how we can resolve this. We can all go up to our room and pray on it."

Holy shit. "Pray on it?" For the first time in my arguing life, I'm thrown for a loop, unsure of what to say next. I mean, what can I say to that? Maybe he didn't like me invoking Jesus' name a moment ago.

My silence doesn't last long. I think of a comeback - a pretty good one, I have to admit. "Wow, I'm offended," I say, pretending to be offended in an ACLU sort of way, "You want to bring god into this? You want to bring religion into this?"

"I'm just saying we can pray on it. We can all learn to forgive."

I look into the young man's eyes. He's being sincere. He really wants us all to get along. He's the better man. The detour to Paris is coming soon. I decide to end things on a happy note.

A happy note, with a slight assholish qualification: I say, loud enough for all of them to hear "I want the five of you to have a nice day and I want him," pointing to the old man, "to have a bad day."

"You mean, the six of us?" the young guy says immediately.

"No. The five of you - you, you, you, you, and you," pointing to everyone but Grandpa.

"No, I know what you mean," the young guy said, "I know you're not including him. But, you see, there's still six of us. You know why?"


"Because Jesus walks with us."

And to that, I truly had no response. I shake my head in frustration, my first argument truly lost. I walk back to Paris. They walk in the other direction, all of them and Jesus. I lose more money. The next morning, I vow to never gamble again, to never come back to Vegas. I've been back twice since.

The next night, Saddam Hussein is executed and I see Blondie in concert in Agoura Hills . They sing "Heart of Glass" as the noose snaps and the old man realizes that maybe he was wrong.


obscurapersona said...

Brilliant story.

Brilliant last paragraph.

Oh, and you do argue like a lawyer.

darknessatnoon said...

You handled that situation with a lot more class than I would have.

Anonymous said...

"Go fuck yourself," I thought, "I lived in New Jersey. No one tells me how to eat pizza."


Typical Ali. Only you would pick an argument over a food service tray.