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OPINIONS 101: Faz de Odio

May 20, 2006

In 1993 Joel Schumacher directed Michael Douglas in Ebbe Roe Smith’s Falling Down. In case you missed the film, allow me to provide a 30-second recap:

Douglas plays William Foster, an unemployed and highly agitated defense worker who is frustrated with the various self-perceived flaws in society. As luck would have it, Foster absconds a duffle bag of handguns and rifles, which enables him to violently lash out at those he deems responsible for these societal injustices. The film builds to a rather predictable conclusion but nonetheless demonstrates how one’s mind can twist and contort to the point where vigilantism seems a viable, justifiable option.

While en route from Westwood to Venice on Friday, May 19, I had a face-to-face encounter with a real-life William Foster.

I’ve been an on-again/off-again commuter for the past dozen years. The vast majority of my writing is done in transit. Virtually all of the comic projects I’ve developed have been created either on bus, train, or plane. I never view a commute as a waste of time, because I put that time to use. Polite society being what it is, my fellow commuters, each of whom is wrapped up in his or her own world, rarely interrupt me. Reading novels. Talking via phone. Staring into space. Everyone is doing something even if it’s nothing.

On Friday I found myself at the back of the bus seated and working on layouts for a graphic novel still in the development stage. A few stops into the ride, a man who quite resembled a young Larry Linville (Major Frank Burns of TV’s M*A*S*H*) stepped onto the bus. He sat next to me even though there were several empty seats nearby. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Within a few minutes the empty seats were filled, much to my soon-to-be lament. Since I didn’t learn the man’s name, let’s just call him Larry.

The first thing I noted about Larry, after reflecting on his celebrity look-alike status, was the huge gray duffle bag he toted (quite similar to the one Douglas’ character hefted in Falling Down). Judging from the thud it made when dropped onto the bus floor, Larry was carrying quite a heavy load. He wore a tight-fitting white tee and faded denim jeans. His arms were toned by not overly so. His hair was army-issue short.

Within moments Larry began talking to me.

“Whatcha’ doing? You sketching?” he asked, though the answer was self-evident.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Whatcha’ sketching? That looks like—that looks like a person.”
“Nothing really. Just passing the time on the bus.”
Larry asked a lot of questions. He asked if I worked in the area. He asked if I went to school at UCLA. He asked what I did for a living and whom I worked for. When I explained that I edit electronically published content used to provide patient information to nurses and physicians at the point of care, Larry’s face and brow grew heavy with confusion. He pressed on with the conversation.
“Wow. You’re good.”
“I’m just messing. It’s nothing.”
“So are you an artist?”
Outside of conventions and parties, I don’t talk to strangers about my art or writing. Furthermore, I regard my commuting time as creative time, not time for idle chit-chat with strangers, so whenever I’m asked that question my answer is always the same.
“I’m an artist,” Larry said. “I just did a reproduction of a Klimt with magic markers. Colored it all in and sold it for a hundred bucks. I’ve only been drawing for a month or so. I used to write poetry. But it’s hard to sell poetry.”
Larry removed a pastry from one corner of his duffle bag and began eating with earnest.
“Poetry is a hard sell,” I offered. It was the most I could contribute conversation-wise to this man, whom I realized was not about to stop yakking.

The bus crawled toward the intersection of Westwood Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard. Larry took a few more bites of pastry.
“I gotta find an art store. There’s a couple of art stores on Santa Monica.”
“Yeah,” I acknowledged, thankful that there were two art supply stores about ten minutes distant.
“I gotta get some mattes. Those mattes are pretty cheap. Though frames can be expensive—15 bucks each. I like the mattes. They’re 2 bucks each.”
By the time we turned onto Santa Monica Boulevard, Larry was beginning to look angry. His mood shifted the way a sky can sometimes turn from stormy to black within a few minutes.
“Problem with those art stores, man, is they all got some smart-ass snot-nosed punk working behind the counter. Some smart-ass Mexican who don’t give a fuck about helping you. Fucking lazy Mexicans, man. They’re all the same. Not one of ‘em will help you. Fuckers.”

I looked to the left and to the right where Mexican men sat on either side of us. One was listening to music through an iPod. The other was staring out the window, half asleep. A woman sitting in front of us looked over to Larry then dropped eye contact.

“I mean, I go in there, and these fucking Mexicans, who aren’t even in this country legally, these fucking job-stealing illegal-immigrant Mexicans are in these stores and they won’t even help you. It just makes me so fucking mad. But that’s how they all are. Shit. The Mexicans. The blacks. Indians. All them people. They’re all so unwilling to be helpful. I mean, I just wanna buy a fucking matte and they won’t even fucking help me find one.”

By this time I’d closed my notebook. Larry’s brow was raised. He stood up and quickly shut the bus windows on both sides of the bus.
“Fucking cold,” he attested. “Anyway, it’s okay. Their day will come. Those fuckers sneak in here illegally. Those fucking Mexicans come in here and take our jobs and steal our women and their day will come. There’s gonna be a redemption. There’ll be a big redemption waitin’ for them.”

He stood up again and opened one of the windows.
“Hot on this fucking bus.”
He sat back down and turned to face the man wearing headphones.
“Fucking Mexicans,” he said, angrily.

An awkward, uncomfortable silence enveloped the vehicle’s interior. Larry started talking more trash, but I’d seen and heard enough. I considered debating Larry. The problem is that one cannot debate people like Larry. His value system was forged long ago. Any attempt to interject a differing opinion would likely be regarded as an assault. I had no intention of engaging in violence with this man who was younger than me and who was apparently looking for confrontation.

As the bus reached the intersection of Santa Monica and Corinth a few passengers stood up to exit. I joined them. Even though I was several miles from my stop and the next bus was at least a twenty-minute wait, I could no longer listen to Larry’s perverse hatred. This twisted white male sought an audience to listen to his preaching. I wasn’t about to continue sitting there and giving him the satisfaction of thinking he had anything of value to say.

I waited for the next bus and tried to sketch. But Larry’s voice hung in my mind. I despised the punk. I wanted to suggest to Larry that he watch Paul Haggis’ Academy Award-winning Crash. Though I doubt that the film would have any impact on Larry. Most likely he’d have been cheering for the racist police offer John Ryan (Matt Dillon).

Since relocating to Los Angeles in 2003 I’ve become friends and acquaintances with people from all over the US. LA is indeed a melting pot. I’ve gotten to know and have befriended folks from many different lands. Mexico. China. Japan. Malaysia. India. Africa. Canada. Amsterdam. England. Italy. France. Spain. The Philippines. Panama.
Do I become friends with everyone I meet? Of course not.
Do I like everyone I meet? No.
Do I make these decisions based on a person’s ethnicity or skin tone?
No way. Life has proved to me that there are good and bad people in the world, and they wear every color skin. The Larrys of this world are unable or unwilling to see this. It’s easier for them to simply black and white it all.

Our Presidenté, in an attempt to salvage the highest unpopularity rating ever bestowed upon a US President, is driving the immigration train at full speed. He believes that illegal immigrants (mainly Mexicans) are costing hard-working Americans their jobs. He proclaims that decent US citizens are being denied their livelihood as a result of the men and women who are here illegally. In LA, many of the illegal aliens I’ve met are day workers. They stand in front of lumberyards or home-improvement shops and it’s understood that they are available for hire. Thus, if I decide to drop a new concrete slab walkway in front of my house, several choices await me. I can do the work myself. I can hire a contractor, provided I could find one willing to do such a small job. I can hire a day laborer on the spot for $10 per hour. Chances are you’ll need a basic grasp of Spanish if this you intend to choose the last option, and many do. I’ve driven past these shops hundreds of times. However, I’ve yet to see a non-Mexican. Do I, therefore, conclude that US citizens are not looking for these types of jobs? Assess the evidence and decide for yourself. This is just a solitary example, but as California borders Mexico, I consider it quite relevant.

Do I believe there exists a problem in the US regarding illegal immigrants?
Yes. However, our administration’s timing in bringing the situation to the forefront of the public is indeed suspicious given the ongoing (though apparently forgotten) war in Iraq and the upwardly spiraling fuel costs we face at the pump. The deployment of thousands of National Guardsmen along the US Mexico border is an equally suspicious attention-diverting ploy. These schemes represent a desperate and blatant attempt by our administration to rally a disparate nation. In doing so the GOP hopes to retain its political stranglehold on our values, thoughts, and basic freedoms. Senor Bush ekes through another tax cut for wealthy Americans that, as anyone who's read the details realizes, favors only the wealthy few (his wealth campaign contributors, natch). Meanwhile, his more vocal attitude on immigration stands to become the fuse that provides powder kegs like Larry a reason to ignite.

And if that’s gonna happen, I definitely wanna get off the bus.

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