Humans being humans, vol. 4
Two weeks ago, I’m in Las Vegas for a story. I check in at the hotel and take the elevator from the lobby with two people older than me, man and woman, both in red shorts. They seem to be partners, husband and wife, perhaps boyfriend and girlfriend.
“We really should go to the gym at some point,” the man says.
The woman says flatly, staring at the doors, “Why, so I can hit you in the face?”
The man says, after a moment, “Did you forget to take your Lexapro today?”
The woman doesn’t answer.
The man repeats, tired, “Did you forget to take your Lexapro today?”
In Los Angeles, I attend a book party to celebrate the publication of a new novel. It’s an evening party, outdoors, around a sparkling pool. The novelist talks to a small circle about the havoc of book publishing – the anxiety, the fear of reviews, the fear of being condemned by that critic in those pages. She says quietly at one point, sympathetically, “I don’t think human beings were ever meant to withstand this type of scrutiny.”
The house is on loan. It belongs to a famous person, it last sold for $20 million. Taking pictures inside the house is forbidden. The owner, who isn’t in attendance, doesn’t even live there, someone says, they just use it for parties. During a lull, I count the number of staff I’ve encountered or seen, who are also on loan from the owner – multiple waiters, bartenders, valet staff, smiling greeters, unsmiling security men. A suggestion is floated in conversation that the owner might have purchased a different house for, who knows, $5 million, $10 million, then used the balance to improve the world, and everyone agrees the owner is the type of person who’d never do this.
A minute later, one of the guests stands apart from the group, disrobes to reveal a bathing suit, lightly steps into the shallows of the swimming pool and, head above water, paddles away.
This week, I take an Uber to LAX for a work trip to Peru. Less than a mile into the ride, the driver asks, “What do you know about the international financial system?”
A minute later, at a red light, he turns around to show me a TikTok video of a man discussing a race of lizard people who live at the center of the Earth and control our lives.
“What do you think about that?” he asks, when the video finishes. I say something like I avoid financial advice from men with more than one face tattoo. He nods, annoyed. “I hear what you’re saying, but I drive all kinds of people, CEOs, British people, people from Europe, they have tattoos all over. These days, that’s just kind of judgmental.”
He shows me three other videos during the drive. They’re vaguely antisemitic, about global powers, about the system that holds people down. His urgency is of the freshly converted. Before one, he says,“You gotta see this guy, he explains it better than I can, I’m still digesting the information.”
I disappoint him, I think, for not being more enthusiastic. He tells me repeatedly he is a self-made man, he’s bought and sold eleven houses, he used to be an IT consultant, he could get a job anywhere tomorrow, he could get a job tomorrow programming computers for Jeff Bezos! But he doesn’t want to. Because the system must be avoided, the system enslaves.
The same week as the book party in L.A., I join three friends at an outdoor bar. One is the husband of a first-time author – not the novelist at the book party – and her memoir has just came out. The husband explains he’s been running interference, checking Amazon, reading reviews, looking for any news, any notices, such that his wife doesn’t encounter them unless she wants. Then one day they go looking for the book at Barnes & Noble and struggle to find it, for some reason it’s been categorized as “travel” and buried in the back.
“The book business is insane,” one of the other guys, a screenwriter, says. “Nobody knows why anything works or fails. You work on something for years and years, it seems like all you can do afterwards is hope. A lot of people don’t even read anymore.”
I tell them a couple years ago I had a Lyft driver, a guy in his thirties dressed in heavy-metal gear, dark glasses and big hair, and when I asked him what he was reading, he said he was a big reader, he loved reading, he bought books all the time off eBay. I said something like Wow, eBay, what kind of books? Mostly instruction manuals, he said, or repair textbooks, he found them soothing, to look at the little drawings – of a car engine, of a vacuum cleaner – and have them explained. “I only like to read things that give me knowledge,” he said.
This week, riding a van in Peru, heading south from Lima, I meet two British journalists, I ask how things are going right now, regarding the nursing strikes, labor strikes, struggles with inflation. The answer is not good. The NHS is not good. One woman says her sister is a licensed nurse and can’t find a living wage. They ask how the news is being received in the United States and I tell them most Americans probably have no idea. They seem to find this mildly disappointing.
To change topic, I tell them about a book party at a $20 million house and the floated proposal that a famous owner might have bought something cheaper and spent the extra money making the world a better place.
“I feel like, at some point soon, it’s going to come down to revolution,” one of the women says. “It always does, doesn’t it.”
“Personally, I think ‘eat the rich’ is quite acceptable right now,” the other says.
Las Vegas, the final morning, I take the elevator down to the lobby to check out. In the elevator is a porter, bringing a luggage cart to the valet. On the cart are two suitcases next to a dog cage. The cage is big enough to fit a golden retriever, but inside there is no dog – instead, it contains a dog bed and a large rumpled pair of Gucci men’s underwear on top of it, plus six or seven crumpled single-dollar bills.
The porter explains the staff are forbidden from asking questions of guests – it’s a very big hotel, two properties, some 10,000 employees, with many rules and systems to keep things running smoothly – but he had been curious.
In tomorrow’s supplement for supporters, 3+ things to love:
Secret concerts in a city near you
A surprising reconsideration of the Dave Matthews Band and other good reads
A new summer book club based on vibes
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What the what
Meditations in an Emergency is a weekly dispatch from author Rosecrans Baldwin about something beautiful. Supporters receive a Sunday supplement with 3+ things to love, along with a monthly longer piece sent from the road, for some inbox wanderlust. ⛰️
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