Monday, July 31, 2006

Paleolithic Pizza Party

Here's another entry in my occasional series of resurrected pre-Internet "blog" entries, salvaged from a carton of ancient floppies (that's the "paleolithic" part). I was thinking about last Friday's beer blog meetup I didn't quite make it to, and remembered this piece, which is based (loosely, IIRC) on a BBS meetup from back in mid-1993. I know this is from 1993 because of a weird filename convention I used to use. I thought DOS-style 8.3 filenames were among the world's stupidest ideas, so I named all files with exotic-sounding words of 8 letters or fewer, often taken from the newspaper, or just made up, and either way had nothing to do with what the files were actually about. That way, when I went back and looked through my stacks of floppies, I had no idea what a given file was about unless I opened it. Not the world's most fabulous naming convention, is it? This file was named after an obscure Balkan general who was fired in 1993 (and who died in 2003), purely because the name sounded weird and foreign, so I know the date that way. Today, modern computers have these newfangled battery-backed system clocks so that you have (gasp) meaningful file times, and you can easily tell when a file was created, but we didn't always have that back in the day. Kids these days, you tell them stuff like that, they'll never believe you.

Also, back in the day we didn't call it a "meetup", it was a "pizza phuque", and in place of the internet we had the late, lamented WWIVnet. You can tell this was the pre-Internet era, because Googling the phrase "pizza phuque" brings up exactly two hits. This article is by a one-time acquaintance, who now, apparently, is a well-known sex columnist and occasional Libertarian political candidate these days. And then there's also a 2004 Usenet posting about a possible revival of the phuque tradition. No word on how, or if, that went.

The reader will forgive, of course, the artistic pretensions of youth in the following piece.

It's 3:30 in the morning right now. I just finished a big steaming cup of coffee that I picked up on the way home. When I walked in to the convenience store in the throes of a caffeine fit, I noticed there was nobody there, and I was tempted to walk out with the coffee. Alas, the guy wandered out and started to tidy up the store while I was standing there grappling with the situation. He might not have noticed if I'd left without paying. He seemed to be off in space just then, and a mad dash to the car would probably have worked, me tearing off into the night's dark embrace, he stumbling on in pursuit, shaking his fist at me, like on television. But no, but no, that just isn't my way. Law abiding citizen and all that. Took quite a while for the guy to clue in and his eyes to focus and figure out who he was and where he was and what I was doing there and what the shiny metal discs in my hand were for. I stood there and waited patiently. It all worked out in the end, though. Eventually.

I swear this time I won't write a word about rivers or waterfalls. I swear to write on a chalkboard fifty or a hundred times that I will not write any more stupid silly crap about rivers or waterfalls. [I used to do this a lot. You'll never see a word of it here. Ed.] I've done it, it's been done, I'm not gonna do it, or at least I'm going to do it right if I do it at all, and right now I'm not going to do it at all, good or not, regardless, except to mention rivers and waterfalls in passing in the context of my solemnly swearing not to say a word about them.

We need a story. First we have three characters. A, B, and C. I don't want to bother with names. I'm terrible with names. A nice Hollywood-style plot offering no big surprises but maybe a surprise twist to hold the audience's interest. I'll flesh that out later. Most plots are substantially the same, anyway. Theme's the usual thing. What I always write about. There's a pizza place, and A,B, and C are having a bite to eat with a bunch of other people, pizza, beer, people laughing, and if I hadn't sworn it off there'd be rain pouring down outside. It's not clear how well the 3 people know each other. I don't know the whole story with 'em, and the readers don't either, and that could be the setup to an epiphany or a surprise ending or something.

At this point I go and take my contacts out, while simultaneously B visits the restroom in the pizza joint and preens in front of the mirror. B's known, or known of, everyone in the room but has only actually met a few of them before, through the miracle of electronic mail. It's that kind of party. Does the face match the online persona? What a game. B is trying to make a good impression.

The synchronous nature of these two events is a complete coincidence. Ok, not complete. It's not that B (or anyone else) is a quasifictional version of me. It's that writing about something has a certain power of suggestion, such that past, quasifictionalized events are driving current events. Think it, write it, suddenly need to do it.

B wobbles about uncertainly. The beer is doing its thing. B trips and falls, but only once, and sits down and has another slice of pizza. Pepperoni and mushroom. A and C are talking politics. There's no shortage of extreme positions.

The table is maybe ten feet long, covered in pizzas, the remains of pizzas, paper plates, pitchers of beer, glasses, strands of mozzarella. The decor is cheery, a squeaky-clean sanitized Chicago of the gangland era, full of pictures of Capone. Nice and comfy. The party's been going on for a while; people are, well, animated is a good word, and they've made a mess of the table and will probably forget to leave a tip. Enough of them are people of the type who become belligerent after a few beers. What could be motivating them? A is one of them. In vino veritas, they say: Get someone drunk and their real self crawls, staggers out of the shadows, but you mostly find out why they've got so much anger bottled up inside. Is it a good idea to let this caged raving animal out? I don't know. If I know somebody gets this way, I avoid drinking with them, and avoid them entirely if possible. C is a happy drunk, and being less smashed than A, is having a great time arguing. B is withdrawn, staring at a half-empty glass of beer and brooding.

Some amount of time passes. A and C have got on well. Until meeting, they'd been bitter enemies. Most at the party are disappointed that B is not the lively personality they were led to believe by what they'd read on the net. B is brooding about not having made a good impression on the crowd. D languishes in the outer darkness. Wasn't invited.

You'll notice that the tone of all this is pretty dry. I'm having to jump through hoops in order to not specify whether characters A through D are male or female. It's tough. The resulting language I'd characterize as 'clinical'. This is a case study. In certain ways it is, too. I have a specific event in mind, but the characters are invented. No, that's not a good word, I haven't done enough with them to say 'invented'. Just say they're not based on any real people.

[At this point I digressed for a long paragraph talking about the French author Alain Robbe-Grillet. Seriously. I'd recently read his novel The Erasers, and found it weird and fascinating, although dry and impenetrable in parts. However, I didn't make any compelling points about either the book or the author, and it didn't really fit here anyway, so I'm just going to discard that stuff and get on with the story, such as it is. Ed.]

The conclusion of the scene we've been observing is fairly short, doesn't contain a great moral truth, and I'm not sure whether it makes a good story. Everyone's gotten to know everyone, the ice is broken, they've shared pizza, and most of them are drunk. It's time to do something stupid and reckless as a group. There's always that point in the behavior of social groups. They are in the parking lot outside. One of the peripheral characters has brought a device made of several feet of plastic pipe with a cap on one end. This person shoves a potato into the pipe, takes the cap off, and sprays hairspray into the pipe. Then the cap is put back on and the hairspray is ignited through a small hole in the pipe. A loud boom, and a flaming potato is sent flying several hundred feet up into the rainy suburban night. It arcs off into the fog and disappears. They shoot another potato and the scene repeats. This time there is a dull metallic thud that sounds like the potato hitting the hood of a car. (We could spice this up and add a car alarm, if needed.) Oops. The crowd scatters and everyone drives away quickly.

We could speculate about what happened to each of the potatoes and introduce a new cast of people who were affected by them. It would be interesting to know.

Most likely, the second potato hit a parked car. Z, the owner, was confused, upset. Potatoes usually don't fall from the sky. The insurance company won't cover it. It's hard enough making ends meet and paying bills every month without having to worry about potatoes falling out of the sky.

Then we might follow Z around in a day's routine, or observe a dramatic moment or two. The effect of all of this is to generate sympathy for the character Z, and make it seem 'human'. Once the audience empathizes with Z, characters A-D become the antagonists, and the audience is led to the proper conclusion. Conventional ethics win out once again. Ta-daaaa!

In this postmodern age it's not enough to simply tell the story of A, B, C, D, and Z. No, you have to make the reader aware that he or she is reading a story about A-D+Z, you have to comment on the fact, you have to furthermore note that you're commenting on the story, and on and on. (Typically, readers tire of this far sooner than authors do.)

That's not what we're dealing with here, though. The fact remains that four characters we met in the beginning of the tale have unknowingly caused a lot of trouble for a fifth character, who may end up out on the street without a penny to his or her name as a direct result. Not likely, but it could happen.

Now, there's several ways I could take this story. First, the story could end after the crowd scatters and everyone leaves. We'd have a character sketch, a picture of group dynamics in action. I could work some sociology in. The story wouldn't attempt to say anything. With this approach I'd have to flesh out the characters a bit and describe the scenery more. To be successful we'd need to know more about the reasons behind B's silence and A's anger. For example: B's grandparents were killed by a drunk driver about six weeks ago, and an unnamed character started talking about driving drunk all the time as if it was no big deal. A refuses to discuss anything about childhood. Probably the usual tale of the violent stepfather, alcohol abuse, general dysfunction, which sells books like nobody's business. Readers can't seem to get enough of that stuff. We could also invent other explanations than these.

A second alternative is to add Z into the mix. Rather than firing a potato off to an unknown fate, we add a human dimension. This changes the story, and there's a wide range of possible impacts this 'act of God' could have on Z, ranging from bemusement to bankruptcy. The act of firing the potato, rather than the pizza party, is the central event. If Z's affairs come to a bad end due to this random event, I can either make moral judgments against those responsible for firing the potato, or I can refrain from making these judgments and talk about how the universe is utterly cruel, and utterly random in its cruelty.

A third alternative is to carry it from there: Suppose perpetrator(s) and victim meet up at some future date. Perhaps the police nab A-D. Perhaps Z places a sign on the car, or otherwise tracks A-D&co. down. Perhaps through the sign on the car, Z causes one or more of the perpetrators to feel guilty and confess. Perhaps they meet later but the potato incident doesn't figure in: They stand next to each other in a grocery checkout line, but neither realizes who the other is, and they exchange a few words of idle small talk. Or something like that. I'm not sure why this appeals to me.

A fourth alternative is to use the potato episode as a revelation of character for A-D. Later events will be only tangentially related, but this incident reveals who they really are and what happens when the (potato) chips are down. In vino veritas, like I was just saying.

That covers the various alternatives that occur to me right now. There may be others. Your mileage may vary.

...and after that last paragraph I turned off the computer and fell asleep. Now, a few months later, I happened to be rooting through some old files on a disk and found this. I don't think I covered all the possibilities. I mean, for instance I can play around with the information I've given so far. The pizza party in question was a real event which I was at, and I've been putting up a real fight to keep the characters from resembling anyone I know. There's always the option of rewriting the scene to make it more autobiographical, more true-to-life, more torn-from-today's-headlines. Well, okay, it wasn't that dramatic.

I arrived at the party alone, which I hate to do. If I'm alone I sneak in meekly, take a seat, and brood. It always happens. The restaurant in question used to be on Canyon Road in Beaverton, but it's since gone out of business. It's the fourth or fifth restaurant to starve to death in that building. Bad location, almost no parking, bad signage, building ugly, and too big. The sanitized Chicago motif in the decor was about right. Honestly I can't remember what it looked like inside, and now I can't go back and check. I know it tried to be cheery, and there were a lot of steps. Really dangerous place to be drunk. The party had already started when I arrived, and everyone was in a state of impending drunkenness: having downed a pint or two and waiting for the full effect. I sat and talked to people I'd argued with. Across from me was a guy I'd been absolutely vicious to for the last three weeks, and having met in person everything was different. I didn't have the heart to argue with him after that. Sitting next to me was someone else I'd had difficulties with before. He turned out to be the biggest loser I'd ever met (up to that point), and I lost what little respect I had for him.

The potato gun incident happened pretty much as described. I stood nearby, watching with alarm. It wasn't my idea, I was against it from the beginning, etc. Law abiding citizen, remember? Although the airborne flaming potato did look kind of cool at the time, I have to admit. When the crowd scattered, I was one of the first out of the parking lot. It wasn't my idea, I had nothing to do with it, I didn't want to be held responsible, I barely even knew those people.

I never did discover what really happened to those potatoes.

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