Six of the nine chairs in the clinic’s waiting room are occupied by sullen teenage boys wearing red eyes, black T-shirts, blue jeans, and baseball caps of different colors. The boys labor poorly, repeatedly and independently through the familiar opening arpeggios of “Stairway to Heaven” on unamplified solid-body double-cutaway electric guitars.
Chairs 7 through 9 are occupied by myself, my senior research associate, Chlamydia Pines, and notorious comedic entrepreneur Hector Schechner.
“Like cigarettes at A.A. meetings,” Schechner whispers of the guitars.
“And I’m right every time,” says Schechner. “It’s a good line.”
Our chairs are traditional wood-frame Danish knockoffs, with seat cushions covered in boisterous yellow vinyl. As we first sat, these sensitive cushions expelled great whooshing gusts of air; now even the slightest ass shiftings yield squeaks, gasps and sighs.
This is Hector Schechner’s current local favorite; by the time you read this he’ll most likely have found another. Schechner’s become somewhat of a waiting-room expert since spring 2004, when he talked a major publisher into financing a guidebook, Hector Schechner’s Guide to the Waiting Rooms of North America. Scheduled for publication next summer, it’ll be Schechner’s first book of nonfiction; or the second, if you count his self-published How To Be Real Funny, which he distributed for free at his performances in 2001.
Ms. Pines has been enlisted to edit the Guide; I’m just along for the ride.
It’s my first, Ms. Pines’ third and Hector Schechner’s fifth visit to this rehab clinic for video-game dependency. Schechner claims to have observed the same phenomena each time: red-eyed teenage boys dressed almost identically, playing “Stairway to Heaven” on unamplified solid-body guitars. Along the far wall, there’s a wide, teller-style window into the clinic’s front office, which has been empty of employees since our arrival almost two hours ago. The office is usually manned, Schechner says, by Nurse Bainbridge.
I comment that this waiting room has no periodicals, no reading material of any kind.
“Newspaper headlines are too much like video games,” says Schechner. “Level One: Labor Day Bombing Kills Everyone. Level Two: Jesus Calls for Assassination of Popular South American President. Level Three: Osama bin Laden Declares Mission Accomplished. Exposure to any of that could cause relapse.”
“What about music magazines?” I suggest.
“They don’t last,” says Schechner.
I nod. At Ms. Pines’ silent urging, we sit up straight and listen to the guitarists. Feels like I’m back in the dorms.
“Lunch?” I suggest at last.
Schechner and Pines nod.
“In terms ofvacation time,” Schechner states in the Guide’s introduction, “America’s labor force is the least rewarded in the industrialized world. Eighty percent of American workers take no vacations at all, for fear of being fired for asking. Increasing numbers of these workers are taking the only vacations available to them — mental vacations.” Using such evaluational criteria as fish tanks, heating and air conditioning, artwork, reading materials, sound, furniture, lighting, and paranormal activity, Schechner goes on to suggest that waiting rooms are ideal mental-vacation destinations, and rates them for their entertainment value.
“A 32-story building in Port Tar, Maine,” says Schechner, barely, through a mouthful of chicken salad on pumpernickel. “Place has only one elevator. No idea how that got past the City Council.”
Ms. Pines and I have prepared sack lunches — sandwiches, apples and iced tea — for the three of us. The guitarists serenade as Schechner chews, sips and swallows through some of his favorite vacation spots.
“So just one elevator — 5 by 9, or whatever — but on the lobby level there’s a 468-square-foot waiting room for it. No fish tanks, but good air and magazines. Took me a half-hour to get from lobby to penthouse and back.”
“Tell him about the fertility clinic,” says Ms. Pines, accruing unsightly tuna-salad goo in the corners of her mouth.
“Oh, yeah,” says Schechner. “That’s a good one. There’s this swanky private fertility clinic in Albuquerque. The owners took over a lease in a strip mall, where there’d been a porno place — adult-video store. They kept the private video booths, with the equipment intact.”
“There were 10 booths,” says Ms. Pines, wiping. “They took down the partitions between them and put in these huge tan leather couches.”
“So there’re these 10 video monitors around the room,” Schechner continues. “And they play a selection of ’70s porno loops, old Jacques Cousteau footage and the second season of Chapelle’s Show.”
“My number-one favorite, right now,” says Ms. Pines, “is in a high-rise in Pudding, Illinois. It’s about average size, like this, but with a higher ceiling.”
“Excellent lighting,” says Schechner. “All incandescent. Moody. Saltwater aquarium. Topnotch air conditioning and extremely comfortable chairs.”
“People come and go as they please,” Ms. Pines continues. “Some sit there all day, watching the fish, listening to straight-ahead jazz on the PA and leafing through magazines.”
“A fine selection of popular magazines,” adds Schechner, finishing off his iced tea.
“Doesn’t seem unusual,” I say.
“Not at first,” says Ms. Pines. “That’s the beauty of it. But then you notice: There’s no office at all. It’s just a room. Just a door marked Waiting Room on the 35th floor. The other side of the door is marked Exit.”
“People come in and wait,” says Schechner. “When they’re done waiting, they leave. It’s perfect.”
The door opens. The music stops. The boys freeze. It’s Nurse Bainbridge, a balding man in his late 20s, wearing a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard.
“Elwood Smith?” says Bainbridge to the room. One of the boys stands, slings his guitar over his back, and passes Bainbridge into the hallway beyond.
Bainbridge looks blankly at Schechner. “This is what?” says Bainbridge. “Your 10th visit?”
“Fifth,” says Schechner.
Bainbridge nods and closes the door behind him. The boys get back to their arpeggios.