Good Samaritan: Clean It Forward

I RARELY WASH MY CAR. MAYBE ONCE A YEAR. AND IN A CITY LIKE LOS ANGELES, where you are what you drive, this makes me a pariah. A pariah of little consequence, but a pariah nonetheless. At stoplights, homeless men with spray bottles pretend not to notice my filthy Honda Civic, knowing that even a $50 tip won't compensate for the amount of intensive labor needed to clean my windshield off.

I consider it a mark of good character. I won't give in to an image-based culture. I am above this adult version of materialistic peer pressure. Also, I am lazy. And car cleaning gets pricey anywhere west of Vermont, with a do-it-yourself hose-down costing upward of $6.

But last weekend, I went to a dinner party at the house of a friend. I parked my Civic on a street off Fairfax, confident that even if somebody wanted to steal my car, it was so dirty they would rethink their plan and hit the nearby Daewoo instead. (I had parallel parked under a bird-dwelling palm tree that afternoon. My hood boasted no less than eight missile-drop zones.)

Halfway through dinner, I heard my car alarm go off. Like a negligent mom who turns down the volume on the baby monitor to get an extra hour's sleep, I ignored it. My car alarm is always going off.

"It's probably just a garbage truck driving by," I explained to the other dinner guests, despite the fact that it was 10 p.m. on a Sunday. "It always does this."

Someone else chimed in, "Besides, Liz, your car's way too dirty to steal." The table nodded in agreement, and another bottle of $4.99 Ralphs Club Special wine was opened. Later, as I started to drive home, I spotted a note tucked underneath my windshield wiper. "Oh, great," I thought, "someone hit my car." I pulled over to the side of the road to survey the damage. But I saw no damage. As I scanned the side of my car, everything seemed fine.

And that's when I realized it. Somebody had cleaned my car.

They -- some anonymous stranger -- had actually cleaned it. From bow to stern, so to speak, the decks had been swabbed, wheels included. It was shiny. It gleamed. Be it with soap, water or spit, my Civic had been immaculately washed.

I reached over, opened up the folded note, carefully printed on a ripped sheet of yellow legal-pad paper. With suspiciously haiku undertones, it read:

"The car wash is a gift to an angel.(Whoever you are.)Birds dropping bombs.That eats throughthe paint.It takes prob. 4 days before you can see it,but it does slowly happen.A friend."

I looked around, but the mysterious car washer was gone. I felt humbled. My social righteousness had been unmasked as nothing more than mere irresponsibility about maintaining one's personal items.

So now, a few days later, I'm unsure what to do. Do I track down this Robin Hoodian car custodian to pay him or her back for the work? Or am I now sucked into the vortex of an irreversible pyramid scheme of do-gooding myself, à la the film Pay It Forward? Should I go find another dirty car parked in the 90035 ZIP code and clean it, just in case? Or, should I perhaps craftily continue my careful bread-crumb trail, slowly, eventually luring this considerate person into mowing my lawn and re-grouting my tub?

Faced with the shocking and unexpected prospect of receiving a Good Samaritan deed in Los Angeles, a girl is stumped.

--Elizabeth Hackett

Lost Treasures: What Judy Toll Left Behind

AT MOOMBA RECENTLY, A BAR FULL of people sat laughing at a TV pilot called Me and My Needs, which will never be made into a sitcom. This is because the woman who created the pilot is dead. Judy Toll was a writer for Sex and the City, and she continued to write for the show up until she died, four months ago, of cancer. Her pilot, like most good sitcoms, sounds like nothing special when described: It's about a woman named Judy Toll who's a television producer and whose life is a series of small disasters that she charms and wheedles her way out of.

The show is funny; you want to know what's going to happen to this person.

Before she broke into television, Toll did standup. You can hear her on a comedy CD put out by Uncabaret. She talks about her experience with what she called "The Church of Something-ology." She joined at a particularly low point in her career and really threw herself into it, wanting to be, as she put it, "the best Something-ologist." A year later and $34,000 poorer, she defected from the church and immediately turned the whole thing into a series of standup routines. She fearlessly laid out the whole experience, with all her desperation and judgment lapses intact.

 

"Okay, I'll tell you about the first night," she told the audience at Uncabaret. "You get all these vitamins, and what do I do, I forget to take them. I do a set at the Comedy Store and I go home and take my vitamins and then go to bed. Well, if you take vitamins before going to bed . . . I couldn't sleep. And it's my first day, and you know how I want to do everything right, and I'm already failing. My very first thing.

"So I can't sleep, I'm trying to sleep, I'm wide-awake, and I start freaking out -- more and more panicky -- going, 'Oh my god I can't go to sleep, what am I gonna do? I'm not gonna be able to do the thing tomorrow because I haven't sweated enough and it's my first day and I took the niacin and I'm going to be punished and pushed back, and oh my god I don't know what to do.' So I'm trying to get myself tired out and I'm starting to act like a complete psycho, which I know is hard to imagine [audience laughs]. And I'm in my room and I start doing push-ups [sound of her imitating herself frantically doing push-ups] and I'm going insane, I'm crying, so I just start thinking, 'I can't even do anything. I should just kill myself. I should just commit suicide.' Um, sometimes I have those thoughts."

The Uncabaret audience got quiet when she said that. Probably some people were silent out of embarrassment for her, that she made herself so vulnerable in front of them, but I bet at least as many were quiet because they identified with her. When she did standup, the highs and lows -- mostly the lows -- of life in show business were laid bare, because she laid herself bare.

"She was completely open and best friends with the audience at all times," said Cynthia Greenburg, who co-wrote Me and My Needs with Toll. "It was like being on a phone call with her."

But even though Toll made herself so vulnerable in her comedy, she wasn't a pushover. For instance, she decided to get her money back from the Church of Something-ology, and did. She was tenacious, especially about work.

"She was willing to go all out at all times, and hang on to what she thought was great," Greenburg said. "She knew what she liked and she knew what was good. She had amazing taste."

At the screening of Me and My Needs, a lot of people in the audience didn't know that Judy was dead. When Greenburg introduced the pilot, she didn't mention it.

"If you want to know the truth -- and somebody might think this is horrible, but I think Judy would agree -- it was nice that they didn't know," Greenburg said. "They could just watch the show and see how great it was."

It's sad when anyone dies, and it seems particularly sad that Toll died when she did. She'd finally made it, after years of struggle. She'd gotten married only 10 months before. Obviously, the biggest tragedy is her death, period, but at the screening it was hard not to also feel the loss of what could have been a great sitcom. There simply aren't enough of those around for us to go losing one.

--Nancy Updike

Letter from Burning Man: Dust Up

IT TOOK ME 30 HOURS TO GET OUT OF Black Rock this year.

Two shredded truck tires, full ignition-system meltdown, minor air-cleaner fire, and several hacks to my brake and taillight wiring seemed about what I deserved for attempting to drive, once again and against its will, my 1969 junkyard crane truck home after attending the Burning Man festival, two hours north of Reno, Nevada. But, as is often the case, the event was not quite done with me: When I got home and opened my e-mail, I found this -- already on its 1,000th or so bounce around the Burning Man e-mail ecosystem:

Wednesday, Sept 4th

Starting Tuesday at noon and going until 7 in the evening, the playa had the worst whiteout conditions seen in the history of the event in Black Rock. Whatever was not packed up by noon is now under one inch to 18 inches of dust. They are having another whiteout today, including gusts of up to 100 MPH.

These are very serious conditions. We all have friends still on playa, who are having to deal with this. The lucky few of us who got out in time are home, rested and clean. If we can find it in our bodies, souls and pocketbooks to go BACK to the playa now, the project and our loved ones need us.

 

How better to participate than to go rescue our friends, the DPW (Department of Public Works), and the project in general? Hands are needed to clean up MOOP (Matter Out of Place), help pack up camps still left on playa, and guard piles of stuff against the scavengers, which are everywhere, sadly.

By the time I read this dispatch, it was too late to return. I had already lived through the cataclysm; I was one of those who didn't get out in time. I sat through the dust on Tuesday and Wednesday, watching firsthand from the cab of the crane truck. I watched as everything got buried and generally destroyed. Waves of blinding white alkali scratched over the cab as my truck reeled with each blinding gust. Loading anything ä was out of the question. Trying to sleep in any vehicle was like trying to nap in a Shop Vac -- running. No one could leave. You couldn't see for more than a couple of feet. It was like being incarcerated, against your will and better judgment, in one of the largest expanses of open horizon in North America.

And while I watched it, I remembered: This is what always happens.

It is now clear that the first Tuesday after Labor Day causes large-scale meteorological disturbances in northern Nevada -- disturbances that result in high winds and the accompanying dust storms across most of the Black Rock desert playa, the site where Burning Man has arguably ended a day or two before. It's happened every year for the last eight years, without hiccup. The old-timers will even tell you that, back in the day, the wind blew twice that hard, in both directions, simultaneously, and the dust was actually more like sharpened volcanic pebbles dislodged and propelled from the surrounding mountains. It went right through car paint and blue tarps, chafing the skin to blood at 103 feet per second.

As those who stay late know, the dust storms are key: Each year they create a desert full of front-row seats for a performance in which people you know and respect snap in curious and revealing ways. The BMan literature makes claims for the transformative nature of the event. But, in reality, the event is only the necessary prelude for the real show: Eight days of no sleep, lethal dehydration, substance abuse, unrequited sexual aggression, camp drama, faux-fire warfare and heroic art catastrophes leaves everyone hanging on a thin sliver, right and ready to deal with the skin-stinging, eye-blinding and breath-preventing reality of a good dust storm. And this is where the real tests begin.

All it takes is about two hours of dust on Tuesday before things start heading south on a screaming pulse jet. Within six hours, I get in my vehicle (if it still runs) and start the camp tour to enjoy the now-real scenes of the apocalypse and the generally accelerating disassembly of humanity. Faint figures in full desert wrap quietly scrounging discard piles for goodies contrast harshly with screams of frustration as large metal objects are heaved into the backs of U-Haul trucks. It quickly becomes clear who has "crossed over" and lives in the desert, and who needs to get the hell out of there and back to work.

The dull truth is that, this year, as with every year, the Burning Man Department of Public Works needed no concerned urban youth to return to that chaos in a shiny Honda Civic, hoping to rescue a DPW desert-hardened warrior, fingers deep in the mechanics of a chopped Dodge Power Wagon. The trajectory of rescue would have quickly been inverted.

The DPW builds the site of Burning Man from dust and will return it to dust before the real rain sets in sometime in November. All traces of our creative excess will be erased, and the stillness of Black Rock will be all that's left to thank them. As the DPW announced several days later in an e-mail: "Curb your e-mails, enjoy being home AND STAY THERE."

--Jim Mason


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