Paris at Wal-Mart

Photo by Devin Asch

No one, not even management, anticipated the giddy, trembling, human cord that began to form outside a Santa Clarita Wal-Mart late Monday night, in anticipation of a Paris Hilton appearance. By 6 p.m. the next day, more than a thousand anxious star-gazers were lined up from Boy’s Clothes to Sporting Goods, almost all of them clutching copies of Hilton’s ghostwritten memoir, Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Beyond the Pose — the most recent addition to Wal-Mart’s extensive catalog of Hilton fan literature. (See also Paris Hilton: The Naked Truth and The Tinkerbell Hilton Diaries: My Life Trailing Paris Hilton, e.g.)

First in line were friends Elizabeth Lopez and Larry Ullrich. Lopez is an Oxnard Wal-Mart worker, volunteer election poll worker, and self-described star-chaser. Ullrich is a 50-year-old, chin-pierced, bleached-blond Republican and Corona nudist-camp resident who often comes into Lopez’s store. (“He’s an everyday low-price customer,” said Lopez.) Even after spending the night on air mattresses outside the store the night before, redigesting the best parts of the book, both were hard-pressed to explain their attraction.

“It’s hilarious, because of the Wal-Mart joke,” offered Lopez, referring to Hilton’s infamous remark on The Simple Life: “What’s a Wal-Mart? It’s like they sell wall stuff?” In fact, the comment only increased Lopez’s affection. “She didn’t want to let on, cuz she’s holding onto her image,” said Lopez. “She shops at anything above Macy’s.”

“She’s kind, sweet, flirtatious. Just because you don’t have money doesn’t mean she treats you like dirt,” said Ullrich, looking on as a female Wal-Mart employee hoarsely shouted for the crowd to tidy up the line.

“Wow,” said Lopez.

“That reminds me of when Paris was yelling at the cows on the show,” said Ullrich, smiling.

A half hour of rubbernecking passed with no sign of the guest of honor. A minor mob of security, Wal-Mart employees and publicists occluded the entrance to her dressing room, improvised out of stacked Coca-Cola cases and pink sheets. A bin was brought for Hilton to receive the crowd’s gifts. A video camera was summoned from the store’s Home Electronics section and turned on the crowd, so that Hilton could receive a preview of her admirers. An assistant manager named Pam relayed Hilton’s response to the turnout.

“She’s shocked,” said Pam.

With people climbing over clothing racks, discount tables and themselves to see beyond a half-dozen bodyguards in sunglasses, the store management enforced a Tian An Men Square–style lockdown. Reporters were forbidden to talk to customers. Photographers were warned they would have only two minutes to take their photos, then had to leave. The store’s management watched nervously for camera phones and shoplifters, strategizing about how to announce that there were no more tickets.

As the crowd seemed on the verge of trampling every low-price piece of inventory in Boy’s Clothing to storm Hilton’s soda-case dressing room, a cheer erupted.

The author, at last, appeared. She waved her frail limbs; she smiled in astonishment. She curtsied, clutching her dress’s hem. Then she sat in a large, not-very-elegant office chair, behind a thick wall of reporters and security, and took out her signing pen.

Over the next half hour, the room vented itself of its impossible pressure, one autograph at a time. For most, the meeting with a genuine star was all too brief.

“Paris is my idol!” said Lindsey Tillisek, 15, on her way out of the signing line.

“I think she should be queen!” said her friend Katie Quinn, also 15. “If Paris told me to jump off a bridge, I would.”

“I’d do 18 operations just to look like her,” said Tillisek.

“But that could never happen because she’s god.”

“Give us a Paris look,” said a photographer standing nearby.

“That’s impossible,” said Tillisek.

Not everyone was as impressed, including Matt Randall, a punked-out 20-year-old who came with a group of friends. “I came here to buy wife beaters, and because some chick sucked a knob on the Internet, I can’t get them,” said Randall, when asked if he was interested in shelling out $16 for the memoir. “I’m not planning to buy the book. But I’ll get the video.”

“VIDEO!” Randall’s friends chanted, quickly attracting the attention of the overwhelmed Wal-Mart workers, who asked them to leave.

“If she’s a slut, why are you here?” demanded Dawn Cox, whose two sons were still waiting in line. “See, those are Canyon Country boys for sure.”

Ten minutes later, outside the store, three County Sheriff’s squad cars pulled up. “It’s a juvenile disturbance call,” one officer said.

The crowd had finally begun to disperse, however, leaving behind one Viki McCall and a group of 60 junior high school students, easily identified as a group by their white T-shirts, each of which bore a “Szpak” scrawled in glittering ink.

“I am here for one reason only,” McCall told a crowd of reporters.

As it turned out, it was not to witness cultural apocalypse. McCall held up a newspaper clipping, whose front-page photo displayed a young boy in a football helmet.

“This is Matt Szpak. He’s 13. He was hit by a car two and a half months ago,” said McCall, explaining that he had a brand-new bike helmet but didn’t want to wear it because “he didn’t want to mess up his hair.”

McCall broke into tears, grasping the shoulders of a shorter, expressionless woman beside her whose shirt said, “Mother.”

“This is the boy’s mother, Dena,” said McCall, “my best friend. She’s been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. We want her to be alive when Matt wakes up, but the family’s insurance is running out, and Matt’s father has lost his job. I’m hoping Paris Hilton can be our champion.”

“What makes you think Paris will help you?” a reporter asked.

“Because she had a tough time with the tapes and everything. And I talked to Paris inside, and she seemed interested.”

“What did she say?”

“She said my shirt was very nice,” said McCall.

—Justin Clark

Mummy, Dearest

Last Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Gunther von Hagens and his wife, Dr. Angelina Whalley, were in Los Angeles looking for a few good bodies. It was the first-ever American Body Donation meeting, hosted at the California Science Center on behalf of the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg. Our museum’s generosity to the German institute was partly in support of the current globetrotting exhibit “Body Worlds,” whose most macabre and compelling aspect is that it consists of the remains of actual human beings (plus one duck). Under the skin of the bodies, you can observe skeletons and internal organs and digestive systems and tracts, either under glass or strung up and suspended in poses on wires and hooks. They are preserved through plastination, a process developed by von Hagens.

The procedure is too complicated to describe in detail (check out the 27-page downloadable brochure at www.bodyworlds.com/en/pages/koerperspende.asp), but, in brief, your corpse is shipped to a big lab in China where a fluid resin is infused into your tissues while your own liquids and fats are vacuumed out of your body. Once the resin hardens into an odorless, see-through plastic, you can be displayed with muscles flayed from your bones, or even with your midsection cut horizontally into transparent pizzas, like the slices of redwood-tree trunks you see in Armstrong Woods. The best part is, whatever’s left of you will be around longer than an Egyptian mummy.

Before the meeting, as I perused the exhibit, I couldn’t help but notice a striking, self-assured brunette woman in a salmon-orange chiffon dress prance into the gallery. A museum rep attempted to introduce me, but the effort was cut short by the woman herself, who offered me her hand and spoke brusquely through a German accent: “Doctor Angelina Whalley, director of the Institute for Plastination.”

“Hi,” I said, and immediately asked her irrelevant, personal questions about her marriage to Herr Professor Doktor Gunther von Hagens. Unflustered, she said she met him while studying anatomy at the University of Heidelberg, where he was teaching. Though it was none of my business, I was happy to learn that after living together for several years, they married in 1992, in the United States, and that he has three children by a former marriage.

“So,” I said, “if I want to donate my body to your institute, what do I do?”

Not surprisingly, she said I’d have to fill out a form, which includes preference options (i.e., do I wish my innards to be displayed in whole or in part?), a confidentiality option, an out-clause option, and a box acknowledging that I’m aware my specimen may be sold — but only to a medical institution, never to an individual, and only to recoup the cost of plastination.

“So, if I’m walking in L.A. and I’m hit and killed by a slow-moving bus, how do you get me to China?” I asked.

Family cooperation is terribly important, Dr. Whalley replied. But it’s crucial, she emphasized, to get the body to a local embalmer who’s pre-approved by the institute.

As she detached a wisp of chiffon from her kneecap, Dr. Whalley explained with a kind of erotic, Teutonic smile, “Embalming is the injection of formaldehyde into the tissues to stop any further putrefaction of the cadaver.”

After my brief flurry of arousal subsided, I asked her why the big lab is in China. She explained that I might wind up in Kyrgyzstan, where the institute has a smaller lab. She launched into a torrid tutorial on China and Eastern Europe’s growing interest in gross anatomy, and of plastination’s grueling labor-intensive requirements — an explanation I loosely translated as outsourcing.

A few minutes later, I was introduced to
26-year-old body donor Bruce French and his childhood friend Molly. Bruce is from Orange County and said that he was thinking of donating his body to UCI’s Willed Body Program, but after reviewing the Institute for Plastination’s literature, he signed on with von Hagens and Whalley instead. “I just thought it was kind of fascinating and important that my body go somewhere,” he explained.

“And this is art, which is so much more cool!” Molly added — though, being half Jewish, she says she’s going to wind up “in a pine box in the ground.”

An hour later, at a press conference, von Hagens stood at a podium, a slender man looking to be in his mid-50s, dressed entirely in khaki and sporting his trademark black fedora, like a cross between Indiana Jones and Dr. Strangelove. Having a harder time with English than his wife, who stood to the side, he was prone to gesticulations accompanying an inspired thought that went unexpressed.

A large woman asked von Hagens if he could make her thinner in the afterlife.

“I can slice you up in thin pieces, if you’d like,” he quipped.

German humor.

Contradicting Molly’s insight, the doctor insisted that the Body Worlds exhibit was not art, but science (which is largely how they got the local ethics panel to sign off on it). He waxed romantic about Renaissance anatomy, and how plastination was “democratic” for two reasons: It allows the masses to observe what only privileged medics and embalmers have seen in the past, and now, he explained, anybody can be preserved — not just a princess or a pharaoh. There’s no charge, except for the cost of getting your body to the local embalmer, which the institute refuses to pick up.

Squeaks remain in the machine, the loudest being that though the institute’s contract is good for centuries, the institute itself — a private enterprise — may not last as long as its body parts. Frankly, I’d rather not have a slice of my plastinated midsection being used as a Frisbee by kids in Kyrgyzstan 100 years from now.

It makes decay look pretty good, in comparison.

—Steven Leigh Morris