Riyadh and Los Angeles switched places overnight Monday, two months ahead of schedule. As is our wont during heat waves of this scale, Mrs. U and I fled the Valley, finding sanctuary in the air-conditioned pleasure palace of the ArcLight. Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s early novel Lady Susan, awaited us. I hadn’t heard of it either. Who cares? It was 120 degrees by the dashboard gauge, and we had gift cards. There are fringe benefits to teaching in private school, and one of them is gift cards from parents at the end of the year.
We entered the Cinerama Dome to discover a gleaming lobby and no one behind any of the eight registers. No ArcLight employees in sight.
Finally a woman with a head set appeared and ordered us to “go to the kiosks”. Unfortunately, the kiosks didn’t take gift cards, nor cash, so we were shunted off to a nuisance line at the coffee bar. “He’s the only one who can help you.” Oh, nice.
The ArcLight charges $16 a ticket, and we the public pay this $3-4 premium in exchange for full staffing: lots of registers open at the snack bar and the box office, short lines, plush seats, no soda and gum on the floor. I’ve even seen expediters standing behind the cashiers, doing nothing but filling popcorn tubs and soda orders. In short, we pay Clipper class rates for a theater that won’t be run like the Regency or the AMC. We pay for good service, at a price point that’ll keep the riff-raff out.
Yeah, I know we had gift cards. But still…..it was my day off, it was friggin hot, and I was feeling a certain consumer entitlement coming on, like a flu.
We get upstairs to find one very harried guy running the snack bar. One. Half the audience for Jane Austen is waiting in line. The line is not moving. It’s not moving because a woman has decided her coffee was too cold. The Snack Bar Guy offered to brew her a fresh pot. This of course would take a couple minutes, and boy oh boy was that going to be a problem for her. “My movie is starting in a few minutes,” she proclaimed, as though the rest of us weren’t going to the same movie. “Unacceptable.” Flopsweating, he put out a distress call for the manager. She then parked herself at the register in a manner which suggested no one else should be served until she received satisfaction.
Here was a moment which called for an Austen-tatious riposte from someone in line, but no one said anything. Our world froze in suspended animation as the Kiosk Lady climbed the stairs, huffing, the weight of the world upon her underpaid shoulders, to issue a refund to the Coffee Bitch. Did I mention this was the hottest day of the year?
There I was, an over-educated working-class guy, looking to redeem a freebie bestowed upon my middle-class wife by upper-class Westside families as a tip for guiding their precious Lacey one rung closer to the Ivy League, and here was this bizarre collision of personal selfishness and corporate stinginess impeding my escape from the furnace of the Valley, and yet I did not act. Nor did I have a clever thing to say. Yesterday would prove to be one of my lesser works.
Love and Friendship would prove a lesser work as well. Made me feel sad for Whit Stillman, auteur of Barcelona and Last Days of Disco, the closest thing we have to Austen in contemporary film, a man whose creative output apparently peaked twenty years ago, and is now hanging by his fingernails at the cineplex, trading on Jane’s good name. We stepped out into the merciless sun, unsatisfied. It was only 5 PM. Hotter than ever. We took refuge at P.F. Chang’s.
I hadn’t been in years. I know it’s corporate and overpriced, but my sense-memory placed it at the upper end of the middlebrow taste scale. Comfort food, well-slathered, packing some heat. Perhaps a frou-frou drink to sip with a steady breeze of air-conditioning tickling the sweat hairs on the back of my neck. I’ve been living under self-imposed austerity measures for a long time. We buy ingredients at the store, we prepare them at home, and we declare ourselves well-fed. Now I had a $50 credit to burn, and I was going to take my full share of consequence-free eating, like everybody else. It felt like the American thing to do.
Then the Orange Peel Beef arrived.
Imagine a flank steak fell off the back of a truck. Then someone found it on a road, still in the cellophane wrapper, and brought it to a rendering facility, where it was re-processed as meat byproduct. Then it was sold to PFC, where it was dropped into a giant vat of breading and corn syrup and chili flavoring, and a button was pushed and the mixing blades churned and what emerged was plated, drizzled with yet more goo and sold for $17.95.
I know there was “beef” in there, somewhere, because the menu told me so. It was just a wee bit…ellusive. I kept shoveling it in my mouth, like cotton candy at the county fair, waiting in vain for the carnivore tickle spot that lives behind my pancreas to vibrate with joy.
It occurred to me the initials P. and F. could stand for anything, including Profit and Fool, and when you put them together and blow, you’re farting with your mouth.
Outside, it was still over a hundred degrees. Hurry, sundown.