Two hundred years ago the poet Robert Burns wrote, "Oh wad some power the giftie gie us to see ourself as others see us." Two days ago, a loutish man in a Northern California mountain town wore a T-shirt upon which was inscribed, "Girls, dirt bikes and pizza with everything on it."
I've been thinking about that.
To begin with, I was in Reno for a few days talking to journalism students at the University of Nevada on how to write a newspaper column.
I do so hoping that, like Bernadette in the grotto, there will come a sudden spiritual revelation that will tell me \o7 exactly \f7 how to write one.
The undergrads were a bright bunch, but most of them weren't interested in columns, which manifests a wisdom my generation, alas, did not possess.
They wanted to know about L.A.
I gave them a fear and loathing response, that the new rail system probably won't work, the teachers may strike, the freeways are inadequate, a gang truce is faltering, the air is unbreathable and our drinking water kills goldfish.
"The good news," I said, "is that handguns sales have leveled off since the last riot, and the probability that we will be shot by the kid next door has lessened slightly."
A female student who had been staring at me as though I were a messenger from hell said in a kind of horror-stricken tone, "You must hate it there."
I said, "What's to hate?"
Then I went on to say I actually like L.A. Well, OK, we do feel like ducks in a drive-by shooting gallery sometimes and, yes, it is a well-traveled route for serial killers, but on the whole it's a nice place to live.
My wife, Cinelli, was stunned by what seemed to her a faintly positive attitude.
"You keep up the sweetness," she said, "and I'm having you tested for hyperglycemia."
No need. I was just trying to explain to those who do not live in L.A. that, contrary to popular opinion, the town is still habitable.
I found myself repeating that several times as we drove from Reno down 395 toward home, or toward what an especially obnoxious service station attendant kept referring to as "La-La Land."
A bulbous man who sweated profusely, he was the one wearing the T-shirt whose inscription made reference to girls, dirt bikes and pizza, no doubt his radiant concept of Paradise. His name, "Otto," was on the front.
As I drove up in my Pontiac, he began by sneering and saying he wouldn't own the car I was driving if they forced one down his throat.
Stung by the man's hostility, I was tempted to reply that if a Pontiac ever found its way into his throat it would only be because he'd eaten it. But I'm no fool when it comes to messin' with 350-pound omnivores.
He wanted to know where we were, I mean was, from. When I said L.A., he said he wouldn't live in La-La Land if it was handed to him on a platter, which I'm certain, given his size and appetite, it would have been.
I said no one had called it La-La Land since 1954 and he said, "Up yours, buddy," as I drove away.
His attitude was similar to that of a man named Bill Thompson, who has a talk show on radio station KOH in Reno, though Bill's experience and level of sophistication are far beyond that possessed by Otto the Eating Machine.
Thompson was business manager for the Smothers Brothers and later became emcee of their television show. When the show ended, he was out of a job and, as a result, hates L.A.
Hating a city because of one's employment status hardly seems reasonable, but I wasn't the one canned by CBS so what do I know? At any rate, Bill will never return to L.A. and, I'm paraphrasing here, hopes we will drown in our own swill.
During the course of the trip we also stayed overnight in Bishop, a tidy little town 267 miles north of La-La Land, famous for its bakery, its tungsten mines and its annual "Mule Days" festival.
There I met Diane, a waitress at the Whiskey Creek Saloon, who had been a corporate executive in L.A. and, a few years before, had given it up for the peace of Bishop.
Diane says she was born in a taxi on Sunset Boulevard and therefore should have felt a spiritual attachment to the town, but no such longing to return existed. She was glad to be out of L.A. and in Bishop.
Well, to paraphrase Burns, I had at least been given the giftie's gift to see ourselves as others see us, but I still call swill-town home.
As I headed into the city, radio was reporting a 30-car smashup, two drive-by shootings, a ritual cat-killing and a plane crash. It made me feel warm.