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BEST BET

March 28, 1993|Michael Harris

It must have been the slick leather upholstery. When this BMW squealed around the corner by our alley--in a hurry to get out of Skid Row--and a rear door popped open, this guy sitting inside with a box on his lap whizzed out. He landed right in the middle of us, as we sat with our bottles of port and muscatel in paper bags.

The guy's stomach--a well-padded one, in a Brooks Brothers suit--cushioned the box, but we heard glass clink inside.

"Whoa! What have we here?" my buddy Zack asked.

"Wine," the guy said when he'd caught his breath. "I'm on my way to the second annual L.A. Shanti Foundation Wine Tasting and Auction, with actress Lee Meriwether as hostess, from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. today at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

"Proceeds will benefit the free HIV/AIDS counseling services of the Shanti Foundation. Tickets are $50 in advance, $60 at the door. Information: (213) 962-8197.

"Those who attend will bid on live and silent auction items, eat food from leading restaurants and sample wines from some of the finest vineyards--like this here," he said, tapping the box. "For those who appreciate it."

"Hey, wine appreciatin' be right up our alley," my other buddy, Willie, said.

All of a sudden, the guy seemed to realize where he was. He went pale. He could have whipped all three of us, easily, the shape we were in, but he was scared of us because we were skinny and ragged. Funny how that works.

"One bottle," he said, "if you'll tell me where the nearest bus stop is."

"That's not very generous," I told him, and quoted a little Marx: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

"Wait a minute," he said. "You're wearing a Brooks Brothers suit too--or what's left of one. How come you're hanging around with these bums?"

"Don't call my buddies names," I said. "But to answer your question, I used to make $20 an hour. Then my company laid me off and hired two temps to do the same work. Single moms, who didn't have a choice. They each make $5 an hour and get no benefits, so the company saves a bundle. Haven't you read about the 'Temping of America'? A third of all jobs in the country right now are temp jobs. It'll be more than half by the year 2000.

"Well, I did have a choice. I could temp or drop out, so I dropped out. Why care about a system that doesn't care about me? Why start a family when it wouldn't have any future? These guys are my family now. Zack sells oranges on freeway off-ramps. Willie wipes people's windshields. I panhandle. We pool what we get and buy more wine."

"Why, you are a bum. And a Red too," the guy said. "You're not drinking any of this." And he picked up the box.

Did we mug him?

No.

Did we resort to violence of any kind?

No.

We just breathed on him. From all sides at once. A breath full of port and muscatel and cigarettes and French fries and tooth decay and rotten innards and smog. Right in his face.

The guy fainted.

We opened the box. He was right: It was very nice stuff. We didn't have a corkscrew handy, but we broke the necks of the bottles on the brick wall behind us, and drank to the Revolution.

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