Friday, April 24, 2015

I don't like old white men. It's the old story about being born on third base and acting like you hit a triple. Back when they were young, life was easy for white dudes. Few women worked outside the home, so basically half their competition was gone. And it was the fledgling days of capitalism, when companies assumed they should act honorably, and pay a living wage.

Back in this prehistoric age, a mailman could support a family. A trash collector could buy a house. The cashier at the local supermarket -- one of the few jobs a woman could hold -- made $50,000 a year, which bought her a house and spared shoppers from hearing conversations like, "Hey Cristi, is this a beet or a carrot?" and "I swear to God, if you call me once more I will pull off your dick and hit you with it."

Their back-up plans were better than our career choices. "Well," they'd say, "if things don't work out as an architect, I could always be a flight attendant, fucking my way around the world and making $75,000 a year." Or "If by some horrible happenstance I don't make it as a doctor, Uncle Mike can get me a job as a fireman and I'll earn $70,000 a year for saving people, getting three meals a day, and showering with in-shape guys."

So it's a little surprising seeing how these dudes act like heroes today. They act like it was tough being employed before the word "productivity" was coined, when every office building was dark and empty at exactly 5:01 p.m. Now they're all offering endless streams of advice despite the fact they worked at their dad's factory for thirty years and called in drunk for half of them.

Life isn't working out? Just work hard and you'll get to the top, they say, blissfully unaware that an hour's work at minimum wage will buy you half an onion today. Want a promotion? Just ask your boss for more responsibilities, they say. Yeah, that'll work. Your net worth will skyrocket when you're suddenly in charge of french fries. Get there early and stay there late, they advise, clueless that getting any kind of employment these days means swearing that you love working unpaid overtime and giving white guys a foot massage.

Luckily, I don't see many overprivileged white dudes these days. I don't go to church. I don't read Time or Fortune. I ignore ads for brokerage firms that find life lessons on a golf course. So I was surprised to spot a few at the Budapest airport when I was catching the first of two flights home. You know you've messed up when you get somewhere even before the old people show up. They're supposed to be the early birds, allowing enough time for traffic, six trips to the bathroom, and snapping a hip or two.

As I sat there eating a Starbucks sandwich, an old couple in pastels -- let's call them Carter and Connie -- wheeled their luggage over and plopped down across from me. I winced: these were the kind of people you'd overhear telling waiters things like, "In America, restaurants have ketchup." I catalogued the differences between us: I was in 501s, not khakis, and a Fred Perry polo instead of Ralph Lauren. I wear contacts rather than glasses that come with a guarantee from Sears. Okay, I had some gray hair, but it was premature.

Carter whipped out something called Good Old Days magazine and started flipping through it. I Googled it on my tablet and was stunned speechless. It was an endless scroll of white folks ass-kissing dead relatives in heartwarming stories like these:

Dad's Dots and Dashes: "Morse code was his favorite language." I'm not sure how this'll turn heart-warming, since all I can picture is Dad screaming, "Until you kids shut your freakin' yaps, I'll be in the basement."

Grandma's Machines: "It was a good description for all those newfangled whatchamacallits." This little summary made my jaw drop. Really, in fifty years we've gone from admiring people who called blenders "whatchamacallits" to "Your tablet only has 32 gig of memory? Why the fuck do you get out of bed?"

A Day at Candlestick: "It was an unforgettable trip for a boy and his dad." Uh, let me guess: a bunch of white men watched another bunch of white men hit balls and run around bases, but somehow a boy learned something other than, "Life sure is good for us white folk!"

Home Remedies -- Feeling Rosy: "Roses -- they're not just for Valentine's Day anymore!" I'm honestly kind of curious if this startling expose will run toward "You can also buy them in October!" or "Did you know in a pinch you can use them as a breath spray?"

Sundaes Every Thursday: "Her mom's small gesture made a tremendous difference in her young life." Yes, believe it or not, a mom who makes ice cream sundaes for her kids every Thursday will be a better role model than those stupid bitches who work.

Sim's Lessons: "He couldn't read or write, but he taught his grandson a thing or two." Fingers crossed this is a "Work hard" or "Do your best" kind of lesson rather than "Mexicans stop picking strawberries if you don't give them water every four hours or so."

Carter and Connie sat there quietly for a few minutes until another elderly couple -- let's call them Dick and Debbie -- approached. "I checked this weather at home this morning," Debbie said to Carter and Connie. "Ninety degrees. [PAUSE] Of course, it's always ninety degrees at home. Ha!"

They all chortled as I rolled my eyes. It's her last afternoon in Budapest and she's checking the weather in Bag O' Pretzels, Wyoming? Weather that never changes? Besides, what difference did it make? If it was twelve degrees there, would she wear a parka and ski boots on the plane?

Connie started laughing. "Debbie was so funny this morning, Dick," she said. "We were standing on the deck, and she realized she'd lost you. She just started going up to people and saying, 'I'm looking for a man with silver hair.' Maybe the fourth person she approached said, "Sweetheart, EVERY MAN ON THE BOAT HAS SILVER HAIR.'"

You didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to put it together. A couple of days earlier, a Viking Cruise Ship had moored in the Danube directly in front of my hotel. These folks must have been passengers. Judging from the commercials on PBS I'd always thought a Viking Cruise would be fun, so a close-up look at their passengers was a bucket of cold water in my face. As a seemingly endless stream of pastel-clad elderly wandered up and joined the four, I x-ed out the option with a Sharpie marker in my head.

When we finally boarded the plane, there had to be fifty of them. The men were all in Ralph Lauren and pleated khakis and the women in high-waisted pants, pastel blouses and gigantic jewelry made out of shiny rocks. They hoisted carry-ons into bins, settled into seats, exhaled hard and fell asleep.

After a couple hours I got sick of sitting and watching old sitcoms so I got up and went for a walk. I passed forty rows of sleeping seniors before I ran into the obligatory hunky flight attendant. I don't think I imagined our connection: flight attendants always do a lot of friendly touching but their hands don't usually linger on your chest. "You look like a whiskey drinker," he said, gesturing toward a crate of tiny bottles. "Help yourself."

Actually I hate whiskey, but I hate alienating handsome men even more. "Thanks," I said in a low but still possibly believable voice. There was a small age gap between us, but the more we talked the more the years melted away. We were both attractive and energetic. We were both handsome and fun and free. Conversation had ceded to serious flirting when Dick and Debbie barged in. "Can we get some water?" Debbie asked Mike. "Otherwise we're gonna be tough as beef jerky when we finally get to Houston."

Mike looked at me and smiled. "Houston, huh?" he said. "I get out to Houston occasionally."

It took a second for my mind to catch up, and I nearly laughed. It was crazy, his linking me with these old farts. It was silly. A minor distraction, a tiny error. Wasn't insulting at all.

I grabbed a handful of tiny bottles to take back to my seat and said, "I'm looking for a man with silver hair."

Monday, April 6, 2015

An American Guide to Murder

If you're the average American, you're confused by the way we treat our murderers. How come some people who kill other people get the electric chair while others get a plastic anklet and a book deal?

It's actually not as mysterious as it seems. At some point in our history, the court system divided killing into five distinct types. Though in every case the victim is equally dead, the perpetrator is randomly judged on what was going through his mind at the time.

It's definitely not a perfect system, but it's better than the alternatives, and I'm hopeful this strategy will spread to other crimes. Extortion, for example, could be subdivided onto a sliding scale of heinousness that ranges from "I gotta get something to feed the kids today" to "That BMW won't pay for itself." Arson might run the gamut from, "Ohmigod, Billy, you forgot to put the campfire out!" to "Build luxury condos on the mating ground of the Great Western Lizard? Not while I'm alive!"

Here are the various types of murder, in decreasing order of severity.

1. Premeditated Murder

Premeditated murder is the worst kind of killing because the killer put a lot of work into it. He sat around the house, possibly for months at a time, comparing and contrasting the various methods to off somebody. A gun? A knife? Twist ties and a Hi-C bottle? Judges take a particularly dim view of premeditated murder because the killer has a lot of time to see the light. There isn't much of a gray area: your life has clearly taken a wrong turn when you write notes to yourself saying stuff like, "Will Mentos dissolve in Visine? Might not kill but it'd definitely hurt!"

For this reason, premeditated murder is treated the harshest by the judicial system, with those found guilty either sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty. If you're a relative of the victim, you should be happy that the killer has been put away forever, because this dude is just plain nuts.

2. Spontaneous Murder

Spontaneous murder isn't as bad as premeditated murder, because it's the result of an idle whim. Something happened that got a dude mad, and he just happened to have a gun or a knife or a dry cleaning bag. This isn't treated quite as harshly as premeditated murder since rather than an inborn evil streak this is just some dude who's made one bad choice. Is it fair? I think so, but I've got eighteen vases full of twirly sticks in my apartment just because they were near the cash registers at Kmart.

Prison sentences generally run ten years and up. If you're a relative of the victim, there's a bit of consolation in knowing that right before the murder the criminal probably thought, "Do I really wanna kill this dude? Oh, what the heck!"

3. Felony Manslaughter

Manslaughter is when you don't intend to kill anybody but you do anyway. It's kind of the "Uh-oh!" of the crime world.

You didn't think a pudgy liquor store clerk would try to outrun somebody carrying fourteen bottles of Hpnotiq. You were just playing a joke, and were pretty sure trains stopped running on these tracks back in 2003. You thought pouring forty ounces of vodka into somebody's mouth was a good way to say, "Hey, we don't let just anybody join our frat!"

Luckily you won't be judged nearly as severely as murderers. It's almost like the judge is thinking, "Dude, it's a bummer that accident had to harshen your buzz."

There's plenty of consolation to survivors in acknowledging that for a minute or two the killer was suffused with regret, perhaps thinking to himself, "What, I killed somebody? Goddammit. Now I better forget about stealing those shoes."

4. Murder by Reason of Insanity

Murder by reason of insanity is totally different from premeditated murder. With premeditated murder, the killer has decided that if strangling an irritating record store clerk means he'll get the electric chair, well, that's the price you gotta pay. An insane person, on the other hand, isn't capable of this kind of rational decision-making.

Though this judgment is often controversial, the distinguishing characteristics really couldn't be clearer. Insane people hear voices in their head telling them to kill random strangers. Sane people would never dream of taking that kind of drastic action unless somebody criticized their dancing or said to their girlfriend, "Yo babe, what's up?"

There isn't much consolation for relatives of the victims, who are left thinking things like, "Well, maybe he isn't going to rot in jail, but he'll have to endure lots of psychotherapy and take drugs that won't let him crap."

5. Misdemeanor Manslaughter

Misdemeanor manslaughter is when you're not doing anything specifically illegal but somebody still winds up dead. This is the rap you want to get, the "Whoops!" of the killing world.

New Yorkers are familiar with misdemeanor manslaughter because this is the sentence municipal workers get when they crush somebody who gets in their way. Say you're driving one of those new articulated buses -- basically two buses attached by an accordion -- and your back half flattens an old lady who was in a crosswalk while the light was green. Dead bodies usually prompt animated harangues and finger-pointing but bus drivers are members of powerful unions and nobody wants to fuck with them. All of a sudden the powers-that-be agree it's okay to flatten people because WTF, buses are huge! Drivers can keep track what's happening around the front, but in the back it's every man for himself.

Or how about those trucks that are a whole bunch of wheeled buckets chained together? The driver's made a valiant attempt at safety: he's hung a metal sign on the tail saying, "You're in my blind spot! Who knows what the fuck I'm gonna do!" The courts agree that this absolves the driver of all responsibility. He didn't mean to hit you: he just couldn't see you, and it would have cost money to truly be safe. A truly wise judicial system realizes that people dying is the price you have to pay to keep condos at the low, low price of $1.3 million rather than, say, $1.4.

Relatives of the victims often find themselves on the horn of an ethical dilemma. On the one hand, it's sad; but on the other, those condos aren't going to build themselves.