High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Extinction in Vanity Fair

Another ASHG---LA Excerpt with arguably cultural content

The science was over. It was time to take down the shiny, shiny poster portions and steal the thumb tacks. It was time to show LA exactly how stupid we could get. For that, you need wheels.

We had formulated a plan to head out to the La Brea tar pits in the afternoon, because the only thing more fun than a barrel of monkeys is a not-yet-barreled collection of extinct megafauna. We had roped K, my suitemate, into the excursion, arranging to pick her up at the Wilshire Grand after we retrieved the poor, neglected Ford Focus from the Biltmore's garage where it had been languishing since the night I arrived.

The valet had it ready and waiting in the drive when we came down. We bundled some stuff into the trunk and leapt in, hooting and hollering in our best Duke's of Hazzard manner. Which means we looked pretty stupid when the goddamned key would not turn in the ignition. J tried repeatedly. He depressed the break. He jiggled the steering wheel. He searched high and low for one of those aggravating little switches one sometimes has to nudge on your more annoying American vehicles. Then I tried. I jiggled. I twisted. I pressed. I prodded. Then the valet tried. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Then the security guy tried. Bupkus. Then the concierge tried. Nada. We checked and rechecked the key. We tested the trunk again. The key had its own ideas about our plans for the day.

We finally gave up and put in a call to Enterprise, assuming that they'd abase themselves before us and bring us a working car lickety split. It is to laugh. The oh-so-helpful B team at Enterprise insisted that we go through yet another round of ignition Kama Sutra before they would accept that, indeed, the key had decided that We Should Not Pass. They then informed the professor that, it being the ungodly hour of 1 in the afternoon on a Saturday, natural all local outlets were closed and the only source of working cars was the airport. This turned out to be two blows in one.

Not only was LAX involved (punishment enough, I assure you), but they seemed to be under the impression that it was J's responsibility to get his blue smushy self out there to retrieve one. It's not often that my expectations of people are forced to peer downward and acknowledge that here's a lower place, but there you have it. The B team repeatedly assured J that they would reimburse him for the cab ride out to the airport and emphatically denied that it was reasonable to assume that transport at this point had become their problem. No amount of coaxing, demanding, instruction, declaration, or threatening could impress upon them that the only thing within spitting distance of an acceptable solution was for them to bring a car to us.

After a couple of interminable bouts on hold later, I suggested to J that we abandon the car entirely, leaving the B team to retrieve it and securing a refund to his credit card. Even this took about three times as long as it should have as the time loop kept resetting itself each time someone new was introduced into the equation.

I fear that I am misleading my audience, though, in my ex post facto ire. I must clarify that, for the duration of the transport crisis, J was taking one for the team. I was draped across an exceptionally comfortable couch in the Biltmore's lobby, occasionally exerting myself to hit redial on my cell phone to give K a status update, and watching a flock of people of Andean extraction (trust me on this) pour out of a comparatively small van, all of them carrying musical instruments of one kind or another. I never did find out who they were or what they were doing, which is a pity. They had the look of people with stories to tell.

Alas, we had to leave them behind as we hailed a cab for La Brea. After a suspiciously long cab ride that involved freeways, rather than a straight shot down Wilshire Blvd., we arrived. Before we could even think about extinction events, it was imperative to stuff J with food. We opted for a fast-foodish chicken place with a dumb name done up in primary colors like Hot Dog on a Stick. It's a testament to the power of Union Labor that the 5-year-olds of California scored exclusive contracts to design all the fast food franchises. The governator can feel free to put an end to that decor juggernaut.

The food was confusing, but good. Confusing because I ordered a spicy ginger bowl and had to wait for the spicy and ginger bits to be delivered to the table. So I nibbled at my naked bowl because I was starving (Moons over My Hammy having been completely burned off in the science transmission orgy shortly after consumption) until I looked pathetic enough that J beat some spicy-ginger sauces out of the wage slaves and all was good.

Overall, the tarpits are pretty cool, if a bit dated. They have a large interactive tar-churning exercise right inside the entrance. It's basically a big pie and in each wedge is sunk a bucket o' the bubblin' crude that's coming up outside. Each bucket has two limb proxies stuck into it. One is short and stout, the other is thin and long. By "churning" the handle, you come to realize that if you, like me, have freakishly short, fat midget legs, you're totally fucked when the hydrocarbon apocalypse come. Furthermore, once again, skinny bitches win. K. cracked me the hell up as she churned contemplatively, then sombrely intoned, "So the key is skinny, but powerful." J was very naughty and splooshed his tar up outside of the bucket.

I dig it because it's actually fairly demanding of the visitor. It's got lots of informational text interspersed with visually interesting stuff and the exhibits are nicely interconnected without each being a complete retread of the last. They talk about all sorts of wacky stuff: Taphonomy, adaptation, how anatomy and behavior are actually related, why it is we can't just count up the bones and go home when inferring population size. I so totally need to get funding to take my whole freakin' archaeology class here when next I teach it.

The timeline at the end really, really needs updating one of the items stuck to the wall to represent "the present" is an X-ray of a person with a pacemaker the size of a funnel cake, w is among the more ironic choices of materials for a pacemaker. I also have to agree with K's assessment that cool as the museum is, it falls down on the job of explaining what the tarpits themselves are, and as most of the outdoor exihibits were closed, those who hadn't been there before felt a bit cheated.

After thoroughly doing the museum, it was time for some rampant capitalism. J wisely decided that my godless child required the ultra-cool Folktales Wooly Mammoth hand puppet. K. decided that what the top of my monitor really needed was an epoxy Neanderthal woman and insisted on purchasing same for me. We dubbed her proto-Matilda (companion to the superspy who rides astride my mastadon [how's that for recursive?] with her nerve gas at the ready) and she now stands astride the squishy pink bug.

The economy stimulated, we ventured outside to wander in the garden and then around the tarpits themselves. In our wanderings, we came across a very circumscribed plague of some kind. Most of the lawns around the grounds were green and healthy. However, there was a strange patch above a small ravine, perfectly rectangular with well-defined borders that was a uniform shade of brown yellow. Obsessive-compulsive locusts! What will those whacky monotheistic gods come up with next?

In other highlights we mounted a sloth, wandered into a sculpture garden, and got a surprise phone call from C, who regaled us with tales of wrangling Cookie Monster. Dusk was falling and we decided that it was time to head hotelward to prepare for out night at Universal Studios. We caught a cab and asked that he take us back down Wilshire. This proved to be a good move, as the sights were a lot more interesting than the damned freeway again.

Back at the hotel, I hopped into the tub for a quick soak and wriggled into something resembling my real, everyday wardrobe. The coaches to Universal were leaving from our respective hotels, so I was on my own. The minute I sat down, I was absolutely dead tired and had no idea how I was going to make it through a social evening. Naturally, the most talkative man on the planet chose the seat next to me.

He was quite nice and I'm sure he thought I was a giant, uninteresting bitca with my monosyllabic, nonsensical answers. He gave up on talking to me temporarily when we got caught in some famous LA traffic. I nodded off. There may have been drool. I can confirm that there was a highly unlady-like snort at one point, because it woke me up. You would have thought that this would have deterred Captain Chatty permanently, but no. I was slightly restored after my 3-minute power nap and endeavored to be charming (or at least to make complete sentences) for the rest of the trip.

I located K. immediately upon leaving my bus and we fell inexorably into herd mode, following close on the heels of the readily identifiable geneticists in front of us, despite the fact that we had no clue where we were supposed to go. J and J, Jr., having futiley resisted the herd, had to be talked into our location by phone. The sadistic Universal staff lured us to the very gates and then had us standing there, mooing confusedly for a good long while before opening the gates and thrusting us into the path of costumed characters. We paused for a photo op with Shrek and the professor treated the Masked Webslinger to a firm handshake.

We repaired to the hall that they had prepared for us in festive autumnal decorations, complete with a weird little barn from which the DJ spun his tunes. Eclectic doesn't begin to cover the range of music he was playing. It was well into dissociative territory, particulary when paired with interjected vain attempts at crowd direction. Embracing capitalism once again, we divided our labor and conquered: The professor procured drinks, the rest of us went for food. Maximal queue evasion achieved.

After chowing down on fairly good (for mass quantity varieties) Italian food, we headed over to the Back to the Future ride, which was cheesy but fun and confirmed what we already new, namely that geneticists are crap at following instructions. We ended up in an extended Chinese fire drill when loading our car and through much of the middle of the ride, a mysterious voice from the internal speaker instructed the woman in the front seat to keep her hands inside the car with mounting impatience until K. dinked her on the head and snapped, "Hey! Sit BACK."

After the ride, we wandered around for a bit looking at the skyline and such, stalling for time until the next showing T2: 3D. Perhaps inevitably, I wound up on the Terminator's hog outside of the store. Of course I was wearing a long skirt and had to settle for an incongruously demure side-saddle mount. I had no such qualms when we ventured inside and found a cycle-riding game. Without hesitation, I hitched up my skirt and hopped on one of them, exposing the hole in the knee of my tights for all to see. Both J and I pretty much sucked at this game, but we kept feeding quarters into it like scientists possessed. Although this would seem to indicate that I'd checked my free will and good sense at the door, I submit that I resisted purchasing the "Hulk Smash!" jammie bottoms that were calling my name as evidence of my competence to stand trial.

T2: 3D is not a bad attraction, but it has an unnecessarily complex lead-in that involved me standing around for a long time on very tired footsies. I also pity the actress who has to play the uber-perky Cyberdyne employee thrice an hour. I am betting that they surpass dentists in suicide rates. Most of the effects were cool in a gee whiz! sort of way, and I confess to screaming like a girly woman at the exact same moment as K. I hope you understand that I now have to kill all of you. I can't have this incriminating shit getting out.

After T2, we wandered around a bit more, cadging cookies and garlic bread (not together. Mostly.) In our travels, we came across what looked like three tacky, plastic shoe shine stations, but turned out to be foot massagers. I had quarters and I wasn't afraid to use them. I plopped myself down and started unlacing my boots, prompting exclamations of horror from everyone else in the group for about 2 seconds until K and J, Jr., plopped themselves down in the other two seats and kicked their shoes off as well. The experience was . . . odd. The massagers were kind of like highly localized magic fingers on speed. J captured the event on film (or electrons; whatever), but those'll never see the light of day. Suffice it to say that we drew crowds of passersby with our writhing and howling. After we'd vacated, the professor had his turn and futiley tried to maintain dignity and wound up looking coy.

Having been vibrated to within an inch of our lives, we decided that K. needed to be inducted into the Black Dahlia club and repaired to the Biltmore's bar. J, Jr., proved himself a deviant and ordered an old-fashioned, rather than a Black Dahlia. K. had bought a postcard at Universal to send to her husband and requested that we all contribute. I think my bit was something embittered about "Skinny, but powerful," but it's hard to remember through the citron/chambord/kahlua haze. The bartenders and waitstaff continued to be evil. I don't know about anyone else, but I had intended to have one Black Dahlia and one only, yet there seemed to be a constant parade of them across my napkin. This was even more dangerous than usual, because a bunch of unworthy fuckers were taking up all the comfy, safe, low-to-the-ground chairs and we were on tall stools.

Eventually, we pried ourselves away too late to get enough sleep and cabbed back to the Wilshire. I was completely baffled about the location of my room than because, wonder of wonders, the sweatshop had ceased operations for the first time since I'd been there. It's heartening to think that hack3rz honor the Lord's Day. Or something. Once I located my room, in my sleepy, tipsy haze, "packing" was equated with "piling all my worldly goods on top of the garment bag."

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