The Flaming Messiah (a true story)
The party was in our old neighborhood, Brentwood. We knew where to find all the choice parking space. We found one, locked the car and flipped up our collars. It was brisk outside and the buildings above us amplified the wind into a chaos of swirls and bursts of frigid energy.
I wasn't familiar with this particular restaurant. I'd never heard of it. The address said it should be right across the street and over a bit from the intersection. Finally, we spotted it, the address on the door. From a distance, we could see a little detail through the windows. It didn't look like a setting for a big bash.
The interior was a bath of dim light that had a comfy glow from the warm mini-halogen lights. There was supposed to be a party, but from the looks of things, either we were completely in the wrong place or the party simply hadn't started yet. The worst case would have been that we were there on the wrong night and at the wrong place, but that was doubtful.
The room had a dozen or so tables dressed tastefully in draping cloths and skinny little vases with a single flower sticking out of each one. An anonymous couple dined quietly in the corner. They might have been movie producers or directors for all we knew. We were in Brentwood after all. This is where they all hung out. One time Deborah was walking around the perimeter of the Brentwood Country Club. Ally McBeal ran by in the other direction. It was that kind of place. That's why I never flipped anyone off in traffic, no matter how hard they laid on the horn or whether they threatened to run me off the road. I figured that when I got to whatever casting call I was going to or whatever voiceover session I was doing, it would be just my luck that the person I flipped off would be sitting there with a clipboard and a bottle of Evian.
An attractive dark haired girl welcomed us as we walked in. "We were told that this is where the KCRW volunteers' party is," I said to the girl. I know had a puzzled look on my face; I could see my reflection on the mirrored wall. No one's face looks like that when they walk into a restaurant unless something stinks or the lights are way too bright. That certainly wasn't the case here. This place was downright tranquil... yoga studio tranquil... doctor's office waiting room tranquil. Last year’s party was at a bar in Santa Monica in one of the heaviest rains we'd had in a long time. That one was bursting at the seams with people. Were expecting at least the same here.
"Right through here," said the attractive dark haired girl, neutral and with a pinch of indifference. Her hand lilted, gently motioning like a falling leaf, signaling us to pass through the curtain of beads behind us and into another room. Her poise and calm led me to believe that her only function here was to shield that single table of diners on the other side of the room from us, to protect them from us.
The parting of the beads with that lilting hand suddenly exposed an alternate world on the other side. I heard an unexplainable booming sound in my skull. I turned around and the girl was gone, disappeared. I turned back around toward the room but couldn’t see anything. I thought that she’d cast a spell on me, then I realized that the booming in my skull was techno-dance music, the same kind they play on the station, KCRW. It was thunderous and it throbbed. And it was so unpleasantly loud that I couldn’t understand why everyone was smiling. It was as if someone had just driven a garbage truck into the room, and that people thought that would be OK. It was surprising that we hadn't noticed the racket from the other room. A beaded curtain is porous and flimsy and couldn't possibly have acted as any kind of sound barrier. Could it have been a sophisticated psycho-acoustic sound barrier manufactured from sound absorbing NASA "smart" sound beads? Doubtful. I would have known about it already.
We unzipped our coats while our eyes adjusted to the new temperature and the relative absence of light, then had two sensations. The first was that we were probably the two oldest people in the room. Everyone appeared to be between 20 and 30 years old. They all seemed to be wearing black as if they'd all been issued uniforms: black blazers, black shirts. Many had up-to-date black shoes even though the room was so fully packed with bodies, chest against chest, back against back, you couldn't really see their shoes except for an occasional glimpse. Many wore stylish black-rimmed glasses.
I had a sense that I may be giving off a silent signal, a scent perhaps, announcing to everyone that an old and unstylish outsider had arrived, one who was wearing no glasses, but who wore white athletic shoes.
Regarding style: I've found that being unstylish often gets one of two reactions. One is that you become invisible, not even registering a radar blip's worth of attention... like I was that night. The other is that you draw so much attention to yourself because you're so unstylish, that it's actually remarkable and noteworthy which, in the worst case, will draw ridicule. On this night, I believe I was invisible.
The second sensation I had was that I was unusually tall, as if I was the tallest person there, or certainly, only one of a very small group of tall people in the room. It could have simply been that I was the only person standing at that particular moment and every one else was sitting, but it was hard to tell in the haze and the din.
Mind you, I'm only six feet tall, but most of the people here were, for the most part, were young adults who seemed to be awaiting a final post pubescent growth spurt. It was odd. Maybe it's a California phenomenon, but it seems to me that young adults nowadays don't finish physically growing up in high school the same way we did. Now they do it when they're in college, or after college. And as I think back, I'm certain that at none of the high school class reunions I'd ever gone to: the 5th, 10th, the 20th, the 30th, had anyone ever grown vertically after graduation. Here in California it seemed to be the norm to postpone reaching adult height until you were out of school. Of course, this phenomenon could simply be attributed to my imagination and nothing else. Still feeling a little paranoia, I hunkered down to make myself look younger and I shuffled forward hoping no one would see my white shoes.
Despite the undeniable saturation of the room by the deafening, pounding music, I thought as I hovered over the dwarfish crowd, "No one is dancing." They couldn't if they wanted to. The room was un-traversable. It was wall-to-wall people. You could see tiny, potential "micro-pathways" to, say, the food table or the beaded curtain, but other than that, it was just vertical, stationary bodies in black clothes smiling and having conversations. One implied micropath led to the other end of the room, but it was just as dark and noisy there. I was searching for a food table.
I was, in a way, comforted that, because of my height advantage, I could see the micropaths at all throughout the crowd. I may have been the only person in the room who could. I was like a pilot flying over a swarm of wild gazelles on the Serengeti. From there, I at my current altitude, could witness the river-like flow of the massive herd. Only I could see the paths to safety if lions should attack.
I shifted my gaze to the far ends of the room. Along each wall was a ledge, a sort of wainscot. On the ledges were Mexican novena candles spaced a few feet apart. It gave the room an exotic glow as the candles inside the glass cylinders flickered and illuminated the Jesus or the Virgin Mary or Our Lady of Guadalupe on their surfaces.
I twisted my body to the left and eyed another micropath. The food table! It was about 8 feet away, close to a wall. The beaded curtain was still only a few feet behind us. Surprisingly, that's only as far as we'd been able to travel up to this point. It would have been easy just to leave, the doorway was so close. We weren't sure what we were going to gain by staying, but. I figured that since we were here, this could be an opportunity to work through some of my social phobias.
I twisted my body to survey the party some further. It appeared that cake was the only food left on the food table. "I don't know about this," I thought. We were looking for more meaningful sustenance, not just dessert. We took a cautious, exploratory step forward. I slid my left foot forward, trying not to step on anyone’s feet, as I held onto Deborah's coat. Unfortunately, she was as short or shorter than the guests so she had to rely on me to guide her. But I was just as trapped as she was. Yet I was the tall one, therefore I had to be the protector. I was concerned, but I couldn't let her sense my concern. I knew that if I lost my grip I may never see her again. I'd be alone in life. It would be like losing her at sea. The briny deep would swallow her up like it swallows those drunks with party hats who disappear off cruise ships trying to recreate that scene on the bow of the Titanic in that movie. So I clamped onto her coat sleeve the way I'd grip the sleeve of one of my kids when we'd cross the street. We pressed ahead.
I slowly shuffled one foot forward, then the other. I craned my neck to see if there was any other food besides dessert on the table when I saw a glow out of the corner of my eye. It was coming from the direction of one of the other guests. He was a short fellow, even shorter than the others. His shortness was no surprise, but this person was dressed wrong. He had a survival jacket on which was infinitely more unstylish than what I was wearing and made him infinitely more remarkable and noticable than I could ever be.
His unstylish hair was long and fuzzy... like bad hippy hair. It billowed from the collar of his Army surplus jacket which coincidentally also had a hairy collar. He faced our direction, standing near the wall with the ledge, the one with the candles. He looked a bit like a little make believe Jesus with his long hair and beard, especially because he had a halo... just like the Jesus on the novena candles. This Jesus wore glasses, though, unlike the one on the candles.
I assume that we were all Americans here in the room and we'd all seen the Christmas specials on network prime-time TV. We'd heard all the Easter stories too. Even if you're Jewish, you know almost as common folk knowledge, that Jesus is supposed to come back some day. For all anyone really knew, this could have been that big day. Of course, the Jesus we know in our minds looks a lot taller from all the pictures we've seen, and a little more buff, but pictures lie. Chuck Norris, for instance, is only 5 foot 7, but he looks a lot taller in the movies. So is Tom Cruise, they say, but I don't know for sure. I do know for a fact, though, that Chuck Norris is pretty short. I saw him once at a Fourth of July fireworks show.
But the question is: Why would Jesus decide to show up here at a cocktail party for an NPR affiliate station? And why the disguise with the glasses and all? Why not show just up at the Vatican? But then I thought... "Where would be the right place for Jesus to reappear?" The UN? The Superbowl? The Pat Robertson's TV show? (If he did that, it'd be to kick Pat Robertson's ass, I bet.) It didn't matter, I suppose. This party was just as appropriate a venue as any other... compared to, say... a wet t-shirt, contest at a bar in Cabo San Lucas.
But who really knows what he looked like... the Messiah, I mean? My mother, bless her heart, thinks she knows what he looks like. She's seen all the pictures. As a matter of fact, she once said, regarding the DaVinci Code, "Ken you believe? Dey say he vas married ! Stoopid people ! Never vunce in picture are you seeing him kissing vooman ! " I suppose she was right. Judas did kiss him though.
The Messiah’s halo was ever-changing as I recount my thoughts in slow motion. Sparks seemed to dance behind his head while people casually chatted around him. They were oblivious to His presence, and to the fact that a phenomenon was unfolding before them. They simply continued to nibble on the last of the stuffed mushrooms on their paper plates, cheeks bulging like squirrels, lips puckered, sucking the wine from their plastic glasses. Meanwhile, a tiny incendiary event portended a potentially much bigger one, while they stood blind to what was surely going to be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
His halo continued to grow toward some sort of climax when one black-glasses fellow casually leaned over and said to Mr. Christ, "Hey man, your hair's on fire."
Jesus serenely turned toward the speaker, revealing to the rest of us that, in fact, his hair had burst, or rather, erupted into flame. It had caught on fire while he was leaning against the wall of novena candles. Another guest commented. "Dude."
I had many thoughts as I watched, and may have even been the only person, at the time, who had any thoughts on the subject at all, I suspect, since no one else was doing anything. They just looked at him wondering why he decided to burn his hair at the party that night.
Being thrown into a heightened state of awareness... very much like a Green Beret, I visualized a couple of scenarios all in a split second. In one, I visualized, "What if this happened in the middle of the room and not near the door?" The results be catastrophic. No one would be able to move. No one would be able to escape. The fire would surely spread to curtains, clothing, more hair. It would have been yet another tragic night club fire on the news with people piled on top of people, dead, as they made their pathetic attempt to escape.
Another scenario was more practical, possibly heroic. A quick mental calculation told me that if I, or we, couldn't put the fire out instantly, the best thing to do was to grab the victim by the scruff of the neck and the belt and simply throw him out of the room through the beaded door out into the semi-empty restaurant. The result would have been to localize the fire and to minimize the possibility of it spreading in the crowded bar room. Lives would be saved. Damage would be averted and the restaurant customers would be treated to a floor show when they saw a flaming Jesus sliding across the linoleum. It'd be really cool.
The scenario I decided to focus on was the simplest and most expeditious, and certainly the least dramatic. I reached out to the Messiah as one would reach out to Jesus if he were standing there in front of you... thinking back to my Boy Scout manual... and beat down the fire with my hands.
Fortunately, since I have big hands and he was small, it was out in a fraction of a second. It must have looked strange to anyone who wasn't standing within two feet of us. As I said, it was so crowded in the room that a short person 3 feet away quite possibly wouldn't have been able to see any of it. If it had gotten out of control, no one would have even known about it until it was too late. Technically, I was a hero, for which I rejoiced inwardly.
The little newly extinguished Jesus quickly straightened his glasses which were now cockeyed on his face from me smacking him down, and whisked himself out of the room. He was brushing himself off as he stumbled out of the room, trying to regain his composure after being flogged by a stranger. I still stood there in the same spot and loomed over the crowd as I had before. No one, save maybe one or two people, had any idea that anything at all had just happened. In fact, Deborah pointed out later that it seemed that the only person that saw anything at all was Nick Hartcourt, the host of the morning music program... the focal point of the party. She said that he had turned around at precisely the moment that I was wacking the head of the Lord Jesus with a disgusted look on his face as if to say, "The nerve of that brute to come in here and beat up that poor little fellow at this nice party. What a jerk !" If only he had known that I'd just saved his life.
So it was over. Another life saved. We decided to try to salvage the evening by working toward the food table and getting the last of whatever crumbs of cake were there, if there was anything left at all. It was difficult. We shuffled toward the table like penguins so we wouldn't step on anyone's feet. I was done drawing attention to myself.
Finally, we found two un-nibbled slices of cake. Now we just had to find a way to eat them. As I said, it was crowded. In fact, it was so crowded that there wasn't enough room to lift the fork from your plate to your mouth without sticking someone in the ear. We had to hold the plates close to our faces, and then with our elbows pressed to your sides, sort of slide the cake in with our forks. It was all very uncomfortable, and what made it worse was the smell on my hands. Every time I slid some cake into my mouth, I smelled cake and burnt human hair on my fingertips.
It was more than I could stand. I had to cry uncle. I excused myself so I could go to the men’s room to wash that awful stink off my fingers. I struggled toward the beaded curtain. Eventually I made it into the restaurant and saw the door that said, "MEN." I opened it... then I saw Him in the wash of eerie florescent light. It was like a Stanley Kubrick film. He stood in front of the nozzle of the hot air hand dryer, drying His hair after having washed and rinsed off the burnt ends. If it'd been a beautiful woman it would have been quite a remarkable sight, her wet hair blowing across her face, her clothes seductively wet. Instead, he was a rat in a rainstorm, his glasses all spotted with soapy water.
"You OK?" I asked.
I lathered my hands at he sink... 2 or 3 times to wash the smell off.
"Are you the guy who put me out?" he asked.
"I thank you," he said.
He seemed even smaller than before under the florescent lights, even shorter than Chuck Norris.
"Don't worry about it, man," I said. "Take it easy." I left.
Through the beaded curtains again to find Deborah. She was right where I'd left her, wedged in the sea of bodies. We put our plates down, shuffled through the beaded curtains one last time, pulled our collars up to our ears and walked out the door into the cold.
For the next twenty minutes, we said nothing. Finally, Deborah broke the silence.
"Let's skip the party next year."