A critical mass of infliction
March 25, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
August of 1992 to August of 1993 was a terrible year for me. That was the period during which the Cardinal Ghost drove me away. I had a horrible job serving subpoenas and copying medical records with a portable machine, I was hugely overweight, and every evening was a danse macabre with the former love of my life. She ignored me, insulted me, screamed at me, and gaslighted me in ways I could barely accept were actually happening. That was also the year I discovered that you can reach a critical mass of infliction.
I have only one photo of me from that year. It’s a self-portrait I took with the intention of sending it in to a scale-modeling magazine to accompany an article I wrote.
Those are two plastic models I built, a British Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2 on the left and a French Voisin III on the right. I love pushers, meaning aircraft with the engine facing backward. The British and French didn’t have synchronization gear for their machines guns, the way the Germans did. German fighters were tractors, not pushers, and they had fixed machine guns that could shoot through arc of the spinning propeller. The bravery of the men who went up against the technologically superior German fighters has always moved me.
I decided to not submit that photo of me. I looked too unhappy and fat. Which I was!
After Carmen decided to drive me away, I seemed to be under a curse. Suddenly everyone wanted to fight. I think people can sense when you’re vulnerable, and their instinct is to attack, the way dogs will bite if you show fear. It was endless. Custodians of records—the people I contacted when I needed to copy documents—became incredibly rude. One day a woman shouted at me to Wait! Wait! Wait! as I tried to tell her what I needed.
Every time I went to a restaurant, I pissed off the waitpersons. The worst case was at a Mel’s Diner, where I ordered a turkey burger. When I took a bite, I found that the inside was pink. I called over the waitress and showed her.
“Is it supposed to be pink inside?” I asked.
She chuffed, canted out one hip, put her hand on it, and snapped, “That’s a nice way of asking me!”
I had no idea what she meant. “I don’t understand what you just said.”
“If the fucking burger is underdone, just tell me! You don’t have to cross-examine me!”
I put down the burger. “Bring me the check, please.”
For some reason now she felt bad. “No, let me get you another burger.”
“Just bring me the check please,” I said, on the very edge of control. The waitress called over the manager, who insisted I receive a replacement burger. They simply would not do what I wanted. I gave up.
“Make it to go,” I said.
When they brought it to me in a Styrofoam box, I paid for it, walked out, and handed it to a homeless man standing on the sidewalk. “Have a turkey burger,” I told him.
“Wow! Thanks, man!” he called after me. I never went to Mel’s Diner again.
On pages 70 and 71 of Ghosts and Ballyhoo, I describe the encounter with a stranger that convinced me to leave San Francisco, but I’d had another one right before that defining moment. As I drove down the Embarcadero, I saw a guy in his thirties pummeling an old man on the sidewalk. The younger man looked like a hippie. I stopped my car, jumped out, and ran over. The young guy started to walk away, while the old man leaned against a building, his nose bleeding.
There was a three-wheeled parking-enforcement vehicle stopped in the street eight feet from where the fight had taken place.
I went up and knocked on the window. A parking enforcement officer in a yellow slicker got out. He was about sixty and looked like an owl.
“That guy just beat up this old man,” I said, pointing.
The owl shrugged. “What do you want me to do about it?”
For a second my brain shorted out. “What do I— Call your colleagues! That guy just assaulted this old man, and he’s getting away!”
“I’m not the police.”
“You have a radio on your coat. Call the fucking cops!”
“I’m not allowed to do that unless it’s an emergency involving me.”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s your name?”
In a flash he covered his name tag. I looked down at the door to note the identification number of the vehicle, and he jumped in front of me to block my view.
“Go away!” the old man yelled.
I turned to him. He swung his arm as if trying to swat a fly.
“Get outta here!” he shouted at me. “Leave me alone!”
So I left. About two months later, I conceded defeat and moved out of the apartment I shared with Carmen. My car had been broken into, people I considered friends had gotten contemptuous and belligerent, and my colleagues at work had started to play practical jokes on me. The best was at my goodbye lunch, in which my boss told me that a woman I’d subpoenaed was suing me for damages.
She was a fat Iranian harridan who’d assaulted me. I’d prevented her from hitting me and had tossed the subpoena into her house. At my farewell lunch, my boss presented me with legal papers showing that she was suing me for $250,000. He said I was out of line in the way I’d served her, so the company couldn’t pay for my legal defense. I was on my own.
The food was like dirt in my mouth as I realized that fighting the lawsuit would bankrupt me. After an hour everyone at the table exchanged glances and started laughing.
“Gotcha!” my boss said. “We had those papers rigged up by one of our pals in the courthouse! That woman’s not suing you. It was just a gag!”
Though I hate practical jokes, I’m grateful for this one. It allowed me to leave San Francisco without a backward glance.
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