Something very interesting occurred to me the other day when I was walking around in Malibu. I found myself in an outdoor shopping center, and I really had to pee. Of course, in Malibu, there are not many public toilets, principally because public toilets are exactly the kind of thing that would attract undesirables, which is to say, the poor. The poor being those people who can’t afford to have a flunky follow them full-time with a golden bidet and squares of satin, to clean up any sort of messes naturales that the madames et messieurs of California’s golden country might, from time to time, feel the need to expunge. So I, as a regular person – a phrase I would wager rolls off the tongue of the coastal gentry like peasant might to the lord of an Enlightenment manor – had to go hunting.
As it happens, in this grand outdoor shopping plaza – which boasts not one, nor two, but three coffee houses, half a dozen casual dining establishments, and a host of upscale restaurants including the west coast outpost of Iron Chef Masahiru Morimoto’s restaurant co-owned with Robert De Niro, Nobu – there are no public restrooms. There’s a children’s playground in the center of the plot, however, which begs the question: where do the kids go when they need to pee? Apparently, that’s a problem for their housekeepers to solve with wet-naps and empty Gatorade bottles, because restrooms are not to be locally find. Or maybe the scions of Malibu’s Most Powerful simply don’t urinate. In any event, in this shopping center, there’s nowhere to go; those who feel nature’s call and cannot dispel it through sheer force of will have a simple, lugubrious choice: either order lunch in a sit-down establishment (and throw it, of course, in the trash after using the restaurant’s commode – these people do not consume calories that are not pre-approved by the white-Oprah equivalent of a dietician), or walk to a nearby mini-mall that on the second floor houses, far away from its multiple high-end men’s sartorial stores, a pair of public toilets, accessible only by a single narrow staircase. (As with the poor, so go the handicapped; there are no elevators for the differently-abled to reach these distant bowls.)
I followed the directions of pitying shopkeepers to these toilets; as I walked, I realized that I matched, stride for stride, a pair of people who ere walking just three paces ahead. (That I played, in this scenario, the silent fundamentalist bride was a fact not lost on me.) The gentleman of this pair quickly scurried to the heads as soon as he mounted the top of the stair flight; his woman lagged behind, burdened as she was with the task of placing her two matching poodles, bedecked in paired rhinestone collars, back on the ground – she’d carried them up the whole flight of stairs. Far be it from Fluffsy and Muffsy to soil their paws on a public stairwell.
Because of this, I happened to find myself just a step behind this woman as the four of us – she, I, and the hairy, walking munchkins – made our way across the distant, isolated landing, far away from the eyes of the rest of the city.
As we walked, I caught her tense. She peeked over her shoulder not once, but twice, a gesture only performed by three people: paranoid spies in movies, mall-bound teenage boys wantonly stealing peeks at large-chested girls walking behind them, and people who, for whatever reason, believe that they are about to be violently accosted.
Now, I am not big. I am 5′ 9″, 155 pounds. I don’t look like a mugger, I certainly don’t look like a gangbanger – I’m blond, and Jewish – basically, there is no one in the free world who should have any reason to fear me based on sight. But this woman was sending clear signals that she was bodily afraid of my presence. And as we got closer, her unease only became more pronounced. The actual entryway to the toilets was around a corner; as we rounded it, the woman went ahead and actually made a full turn to look at me. The toilets were to our left; she turned to her right for no other person than to take a last look at me – and ostensibly assure herself that I was not brandishing a shiv – then swiveled a full 180 degrees in the opposite direction to walk into the commode, bringing her twin dogs with her.
I let her go, of course – I mean, I’d been fingering the .22 in my shorts, of course, but I decided that, as the collar was studded with vanity rhinestones, and not diamonds, it just might not be worth all the time and effort of a rape-murder to take the four platinum cards from her Fendi purse. But it struck me as I was washing my hands in the bathroom sink, after having splashed urine on my hands while peeing in the urinal, that the woman was distinctly afraid that I might mug her.
To me, the thought was ludicrous, for reasons I’ve covered. But she really believed it – to her, it was a distinct possibility that I might attack her and try to take her purse. And I figured out why: it’s because she’s well-off. Because she had so much – and, likely, because her life had become so centered around trinkets and baubles – they occupied her mind constantly. She was so concerned with the trappings of wealth that they made her nervous – the thought that I might attack her to take her things was a very real possibility to her. And then I had a realization – the woman was so wealthy that it had become a liability to her. She was actually carrying her richness as a burden.
What a strange world this is. Success, and the trappings of it, becoming a real liability. Never before had Buddhist asceticism made such sense.