A Night of Crowns and Wigs

The thing about “showing up for other people,” or, if you want to take it a step further into Northern California speak, remaining open to the beauty of your fellow human beings, is that the smallest thing can derail your noble intentions, and lightning-quick you revert to moody adolescence.

Obviously few if any of you ever revert to moody adolescence. But I do, every other day. I’m a grown man who morphs into a sullen, recalcitrant, bitter baby if he doesn’t eat. Maybe you’ve had the misfortune of dating someone like me, someone who must be handled with increasing degrees of diplomacy and delicacy while his blood sugar level plunges.

Last week the Manly Fireplug and I were invited to a friend’s birthday party at Buca. On a Saturday night. At eight p.m. Utter mayhem spilled out from the lobby onto the sidewalk ­‑ parties of four and seven and thirteen jostling for tables, presided over by a harried hostess totally regretting her job that night. Our table had not yet been cleared, and everywhere I chose to stand I ended up in someone’s way.

Knowing of Buca’s carb-laden family-style platters, I’d earlier made the unfortunate decision to show up hungry. But thirty seconds in that lobby turned me into a muttering Grinch, and I fled our party to push my way back out on the sidewalk for some “fresh air.” The Fireplug, who’d smartly had a snack, offered to run interference, letting me know when our table was ready.

Maybe you’ve been to Buca, maybe you’ve sat in the Papal Room, which features, at the center of a large round table, the Pope’s head sitting on a lazy susan, the surrounding walls covered in framed photos and paintings of the long line of popes. Maybe the campiness amuses you, but that night I was not amused. As our friends passed around party favors I grumbled about the Vatican’s response to homosexuals, and its indifference to the pedophilia scandal. Everyone around me pulled kitschy plastic crowns over their heads. The Fireplug put on a plastic crown. It will not surprise you to hear that I did not put on a plastic crown.

Thirty agonizing minutes later, when our party had chosen its family platters from the menu, and the waiter finally appeared, notepad in hand, it will also not surprise you that when he said, “And what can I get you?” and when one of our party said, “Guess!” I took matters into my own hands. “We are not making him GUESS!” I hissed. “We are telling him we want two orders of garlic cheese bread, the calamari appetizer, a large Caesar salad, and a large chopped antipasto salad. And since he’s here we’re also going to tell him that we want an order of the baked ravioli, a spicy chicken rigatoni, the chianti braised short ribs, and the chicken marsala.” The acquaintance across the table who’d told the waiter to “guess” shot me a wounded look, but too bad for him.

I resisted the overwhelming urge, the need, to inhale the entire fried calamari platter on my own, and sent it around the lazy susan, watching with barely-veiled dismay as the others had the nerve to take their fair share.

About an hour later, having gorged myself into a stupor, I reached a state of serenity and could finally act my age. Or nearly my age. I still refused the plastic crown.

“Feel better?” said the Fireplug.

I garumphed, but ultimately gave him a wry grin, one that both admitted my earlier immaturity and thanked him – barely – for his patience.

My one piece of rather obvious advice here, dear reader, is that if you want to show up for your fellow man, think about eating first.

Later, having hugged our friends good-night, the Fireplug and I drifted down Howard Street, making our way back to the car, when we passed a storefront so dazzling with color that I could not resist pulling out my cell phone to take some rudimentary shots.

So many wigs of so many colors lined the shop’s walls, and in the back, working absurdly late, a stylist combing her client’s hair, the two women laughing together at some joke we couldn’t hear, and I was struck by this shop I’d never before seen, and this glimpse at what it contained and implied: a whole set of lives unknown to me, each wig, each color, a person or a party or a trick or a night. And an old odd desire seized me, one I’d had my whole life, riding in the car through tiny towns on road trips, glimpsing ramshackle cabins, farmhouses leaning back from the wind, pools of light on wooden porches, and cramped rooms over noisy bars. I wanted to walk like a ghost through each of those rooms. I wanted to try on, for a few seconds, every single life the passing world contained.

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