27. Popcorn! (2008)

At least some of my post-work time each day is spent practicing social assimilation… Attempting to appear comfortable in whatever surroundings I’m in while not letting on that I am very often anything but. It’s kind of a fun game for a while, though no matter how good I’ve gotten at it, after a few decades it just makes you feel like a fucking freak.

For quite a while now, 2nd Street in Long Beach, California has provided many of those surroundings. The east 2nd Street area has somehow remained clean and docile even though many neighboring it have gone the very opposite direction. Some of the older shops have been pushed aside, as is the way, but enough have remained that the area has avoided the “shopping mall” feel.

One of the strangest business marriages I’ve ever seen is the small, upscale gym located directly in the center of the shopping strip, and the large Irish pub located directly above. There is an indoor stairway from one to the other, large plexi-glass windows overlooking portions of the gym from the feeding trough upstairs, and- in case you need to get some deep-fried zucchini and a few beers right after exercising but forgot your wallet- your gym membership card can be used to charge food and drink. Maybe it only seems strange to me, but it is definitely curious to watch people finish with one and transition directly to the other. But as I’ve said before, they’re almost certainly happier than I am, so who the fuck am I to criticize.

While offering no more cultural significance than a Polish sausage cart, the location of this particularly bland “Irish Pub” would allow it success even if it were called ‘The Non-Elective Russian Roulette Club’… Attractive crowd every night, upstairs outdoor patio- If I’m trying to improve at normal, that is where I needed to be. So, I went.

I had been there several times with a person or two and it had gone pretty well. Fun was had, no real trouble was caused, and each instance gave me a little boost of confidence that I was capable of existing in normal social situations. Tonight there was a notable sporting event playing, but it was early, so I easily found a seat and began the decision-making process. I opted for popcorn and water to start, and possibly a hard cider if I decided to really go all-out. The popcorn machine looked haggard and did not inspire confidence but I again defaulted to the masses, and if they can do it, so can I. I paid the bartender $1, was given my straw bowl lined with cheap bar napkins, and off I went.

There was soccer, boxing, and baseball playing on opposing TV’s, and watching the very different reactions people had to each was an entertaining sport of its own. I ate my popcorn, slowly drank the hard cider I had opted for, and… relaxed. A couple people that recognized me in passing from the gym had said a quick hello, and there was even one female bartender that seemed to be extra glad I was there. I was enjoying myself, in spite of myself, and it felt good. I refilled my popcorn and water, wondered hard how people were able to watch an entire game of baseball, and thought even harder about how fast the one lightweight boxer was- even in comparison to his well-trained opponent- and how humbling it must be for those without that speed to work with him in training.

Having watched the first few Steven Segal movies far too many times growing up (Above the Law, Out for Justice, Hard to Kill…), and also having been in more than an average amount of quirky indoor scuffles, there were a few things that always just looked like… fun. Stuff you never thought would happen, but in kind of an odd way romanticized- both due to its semi-fictional quality and just sheer spectacle.

I had finished my cider and gone to the restroom, and while returning to the table, noticed someone eating my popcorn. I could easily have been mistaken for having left the bar- water and popcorn half-full, cider empty. I was far from angry about it, and immediately upon reaching the table smiled and joked “…well, now you owe me $.50!” His two friends kind of laughed, and I sat back down, but the popcorn thief was not nearly as amused. He was obviously a little drunk, but still semi-present, and kind of stumbled over what to do next. He wanted to say something but couldn’t quite settle on what, and instead just looked at me with his best hard-guy face and then backed away en route to his original seat. The way his friends immediately began navigating the situation told me that he was the hothead of the group. The girl put her hand on his back, and the guy kind of leaned over and whispered a few things to him, probably in an effort to calm him down and hopefully put the simple situation into its proper perspective.

I ate a few more pieces of popcorn and contemplated getting another drink, all the while holding a subtle but watchful eye over the nearby group. The popcorn thief was still very obviously unsettled, which was confusing and also totally stupid, since our interaction was one sentence long and my tone was not the slightest bit inflammatory. As he got up to go to the restroom and I looked over at his friends, they gave me their best shrugged-shoulder, hands up, half-eye-roll saying “That’s our crazy friend!” I took that as both confirmation that they would not intervene if anything more serious occurred, and also that they were totally unequipped to deal with a drunk hothead. Considering all the factors, and knowing my luck, I decided to forgo another drink and begin my short walk home.

Distracted briefly by boxing while putting on my coat, the popcorn thief had made about half his way from the restroom before I noticed, and was headed towards my table, not his. I was truly shocked that it was even still being thought about, but at this point I was also cued-in and definitely not unprepared for whatever happened next. Now hovering near the table, he mumbled something about being disrespected in front of his friends; I responded with my opinion that I had not done so, and that the entire thing was a simple and kind of funny misunderstanding. He rattled off some dumb bar-guy stuff about “me talking shit”, stepped backward, and at the same time began looking at the floor (most people entering into a misguided confrontation are not confident enough in their stance to look someone square in the eye beforehand). I said “OK man, well I’m sorry you’re upset.”

As soon as my sentence ended he lunged forward and attempted to shove me into the wall behind us. He got his hands on me and was strong, but so was I, and he was drunk. He lost his footing for a second, I got a good hold under an arm and on his belt… And as I had loved on screen but never thought I would get to do, tripped and threw him right into, onto, and over the table his friends were sitting at. The noise was kind of satisfying, his friends popped up and out of the way as if the floor had opened into lava, and the table itself rolled back and forth a little bit as it lay on its side on the ground. Some glasses had smashed, the popcorn thief had climbed clumsily (and wet…) back to his feet, and the bar security guard had joined us and was ready to mediate if necessary; I was again disappointed but not surprised at the outcome of a seemingly simple night and what should have been an innocuous situation.

I was asked to leave out of protocol, but having seen the unfolding, both the bartender and the guard said they knew the altercation wasn’t my fault and I was welcome back any time. The same was not to be said of the popcorn thief. Now disrespected, wet, and kicked out of a bar I’m sure he intended to return to, hope could be had that when he dried out he would see how silly and unnecessary the short ordeal was. The 11% optimist in me likes to believe that a lesson may have been learned, but the remaining 89% realist ends up digesting the sour reality that very often, this is just how people are.

I also frequently wonder if I give off some type of pheromone or electric current that magnetizes assholes and disrespectful louts to me in the most precarious of times and manners; Luck is luck, but pattern is pattern, and I’m not sure where my scales balance, or why. I have settled on the fact that being engaged in my surroundings in an active way, and actually acknowledging the presence and proximity of others, is both a positive and a negative; I believe many appreciate the courtesy, and I end up speaking with some that I otherwise never would have, but others seem to find it inflammatory or confrontational.

The ones that take it the negative way are the same sort, I imagine, that blame their girlfriends when they get lost en route to the token day at the lake, or shove someone after an unintentional shoulder bump in a crowded bar… Or that have never met a consequence for an action, and still feel that they are above doing so. Denial, arrogance, discourtesy, hot-headedness… With the direction society is headed, the deadly sins list needs to be expanded to at least 15.

This unintentional sociology experiment ends with simple confirmation that sometimes assholes are just assholes, and no addition or subtraction of libation or situation is going to change it. The misguided, soft-bodied man’s-man that shoved me would very likely have done the same thing had I accidentally dripped ice cream on one of his fucking boat shoes at a child’s birthday party; When insecurity and weakness live that close to the surface, it doesn’t take much to draw them out.

The end finds me thankful that I can (at least most of the time) internalize and… perspectivize… my insecurities- not drench those around me with them as if they’d volunteered to be mixed in the drink.