The scene was right out of a French existential absurdist tragicomedy. The family I was about to have brunch with had all become rhinoceroses. This transformation happens more regularly nowadays because the cable news outlets do their jobs so well that whatever they are drilling into the minds of the masses also takes over their bodies and turns them into odd-toed ungulates.
I had been sensing an eerie atmosphere in the house since my arrival and after entering the living room it hit me like a box of rocks— where once hung gorgeous works of Renaissance art, ancestral photographs, gilded framed mirrors, brass barometers, and antique Lenox bird plates, now hung flat paneled monitors of varying shapes and sizes, all tuned to the numerous cable news networks broadcasting and streaming the same stories twenty-four hours a day. Like the homogenization of our once diverse landscape now blocked by giant retail and fast food franchises, mega media corporations have followed suit and are homogenizing the information we now choose to use as the backdrop of our daily lives. It wasn’t the pints of Bloody Marys or the flutes of Mimosas getting this respected San Francisco family drunk on going to war, it was the menacing and controlling HD images of corporate American media coverage. This adorable Irish-Catholic family, once in love with going to the theatre on Saturday nights and Mass on Sunday mornings, was now making up bombing songs to underscore the flickering pictures of Viagra and violence dripping from the plasma filled screens down their green silk covered walls. Walls that were once adorned with self-expression were now wrapped in the vicious spin cycle of the global desensitizing machine.
They all stopped singing as they saw me enter the formal dining room of their impeccably restored Victorian home. Then, as if in a trance, they signaled for me to join them in their war song atop the long antique dining table they were standing on. The battle hymn the O’Malley family of Pacific Heights made up to sing on this particular Sunday afternoon, was to the title tune of the musical comedy, Guys and Dolls—
“WHAT’S IN THE CABLE NEWS?
I’LL TELL YOU WHAT’S IN THE CABLE NEWS:
STORY ABOUT A GUY WHO GASSED HIS WHOLE COUNTRY
AND NOW HE’S GOING TO GET HIT WITH MISSILES THAT CRUISE,
THAT’S WHAT’S IN THE CABLE NEWS!”
As a side note, I am against the use of force unless it can be justified. For example, saving your three-year old daughter from getting hit by a car by picking her up and pulling her to safety is one such justifiable use of force. But what if it’s someone else’s child? How do you justify pulling her back to safety if the parents are standing right in front of her? Okay, sure, they’re distracted so they don’t notice that her hand has slipped from theirs because it is such a little hand. So naturally you do what any compassionate person would do— you run out in the middle of the street and grab the child by her little shoulders and yank her back to the sidewalk. Wracked with guilt, humiliated and embarrassed about their negligence, do her parents thank you for saving their daughters life? Or do they threaten to sue you for giving their little girl whiplash and post-traumatic stress disorder? Sure, none of this will deter you in the future; you’re still going to do the right thing. Only next time you’ll remember not everyone is going to see this act to save a child as a gesture of humanity and goodwill. Some will see it as— it was none of your frigging business…we had our eye on her the entire time…we always let her play in the middle of the street…etc. You get my point. Now back to our story—
So now I shout up to the table of singing and dancing O’Malleys about to step on the plate of delicious pineapple I had eyeballed as soon as I entered the dining room—
“I agree this guy makes Darth Vader look like father of the year, but can’t we come up with something better than shooting big missiles at a country 53 times smaller than the United States? While you’re thinking it over, can I please get a slice of that pineapple before you step in it? I’m a vegan and it’s tough to fill up on melon and berries so pineapple is my go-to fruit at omnivore Sunday brunches— just a couple of slices and I feel stuffed. Maybe it’s all that fiber.”
The looks I get from The O’Malleys of San Francisco could chill the fruit I wasn’t eating. Then Uncle Tommy O’Malley, standing at the head of the twenty-foot mahogany table, his big red beard dripping with butter and syrup, starts stomping wildly as he continues singing the title song from the aforementioned Runyonesque musical—
“WHEN YOU SEE A GUY
SHOOT BIG BOMBS IN THE SKY,
YOU CAN BET THAT HE’S DOING IT
FOR SOME OIL! STOMP! SQUISH!”
There go the waffles! There go the omelets! Which was fine with me because all I wanted was a slice of pineapple that had been expertly cut and fanned on the antique Waterford platter that was about to get kicked into the lap of Grandma O’Malley, who was asleep on the sideboard with her head resting comfortably on a large pewter platter of hash browned potatoes.
“DON’T KICK THE WATERFORD, UNCLE TOMMY!” I shouted. “IT WAS YOUR DEAR DEPARTED MOTHER’S!”
Suddenly Tommy stops stomping and begins crying about the alleged sudden death of his mother, just like James Cagney did in the film, White Heat. He assumes Cagney’s role brilliantly including crawling on his belly across the long table and through the sterling silver chaffing dishes filled with breakfast links and bacon strips, all the while moaning the question, “She’s dead? She’s dead? She’s dead?” Luckily he misses the pineapple as he stands up and shouts—
“TOP OF THE WORLD, MA! TOP OF THE WORLD!”
As cans of Sterno explode all around him, he notices that his mother is still very much alive and slapping him across the face while yelling—
“Snap out of it you drunken bugger, your beard is on fire!”
Putting out the fire by hugging his mother, Tommy continues his wild and impromptu jig. I think the music he was humming was from Lord Of The Dance, and he looked like a dwarf from Lord of the Rings, while the scene remained something out of Lord of the Flies. Then he looks down at me— his feet and his amber eyes dancing wildly— and says—
“Come up here on the Duncan Phyfe and join us in our song and dance, Gary My Boy! We’re going to war! We’re going to kill those murdering monsters! FOR SAM! FOR FRODO! FOR THE SHIRE!”
Getting closer and closer to the cut crystal plate of pineapple as he danced his crazy dance, I had to think of something quick or risk eating glass, so I shouted—
“Look, there are alternatives to going to war! The question I have for all of you dancing up there on the table is— have we considered all of them? Granted, we need something big to grab the attention of the world news, so think the Civil Rights movement meets Gandhi’s fasting meets the guy who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square meets the 1984 British miners’ strike, as depicted in the Broadway musical, Billy Elliott. Okay, are you with me you magnificent herd of Perissodactyla? Good. Let’s rehearse this mock protest! And while you’re getting into two lines can I please get a slice of pineapple before you march all over it?”
Well, the Billy Elliott reference really gets their attention and the group on the table immediately shifts into position— the males assume the role of the miners, which includes holding up their fists, stomping their feet, and shouting, “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!” The females assume the roles of the police which includes ripping the flat screens off of the Dupioni covered walls to use as shields, and grabbing a bunch of serving spoons to serve as riot batons.
Then a miracle happens— Grandpa W.B. Yeats-O’Malley grabs a slice of pineapple and tosses it at one of the “police officers” and it bounces off her “riot shield” and right into my mouth. It was everything I’d expected it to be— sweet as sunshine with just a touch of sea salt from the rich rainforest terroir and bursting with its delicious juice; the more I chewed the more the flavor of the luscious tropical fruit was released, it truly tasted like I was eating paradise.
Then, Mrs. Margaret O’Malley, whacks old W.B. with her sterling silver pie server and says—
“Hey, Norma Rae, don’t throw food, it’s a sin! And for your information that pineapple you’re throwing there cost me a lot of money; that’s an organic pineapple from Costa Rica, don’t you know!
And then young, Timothy O’Malley, who everyone thought was plugged-in and texting his cousin, Tammy O’Malley, who was Irish step-dancing next to him, shouts—
“Dude, I don’t know about any fictitious Billy Elliott, but I do know there are real kids in this country who are dying of malnutrition! And all you dudes want to do is stop the food stamp program that most of their families depend on for things like, uh, food!”
And then Grandma Tillie O’Malley, who survived Sunday Bloody Sunday, and who everyone thought was asleep with her head in the potatoes wakes up and says—
“Not only children, but old people too, lots of senior citizens starving right here in America who rely heavily on SNAP for their groceries! And those dumb asses in congress are going to try and cut 60 billion dollars right out of the heart of the program. All the while thousands of lives and trillions of dollars are lost fighting senseless wars that can never be won. Glory be to God in heaven, what the hell is wrong with these people?”
And, Theresa O’Malley, who’s home from college wearing an NPR t-shirt, now drenched with tomato juice, vodka, champagne and orange juice says—
“Word, Grammy! Yeah, Mom! Next time don’t buy pineapple from Costa Rica! Buy locally grown organic fruits and vegetables from the farmers market at the churchyard on Sunday; it’s hella better and hella fresher. Whatever.”
And then, Mother Maggie O’Malley, turns to her daughter and says—
“You watch your language, young lady. And for your gosh darn information, most all of these fruits and vegetables here today on this table are organic and locally grown from right here in Northern California! So how do you like them apples, Mother Theresa?”
And then she turns to me and says—
“And by the way, Gary De Mattei, while you were so preoccupied with the delicious pineapple you’re now chewing on like a cow on his cud, you didn’t even notice the rest of the food I prepared for you here like my baked tofu that I marinated overnight in a little soy sauce and maple syrup. I made it especially for you cause I knew you were coming over and that’s the thanks I get. And the hash brown potatoes Grandma O’Malley is sleeping on over there on the sideboard are vegan. I didn’t use butter yet they’re crispy and delicious. So try some. My secret is I fry them in a little coconut oil, shhhh. And here, try some of these tempeh bacon strips Tommy O’Malley just crawled all over. They’re also vegan. I made them for you and Saint Theresa O’Malley over there. She’s a vegetarian just like George Bernard Shaw, don’t you know. And have some of this raisin bread toast. It’s gluten-free and it’s also vegan. I have it here for little Tammy O’Malley. She has Celiac’s disease and is also lactose intolerant, poor lass. And those donuts over there that Grandpa O’Malley is stuffing his face with are vegan too. I bought them at Whole Foods and they cost me a fortune! Oh, and here, eat some of these breakfast links. They’re not only vegan, they’re gluten-free, soy-free, contain no GMOs, and they taste so much like real breakfast sausages you’ll think you’re Jimmy Dean. Here, EAT! EAT! EAT!”
Another side note— the other type of force that I feel is completely justified is when you’re a guest in someone’s home and they force you to eat the delicious food they’ve prepared for you. And it would be considered a sin to the O’Malley’s of San Francisco if I refused Mother Maggie O’Malley’s home cooking, which is also one of the ways she expresses the love she feels for her family and her friends. Needless to say, I was happy to oblige her and to see that she and the other O’Malley’s were no longer Rhinoceroses, but once again hell-bent on watching the matriarch of their family chase guests around the house feeding them her delicious delicacies while they all sing show tunes—
“CALL IT SAD CALL IT FUNNY,
BUT IT’S BETTER THAN EVEN MONEY,
THAT THIS GUY’S GOING TO GAIN AT LEAST TEN POUNDS,
TEN POUNDS, TEN POUNDS,
THIS GUY’S GOING TO GAIN AT LEAST TEN POUNDS!”