If Mad Men has given you an appreciation of all things mid-20th century, might I turn your gaze to some shows that were actually recorded in the same era? The best one was The Twilight Zone, which holds up over time like good literature. Rod Serling is a hero of mine; he combined politics with heart and, of course, a great sense of storytelling. There are a couple of other shows that are also worth a gander. The first is Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff. Each week featured a new story with different actors, just like Twilight Zone, but the plots were often more gothic and monster-based. Then there is One Step Beyond, supposedly based on real-life phenomena, like mind-reading, ghosts, and what Ernest P. Worrell would call "extra-sensitory perspiration" (know what a-mean, Vern?). These shows had some great episodes and some real clunkers, but seeing old character actors and the use and reuse of the Psycho house and Leave It to Beaver street on the Universal lot over and over makes even the shittier ones worth it.
It is interesting to think what zeitgeist brought on this influx of fantasy-based television entertainment; wasn't the idea of TV novel enough at that point? Even in the '70s, I used to watch the test pattern for at least an hour before the cartoons came on. These whackadoodle shows must have really blown people's minds. I guess no matter the era, we appreciate a good escape.
Anyone who has been reading this column for a while knows that when I want to get away from it all and pretend that I am on vacation, I head for a hotel bar. This week I picked the Hilton in Chinatown, on Kearny. It bills itself as the "Financial District Hilton," but it's not as grand as some. In fact, the concrete design of the place looks like some North Korean monument to Kim Jong-Il, but the place is loaded with plenty of comfy seating and a bar attached to the restaurant Seven-Fifty. Which is kind of a funny name, because there is nothing on the menu that even comes close to that price. A bowl of ice cream is $9. But I can sit surrounded by pillows on a long banquette and get table service.
The entrance to the bar has a "fire sculpture," with rocks and a line of flames. This always reminds me of some yogi fire-walking platform. The rest is your typical contemporary hotel shtick, with a muted palette and soft lighting. It is rarely busy, and when it is, it is full of couples on vacation who got tired of talking to each other somewhere back on day two of their jaunt. It's quiet. The waitress approached me and was one-more-pleasant than pleasant, another reason I dig hotels. Corporations force their workers to kiss your ass.
She soon trotted back with my $9 vanilla Häagen-Dazs. It sat in front me, in golden, creamy comfort. Two people a table away from me were having some sort of real estate business meeting. A Faustian bargain, perhaps? If this scene was shot in black and white, it could be an Alfred Hitchcock Presents — another great mid-20th-century show. Hotels invite intrigue, and I can invent whatever I want when I go to one. Who cares if they were actually just entering an escrow agreement? To me they were two strangers who both wanted to get rid of their spouses. You stab mine in the back, I'll stab yours. We can split the double indemnity.
When the bill came, it was indeed stranger than fiction: I'm not sure how it happened, but a drink and some ice cream added up to $20. This is a creepy phenomenon that happens all over this city. Where did my money go? You go out with $60 in your pocket and end up overdrawn. This is where the life insurance scam comes in handy. You need to finance your San Francisco meals somehow. Now, if I can only find some rich schmuck with a bad heart to marry.
In reality, I am trying to live within my means. I can still go to fancy hotels and pretend that I am loaded, I just have to eat my weight in free pretzels and keep the Diet Pepsi a-comin'. I don't need to worry about the outside world until I step beyond the automatic doors of the hotel. The place is full of other people who are also bound to this phony corner of reality; hotels are for fakes, and I fit right in.
The quiet couple tried each other's food in silence. I suppose 20 years ago, when they first met, they would feed each other bites. Now they can merely reach onto one another's plate and dig in without asking. This is either very sweet or very sad; since I'm making shit up, let's say it is sweet. Let's say that they speak telepathically because they are not of this earth. They are just visiting, and collecting data. Which is a lot like what I do each week, with each new bar. In this week's report to my home planet, I would say that the robots who deliver cow-liquid-based desserts here are efficient. The primitive people in this village seem to revere fire, and create a shrine for it at each entrance. Sleeping quarters are available so that you will never leave. The chairs are designed to keep you sedentary and thus fattened for harvest.
I am the protagonist of the story, of course; the hero. So this means that I will escape unscathed. I will shine the tiny flashlight on my keychain and mesmerize them so that I can slink off.
If this were an Outer Limits episode, I would eventually be sitting comfortably in the pod of my space shuttle, logging the day's events on my Powerbook and hitting "send" with a flourish.