Recruiting for the golden rule toilet paper cult

My Americano comes to $700.

“Whoa,” the barista says. “That’s too much – obvi. I was thinking about something else.”

“No problem. What were you thinking about?”

“This song that’s playing, it sounds like the opening to the most recent Fallout.”

We both pause to listen to the music – a melancholy jazz tune.

“For a minute I was in the game,” she says. “I swear sometimes I look around the real world and I can see it being all post apocalyptic. Like a premonition.”

“Am I still able to get coffee in the post apocalyptic future? And if so, will it cost $700?”

“I think it’ll be kind of a barter system with Wild West rules,” she says.

“So no rules.”

“Basically. You need to team up, bring a skill to the table, you know?”

“I have a plan,” I tell her. “I’ve thought a lot about what skills I can bring to the post apocalyptic future and it comes down to this – cult leader.”


“Oh yes. I’ve got lots of stories, and with a bushy beard and crazy hair I think I can really sell the cult leader thing. Plus, I’ll probably lose my glasses pretty early on in the post apocalyptic future, so I’ll have the mystique of a half-blind spiritual leader.”

“Wow, you have thought about this. I can totally see it. But is it going to be one of those crazy fanatic death cults?”

“Oh no. I’m preaching the golden rule. And mostly we’re about food, shelter, and stockpiling toilet paper.”

“Well, if the shit hits the fan, your cult will have a barista.”

We shake on it.


The cost of the vegan Bánh mì and curry couscous are my responsibility, but my beverage is on the house.

“Thanks! I think you gave me a free drink last time. Very cool.”

“You’re a regular,” says the cashier. “We do this instead of a rewards program.”

“Really? That’s like a policy?”

“Well, it’s my policy,” he says. “Corporate has no idea what’s going on. But here’s the thing: you keep coming back.”

I can’t argue, and why would I? I’m getting free beverages here, man.

“Can I ask you something?” the cashier says.

“Sure. Fire away.”

“Well, you look like a nerd with a kind heart.”

“I like to think that’s mostly true.”

“Can you promise that if you’re going to see Ghost in the Shell, you’ll show some respect and at least watch the original anime first? I mean, the movie will just piss you off, because it’s totally disloyal, and I’m not even talking about casting Scarlett Johansson – I mean that’s messed up – but the whole movie is just like an insult to everything that’s great about the original anime. I could do like an hour on how bad it is.”

“Maybe you should start a vlog.”

“Seriously, you can’t let the movie be your idea of what Ghost in the Shell is supposed to be, because it’s just not that. It’s just not. Like it would be if we gave you a salad and called it a sandwich, and you believed us for some reason, and for the rest of your life you thought sandwiches were lettuce and stuff.”


It’s at this moment that the cashier notices the line forming behind me. He wraps up the transaction without another word about Ghost in the Shell. Maybe it’s the free drink, or perhaps a yearning to live up to someone else’s idea of a kind nerd, but I feel I owe this man something.

A promise is what he wants, but were I to give such a promise it would be hallow; I have no interest in either the movie or its source material. So I offer the next best thing: an endorsement.

“Fellas,” I say to the customers behind me. “Sorry about the wait. This man has some very strong opinions about Ghost in the Shell, and I think you should hear him out.”

“That movie is the shit,” one of the guys says.

The cashier says nothing. With a sheepish farewell, I take my free drink and head for the fountain, leaving behind two fellow patrons who will never qualify for the loyalty program.


The Lyft driver is named Travis. He says he has it all figured out. He’s 22.

“I graduated with a journalism degree,” he explains. “But then I was like: fuck journalism. Because people can’t accept the fact that quality news means you have to pay for it, so journalism is dead.”

“So what’s the plan now?”

“Hollywood,” Travis says. “That’s why I moved here from Kansas.”

“Well, you’re not in Kansas anymore,” I say.

He laughs and compliments me on the Swingers reference, but he doesn’t seem to know that Swingers was referencing The Wizard of Oz, which is a strange detail to miss because Mike and Trent met up with a “Dorothy” after the blackjack fiasco. Whatever.

“So you want to be an actor?”

“No way, man. Do I look like an actor?”

“What’s an actor look like?”

“Chris Hemsworth.”

“Good answer.”

“I want to direct,” Travis says.

“Big blockbuster movies?”

“That’d be cool, but studios are basically dead. It’s all DIY stuff.”

“So you got an idea for a movie?” I ask.

“Yeah, it’s about a Lyft driver who isn’t quite right in the head and he just drives around getting angry at shit, and then eventually he just explodes and shoots someone.”

“I think I’ve seen that movie, Travis. It’s called Taxi Driver.”

“Man, like I told you, it’s about a Lyft driver, because taxis are dead.”

“Just like journalism.”


Opening Day

The man at the bar is pouring his heart out to a guy with a ponytail and a woman in a fur vest. It’s a story of loss and betrayal, but it’s prelude; as he says at the start, “it’s a little background on me.”

Background for what? A business venture, likely a restaurant, based on a prolonged rant regarding “fuck-ups at the scrambled egg station.”

Fur Vest is in, but full disclosure: she’s “bad with money.”

Mr. Ponytail is listening.

Usually, this bar at this hour would be a private venue for such a meeting. But it’s opening day, and so the minutes of this meeting must reflect the following parties:

Two strangers who discover they went to rival high schools.

The man who yells at the ump.

The wife who refuses to share her nachos and the husband who doesn’t think he should have to give up his wings.

The guitar teachers dishing on their students.

The three bros who can’t settle this question: Is Clayton Kershaw the league’s best hitting pitcher, or is he “among” the best?

A writer playing hooky.

Insert PC load letter error reference here

“Fuck this fucking printer! It fucking sucks. Fucking sucks! And I sure as shit don’t need this today! This fucking stupid fuck, fuck, fuck of a fuck fucking PRINTER!”

The woman who screams these words knows my struggle. What she doesn’t know is that yelling these words at the top of your lungs is going to get you tossed from the Studio City library.

“I don’t even want to use this fucking printer anymore!” she shouts at a patient librarian. “I’m never coming to this branch again!”

The woman storms out, and the room exhales.

“She was sitting in your seat earlier,” the woman sitting across from me says. “I’m glad your here instead.”

“Thanks,” I say. “I promise my printer meltdown will be an internal monologue.”

Robot calling

The telemarketer’s dialogue is just a little too precise, and the pauses before her responses are just a little too long.

“Are you a robot?” I ask.

Then in the intervening silence, I
begin a rant about how the robots are taking over, not in a nefarious Skynet sort of way, but in a creeping “we’re here to help” sort of way, one which hinges on automated decision trees and chipper customer service.

“I’m not a robot!” the telemarketer declares. “Why do people always ask that?”

“I don’t know. I think you’re game is just a little too tight.”

“Ok. Well, do you want to save money on your internet, or do you want to waste my time?”



“I want to waste your time,” I say. “But I wouldn’t say this call has been a total waste of time because while I don’t want to save money on my internet, I do think I’ve given you some constructive criticism that will help with your next call.”

“I think you’re right,” she says before hanging up.

Practice, comrade

The call is for a woman I do not know.

“Not me,” I say in my best Russian accent.

“Kim, you owe $1,089 to Victoria’s Secret. Are you able to make a payment?”




“But you owe this money, Kim.”

“Not Kim,” I insist, my accent as thick as it goes.

He calls me a liar.

“I say, NOT Kim.”

He says he’ll play back the tape.

“Da! Tape!”

He hangs up, and I must face the hard truth that my Russian accent needs a lot of work.

Democracy’s surname

I drop off my wife’s mail-in ballot and explain to the poll worker that I also need a ballot.

“No problem,” he says.

But there is a problem.

“She’s Ferguson, you’re Estrin,” he says, sounding confused.

I can’t resist. After five years of marriage, I’ve become hyper-aware of the assumptions strangers make when it comes to gender and surnames. The mailman, hotel clerks, and TSA officers all being prime examples.

“I’m a modern man,” I declare. “I decided to keep my last name, rather than take her last name.”

My joke, my little twist on who should take whose last name sails over the man’s head.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “She’s really your wife?”

His question is irrelevant to voting, but I don’t want to cause any additional confusion at the ballot box, so I decide to clarify the situation in terms a man like this can understand.

“Of course she’s my wife,” I say. “When have you heard of a single man running errands for a woman who isn’t his wife?”

My logical is as flawed as our democracy, and so it’s no surprise at all that the man responds with a knowing smile and a friendly wave toward the ballot box.

Rambling bullshit

I rent, but the man on the phone says he can save me a lot of money on my mortgage.

“Do you know what your interest rate is, Michael?”

“It’s about 84 percent. No 85.”

“Why so much?”

“It’s a complicated story,” I say. “I signed a lot of documents with all the wrong people. It’s one of those adjustable rates, but it goes up whenever certain pro sports teams lose. It may also adjust with the weather, I’m not sure. There was a lot of fine print.”


“I also lost a lot of money investing in energy drinks, you know how that goes.”

“Certainly. Do know what your balance is?”

“A lot. Like hundreds of millions. I don’t have an exact figure.”

“That’s ok. Do you know how much the property is worth?”

“Two million!”

“Ok. We can help you, Michael.”

“Outstanding. I’ve been waiting for this call.”

“Now, it’s just the one mortgage, correct?”

“No, I have eight mortgages.”


“Yes, but they’re all with the same company.”

“So how much do you owe total, counting all eight?”

“Like a billion.”

“A billion against two million?”

“Correct! But I figure if I can refi down to 50 percent and other investments pan out, I should be good.”

“Michael, are you trying to pull my leg?”

“I wouldn’t say I’m trying so much as I’m succeeding.”

“Yes, you got me, Michael. Well done. You have a good day!”

“Talk again soon?”


Extinction event

The telemarketer asks if I’m interested in new floors.

“Thank god you called,” I say. “I need new floors. Bad.”

“Great! Let me tell you about some of our options.”

“Ok, but we should probably talk about the old floors first,” I say.


“So… what I need to know is if the crew you send can pull up the old floor?”

“Oh yes, they can do that.”

“Ok, but here’s the thing. There’s like a lot of stuff on top of the floor.”

“Oh, that’s not problem.”

“But it’s like a lot. And it’s kind of messy. And it smells.”

“What is it?”

“In the living room, I’ve got the carcass of a triceratops.”


“Yeah. And it’s big and it’s smelly. So to be honest, there’s kind of a waste removal job that needs to get done first, and I’m looking for a vendor that can haul this triceratops carcass out of here and then put in a new floor.”

“Hmm… I don’t know if we do waste removal.”

“I understand. But it’s vital that whoever puts in these new floors is prepared to deal with this triceratops carcass, otherwise it just won’t work.”

“Well, I really want your business, sir. Can you stay on the line while I ask?”


She puts the phone aside and calls out to her coworkers. I hear the word “triceratops” followed by laughter. A moment later, she comes back on the line.

“Sir, I don’t believe you have a dinosaur in your living room.”

“What gave it away?”

“Sir, I’m going to hang up because you’re wasting my time.”

“Ok, but for the record, I’m going to hang up first for the exact same reason.”