Custom Screening: It came from the rubbish bin

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From the moment the customs official confiscated my manuka honey at SFO border control to the first time I buried my teeth into the sugary wonderland of my first piece of taffy, the last six months of my American life have yielded endless moments of wonder and discovery. It hasn’t all been easy — I’ve put up with my fair share of hobbit jokes — but I like to think I have accomplished something in this country.

Yet after six months there was one niggly thing that I had not yet conquered. Something that seemingly everyone I met implored me to try — or at least to understand. After coming home from a hard day’s work trying to make myself heard over the telephone (seriously America, did they subtitle “Flight of the Conchords” over here?) I found it waiting for me. It leered — half-eaten out of my rubbish bin — big, cold and beautiful. The famous California In-N-Out Burger.

This moment had two antecedents. One was my first day of work at the Daily Californian. I had just recorded a podcast and was leaving the office when my slipstream (alas, my compulsive Yogurtland habit has ballooned me to a size that creates a slipstream) dislodged an old In-N-Out Burger hat from the bookshelf. My fellow staff educated me on the famous chain — apparently the apotheosis of California’s already formidable contributions to the world of fast food.

The second antecedent was a moment that did not happen, or rather that has yet to happen — that is my flatmates (English for roommate) moving in. For a fortnight now, I have subsisted in a festering wasteland of someone else’s stuff — rotting food, images of the Virgin Mary, candles (again, of the Virgin Mary) and flies of all shapes and sizes. Several of these flies have persisted through so many extermination attempts they have now become rather good friends and patiently listen to me play the clarinet or watch Lars von Trier films with me at ungodly hours.

They are, however, merely a symptom of a greater menace. The real problem is that my co-op apartment’s previous tenants have not moved out … or the next ones have moved in and taken off. I can’t know for sure, because I haven’t seen anyone, or any sign of life — apart from the flies. That is until Monday afternoon, when a half-eaten In-N-Out Burger appeared in the rubbish bin.

My first instinct was to grab it. The previous owner was clearly finished with it. But I hesitated. In the harsh world of the Berkeley Student Cooperative, to eat someone else’s food would be to break the rules and my six months in America had taught me to respect the rules (especially in the Morrison Library).

What if — like the denizens of Camp Ivanhoe in  “Moonrise Kingdom” — my poltergeist flatmates had access to a deadly array to tomahawks, maces and lefty scissors with which to punish my rule breaking? I might be sent off to the hospital with Harvey Keitel! Who knows how long I would last before he inevitably took his clothing off – as he always does? No, now was clearly the time for deliberation and by deliberation, I mean procrastination.

Having been temporarily outwitted by American fast food and my poltergeist flatmates, I decided to confront my growing sense of cultural inadequacy head on and tune into one of the most acclaimed American programs that I had yet to see — “Mad Men”. Now, before you line me up in the headlights of your malfunctioning Jaguar, I have to say in my defense that “Mad Men” never had a stable run on New Zealand television.

Remember, I have a lot of catching up to do.

“Mad Men” was something of a revelation. Not least because it was one of the best hours of my life, but because the episode I watched contained a pretty damn big plot twist that — had I watched the series from the beginning — would have come as quite a shock.

Nevertheless, I found myself moved and enthralled by the twist.  Like the napalm that Don Draper loves so much, the characters tore through my heart. I grew to care deeply about people who not an hour before seemed like complete strangers. The flies loved it too, particularly the scenes with Glenn’s whispy moustache.

This week, Don Draper told the executives of Dow Chemical that “happiness is the thing we get before we want more happiness.” Television operates on the same principal. It has to simultaneously feed us something we want and leave us wanting more. It is simultaneously the illness and the cure. This works on every level, from cliff-hanger ad breaks to the way a season is structured. Television is the only medium that can be enjoyed like this. Or perhaps not, I thought as I remembered the half-eaten burger downstairs. The burger on which I had now staked all my hopes of successfully integrating into American culture.

Now maybe, you thought this column would end by me comparing my newfound ability to watch a TV season more than half-way through with my decision to eat the In-N-Out Burger. I began with that intention. Indeed, I picked up the burger and took several bites before running to the bathroom.

Emerging several pounds lighter, I resolved never to consult the television for advice ever again.  No matter how good “Mad Men” is — no matter what great heights this present season of “Girls,” “Game of Thrones” and E!’s “Mrs. Eastwood and Company” reaches — the greatest thing I learned on Monday was that in spite of all its best attempts, TV will never be just like life. American TV will always make you hungry. And you should never eat a burger from a rubbish bin.