“Beds is tilting at the windmills of fatuity again”

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

My birthday falls the week before Thanksgiving every year. For most of my life that meant a lot of giving thanks in a very short time. But I’m reaching the age now at which the two events pretty much cancel each other out.

The big birthday decisions are less about bicycles and baseball gloves and more about dermatology appointments and dentistry options. And somehow Thanksgiving isn’t quite the same when your list of things to be thankful for starts with Flomax and a great cardiologist.

I’m also starting to feel pressure to develop some wisdom. That’s what old dudes are supposed to do, right?  Develop and dispense wisdom.

But my own epiphany has yet to occur. No flaming shrubberies or celestial lights or buried plates yet. I’m not aware of being a whole lot wiser this year than I was last year.(1)

I’m a little less likely to slam a car door on my fingers or propose marriage to a stripper, I suppose. I guess that’s a measurable improvement, but I’d really been hoping for something a little more . . . I don’t know . . . dramatic. Maybe even Cosbyesque. I thought by this time in my life I’d be speaking in aphorisms, and my children would be marveling at my sagacity.

Instead, I find myself increasingly unable to comprehend the world around me. When my dashboard lit up like the Ginza on New Year’s Eve last week I was afraid to drive it any farther because 1) the owner’s manual said not to; 2) I no longer understand any of the machinery under my hood; and 3) well . . . because it looked like the Ginza on New Year’s, for crying out loud.  

When I got to the dealership, it was explained to me that the converter pump was shot. “What,” I asked, “is a converter pump?” And the answer, so help me, delivered by a condescending young man who probably had never even seen a carburetor, was, “Well, you know how a water pump works . . .?”

I said, “Yeah, so this is the same thing only it pumps converters?” He did not go home that night and tell his family he had met a wise man.

Crotchety, maybe. He might have gone home and described his encounter with the crotchety man. My life’s journey seems to have turned down the crotchety fork instead of the sagacious and insightful fork.

Which is perhaps why I did not react well to the story in the Los Angeles Times headlined, “Gang Reportedly Kills for Body Fat.”

Well, hell.

I’ve spent most of my life willing to kill to AVOID body fat, and now the younger members of my species have turned it into a commodity and are killing to ACQUIRE it.

Specifically, these would be the younger, Peruvian, criminal members of my species. According to the BBC, “Four people have been arrested in Peru on suspicion of killing dozens of people in order to sell their fat and tissue for cosmetic uses in Europe.”(2)

Come on. Really? Body fat?

There are Europeans willing to pay big money to get vats of body fat to use in cosmetics? Can’t be! This isn’t a news story, it’s a bad James Bond movie. 

But the Associated Press has photos of bottles full of yellow liquid they say police seized from the murderers. It quotes Peruvian authorities as saying the stuff goes for $60,000 a gallon on the black market.  

Black market? Are you kidding me? How can there be a black market? Folks are paying cosmetic surgeons trashbags full of money every day to suck this stuff out of their bodies and throw it away.  

How can there be anybody out there willing to buy it on the black market when all they have to do is hang out behind a Newport Beach medical office with a pickup truck and a few buckets?(3)

Somebody tell these European cosmetics folks to skip those unsavory Peruvian lipotraffickers and deal with me instead. You could fill a lot of wrinkles(4) by reducing my waist size a few inches.(5) 

I guarantee I’d be willing to lop a few bucks off that 60K a gallon asking price. And if I keep eating like I did on my birthday and Thanksgiving, I’ll be able to deal in volume. 

Medical authorities are expressing skepticism. They have as much trouble as I do trying to comprehend these allegations. The AP quotes a Yale University dermatology professor, Dr. Lisa Donofrio, as saying that “a small market may exist for ‘human fat extracts’ to keep the skin supple, but scientifically such treatments are ‘pure baloney’.”  

I hope she’s right. I’d be greatly reassured to find out there are crooks on both ends of this operation. I’d hate to think Max Factor and Elizabeth Arden are holed up in Transylvania somewhere making anti-wrinkle gunk out of human body fat. But scientifically sound or not, according to the Peruvian crooks, somebody’s buying this stuff.

“At a news conference, police showed reporters two bottles of fat recovered from the suspects and a photo of the rotting head of a 27-year-old male victim. Suspect Elmer(6) Segundo(7) Castillejos, 29, led police to the head, recovered in a coca-growing valley last month.”

So if I understand this correctly, the Peruvian thugs running this little racket chose it because it appeared more lucrative than coca production. I don’t know, hard as it is for me to get my head around the idea that somewhere out there people are buying human body fat, when a criminal gang gives up cocaine trafficking for something else, especially something as – to use the technical legal term – yecchy as human fat trafficking, there has to be some money in it.   

It’s been my experience that murders are seldom committed “on spec.” Murderers generally either plan to put the killing to work for their own ends or already have a buyer.

So, while Professor Donofrio and I are completely flummoxed by the idea there could be a black market for this stuff, it’s hard to argue with severed heads, bottles of body fat, and confessions from guys named Elmer.

But the kicker for me is the name the police have given the body fat traffickers. They call them pishtacos.(8)

And why do they call them pishtacos, you ask?(9) According to the Associated Press, it’s because “that was the name given in Peruvian myth, dating to pre-Columbian times, of men who killed to extract body fat.”

Say what? Peru has a myth about people doing this that goes back a half dozen centuries or so?  

That’s just creepy. They were rendering their fellow man into tallow before they knew there was a Europe, much less a European cosmetics industry.

That’s enough for me. I’m crossing Macchu Picchu off my bucket list. At least until I’ve lost a few pounds.

Wisdom may be beyond me, but I have a nice handle on the whole self-preservation thing.

(1)  Just my luck to live in a culture that distinguishes between a wise guy and a wise man.
(2) I went to the BBC because I was convinced this story could not be for real. I figured someone at The Times was winning a bet by proving his editor never reads what the reporters submit and would print anything. Turns out it’s as real as a converter pump.
(3) Although you would have to be a little careful: Driving a pickup truck in Newport Beach would almost certainly be considered probable cause for a search.
(4) Honest. That’s what they’re supposedly using this stuff for. What’s next, gladiators and chariot races?
(5) I said I was willing to KILL to avoid body fat; I did not say I was willing to try diet and exercise.
(6) Elmer? People in Peru name their children Elmer?
(7) Yes, the confessed murderer was named El Segundo. Do you begin to see why I was so convinced this was all a joke until I found BBC confirmation of it?
(8) Which came perilously close to causing me to abandon one of my favorite Laguna Beach hangouts, Wahoo’s, until I realized the first letter was a “p” rather than an “f.”
(9) Go ahead, ask. You’ll get finished quicker if you don’t resist.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted via email at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.