If You Want To Be A Bird….

The Bird scooter, recently ubiquitous on the Westside.  You book one like an Uber, find it on your GPS, ride it to your destination, or until you get bored, or until the battery runs out, then you leave it on the sidewalk. Then the next rider hops on.  A lotus eaters version of the Russian Army in Stalingrad sharing the rifles.

The future of rideshare in Los Angeles?  I guess we’ll know Van Nuys has truly arrived when the Bird gets here.  Or we’ll know the Bird has truly arrived when it reaches Van Nuys.

Like, for example, the Barbie PowerWheels SUV with 12-volt motor, speakers, and faux leather seats.  This is the status and consumption marking kind of thing we love in girl-centric suburban America.

Until the older brother gets ahold of it and strips the drivetrain trying to spin donuts in the driveway.  Then he and his friends throw it into the Pacoima Wash to rid themselves of the evidence.

All  brightly colored plastic shiny things wind up in the Wash eventually, to be reclaimed and repurposed by the Favela.  Grab and go.  Leave it anywhere. Someone will be by soon enough.

Son of Carnage

There are no boundaries between them. She pushes him around the store in a stroller he’s two years too big for.    He grabs everything he can reach and throws it to the floor and she exclaims theatrically as though he hadn’t unveiled the same delighted gesture the day before.  She basks in the attention while brown-skinned people drop to their knees and attend to his mess.

She deputizes the floor cleaners into her circle of conversation as though they were a paying audience for her one-woman performance art show.  There are no class distinctions acknowledged in Brentwood, just people with nametags who can be pressed into service as loyal family servants but to whom there are no reciprocal obligations.

The boy shrieks and reaches for new things to topple, for levers to yank, for containers to spill.  He has worlds to conquer and a mother who needs drama.

“Look Nikolas, you’ve created an album cover.”

Barbed Wire, Bougainvillea and a Box of Bees

Van Nuys, simplified: Nature and utility at war.  Beauty is forever encroaching upon blight here.

Inscrutable dogs park their disembodied heads atop concrete block walls and stare at us as we walk past.

Funghi popcorns from tree bark to announce an early spring.

…and people leave their bees nests in a box by the sidewalk.

The bees don’t stay in the box, believe it or not.  They move five feet to the utility pole, and begin a new hive.  They wiggle furiously into the seams. Unless I’m mistaken, these are honey bees, a diminishing natural resource. Are they queen-less now? Will they survive to re-pollinate the neighborhood, or collapse?

In Van Nuys we say ‘meh’ to nature, and nature ignores our indifference in return.

Justin and Tariq

In three thousand rides, I’ve never kicked anyone out of my Uber.  I carry no weapons, no pepper spray, not even a strobing LED penlight, like the bouncers use to disorient testosterone-raging patrons. I have no dash cam.

Perhaps I’m shooting dice with fate. Or just rather blessed. Or possessed of a sublimely American faith in my fellow man. But I drive bareback, and so far it has served me well.

No man has tried to grab my steering wheel while driving on the freeway, praise Jesus, on the 110, down in the luge run south of USC, at late-night velocity. Can you imagine the sphincter-clenching craziness?

Women break the rules in rideshare, not men. Because they can.  They jump over the back seat to engage you in conversation.  They shriek in the middle of chaotic intersections, posing for selfies. They demand to be taken to the Taco Bell drive-thru. They put their hand on your arm, and say “you think I’m pretty, right? Right?”  

They fall asleep with their dress hiked over their hips, and don’t respond when you tell them they’re home, leaving you to decide whether to ‘nudge’ them awake, with all the potential liability that might entail.  They grab the aux cord and volume control and play their jams.  They stand with the door open, talking with their friends, causing traffic jams in front of nightclubs. They refuse to leave the car.   They overshare. They interrogate you with intimately personal questions.

None of them have reached for the wheel, however.  Deep in the limbic brain, they know not to.

So what to make of tragic, doe-eyed, all-American Justin Lavelle cruelly ejected from a Lyft on the Harbor Freeway by swarthy, villainous Tariq Rasheed, after being pepper-sprayed (allegedly) because he grabbed the steering wheel (allegedly) while having a panic attack, which he was prone to, though there is no way of knowing he was actually having at that moment?  Justin was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking along the shoulder, sobbing on the phone (also allegedly) with his mother in Virginia.

Who could do such a monstrous thing?   Would I?  Perhaps I might.

A 1 am ride from WeHo to Long Beach is a big, big moneymaker for a driver.  You have distance, plus a late-night bonus of 50-60%, plus open roads. One can earn an easy $50 in half an hour, and still have time to make it back downtown for last call. Rides like that make driving profitable.

It would take an extraordinary provocation to cut it short.

“I couldn’t move the steering wheel an inch. I could have died. I had no choice but to save my life”.

Only the two of them know why this ride went south in a hurry. Justin, sitting in the passenger seat, called his boyfriend to complain the driver wanted to drop him off.  A three-way argument ensued, then Justin “held” the wheel (twice, allegedly), forcing Tariq to continue on to Long Beach, rather than taking an off-ramp.  Bad idea.   That’s how you end up walking along the freeway shoulder, wiping pepper spray out of your eyes.

This is how far he had to walk.  Stay well to the right of the white line, and you’ll be okay.  So why didn’t he?  The mystery of human behavior is revealed in danger.

David Madson, Andrew Cunanan’s second murder victim,  watched as he murder his lover, Jeffrey Trail, in his apartment. Then he rode round with him in a truck for several days.  Given a number of opportunities, he didn’t attempt to escape. Friends of David saw him with Andrew, walking the dog, but he made no outcry for help.    Perhaps he was hoping, when the moment came, he could talk his way out of it. Watching the Versace miniseries, we root for him to slip away, but we know he won’t.     He was executed in a lonely spot by a lake where he allowed his captor to take him.  Don’t Be A Victim 101 says: never let someone else remove you to a remote location. Don’t relinquish authority over your destination. Don’t let them take the wheel.  Fight or flight begins there.

The circumstances in these two cases couldn’t be more different.  Intoxicated he may have been, Justin’s desire was to get to Long Beach. Tariq’s desire was to get home to his two sons.  He had no margin for error.  There begins the tragedy.

The driver of the death car, the person who didn’t stop? Now he’s in a fight or flight with his own conscience.   That’s a longer, stickier narrative.

Last Empty Lot in Van Nuys

Not quite, but almost.  At the current pace of redevelopment there won’t be a single weedy lot left, not one orphaned tree marooned between apartment buildings, bereft and wishing for the company of crows, the itchy scrape of feral cats.

Sprawl has flipped on its side and moves on a vertical axis now. Down two stories for the parking, then up four for the apartments. Four being the height limit for non-treated wood frame construction in LA.   This right here used to be the infamous Voyager Motel, which perished in a “fire” two years ago and is being replaced with a 160-unit building. Either it is going to be steel frame or the right people got greased, because the renderings indicate a structure six stories tall.