Careless

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What’s with all the dying? said Mrs. U.    Everyone just stop for a few days.  Please.

The day after Christmas, I drove two 20-something girls home from Santa Monica. George Michael was playing on the radio and they jumped right in, singing note for note.  They were careless, happy drunk, with no reason not to be unguarded. They knew the lyrics to “Faith” from memory, even the vocal inflections, which made no sense to me at all as they weren’t even born when the song came out.

Did they work in a dental office?  No.  Did their mothers play the album for them? No, they said.  If they didn’t hear it on the radio a thousand times during high school, how did it reach them? Some songs just achieve critical mass in the elixir of pop culture, and decades later emerge, like a catechism,  from the mouths of babes, without them knowing why.

When we tell someone we love them we remove death’s power to take them away from us. If we sing their songs, they never leave.

My evening began by driving a nice young gay boy to a George Michael tribute party downtown.  “Too early,” he said. It felt exploitative on the part of the club promoter.  Not enough to prevent him from attending, however. All his friends were going to be there.  George had become a recluse because he couldn’t bear people thinking of him as fat, and now all the pretty skinny people were grinding on each other in his honor.

Somewhere in the downslope of his fame George either overdid it or had the usual, but it was a scotch/speedball/fettucini alfredo too far. He was overtaken by his own carelessness. He let himself go.

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This is how easy it is.  Would you park to the right of this sign?  I did, and I read it.

I could take refuge in the excuse the signs give multiple instructions and seem to be saying different things. Or the crucial part, the one indicating hazard, is in shadow. But the truth is, quite plainly there is a line in the ground in Brentwood and if you park to the right of it, your car will be seized. Yet I didn’t see it, even though it was right in front of me, because I wasn’t looking for it.  I was thinking only in terms of two hour parking ending at 6pm, and it was 4:03 and I was already late for my shift and if I parked right there, two minutes from the store, I wouldn’t get a ticket and I could still be within the grace window of timeliness.

My horizon line was short. I was careless.

In 2009 Air France Flight 447 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean while three pilots huddled around the instrument panels ignoring the fact the nose of the plane was too high, it was stalling, and they were losing altitude at a rate of 10,000 feet per minute.  A warning alarm in the cockpit was sounding repeatedly: “STALL…STALL…”   The corrective is simple. Throttle back on the engine and let the plane level off.  Aerodynamics do this naturally.  Yet the plane was pitched upward at a 40 degree angle when it hit the water, engines turning at full throttle.  Any loose items in the cabin would have tumbling down the aisles, passengers would have been screaming, and yet the pilot was pulling back on the controls like Evil Kneivel performing a stunt in Vegas, refusing to believe the instrumentation in front of him.

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Two days after Christmas I walked past this mini-favela on the Raymer Street bridge, and from beneath the folds of improvised habitat a radio was playing and I heard the familiar melody of “Careless Whisper”.  I wondered what role carelessness played in their coming to bivouac at this particular place in the world.

Every dollar I’m going to make driving New Year’s Eve is already spoken for by the tow charges I incurred this week.  But I’ve decided not to look upon it as a $400 exercise in municipal ass-rape.  Maybe it was part of God’s plan. I was being kept off the road that night, because someone else was due to be careless.

Step Into My Headless Uber

Oh c'mon, don't be so uptight

Oh c’mon, what are you waiting for?

This week Uber began Beta-testing driverless cars in San Francisco, without passengers.

“In a challenge to state authority, Uber is refusing to seek a permit for the self-driving cars it rolled out in San Francisco on Wednesday, prompting California regulators to immediately attempt to shut down the program…California defines “autonomous vehicles” as vehicles that can drive without a human operator. Uber says its cars don’t count because they always have a driver behind the wheel ready to take control if the car encounters a situation it can’t navigate. Uber intends to launch driverless cars in the future, but the technology isn’t there yet.”  –San Jose Mercury News.

At a holiday dinner, I asked a teacher of robotics if she would be willing to beta-test a headless Uber without a steering wheel-grabbing back-up driver at the ready.

Her answer was unhesitant: No.

“I know from experience all the things which can go wrong.”  Her husband, an engineer, gallantly offered to play the role of, as he put it, Neil Armstrong.

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I can foresee a driverless long-haul truck on the 405 more readily than a driverless Uber doing pickups on the streets of Los Angeles.  Ride-sharing is a social process. It’s also a very improvisational one. There are few acts behind the wheel more complicated than plucking two drunk people from the corner of Santa Monica and Robertson on a weekend evening.  West Hollywood permits clubs and restaurants, no matter how large, to operate with exactly two parking spaces, one for passenger loading and another for the valet.  The drop-off/pickup process plays out in a gray area of good manners and traffic laws, with cars half in the street, half in the crosswalk, double-parked, texting alternative locations two doors down, driving around the block, waiting for bar tabs to be signed.

In brief: there is no legal method for getting it done without creating gridlock, and that’s when the passengers are behaving well. Improvisation keeps the city flowing.

Enter the Headless Uber.  That sleek grey Volvo with the radar/camera array on the roof is going to proceed exactly to the address entered on the app. A third of the time, the pin drop is on the wrong side of the street, or in the service alley. No matter, Headless Uber is going to the pin and it’s going to stop and wait right there…and wait, in the only available place, the street itself. The only alternative is to circle the block until the single space loading zone in front of Pump opens up. For how long, 10 minutes? Twenty?

It won’t respond to honking, valet parkers waving LED flashlights, outcries of irritation or obscene gestures. With that simple act of traffic obedience, lane one of Santa Monica Blvd. will disappear, from Doheny to La Cienega, so Uber Technologies, Inc. may defend itself from civic injunctions for being a serial traffic scofflaw. Lane two is going to have carry the rest of the thru traffic, the cabs, the limousines, and the old school Ubers manned by second-jobbing drivers doing night work.  The Social Contract in Los Angeles will be put to the test.

And yet!  There will always be early adopters. Techies, men mostly, won’t be able to resist the siren call of new gadgetry.  The same people who paid the equivalent of $5600 for the 128K Macintosh in 1984, with a screen the size of the iPhone 7, pixellated graphics and no applicable real-world functionality… those guys will elbow each other out of the way for a shot at Headless Uber action.

Look at us, we’re Neil Armstrong!

I can think of three wrinkles already.  1) alcohol; 2) irritation with being made to wait; and 3) machismo, fueled by nostalgia for 2015.

Club security ends at the velvet rope. The sidewalk operates by its own rules.  A latent and only half-understood class consciousness will re-assert itself, even though Los Angeles won’t have a name for it.

Call it the Tragedy of The Commons, 2.0.

The House With the Psychic Eye

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I’m writing a story. There’s a house in my head in which the story takes place and it’s sort of ramshackle -pigeons in the eaves, rats in the walls, bars on the windows- but older, with historical texture. An urban squat.  I wanted a picture near my desk that I could use for inspiration.

In my literary imagination there are three people warring over the building, each with a different agenda, each inclined to ruthlessness but for different reasons.

Sunday I tramped around looking for the house and found it down in Pico-Union.

A wooden medallion in the fish scale shake pattern called out to me from a block away, like a third eye peering from the forehead of the dormer.

No sooner did I pull out my camera than a woman in her 60’s came running out of the backyard demanding to know: who I was; who I was working with; why I was taking pictures. She demanded I surrender my Nikon as I had no permission to take pictures of her house.

This happens. My friend Johnny, being short, officious and unobtrusive, can walk right up to people at the Art District brewery and start snapping away with a bazooka-sized lens and no one bats an eye. Me, I come off as  threatening somehow, hulking, a stander of one’s ground.

Through the bars of the metal fence I explained the meaning of public domain. It was not a constructive dialogue. A rights based defense only made her angrier.

Then her manner abruptly changed. She burst into tears.  Her name was Claudia and she was in the middle of a legal drama, she told me.  She’d let a room in the house to a woman who ‘had a necessity’.  Only the woman had stopped paying rent months ago, and had refused to leave.  Legal Aid took up the woman’s case, and now the court had decreed Claudia must pay the woman $18,000 to move out.  As one might surmise from the photo, Claudia didn’t have anything like that sort of money. City officials were poking around the house, doing inspections, demanding repairs she couldn’t afford, citing her for things relating to her ‘illegal unit’, which in her telling was a third bedroom connected to her daughters room by a door with a deadbolt.  Claudia assumed I was another Official Person bringing misery to her door.  She had lived there, a block from the freeway, since 1991.

She asked that I pray for her, and for her ‘tenant’. She apologized for her anger.

I wished her well.  Driving home I had two thoughts.  It is the nature of Los Angeles, no matter how fanciful a plot, reality will get there first, and be more interesting.  Confoundingly, even in its ruination, the house was worth $650,000, according to Zillow.

Then a third thought occurred to me, this morning.

What if everything she told me was a lie?  What if the true owner of the house was chained in the back bedroom and only the cat on the porch railing knew the truth?

A Pitbull Playdate

Oh yeah, ladies....

Oh yeah, ladies….

“Hey. Hey! Hey, is she female?”

“What? Who?”

“Yessss….she’s beaut-ee-fulllll.”

He was already on one knee, stroking Trixie full length, inspecting her build.

“She has to meet Drango. She’s perfect.”

The man whipped out his phone to show me a picture of Drango, his breeding stud.

“Es champ, no?  Champ!”

“That’s not going to happen. Trixie’s fixed.”

“Why’d you do that? What for?”

“She came that way.”

“Es waste! We gotta put em together.  Drango’s brother sold for $10,000. Some Japanese business guy. Balls like grapefruits, this one, eh?”

Trixie stood on her hind legs and wrapped her arms around his waist, licking him slavishly as he arranged her procurement in villainous tones.

“She lucky. Drango’s a fiend.  He has his way with his bitches.”

“I can really tell that about him.”

“He champ. Next dog, you don’t fix so fast, no?  You call me. We make a little money.”

Is spaying reversible? Hmmmm...

Is spaying reversible? Hmmmm…

The Purloined Stairs

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Are we allowed to walk here?  I’m not sure. That gate definitely says no.  For good measure, it also has a lock.

On the other hand, it is temptingly ajar.  Always an invitation to a lifelong marshmallow test defier like myself.

Wait. What’s that at the first landing of the stairs? A 1930’s era city light pole.  Okay, so this is a public right of way. Good to know. Why then, the gate?

Let’s back up.  A half hour earlier, we were in the Cahuenga Pass on our way to the Tree of Wisdom.  Only we couldn’t exit southbound on Barham. The entire off-ramp had been removed, just like the one at Skirball was removed from the 405 last year. Both lead into the hills. Hmmm.

How inviting...

How inviting…

Well…why don’t we just get off at Highland and hike around Whitley Heights instead? Aren’t there a bunch of stairs up in there, just like in Echo Park and Beachwood Canyon?  Yeah, let’s do that!  So here we are, our first stairs.  Up we go…

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WTF?  Who put this here?  Down we retreated….

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Stairway #2.  Looks good!  A slight right turn at the top, and then…

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Seriously? Is this legal?

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Think again, peasant, before breaching the perimeter of Bella Vista Way. Smithers, release the hounds!  Okay. We’re getting the picture.

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Around we wound, up through the graciously appointed Mediterranean village of secreted courtyards of Rudolph Valentino and Jean Harlow, passing four locked stairways, until at the top we came upon The Whitley Terrace Steps.  The one on the map.   Another gate. With a lock.

But, the gate was open….a clear invitation to mock the swells…

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At the bottom, predictably, another gate. Tellingly, it also wasn’t locked.

The message, clearly intended for interlopers from the Valley as well as tourists from Omaha, was you are not allowed to walk here. You are trespassing in someone else’s yard. These stairs, which were built by the City of Los Angeles and are as much a part of the civic infrastructure as Griffith Park are off limits to you. They belong to us now. You know why? Because we put a gate here andno one who works for the city has the integrity balls to tells us to take it down.

Whack-A-Mole

Marissa and Baby

Marisa told me her foot was infected from a spider bite. Shoeless, she gingerly picked her way through the debris. They had two dogs living with them.

Both sides of the freeway were cleared out only a few weeks ago, everyone pushed off of State of California property and onto the railroad tracks (the county’s problem) or onto a tiny patch of ground next to the Roscoe Blvd offramp, two feet from traffic (the City’s problem).  They’ve slowly trickled back, in pairs. Nature abhors a vacuum.

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In the chaos of moving day, there were lost connections.