Friendship, $1 a minute

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This is where we’ve arrived in Los Angeles. Rich people hiring underemployed artists to impersonate friendship, and the artist eager to sell himself in this manner.

are you tired of social media and just want to be social?

do you need a sidekick to help you finish those 10k steps?

some company on the way to your destination? 

an attentive audience?

someone with whom to complain about the general state of things? 

a way to connect with the outdoors?

maybe you want to hear a story on a neighborhood stroll?  

we can talk about whatever you feel like talking about. we can walk however you like to walk.

The paid companion, or lady-in-waiting, has a deep tradition, going back to English court.  It allowed women of a certain class but lacking a dowry proximity to the wealthy and enhanced marriage prospects.  You might meet Maxim de Winter on a cliff in Monte Carlo, and he might make you his nameless second wife.  Then again you might gain the attention of the Earl of Essex and send Queen Elizabeth into such a paroxysm of jealousy she drags you bodily from court by your hair, and has you flogged.

In other words, woman’s work.

But what does woman’s work mean, in an iPhone economy?  Anybody with any sort of personal service to sell can do so formally with the insertion of a Square card reader.  If what you have to sell is empathy, why shouldn’t you?  And if it pays more than your creative endeavor, then you may have little choice.  Man’s work, as it was formerly known, doesn’t pay a dollar minute unless it involves plumbing or electricity or transmission repair.    Therein lies the paradox of higher education.  If there should be a warning label for anyone entering the liberal arts, it would look a whole lot like this flyer, posted by a Yale man.

Knockdown, Improve, Engulf and Devour

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When I park my car on Westgate, I walk past construction sites like these on my way to the store.  Every single storey house north of Montana is getting knocked down upon change of ownership.   Perpetual construction. Multiple job sites on a single block.

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A couple weeks ago I arrived at work to find I had become a reluctant, though inadvertent, villain.  Whole Foods was in the process of evicting the Brentwood newsstand, a neighborhood institution for 28 years, and I was compelled to walk past a picket line to enter the store.

Marck Sarfati, the owner, put on a full court press in the media, deploying celebrity petitioners, and a Holocaust survivor father, whose “survival” depended on the stand’s income.  About his expensive watch and luxury car, nothing was said.

Before it was a Whole Foods, the Brentwood store was once called Mrs. Gooch’s.   There were seven of them in Los Angeles when they were bought out by John Mackey in 1993.  The parking lot, that most prosaic of LA disputed zones, was shared by the store and the stand, and a perpetual sore point of overlapping demand.  Whole Foods had waited years for the lease to expire, and now they were getting the parking spaces back, and there wasn’t nothing Tommy Chong and Dustin Hoffman could do about it.

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So there the drama percolated for a few days, before we discovered Whole Foods had just been devoured, plank and nail, by Lex Luthor for $14 billion. The flagship of organic food and upper-middle class virtue-signaling consumption was now a subsidiary of the largest retail entity in the world. Amazon stock increased $18 billion in value on news of the merger, which meant Jeff Bezos had purchased 432 stores and 91,000 employees for the price of lifting a pinkie finger and cooing: because it’s my birthday Smeagol, and I wants it. 

Walmart killed Main Street (sort of) and now Amazon is killing Walmart. To avoid being overtaken in ten years by a more nimble start-up yet to rise from a Y Combinator confab, Bezos is buying up the premium real estate of retail.

American wealth is moving, inexorably, like metal shavings in a magnetic force field, toward the coasts. In the coastal areas, it is piling up into the canyons, and closer to the beaches, or to higher floors downtown. A winner take all economy concedes nothing to the middle.

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I don’t think Mr. Sarfati is going to be able to keep his newsstand. On the bright side, I have bitchin new Ikea cabinets, and one curious foundling black kitten.

Leaving the 405 Behind

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Mario, heading south

You live in Northridge. Do you vary your commute, or are you a creature of habit?  Sometimes I take Sepulveda on the way home.  It’s longer, but more contemplative. Sometimes the moon is out and you can enjoy it. I love the grandeur of the lights twinkling.

Music in the car, or quiet? Music. I’ll listen to the same piece of music for about a week then change it up.   I ponder where I am in my life, but try not to think about it too much.  I am inclined toward depression, but I don’t take medications. I don’t believe in that.  I jog instead.

Religion? I was raised Buddhist.

Is there a caste system in LA?  Yes, but you can break through it.  Socially, women don’t like to hear you’re from the Valley. There’s a stigma. But I don’t lie about it.

Do you find driving over the hill to wait on wealthy people uncomfortable?  Not really.

You live with your parents, is there any tension over that?  No pressure from my parents. They don’t have a timetable for me.  They understand the cost of housing in LA. I put the pressure on myself.

You’re a jazz musician. I’ve been playing saxophone since I was a kid.  I also really like grappling.  I train at the Gracie Barra gym in Northridge.

What’s your favorite virtue?  Awareness.

What’s you idea of happiness?  I’m still trying to find my own happiness, so I don’t know how to answer that question.

What’s your idea of misery? Misery would be not fulfilling your life’s mission.

To that end, you’re leaving the store. What will you be doing? I’m going to be training a lot more.  In a couple months I’m going to go to Brazil, but I’m not going to fly. I’m going to take the bus through Central America.  I’m going to find my way there.

That’s a very long way from the 405.  That’s as far as you can get, and not get lost.

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.

The Opposite of Bitchitude

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Here is something I’ve been turning over in my mind for awhile: working-class Latinos are the only people who have ever tipped me as an Uber driver.   Tipping is not expected.  Nor hinted at, by me.  It rarely happens, but when it does…its never white people.

How do I know the tippers are working-class? Because I drove them home. The more modest the neighborhood,  the likelier the tip.  In a city as diverse as Los Angeles is seems odd the blessings of gratitude should be so unevenly distributed among its peoples, but there it is.   You save someone an hour on the bus to Huntington Park, or $50 on a cab, or worse,  a potential DUI, they put a couple singles in your hand and thank you for delivering them safely.  It’s a learned behavior.

These are my happiest rides, and it’s not the money.

Latinas are chatty.  They sit up front, they want to know all about you. If she’s going to Pacoima, she will find out you live in Van Nuys and this is your last ride of the night, and she knows implicitly there will be no 30 minute dead-head return home.

“How serendipitous for you.”

You speak of your shared joy of multi-syallbic words. She tells you her brown family never played Scrabble when she growing up, they played Sorry!, but she understood, even as a kid, it was a first-generational thing.   When her son is old enough, she’s going to make him play Words With Friends as a condition of having a phone. She’s also going to be open with him about sex, in all the ways her parents weren’t,  when he’s old enough to ask.

Or she’ll tell you she was born in Nicaragua and lived her whole life in Cudahy and her favorite musician is Toby Keith.  “I should have been born white trash,” she laughs, as you weave like a tank through street fireworks in Boyle Heights on Fourth of July. ‘”I don’t care if all my friends think I’m a redneck.  Every country song has a story.”

Or she’ll talk about her commute, or her worst customer of the week,  or the worst date she ever had, or why she came back to the church.

Polite, always polite, even when intoxicated. Like their parents beat it into them.

We’re living out Uber as the ride-share it was meant to be and not the discount limo in Prius form it has become.  In a city of a dozen dialects, shift work is the common tongue. They’re just getting off theirs, I’m in the middle of mine. In recognition, there is empathy.

As California inches ever closer to becoming Downton Abbey on the Pacific, there will be a growing class of people with no knowledge of work, as it has been historically understood. Or have any need to work at all.  Or living on the dole. Then there will always be a much larger population which does nothing but grind out a paycheck.  Then there is a billionaire in San Francisco who tells the customers not to tip the driver, the tip is already included.

Proving truth can be more ironic than fiction, the billionaire grew up in the Valley.

I don’t know how this is all going to play out, or how much longer the center will hold. Recently Finder.com created a profile of the “average Californian”, drawn from statistical databases. Turns out she’s Latina, lives in Koreatown, works in retail, and commutes 28 miles a day.  That should give us all a little hope.

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The woman in the picture hasn’t been one of my riders, but she does take Uber from time to time.  I work with her during the day.  She also lives in K-town. Adding another layer of historical irony, she was born in the wake of Prop. 187.  Now she assists the grasping women of Brentwood in obtaining cage-free, nitrate-free, non-GMO gourmet food items.

I asked her if she would appear on a reality show if it meant she could quit her day job.  

Nah.

Not even if it meant never having to punch a clock again? Ever?

“Nope, it’s just not appealing.”

Her mama raised her right.

Made in Mexico*

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Nothing gets done in this city without a Mexican, people are fond of saying by way of explanation Why Things Are.  By people, I mean those who who are on the vertical side of the capital/labor equation.

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People who live here, for example.   Why should they have to bend over and pick up their socks in the morning?   There are Mexicans* for that.  They’re everywhere. Abundant and cheap.

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They don white aprons and fetch things for us.  Who knows where they live?  We summon them, and they appear. Why shouldn’t it be this way? Wasn’t it always like this?

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Don’t they have houses in the Valley, or something?

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Or apartments, of some kind?  Seriously, I don’t see the issue. Americans don’t want to do these jobs.

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No, I don’t know what happened to the people who use to live in those apartments…I don’t know where they went.

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They probably went back to Oklahoma, or something.  It’s the natural order of things.

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Hey, have you been to the new Whole Foods 365 in Silver Lake?  Talk about abundance.  Unfortunately, there are really long lines…

The MILF Hunters

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She was about 28, Latina, packed into a short dress. He was in his late 40’s, balding.  They were going to Manhattan Beach, ‘Milf hunting’, she announced, as they climbed into my Uber.

She had taken on the role of ringmaster for the evening, squirming in his lap as she explained the rules to him.

“Number one, Milfs like to be petted.”

“They do?  How exactly?”

“Two fingers. Stroke her hair.  They like to be touched. But not too hard.”

“Are three fingers too many?”

“Five are too many. That’s aggressive.  Rule Number Two: avoid anyone dressed in red. They’re batshit crazy.”

“What about bright colors?”

“Seriously, no. It’s nature’s way of warning you of danger. Number three, I’ll signal you.  If I go like this: (playing with necklace) that means you have ten minutes to close the deal.  If I go like this: (flips hair) it means yes. If I rub my belly, it means I’m ready to go home.  Basically, the lower I go, the crazier I think she is.”

“Got it.”

On the freeway, her phone rang.  She was not pleased. “Why are you calling?….none of your business….why are you going into my computer?…there’s nothing there for you….nothing….I’ll be there when I get there. Don’t call.”

Turning to her companion, she breathily told him, “he’s really obsessed with you.”

The phone call provided some kind of accelerant to the purpose of their evening. The conversation trailed off into wet, smacking kissing sounds for the remainder of the ride.  Who she was to him and who the caller was to her, and how the Milfs fit into it remained a mystery, but I was entertained.

It also occurred to me my marriage was distressingly stable and predictable.

On Sunday we went to Chibiscus for noodles. Obeying an impulse, I publicly violated the Two-Finger Rule with Mrs. UpintheValley.  Cupping her face in my palm, she responded with something tantalizingly akin to submissive purring.  Perhaps the Milf hunters were on to something.

“Darling, I’m so happy….my ramen is here.”

And on that note, two bowls appeared before us, and we commenced to supper.

Jakarta Twilight

Still life, with PTSD

Still life, with PTSD

I work the closing shift, which means I get to drive over the 405 in the middle of the afternoon, and return to the Valley at 10:30 pm. On a good day, Brentwood to Van Nuys in under 12 minutes, if I hit all the lights. I’m one of the few people in LA who loves his commute.  Like an idiot, I’ve tempted fate by saying this aloud.

Yesterday, I had to go to work early, which means I left early, which means I joined the tail end of the normal commuter flow, with everybody else.  How bad could it be?

Lets put it this way: at seven thirty, I was on Barrington,  four cars away from Sunset Blvd, looking out the window at this beautiful vintage gas station framed in milky twilight, and in a very civil mood. Off early! I could go to the gym!  Perhaps Mrs. UpintheValley was still awake and could be had for the price of a foot rub!  No tired lion, me. All possibilities were on the table.

At eight o’clock, darkness had fallen, and I was still next to the same gas station, on the Sunset side, and I was plotting revenge against everyone who ever wronged me.

The stoplight would cycle through, and nobody would move.  This didn’t dissuade anyone entering from side streets inserting the nose of their car into the scrum.  Unhappy honkings all around…random, pointless, like steer lowing in a slaughterhouse pen.

I thought of Joe Gillis evading the repo men in the opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard, and how comically unrealistic that would play now.  When much of LA was laid out, traffic signals looked like this:

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Gas stations looked like movie palaces and Westwood Village looked like this.

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K-Town looked like this. That’s Oasis Church on the right.  It is now one of the shorter buildings on Wilshire Blvd.  Add three million people to this picture and take away the Pacific Electric Red Car.  That’s where we find ourselves today, scurrying to rebuild the public transportation we once had.    A bus and rail line for the working poor, slumped over in their seats, ear buds on, locked into their own podcasts, dreaming of the day they’ll be able to afford a car of their own.  And a house in Van Nuys.

It took me an hour to reach the freeway. That’s .25 mph.  Point two-five! The full Jakarta…

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When I entered Macleod, they were playing traditional Irish songs and ballads.  iPads were used in place of sheet music,  I couldn’t help noticing. Here, two centuries were working to shared advantage.  I ordered a Better Days ale. Beer has rarely tasted so good.