Gettin’ Jumped

Ready to be a ho

Wanna Lyft?

Thursday night in Studio City, I get a ride request from a 7-11.  A man gets in and asks a familiar question.
“How long have you been driving for Uber?”
“Two years.”
“Really? Me, too.  I’m a driver, also.”
“That makes us veterans. A rare breed.”
“You ever think about driving for Lyft? Cause I can sign you up right now, in ten minutes.”
Wait, what?

We pulled into a parking lot of a bar, and a woman, his supervisor, hopped into the back seat.  She opened a briefcase. They had a Lyft recruitment packet ready to go.

They were brand ambassadors. They seemed to already know who I was. Like how I had partially completed a Lyft application in 2016, that I never followed up on. They were friendly, eager to have me.  Flirtatious, even.

“We can do the vehicle inspection right here in the parking lot, while you download the driver app.”

Suddenly it was happening. I was being jumped. By the rival gang…

They photographed me standing in front of the bar, submitted my background check, gave me my pink trade dress. I was on my way to being a bi-sexual driver, as so many of us are, now.

It explained a few things. Like the generous spike in Uber driver bonuses of late. And the fresh TV ad campaign for Lyft featuring Jeff Bridges and Tilda Swinton.  Los Angeles is the biggest ride share market in the country, and Lyft has steadily been gaining ground.

LA is the misty plain upon which each company is intent on luring the other into a Pickett’s charge.  If there is going to be a defining slaughter, it’s going to happen here.

Much is made of Uber as a tech company, but the technology behind rideshare is easily duplicable. The company owns nothing, not even the infrastructure.  The phones and the cars are the infrastructure.  What Uber owns, and Lyft desires, is the transaction itself, the connective tissue between rider and driver.    This too, if you think about it, could be re-positioned onto a publicly-owned forum that could match drivers and riders, Craigslist-style, or more accurately Waze-style, in real time.

Rider demand is unslakable and growing.  Cheap fares get people off the bus. Fewer working people on the bus means the derelict/normal person ratio becomes less palatable, leading yet more people to get off the bus. More cars on the road mean fewer people want to drive, and more car owners booking ride share.

So the drivers are the whole ball game.  This may sound counter-intuitive. On paper, we’re 1099 peons from Palookaville. We have no collective bargaining rights, no benefits, no employment status. While nearly anyone without a DUI or criminal record can become a driver, in practice very few people do so.  Most who sign up wash out after a few months.  There is an initial gold rush when Uber enters a new market, after which subsequent driver recruitment efforts yield diminishing returns.   In a few years the market is established and pretty much anyone who is going to be a driver is already doing so, or tried it.

A-Fistful-of-Dollars-and-Yojimbo-A-Comparative-Feature

Los Angeles has entered the Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars phase of rideshare.  We’re all smoking cheroots now, trading our services back and forth to rival bands offering no quarter to the other. The money has never been better.   I’m ready to be a ho samurai.  I got my ho shoes samurai sword/six shooter out tonight. I got my pink dress. I’m bisexual, for like, whatever.

Luis, the Stone Cutter

Conundrum

Conundrum

There is so much construction and renovation going on in Los Angeles right now a 50 square foot granite job in Van Nuys qualifies as a nuisance, even if you’re waving cash like a drunken bachelor at a strip club. The normal laws of business are in abeyance when it comes to stone work.

The first contractor to visit told us he was in the middle of a 25 slab bathroom renovation in Pasadena, “but he would squeeze us in”.  Our kitchen was less than a single slab.

Of course we never heard from him again.  We went through a series of estimates ranging from $1100 to $3900, which meant fabricators were making up numbers and hoping suckers would bite.  Mostly, though, people didn’t call us back.

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After some gentle and persistent nagging we manage to prevail upon someone to pick up our slab at the yard. Then we waited for work to begin. And waited.

We were doing dishes in the bathtub.  Our leverage over the stoneworkers, even as paying customers, was effectively zero.

After six weeks the call came. The countertops were arriving in the morning.  The Luises, Juan Luis and Jose Luis, were standing on the porch at 8am.  Our finished pieces were in the back of their truck.

Complications ensued, as they say in comedy.  The biggest of the pieces, the crucial L shaped one,  had an overhang 3/4 of an inch too long.   The cabinet drawers couldn’t open.   Phone calls were made to the shop.  It was suggested I make the countertop 3/4 of an inch higher to accommodate their screw up.  I nixed the idea on principle,  while dreading the idea of the countertop leaving the house, to return to a nuisance pile to be dealt with by the fabricator at a future date, unknown.

After much negotiation in Spanish it was decided Luis (Jose Luis) would resolve the matter on site.

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They set up a table in the driveway, and he went to work, recutting and polishing the overhang in 106 degree heat.  It took four hours in the full sun.   I brought him water and chatted him up while he took breaks.    Turns out we were neighbors.

He lives with his wife and daughter in an apartment on Sherman Way.  He came from El Salvador 14 years ago, and started out sweeping floors at the granite yard.  He swept for three years before they let him use the tools.

Now he cuts and installs stone perpetually.  He doesn’t mind the dust.  He pays $2000 a month in rent and has a 14-year old who has to have the “good shoes”.  He told me it hurts him when she speaks English when she comes home from school.  He doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t partake of drugs. To save money he drives a 2002 Mitsubishi.  Too many Latinos blow their money on cars, and partying on the weekends. “Good for the economy, but bad for us.”  Yet for all his el norte striving, he demands she speak Spanish in the house.

Sometimes other Latinos call him beaner. “Why can’t you speak English?”

In Central America he was picking cucumbers. In Los Angeles he has a trade which puts folding money in his pocket, and a daughter with a phone, surrounded by danger.  “Ai, peligro! Peligro everywhere”.  Spanish is his only hold on her.

Sons of Stone Cutters

Sons of Stone Cutters

Luis finished the edge detail by mid-afternoon. After a moment of suspense, our fancy new Ikea drawers opened with a perfect 1/8 inch of clearance, and with that, our upper-middle class pretentions for our working class stucco box were marginally closer to fruition, courtesy of El Salvador.

After he left I thought of the movie Breaking Away and wondered what would become of his English speaking, shoe-loving daughter.

Tidy, No Tipping

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Henceforth, all ranch houses in Los Angeles shall be vertical.  That’s gonna entail a lot more dusting and mopping.  What to do? Who will we find?  Americans are lazy as f**k.

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Look, someone left a card. There’s an App for everything.

Deep. Detailed. Delightful, like a really good massage.  No tipping required. Now we’re talking.

tidy blondes

They’ll even send a pair of blondes who look like yoga instructors.

Okay, maybe they won’t be blonde.  Maybe not fit, either.  But certified. As a bonus willing to labor tip-free, tidying up all the awkward social contract implications.

I wonder where they live, these non-blonde, non-yoga instructing floor scrubbers?  Two to a room in a dingbat apartment in Van Nuys, probably.

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Whatever happened to the old Van Nuys people?  You know, those dingbat apartment dwellers?   Maybe they moved to the Ozarks.  They should have obtained an education if they wanted to stick around.  They shouldn’t have gotten high.  They shouldn’t have gotten old.  How they gonna clean floors now?

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.

I Harbor Freight

We won't be undersold

This is how the billionaire laughs

Harbor Freight Tools is cheap.  Ridiculously low prices, to quote the company masthead… there were tree pruners to be had for $15. They had a deluxe model with extending arms for those hard to reach branches, $19.95.   No cheapskate, me, I got the deluxe.  There were also 105 piece tool sets to be had to be had for $37.95, but I restrained myself.

The pruner, or lopper as it is sometimes known, is a fairly simple device, utilizing the torque of long handles to create force at the blade point. Useful for branches less than an inch in diameter.  I had a lopper from the Depot which lasted me about five years, until I left it out in the rain and the blades got dull.  There are no moving parts, just a hinge, and crucially, some sort of stay which keeps the handles from fully closing so you don’t smack your knuckles together.

My first clue this was not to be like my old pruners, the tensioner on one side gave out after I twisted on it a little vigorously, making one handle slide out twice as long as the other, unless it was pointed upward at all times. In under a month it joined my war chest of duct tape modified tools made in China.

So yesterday, I’m up on the roof,  dealing with the bougainvillea when -sh*tf**kc**kdamnwhore!- I went knuckle bone to knuckle bone, full force, snipping a branch.  The stay bolt preventing the handles from closing had refused to stay, fell out, to be accurate, and was now hibernating in a heap of feral cat feces and dried bougainvillea leaves fifteen feet below.  Pressing on, grunting, bruising my knuckles with Homer Simpson-esque alacrity, I marveled at how it was possible a tool could disintegrate in one’s hands while being used for the purpose it was made, when the handle, the good one,  disengaged from the shears. Just like that, I was holding a partial lopper in one hand, and a metal rod in the other like a prank victim on hidden camera.  I looked for a loose bolt, threads, anything, but no, the only thing attaching handle to blade was a plastic sleeve fitting.   $19.95, ladies and gentlemen of the jury! The grinning idiot’s price!

I did the manful and useful thing.  I flung it across the yard in a stream of profanity. As I did so, it occurred to me the open blades made the shape of a duck bill, and the duck was laughing at me as it flew into the back fence.  Somewhere in Chengdu the owners of Harmonious Factory of Disposable Goods for American Suckers #27, were enjoying Peking duck around a roaring fireplace, and weighing their money on truck scales, and they were laughing. The scale tenders, girls hand-selected from the villages, were pouring cognac and lighting cigars, and they, too, were laughing, giggling really, in short duck print dresses, while the men perused Beverly Hills property on Zillow.  Ah, ha, ha. Tee, hee, hee. Quack, quack, quack.

China 1, Slack Jawed Yokel 0.

Back in the kitchen… ruminating on the manufacture of craptastic things…I decided blaming the Chinese for being Chinese was a fool’s errand.   Craptastic on an industrial scale is what the Chinese do well.  The sin resides in foisting craptastic on an unsuspecting public.   Now who did that?

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This guy.  Eric Smidt, scion of Harbor Freight Tools, which his father began, I’m sorry to say, as a mail-order business in North Hollywood.  Back in the oughts, Smidt Jr, forced his father out in a palace coup and began Harbor’s viral expansion.    I’ll let Bloomberg News explain it:

“It’s like a money-printing machine,” said Lloyd Greif, founder and CEO of the investment bank Greif & Co. in Los Angeles that specializes in representing entrepreneurs and their companies. “He’s mastered the art of the dividend recap.”

“Smidt’s father, upset by management changes made to re-position Harbor Freight after the 2008 recession, criticized the practice of borrowing to take cash out of the business in a 2010 lawsuit, filed over a decade after he sold his interest to his son. Allan Smidt, who died last year, said Eric Smidt had “dramatically leveraged the company” and enriched himself at its expense. The suit cited a loan in excess of $500 million that “has had serious negative consequences, including inability to keep inventory on shelves.” Interest on the loan, the suit said, was at one point as high as 10 percent.  The elder Smidt accused his son of kicking him off the board of directors and looting Harbor Freight in part to buy the Knoll, a painting for $100 million and a Manhattan apartment for $20 million.”

Dividend recap is accountant-speak for taking cash out of a company today against future earnings. Borrowing from yourself.  If you can keep expanding fast enough you can get away with it.  Until you can’t.

Harbor Freight is opening a new store every three days.

In retrospect, all the clues were there.  The Sepulveda outlet was the equivalent of a pop-up restaurant, impermanent, unadorned, boxes piled on the floor with pricing information on laser printed sheets of paper taped hither and yon.

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His $100 million painting? It’s rumored to be Eight Elvises by Andy Warhol.  I would say artwork and buyer are neatly matched here. Indeed,  artist, subject and patron have achieved something like Chinese harmony.

I feel like a patron of the arts already.

Verisimilitude

There are no streetlights in Baywood.  No sidewalks. The only public light sources are the Alehouse, the Merrimaker and the laundromat.  Locals hear the surf crashing on the sand spit a mile away across the estuary and complain, the way one might complain about the freeway noise back in Los Angeles, where the over/under starts at $100,000 year.

Baywood is where you retreat when LA doesn’t work for you anymore but you want to stay in California. It’s where the life you wanted to have in Van Nuys or Echo Park is re-booted.

L.A. 2.0, on wheels...

L.A. 2.0, now on wheels…

It is where you park your RV in your friends driveway and figure out your next move.  And where you go when you close your bike shop, once named Best in the City by the LA Weekly, after 11 years.

Where you break out the wrenches and drill set, and turn the RV into a mobile bike base camp and solar-powered graphic design suite.   Where you simplify things by designing your own escape pod.

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LA being LA, the bike shop lives on as the filming location for a Netflix escapist fantasy called Flaked.  The show is set in Venice and centered on a guy named Chip who owns a store hawking hand crafted three legged stools of his own design, but has no apparent customers yet manages to stay afloat.  Chip also lives rent-free by the beach and dates women half his age, and spends much of the first season perambulating around Venice on his bicycle, unencumbered by adult responsibilities like a monthly nut, or a business plan.  Flaked, by objective measurement, is not a quality show. The verisimilitude problems are impossible to get beyond. But I binged on it as a secret vice, the way Mrs. U watches the housewife shows. Punching a clock in the Valley, who wouldn’t want to live the life of Chip?

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The world is smaller than we think it is.  Fate not long ago placed one of the Flaked co-stars not named Will Arnett in the backseat of my Uber and he would spend the ride home trying without success to court, Chip-like,  a much younger female passenger. After she exited the car without yielding a number,  he laughed about it with me.  He agreed with my assessment of the show.  The lie it was telling about Los Angeles was his livelihood. He couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious.

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The real life Chip is more more athletic and better looking.   Also un-entitled and self-effacing and responsible. As he packed up his store he found letters to his workers he never sent, some dated five years ago, listing all the reasons he could no longer keep it going. Owning a business is not like a regular job. You cant just flake. He employed 15 people and spent years working with the city to open up bike lanes and paths. Now he loads up on packets at the hamburger stand to take back to the RV as he waits to hear from unemployment. Ask him if he’s bitter and he says no.  He’s put in his time in LA. The only thing he misses about it is being faster than every car on the road when riding his bike.

The trail forward looks like this

The trail out of LA looks like this

 

Exit to Perdition

If you ran into this man at Dodger Stadium would you think for a moment he made his money holding a sign at the 405 off-ramp?

How about when you go to the store? Do you ever think the clerk who helped you pick out a bottle of wine lived in a garage? With a roommate?

People hanging on at the margins of the economy are beginning to occupy the spaces we traditionally understood to be the domain of derelicts.  Cratchit-ville and the Favela are merging.

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.

The People’s Republic of Los Angeles

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We want you to take the bus.  The bus may not be convenient for you, but we want you to take it anyway.

We’re going to encourage teach you to take the bus by taking away car lanes.

But we can’t really admit that. You might exercise your franchise in the next election.

So we’re gonna call you a killer instead.    Yeah you, asshole. What are you thinking, doing 40 on Roscoe? How selfish is that? How many kids are you willing to run over  to get home in under ninety minutes?  Thats what the bus is for.

So we’re going target certain corridors for a diet plan improvement.  Three lanes will telescope into two,  with the predictable back up at the merge. No one will have to be reminded to slow down then.  The decision will have been made for us.  Pedestrians won’t be getting  mushroomed darting across tbe street against the light anymore, they’ll just walk across the hoods of cars like stones in a river. Cause we’ve decided 40 mph is too fast. Its not about you refusing to ride the bus.  Its about the kids.