Leaving the 405 Behind

Mario

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.

Feel Free…

To take your dog's poop home with you

…to take your dog’s poop home with you

To smoke heroin at the car wash

Or to smoke heroin at the car wash…

To waste away before an indifferent public

…and waste away before an indifferent public.

Our parallel worlds:  Civility in the neighborhood, enforced by gentle pleas and social shaming; feral disorder on the boulevard.

A state of nature and an oasis of calm separated by a distance as short as a frisbee toss.

The blessings of freedom may be enshrined in the Constitution but are enjoyed differently, depending on how you feel about personal responsibility and whether you act on it.

Would a billboard which read: “Feel free to smoke crack elsewhere” have a salutary effect? How about “Smoke faster, get it over with”?  Or “God loves you and wants you to be sober”?

Mark Zuckerberg has called for a universal basic income, welfare for all, offered unconditionally.  The rise of artificial intelligence and robotics will, as a matter of technological determinism, eliminate many jobs currently held by Americans.  A UBI would preserve the Social Contract. “So that we may have roles we find meaningful…and that everyone may have a cushion to try new ideas.”

Would it?  If you were told you didnt need to go to work tomorrow because you were being replaced by a seven-armed anthropomorphic device wirelessly operated from a server farm,  but not to worry,  your paychecks will keep coming courtesy of the US government,  unto death, what would you do with your time?

“I’d go surfing every day,” said my coworker, when I put the question to him. “I’d surf and I’d bake and I’d take pictures.”  And why shouldn’t he? It would be free.

But for how long could this immunity from labor be sustained?  Binge watching Netflix might not feel like freedom after awhile.  One might begin to miss the leash. The UBI people may begin to envy the clock punchers.  Jobs might be hoarded like property, to be passed on to heirs like a family estate.  Because we’ll all be compelled to remove moral judgements about idleness (robotics!) anger will be misdirected everywhere.

We might drive up Sepulveda looking at the guys smoking heroin at the car wash and think….those aren’t derelicts, they’re Early Adopters.

1099-Miscellaneous

It is possible in Los Angeles to list your apartment on AirBnB on Friday afternoon, crash with friends or lovers until Monday morning, pocket the cash flow, and in the right sort of neighborhood prize the rent without a day job.  That’s one kind of gig.

There’s an app you can use to clean the place and handle the next booking for you.  That’s a gig for the cleaners.  Also, the bookers.

If the guests can get hungry, they can scroll through their phone, and someone will shop for them, then dash to the door with food. That’s a gig for the dashers.

If your guest gets bored she can press a button on her phone and a car will arrive at the door in minutes and take her to the club. Driver gig.  Or side hustle, to borrow the corporate sales pitch.

Her boyfriend can beg off, stay in the house and go online.  “Take off your underwear,” he can text, and somewhere on the other side of the city or the planet a woman will remove her underwear, slowly, to keep the meter running.  The sharing economy, in action.

More of us are working, but fewer us are employed.  Our world is rounded in 1099 forms.

Uber has been extraordinarily good to me. So good I don’t have to consider renting a room in our house on AirBnB.   Everyone knows what it’s doing to the taxi business. Few know Uber has become so ubiquitous in the past two years it has displaced rental cars as the most commonly utilized ground transportation, even among corporate clients.  Last week Hertz disclosed massive losses, and may default on its bond debt.  Its fleet of aging cars are flooding the after-market. The inventory spike will put pressure on the dealerships to unload inventory, which makes for a buying opportunity if you want a new car to drive for Uber.

Whole Foods has been good to me, but its formerly dominant position in organic foods is under extraordinary price pressure from all sides and it may not survive another two years in its current form.   Uber has been selling rides at a loss  since arriving in LA, with no plans to stop doing so.  Amazon and Etsy are slowly strangling Fashion Square.   On the other hand, the Century City mall is expanding, upscale.  Our economy is bifurcating into hyper-luxury and dollar stores. Concierge service or waiting at bus stops with street people. UberPool is getting cheap enough to displace Metro riders. Soon, perhaps only derelicts will ride the bus.

Steve Jobs’ bicycle has democratized capitalism.  It means MacLeod Ale can rise out of an auto repair shop, find a clientele, and prosper where retail never could. It also means 100 people are simultaneously gripped by the same fever dream of selling biscotti made from their kitchen. Ninety-nine of them end in tears.  But they can console themselves by renting out the spare room.  Unless there isn’t one. Then they make themselves scarce while tourists cavort in their bed and rifle their drawers.

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It’s an extraordinary time to be grinding out a living in Los Angeles. Unless you’re not.

Perhaps we should hedge our bets, like my friend Johnny.

Young John and Elias

John Connor in the wash

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Boys move to uncharted spaces by instinct.  The first step to manhood is leaving your yard alone.   We map the world beyond our parents command first by foot, then by bicycle.

What is this strange world, we ask ourselves.  How far can I go? How high? How fast? Who am I? What is my nature?

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The channels of  the LA River are an imperfect playground for boys, yet irresistible for that very reason. There is communion with frogs and other strange fauna down in the wash, and the call to adventure along new pathways. The wash liberates one from the street grid.    There is refuge from cars, and in the quiet, unique sounds.   An alternative transportation corridor connecting neighborhoods, an in doing so a place of escape unto itself. A bridge to Terabithia in the middle of the Valley.

On Feb. 17, 14-year-old Elias Rodriguez disappeared on his way home from school.  The local TV news took up his cause and the city posted a $50,000 reward for his return.  A tipline was was established. Foul play theories were entertained.

Two weeks later his battered body was found 20 nautical miles away, on a sand spit in the Glendale Narrows, dragged there by storm waters.  He tried to cross the Pacoima Wash on foot in a rainstorm and paid with his life.  Glen Oaks Boulevard was three blocks away, civic minders were quick to point out, he could have safely crossed the wash there. Let this be a teachable moment.

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Well, sure, if you enjoy GMC Yukons whipping past you at 50mph, three abreast, stray dogs and bicyclists be damned, that sort of advice makes sense. This is not how boys think. The straight line to Elias’ grandmother’s house takes him through the hole in the chain link fence behind the Cesar Chavez Learning Academy, across the wash and up onto 7th st.  It was a route he had taken before.  Kids from the school who lived in the neighborhood took it all the time, on the down low.

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That we should have miles of pre-paved walking and bike trails off-limits to the public, is a failure of civic imagination.  Fencing it off with chain link and putting up hazard signs and pretending this will save the life of a boy like Elias is insulting.   The least we could do is build a pedestrian bridge from the school to the neighborhood it serves. But that would entail admitting the alternative to the street grid exists.

If storm water was rising a bit more rapidly than Elias was expecting, once he descended the embankment reversing course would feel like a kind of defeat.  You do what makes sense in boyworld: draw from the well of courage, make a dash for it and hope your footing holds.

That’s would I have done. I look at Elias Rodriguez at 14 and think: that was me. (Was? You still do stupid manchild bulls*** all the time -Mrs. UpintheValley)  This is trueI love climbing trees, bushwhacking, walking the railroad tracks and into the dark underbrush of the Favela.  That it is forbidden only adds to the appeal.

In The Terminator trilogy,  the savior of mankind turns out to be a boy from the San Fernando Valley. Savor that for a moment. Heroic efforts are undertaken in the Old Testament of the first film to save his mother, Sarah, merely so John Connor can be born.  T2 begins with 14-year-old John fleeing a Herod-like death sentence carried out by the shape-shifting T1000.

What does John do? He gets on his bike, and eludes his executioner by pedaling down into the storm channels of the LA river.  This is a world he understands because he’s been down there before.   By design, a natural pathway of escape from a pursuing truck.   A world where a boy might seek advantage.

Elias journey

John Connor had Arnold Schwarzenegger to rescue him.  There was no such deus ex machina for Elias.  Once he lost his grip, the stormwater would have been moving at a good clip. There is the possibility he was knocked unconscious early in his journey. This would be a mercy. For the first three miles, the slopes of the wash are at 45 degrees, and there would be hope even a poor swimmer could grab hold of something and climb out.  Once it merges with the Tujunga Wash, the sides go completely vertical, twelve feet high, a true storm channel, a veritable freeway of water. The odds of escape under one’s own power would fall to zero.   Down and down you would go, past Grace Community Church, and Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles, past CBS and Warner Bros and past the Zoo you went to on school field trips.  You would bob like a cork within a shouting distance of hundreds of houses, you would pass beneath street crossings with cars visible to you, windshield wipers flicking madly, deaf to your cries. You would skid and roll and bounce past the private riverfront esplanades of Studio City, and wish for the superpower of Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, to elongate your arms like rubber, to grab hold of some kind of railing, and pull yourself free. To arrive soaking, bruised and bedraggled at the patio door of the nearest house and ask to use the phone to call your mother.  But that only happens in comic books and movies.

This is how we're made

This is how we’re made

Isn’t this an argument for higher fences and greater restrictions on ingress to the river system? No, the opposite.  We lose one or two boys a year to the storm channel. We lose dozens to hit and run drivers on the boulevards of LA.  The River should not be a place of danger, but of exploration.  We’re dealing with human nature.  If there is no boyhood to be had in the Valley now, there will be diminished manhood in ten years, even less in twenty.  The answer isn’t more time in front of a screen.

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Spinning for Cash

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“Most people won’t consider doing it, because of the robe. They think it’s undignified, but it doesn’t bother me. Money is money.  I was really sore after my first day. Once I had calluses on my hands it got better.”

The term of art the advertisement industry deploys for such work is human directional. Amado gets a $700 bonus if he can make it to April 15.   He rides the bus from ‘the city’ to flip the sign on Van Nuys Blvd.  

His other job is at a convenience store.

Surcharges and Grace

Why optional?

The muddy waters of “optional”

Karl Strauss, a mid-major brewery out of San Diego, has a new branch pub in DTLA. Interesting beer, if not quite as fresh, or as sublimely complex as at MacLeod.  Good happy hour pricing.   Nice appetizer plates. Terrific service. Also, as Mrs. U and I were to discover, surcharges. Related to labor. Which are optional. Confused?

Lemme back up.  We knew about the surcharges in advance because they were referenced in the Yelp reviews.  Those who referenced them were outraged.   As in: “You should not pay it or even go here. I have never seen this kind of unethical business practice before and you should NOT visit here.  -Bo L.”  As in:  “there is a 2 dollar charge on our tab for some sort of minimum wage increase bs story our server told us about which we highly disagreed with so we took it out of the tip, that’s not cool. -Erik D.”

Over our beer flight, we talked about it with our server who explained it was due to the Los Angeles minimum wage going up Jan. 1. Instead of raising prices on food and beer (and purchasing new menus), and to keep the prices uniform across the other seven pubs in SoCal, they were adding a 3% surcharge. But, she assured us, we could talk to the manager if we wanted it removed.  Hello?

No, we said. If it’s going to wages, we’re happy to pay it.   Who would refuse to pay this?

As the Yelp reviews suggested, she let us know some customers were deducting the surcharge from servers tips.  On her behalf, we left $30 on $24.63.

Later, driving, I thought about it some more.  The surcharge wasn’t going to her. It was going to the kitchen people. Servers feed off tips. The back of the house runs on wages. Since the opening in November Karl Strauss has used four different terms: “GovMandatesSurcharge”, “EmployerSurcharge”, “KARLcharge” and now, simply: “Surcharge”, with the caveat you can opt of paying it altogether.

This raises more questions than it answers. If the 3% add-on exists to satisfy the minimum wage mandate, then it shouldn’t be optional. Raise prices and be done with it. Optional makes it seem like only some of the money is going to Carlos at the fry bin for making the garlic truffle fries just right, the rest is fattening profit margins.  The skinny girl in the black t-shirt behind the bar was implying it was going to her. Naturally, we overtipped (modestly) to compensate for those she implied were punishing her in retaliation.

Who, exactly, is electing to cross this unspoken line of shame and demand the manager to recuse them from the 3%?  As someone who works in Brentwood and drives Uber at night, I think I have a pretty good idea. The mannerless wealthy, that’s who.

Lemme paint a picture here.  There is a certain type of person who returns from a weekend ski trip to Utah, walks pass the cab stand at the airport into a waiting Uber, leaving three enormous suitcases on the sidewalk to be loaded into the back. As you enter the onramp to the 105 they demand to know, in a particularly anguished tone of voice, “why are you going this way?”   Because the 105 to the 110 to the 5 to the 2 is the most direct route, you reply.  By about eight miles. You point helpfully to the Uber app mounted on the dashboard, which displays the correct route on a map,  clearly visible from the back seat.  In response, they passive-aggressively open up their own navigation app, turn up the volume on their phone, and you spend the next half hour taking orders from a disembodied voice with a British accent: “in one quarter mile, merge right….” Orders which duplicate, turn by turn, the exact route you are already taking.

When you arrive in La Canada, a maid scampers out to take the bags as you unload them.  They disappear into their five bedroom house, unburdened. You’ve just saved them about $30. They tip you…..nothing.  And why not? Travis Kalanick told them the tip was already included.   Everybody knows you tip for service, even when not explicitly told to. But when you tell people it’s optional…

That’s the problem with financing wage increases through semi-voluntary surcharges.  A certain type of person will feel entitled to opt out, and it won’t be the guy who delivered pizzas in college. Anyone who worked in service or owned a business serving the public knows better.

Which makes me wonder why Karl Strauss is doing it this way.

Liberation of the Commons

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The old Runyon trail, past 2450 Solar Drive, fenced off for the past three years, was emancipated over the holidays.  The chain link and cedar plank gates, always a short term gesture,  were improvisationally knocked off their hinges by persons unknown, to make way for the public, in a civic version of Moses parting the Red Sea.

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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.