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.

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.