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.

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.