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.

Cratchit-ville, USA

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The man who lives here works for a living, itinerantly, with his hands.   This is one of three illegal casitas tucked into the backyard of another house, each cobbled together from found materials.

For the longest time Rod had a tool van parked on the street with “Hire a Handyman” painted on the side.  Not long ago it disappeared without explanation.  He might have sold it to pay for something he shouldn’t, but I didn’t pry. Yesterday I encountered him trying to push a broken down RV with no windows into the driveway. His arm was in a cast. The transmission was missing, but it rolled, and he thought it might make a useful storage for his tools. I pushed it up the incline with his car, then he cranked it the last ten feet with a come-a-long strapped to the porch post, so the gate was able to close.

With the closing of the gate, one small problem was resolved. Fresh ones beckoned. The RV windows needed to be replaced to keep rain from getting in and harming the tools.  There was the longer matter of re-establishing his presence around Van Nuys without a work van that said ‘Hire a Handyman’ on the side.  Or should he get work, how to fit his tools into a two-door rice rocket with no muffler and expired registration tags.  Or, if he got pulled over, how to replace the muffler.

Working, poor. An endless chain of $200 problems.  A man does himself honor everyday he doesn’t throw in the towel, crawl under a blue tarp by the railroad tracks and sign up for public assistance.

My friend Johnny has a lot more on the topic of itinerant labor, up in the Bay Area.   He’s well worth reading.

Three slides of Cratchit-ville

The Casita

The Casita

The Trailer

The Trailer

The wild mustard weeds

The Tangled Bank

The person who lives in the casita recycles scrap. The person who lives in the trailer works at Wal-Mart. There are six rabbit-warren encampments burrowed within the sunflowers. I have no idea who lives there or where they go during the day.

Looking for cans in Cratchit-ville

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Hey neighbor!  Good to see you!

She was yelling at me from across the McDonalds parking lot.  She was pushing her cart, as she does most afternoons, on the prowl for cans and bottles to take to the recycling center. She lives in a Cratchit trailer behind another trailer behind the house at the end of my block.

Sometimes we hear her yelling profanities at no one in particular as she walks past our yard.  She doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s just her way. She’s actually quite sweet.

Her landlady passed away, as did the landlady’s husband.  Now the landlady’s mentally challenged adult son has title to the house. He works as a janitor at Wal-Mart. He comes home and plays Call of Duty with the volume turned up to the distortion level and the sound of machine gun fire emanates from the open doorway, tumbling down the block in gusts of mayhem. Three times a day the son rides a handicapped scooter to one of the local fast food outlets for his meal and carts it home in a basket. He lets rooms both inside and outside the house to an assortment of people, including this woman’s ex-husband. The house and its many surrounding structures are a rabbit warren for the dispossessed. There’s a man who’s rented there for 26 years. There’s another who shuffles up and down the block, stooped over at the waist from illness or injury, frequently leading a small boy by the hand, occasionally carrying him on his shoulders.  Sometimes they are dressed for church.

Together they make up a sort of misfit family of convenience.

Cratchit-ville, Panorama

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This isn’t exactly a seasonal concern, but well into the 1970’s the City of Los Angeles allowed developers to construct multi-story apartment buildings without air conditioning.

In the Valley.

Angelenos being resourceful people, and not wanting to return from work to find a half-cooked dog panting in front of a dry water bowl in the kitchen, we have learned to improvise solutions:

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Forget the suicide balcony. The row of freshly washed uniform shirts drying on the breezeway says it all.   This is how the working class lives now.

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Before the Northridge earthquake, you were allowed to go multi-level without sheer paneling.   Don’t ask me why.  Apparently you were also allowed to span a 24 foot opening on a load bearing wall without an I-beam.  Either that or there was a prolific amount of bribe-taking going on in the Building Dept.  Gravity has no sense of irony.

Welcome to Cratchit-ville

Home sweet casita

Home sweet casita, only $900/month

Last week I gave a co-worker a ride home.

‘Pull into this alley here. Now turn into this service alley.  Now slow down…stop here. This is it.’

What, this?

I was looking at a pair of hinges embedded in a wooden fence, next to garbage cans.

‘Yup. This is it. Thanks for the ride.”

“Is there a crazed ex-boyfriend lurking around your life?”

“My landlady won’t let me use the front entrance.  She is very adamant about it.”

She reached over the wall, grabbed a string and the wooden slats parted about thirty degrees and she slipped through. The ‘gate’ closed behind her, Bat Cave-like,  then looked like an ordinary fence again.   There was no street address or unit number to mark where she lived.

A few days later, it got cold.

‘There’s no heat in my place,’ she lamented.   Ask the landlady to fix the furnace, we suggested.  It’s Christmastime.

‘There’s no furnace.’

No furnace?  No wall heater? 

‘My apartment is kind of attached to the garage.  I don’t think it’s legal. I wanted to buy a space heater and deduct it from my rent, but she won’t let me.  Arguing with her about it is like trying to grab water.’

The person of whom I am writing is a) white,  b) educated,  c) sober,  d) works two jobs, like everyone else north of Ventura Blvd.   Van Nuys may not be Vladivostok, but a heat-less domicile is her lot this winter and she’s resigned to it. One might consider her at a slight advantage to the other tenant, the one who lives in the garage proper, who also has no heat…plus no insulation. No kitchen, either. $600.

Turning right at the corner, I was back on a street of ordinary mid-century homes in White Van Nuys, otherwise known as Lake Balboa, lined with sweet gums shedding the last of the autumn leaves.   Nothing suggested the parallel world of Bob Cratchit-like cells, small, cold and dismal, concealed just beyond the hedge work, from which certain homeowners profited handsomely.

There is a deep sub-culture of illegal units in Los Angeles.  Historically it has served the needs of the extended immigrant family: second cousins tucked away in converted Home Depot tool sheds.  The City has never taken it on directly because this would mean addressing the larger issue of the vast population of undocumented laborers concealed within its borders, without which the Westside would cease to function.  The Problem which has No Name in Polite Society.  We can’t enforce laws relating to citizenship so we don’t enforce laws relating to those would exploit the legal disadvantage of the undocumented.  Once you carve out a zone of immunity in civil society, it doesn’t stop with Hondurans. We all take a step back in the direction of Dickensian London, toward a Manicheanistic world of the propertied and the un-propertied.

Welcome to Cratchit-ville.