Three Versions of the Life You’re Not Having in LA

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Why aren’t you living in this building? It’s only $24,000 a year, per bedroom.  You’re 26, you can afford it.  They call it adulting.

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Strong women love peeling potatoes in their under-lederhosen. Didn’t you know that?

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Your boyfriend is right around the corner, waiting to kiss you, and he’s dressed in a tailored suit.

When The Bike Was King

The first Arroyo Seco freeway

The first Arroyo Seco freeway

Imagine biking from Pasadena to downtown LA on a dedicated boardwalk, at rooftop level, then pedaling home in the evening under magic lights while serenaded by bullfrogs and crickets. Like the NYC High Line, but without pedestrians.

In 1900 you could do this. For about two miles.  The remainder of the California Causeway foundered for lack of paying customers, and the ungracious and untimely arrival of the automobile. Like so many magnificent wooden structures of yore, inevitably it would have burned to the ground at some point.  Instead the lumber was sold off, repurposed in local houses.

Oh, to have ridden upon it, even once!

A century later one is taken by the separation from streetcars and horse-drawn carriages. Here, in first conception, the bike fulfills transportation needs and communes with nature in equal measure.

Steve Jobs was fond of saying the condor was the most efficient creation in nature. It moved the greatest distance with the least amount of energy. Man, by contrast, was way down the evolutionary list. Until he got on a bike. A man on a bicycle was the most energy efficient creation ever. He moved at four times the speed of the pedestrian and used five times less energy. A computer, he added, was a bicycle for the mind.

Bicycles take less space, require less public infrastructure, impose less on the physical space of our fellow citizens. If unimpeded, a woman on a bike can cross the city like a wind deity. A boy on a bike arrives at school like a knight in training. Imagine if we had a whole network of cycleways like this connecting the neighborhoods of the Valley.  Oh, wait.

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So we are obliged in the absence of civic leadership to play Russian roulette on public streets, our laptops tucked neatly in our backpacks, spinning the pedals with Jobsian hyper-efficacy, masters of our own movement until a hit and run driver says otherwise.

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.

A Sunday journey

Alternatives...

Secular abundance on Grand Street

“You’re either getting closer to Jesus, or you are drifting away,” Dudley counseled.  “What are you waiting for? What are you longing for?”

This was how my Sunday started.

I texted Mrs. U, and repeated the proposition. Her response was swift:   She longed for me to “appreciate our house in the Valley more.”

“I get it,”  I replied, then affirmed my understanding by gathering the dogs and driving to the Arts District for the day.

Astute readers may have noticed a decline in my good humor about living in the Valley of late.  It’s a cyclical thing. The more time I spend cycling through other parts of the city the more dismayed I am about the civic state of affairs here.   When I don’t leave the Valley for a while it doesn’t seem so bad.  Like a well-worn 1970’s beige living room set, you get comfortable putting your feet on it after awhile. Then you go to someone else’s house for the evening and you realize you live in squalor, and your couch is hideous.

From Jesus to petulance in four paragraphs! My learning curve, moving counter-clockwise.  This is not new for me.

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So off we went, on our DTLA adventure,  encountering signposts along the way.  I did my petulant best to ignore them.

They love Bernie Downtown

They love Bernie downtown

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They really love the guy.   He’s like a secular Moses for the NPR set.  I couldn’t help wondering if the traffic sign was foreshadowing.

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On our way up the hill to the secret garden behind Disney Hall we encountered this remarkable 1960’s era mosaic on the the side of the AT&T building by the artist Anthony Heinsbergen.

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From a distance, Disney Hall looks like the Rock of Gibraltar. Up close the titanium panels are ill-fitting in spots, and being only an eighth of an inch thick, have visible gaps which make clear what you are seeing is not structural, but the shiniest of shiny facades.  Not cheap, exactly, but Vegas-y.

It was nearing the magic hour and the Music Center was filling with photographers and models, many of them couples, looking for the perfect engagement photo backdrop.

We were in the mood for a libation after our exertions and we started down the hill, through Grand Park, when -cue trumpets- Moses appeared.

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An un-ironic Moses, direct from the Old Testament, with tablets, burning bush and Golden Calf.

I was a bit floored.  This was the Kenneth Hahn building.  Ten years ago, the Board of Supervisors voted, in this very building, to strip the County Seal of any reference to the Cross.   Here we have the old cheese itself:  the Commandments.  The Laws of Moses.  The Torah. Did no one notice this?  Somehow this had survived the ACLU pogrom, by what collective misdirection and silent agreement I know not,  but it was spared and I found myself marveling.

What did people think the Roman numerals stood for? Perhaps the foundation of Western Civilization is more solid, more capable of surviving its internal conflicts than I give it credit for.

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We finished our walk at the temple of enlightened consumerism that is Whole Foods at Eighth and Grand.   We had arrived at a place as far removed from Van Nuys as one can get and still be in the same city.

There is a lovely, cool, dark oyster/wine tasting bar there.  We ordered cauliflower nachos and a glass of Cotes De Rhone.  Bernie Sanders was on TV.  A woman at the bar was shaking her head.

“It won’t make a difference,” she announced to me, unsolicited. “Even if he wins.”

“Why not?” I replied, playing along.

“This country is in so much trouble. It’s on the verge of going under. The banks are running this country. Unless we change our hearts, it’s over.”

I didn’t understand her either, but for someone with $100 worth of half-consumed comestibles in front of her, she was awfully miserable.

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We tried a little shopping before we returned home.  Mrs. UpintheValley was in a vegan’s paradise.  Two wall-sized glass cases just for seitan meats and almond cheeses. She stood in front of it for five minutes, then closed the door.

“There are too many choices. I can’t decide.  I need to come back when I have more time.  Let’s go home.”

Which brought us full circle to Dudley’s question:  what was I longing for?

To Provide and Provide Not

City of Burbank

City of Burbank

Consider this urban pastoral, this friendly Sunday afternoon soccer game under the power lines on Whitnall.   Inter-racial. Inter-gender. Inter-age group. Featuring accents of Latin America, Asia and the British Isles.   As I walked past, I thought: this looks like it was assembled by a casting director. Los Angeles doesn’t really work like this, except in commercials.

Then I realized I was in Burbank.

City of Los Angeles

City of Los Angeles

Now turn around, face north, across Burbank Blvd, into North Hollywood.  This is what LA did with the same patch of ground. Across the street.

How does a world-class city get away with this?

The People Who Run Things have an answer to that question. We’re broke!  Los Angeles is a pauper. A patch of grass, in North Hollywood?  What are we, made of money? We can’t even pay our bills around here!

Okay then, riddle me this:

Suddenly...cancer

Suddenly…”cancer”

The City is in the process of dismantling the Sixth Street Bridge, one of the iconic, indispensable structures, perhaps the most photographed location after the Hollywood sign, and replacing it, at a cost of half a billion dollars, with this:

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The purported reason for this insertion of Dubai-like aesthetics into the downtown landscape is concrete. The original structure (1932) has received a propitious diagnosis of Alkai Silica Reaction.  Earthquake vulnerability dictates the bridge must be replaced.  Or so we’re told.

There’s just one problem. Why is it, of the dozen similar bridges built downtown in the 1930’s, with the same concrete mixing process, the only one which has received this diagnosis of ‘concrete cancer’ is the one which goes directly to the Arts District?  Why does the urgency to do something about it correspond to the arrival of the Nabisco Lofts?  Why is it being replaced by a playground for people who buy groceries at Urban Radish?

If the city is too broke for a grassy field in North Hollywood, how is it managing to pay for this? Just asking.

Christmas, Light and Dark

Christian Mennonite singers, Broadway and Sixth St

Christian Mennonite carolers, Broadway and Sixth St

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Meanwhile, not a block away, an angry group of men calling themselves the Black-Hebrew Israelites were milling about in robes, haranguing passerby and holding up signs like this one:

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I have no idea what this portends…

They seem to, however

They seem to, however. It’s awfully specific.

Yes, we’re finishing it…

Can I have some?

Can I have some?

Today I paid five bucks for a cup of joe at a discreet and cool industrial-looking coffee house, down in the Arts District.   Not some soda-sized caramel macchiato whipped cream extravaganza from Starbucks, just a plain cup of coffee in the type of cup they used to set in front of you at Denny’s at 3AM in the middle of an all-nighter. Five bucks.

‘It’ll be six or seven minutes to prepare. We need to whip the almond milk.’

Oh, okay….

I’m in no position to pay that kind of money for anything which fits in the palm of my hand.  This is my second consecutive Christmas of ‘oh, let’s at least have a tree.’  I service my debts….and I do so honorably. Beyond that, my fiscal horizons are brutish and short.  It’s no way to be living at this point in my life. So on Small Business Saturday, if I’m not going to be able to afford to window shop, we can put some miles on the Skechers and take in the city a bit.   Start in Echo Park and work our way down east of Alameda.  My day began with a re-habbing jury-rigging of the kitchen door with mismatched brackets I had dug out of a box of old construction materials.  A shameless piece of hack work I didn’t even attempt to conceal with paint, which succeeded in keeping the stiles and rails connected and allowed for the door to swing shut for another winter.  We watched Searching for Sugarman last night, so I was both in a poetic and appreciative frame of mind.  I did what I usually do when I’m in that state:  I left the Valley.

So out came the coffee.  My almond-whipped, individually prepared, fair-trade, put my feet out after a long week and savor the moment premium cassis.

Ghastly.

Sour.

Strange.

Imagine a rusty freighter hijacked by Somali pirates.  Now imagine a cast iron bucket at the bottom of the hold the hostages are forced to use as a piss pot during their captivity.  Then imagine that cast iron bucket being purchased on eBay by some fancypants collector of conflict memorabilia, which through a comedy of errors is mis-routed to Los Angeles where a hipster doofus decides to re-purpose it as a coffee pot. For authenticity’s sake.  Old camp stove coffee.  Almond-whipped.  And all those rich, brine-y flavors working their way into the foam….

Mrs. Upinthevalley, optimist.

Mrs. Upinthevalley, determined.

‘We’re finishing it,’ my wife announced, reading my mind, but setting down the cup with a grimace.

I went back inside for some sugar. A lot of sugar, which appeared to offend the staff behind the counter.

‘The cup is nice,’ she offered optimistically. ‘I like cupping a warm cup in my hands. It almost makes the coffee taste better. or would if it were better coffee.”

Maybe we just don’t have the proper palate, we decided. It can’t be as bad as it seems.

Until we sipped a little more.

We let Giles lick the foam off the spoon, which he did without complaint.   We considered the five bucks a sidewalk rental, and made the best of it. Slowly, steadily, working as a team, we drained the cup. Hell if we’re going to waste five bucks on anything.

On the walk back to the car, she posed for an album cover.  I thought: how could anyone look this good after 15 years of marriage?

Teacher as moody singer-songwriter

Schoolteacher as seraphic singer-songwriter

She can.   Yeah, we’re gonna finish this, too. I got all the sugar I need.