Trumpland, Thirty Years After

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Who would live in Koreatown thirty years ago, but Korean peasants, fresh off the boat, hot racking it in the back room over a corner store, putting in 12-hour days, eager to one day become Korean merchants?  Certainly not middle class white people.

To put it differently, who wouldn’t rather live in a crime-free Valley with a lawn and a breezeway and a carport for the boat, and pay for it with one income?

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Today, if you want to eat, you go to Koreatown. You want to buy a pair of shoes, you want to bowl, you want to have a craft cocktail, you want to see pretty people, or to aspire to prettiness yourself, you want to dance, you want to walk down crime-free immaculately manicured streets, if you want to practice your golf swing….

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…you come here. You stand on a platform five storeys over Wilshire, surrounded by construction cranes, and a machine lifts the ball out of a hole in the floor, and tees it up for you. Perfectly, over and over again. Ten cents a ball.

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You stand over the rooftops like a god, for $18. When it’s over you get in a time machine and crawl over the pass, to the lost world of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  You are home, yet somehow your heart is elsewhere.

The Opposite of Bitchitude

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Here is something I’ve been turning over in my mind for awhile: working-class Latinos are the only people who have ever tipped me as an Uber driver.   Tipping is not expected.  Nor hinted at, by me.  It rarely happens, but when it does…its never white people.

How do I know the tippers are working-class? Because I drove them home. The more modest the neighborhood,  the likelier the tip.  In a city as diverse as Los Angeles is seems odd the blessings of gratitude should be so unevenly distributed among its peoples, but there it is.   You save someone an hour on the bus to Huntington Park, or $50 on a cab, or worse,  a potential DUI, they put a couple singles in your hand and thank you for delivering them safely.  It’s a learned behavior.

These are my happiest rides, and it’s not the money.

Latinas are chatty.  They sit up front, they want to know all about you. If she’s going to Pacoima, she will find out you live in Van Nuys and this is your last ride of the night, and she knows implicitly there will be no 30 minute dead-head return home.

“How serendipitous for you.”

You speak of your shared joy of multi-syallbic words. She tells you her brown family never played Scrabble when she growing up, they played Sorry!, but she understood, even as a kid, it was a first-generational thing.   When her son is old enough, she’s going to make him play Words With Friends as a condition of having a phone. She’s also going to be open with him about sex, in all the ways her parents weren’t,  when he’s old enough to ask.

Or she’ll tell you she was born in Nicaragua and lived her whole life in Cudahy and her favorite musician is Toby Keith.  “I should have been born white trash,” she laughs, as you weave like a tank through street fireworks in Boyle Heights on Fourth of July. ‘”I don’t care if all my friends think I’m a redneck.  Every country song has a story.”

Or she’ll talk about her commute, or her worst customer of the week,  or the worst date she ever had, or why she came back to the church.

Polite, always polite, even when intoxicated. Like their parents beat it into them.

We’re living out Uber as the ride-share it was meant to be and not the discount limo in Prius form it has become.  In a city of a dozen dialects, shift work is the common tongue. They’re just getting off theirs, I’m in the middle of mine. In recognition, there is empathy.

As California inches ever closer to becoming Downton Abbey on the Pacific, there will be a growing class of people with no knowledge of work, as it has been historically understood. Or have any need to work at all.  Or living on the dole. Then there will always be a much larger population which does nothing but grind out a paycheck.  Then there is a billionaire in San Francisco who tells the customers not to tip the driver, the tip is already included.

Proving truth can be more ironic than fiction, the billionaire grew up in the Valley.

I don’t know how this is all going to play out, or how much longer the center will hold. Recently Finder.com created a profile of the “average Californian”, drawn from statistical databases. Turns out she’s Latina, lives in Koreatown, works in retail, and commutes 28 miles a day.  That should give us all a little hope.

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The woman in the picture hasn’t been one of my riders, but she does take Uber from time to time.  I work with her during the day.  She also lives in K-town. Adding another layer of historical irony, she was born in the wake of Prop. 187.  Now she assists the grasping women of Brentwood in obtaining cage-free, nitrate-free, non-GMO gourmet food items.

I asked her if she would appear on a reality show if it meant she could quit her day job.  

Nah.

Not even if it meant never having to punch a clock again? Ever?

“Nope, it’s just not appealing.”

Her mama raised her right.

Jakarta Twilight

Still life, with PTSD

Still life, with PTSD

I work the closing shift, which means I get to drive over the 405 in the middle of the afternoon, and return to the Valley at 10:30 pm. On a good day, Brentwood to Van Nuys in under 12 minutes, if I hit all the lights. I’m one of the few people in LA who loves his commute.  Like an idiot, I’ve tempted fate by saying this aloud.

Yesterday, I had to go to work early, which means I left early, which means I joined the tail end of the normal commuter flow, with everybody else.  How bad could it be?

Lets put it this way: at seven thirty, I was on Barrington,  four cars away from Sunset Blvd, looking out the window at this beautiful vintage gas station framed in milky twilight, and in a very civil mood. Off early! I could go to the gym!  Perhaps Mrs. UpintheValley was still awake and could be had for the price of a foot rub!  No tired lion, me. All possibilities were on the table.

At eight o’clock, darkness had fallen, and I was still next to the same gas station, on the Sunset side, and I was plotting revenge against everyone who ever wronged me.

The stoplight would cycle through, and nobody would move.  This didn’t dissuade anyone entering from side streets inserting the nose of their car into the scrum.  Unhappy honkings all around…random, pointless, like steer lowing in a slaughterhouse pen.

I thought of Joe Gillis evading the repo men in the opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard, and how comically unrealistic that would play now.  When much of LA was laid out, traffic signals looked like this:

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Gas stations looked like movie palaces and Westwood Village looked like this.

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K-Town looked like this. That’s Oasis Church on the right.  It is now one of the shorter buildings on Wilshire Blvd.  Add three million people to this picture and take away the Pacific Electric Red Car.  That’s where we find ourselves today, scurrying to rebuild the public transportation we once had.    A bus and rail line for the working poor, slumped over in their seats, ear buds on, locked into their own podcasts, dreaming of the day they’ll be able to afford a car of their own.  And a house in Van Nuys.

It took me an hour to reach the freeway. That’s .25 mph.  Point two-five! The full Jakarta…

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When I entered Macleod, they were playing traditional Irish songs and ballads.  iPads were used in place of sheet music,  I couldn’t help noticing. Here, two centuries were working to shared advantage.  I ordered a Better Days ale. Beer has rarely tasted so good.

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The Uniform

The Uniform

I pick up a lot of Uber riders who look like this, or are trying their damnedest to.  Not so much in the Valley, that goes without saying. Maybe Studio City on a weekend, coming out of Black Market or Page 71. But more likely emerging from an expensive apartment building in Brentwood,  going home, alone, to a modest building in Koreatown.

Frequently the name on the Uber account is male.

She has Expensive Hair, and a $300 pair of 5-inch heels, but she’s not going out to the club with her friends. She announces she needs to finish her cigarette, and you wait for her because women like this know just how deep a line of credit they have with the male species ay any given moment. On the ride, she lowers her window, leans back and watches the city go by, brushing strands of hair from her face like she’s modeling Wistful, by Calvin Klein. You realize she’s using the open window to sneak a second cigarette but you say nothing.   She catches you looking and asks where you’re from and you tell her, and she announces she’s from Kentucky. Apropos of nothing, she goes on to tell you, her Uber-confessor,  she’s been here eight months and she doesn’t have a job.

Okay, then.

In a city few people can afford to live in, on paper, people live here all the same.  They arrive in greater numbers each month.  How does anyone pay $2400 for rent?  If their parents aren’t supporting them, then who?

There is no starker demarcation of class in this city than the Beauty Line.

The Beautiful are waited upon. The Unattractive, The Squat, The Dark, serve them.

Before you start hating, be honest. How many beautiful waitresses do you actually see anymore?  Besides in the movies.

The Beautiful Waitress was once a Los Angeles institution. When one could prize a one-bedroom apartment in Los Feliz with an avocado tree outside the window for $650, one could get by waiting tables. Back when one could buy acting classes a la carte, instead of being compelled to enroll in a accredited acting program (for profit, natch) with Ivy League-level tuition, the Beautiful Waitress could be the agent of her own destiny.

Today’s waitress is fat, heavily tattooed, and living rent-free at home with her parents.  In the Valley.

Stop hating.  Look around you. Who’s bent in half, doing nails?  Who’s getting her nails done?  Who’s fetching items from the stockroom? Who’s cleaning?  Who’s making the caramel macchiato? Who is tapping her fingers impatiently on the counter? Who is working the register at Whole Foods while a parade of underfed fawns in Lululemon clutch the arms of their 45-year-old ‘boyfriends’ and display conspicuous public affection for the benefit of onlookers?

These are observations, not judgements.

I’m not sure what the half-life of a Sugar Baby in Los Angeles is.  I know they don’t last long in your mouth.  You can suck on them for a while, but then the temptation to bite down into the chewy part overtakes you.  It’s an autonomic, id-driven thing. Then you reach into the bag for another.

The Sugar Daddy calls an Uber.

Beauty is a form of Capital, until it isn’t. Then it’s just another form of Labor. The cry ride across town with the window down is the time to assess.  Before you end up bent over a rail at 3 am at Charlie Sheen’s house while he prattles in your ear about undetectable viral loads and lambskin condoms.

Maybe at the end of the day, the clock-punching women chained to their meager paychecks end up happier.   I don’t know.  I’m just the guy who gives the rides, and I know the math in this city doesn’t add up.