The Pied Piper

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Why wouldn’t we follow this guy anywhere?

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Clearly he’s thought the politics of the thing all the way through.  Plus, he’s never dirtied his hands by actually voting. He’s pure!

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The guy on the left put a wrinkle into the narrative for about five minutes, bringing psychic relief and patriotic gratitude to the nation. Then he re-emerged in the morning to issue a POW video, er, correction…denouncing himself for embarrassing his teammates, who hid in the locker room while paying fans stood for the anthem.

Sports was our last redoubt. The de-militarized zone in 0ur increasingly militarized culture war beyond the grasping, poopy fingers of politics, the one place where everyone could put the feuding to the side for a couple hours.

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At least the kneeling is for a good cause.  Nothing bad happens after you torch the cop cars in your town.

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Pay no attention to these faces.  Really.   These are people who know nobody and nobody knows.  Besides, they’re not pretty like the Pied Piper.

 

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.

Che Guevara of Brentwood

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This guy pushed me to the shoulder today on my way to work. If you center the transaxle of a Humvee equidistant from each curb, then floor it for a full block, two and half tons of banana yellow tempered steel will leave the Little People with limited option not to give way.  It’s called owning the road.  A concept Che would understand.

Up on Shady Oak Road

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Question: do you think you’re allowed to drive on this street?

Apparently not, right?   I mean, it’s…PRIVATE.   Clearly marked by signs.   In fact it’s so private, they had to tell us twice.

PRIVATE ROAD!

This means you, interloper.  All you little people from the grim wastes north of Ventura Blvd can turn around right now.  No trespassing, loitering or entry without permission.  Don’t make us call the police.

Why would anyone proceed any further?  What would compel such insubordination?

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Well, there’s this.  One of three trailheads into Fryman Canyon.  A public access point to a public park waiting at the end of a public street, paved with tax dollars.  And all the million dollar views beyond.

If you just tell people from Van Nuys they can’t drive there, they’ll never use it, right?  It will be privatized, effectively, for the benefit of the hillside gentry.   Like they did at Malibu, and Lake Hollywood, and Runyon.

There used to be something in America called a daily newspaper.   We even had one in Los Angeles.  I miss them.   They were staffed by middle class people, even working class guys occasionally, with a sense of civic pride and a keen moral barometer for public offense committed by the privileged. This is exactly the sort of petty outrage they used to feast on.  But that was a different country.

Portrait of a working mother

He's so handsome, I can't speak properly

He’s so handsome, I can’t speak properly

Trivia question: How many working mothers were stuck on the Sepulveda Pass Thursday, the minutes passing like hours, waiting to get home to their kids? How many woman-hours were lost waiting for the 405 to clear?  How about all the working women trapped on Metro buses?   How many kids left at home to their own devices got into trouble while Gwyneth paced her Brentwood estate with a Marlboro Light and a glass of wine telling everyone to get their s*** together already because He Is Coming. He Is Almost Here, Bitches.

Yeah, the rich are different. They can make the entire city wait.

Yeah, the rich are different. They can make an entire city wait.

If you’re one of the swells who brought the city to a standstill for the 30th time in the Obama era perhaps it is easy to mistake the President for a Dictator-in-Waiting:  “It would be wonderful if we were able to give this man all of the power that he needs to pass the things that he needs to pass”.

Unfortunately for Gwyneth, (and Julia, and Ben and…) the power to pass things comes from the consent of the little people, the ones stuck in their cars on their way home to the Valley.  You can’t just write a check to banish their tacky, backward little majorities from the village square, as appealing as that might sound.  But I can understand how she might get confused. Having working mothers at your beck and call can do that to you.  

How people in Brentwood steal from people in Van Nuys, a Case Study

Parking lots, bitch

Parking lots, bitch

Once upon a time there was something in this country known as the Penn Central Railroad, and it went bankrupt in the 1970’s.  The eastern terminus was the Boston seaport. A novice developer named Frank McCourt put up $300,000 in equity to purchase the 24 acre rail yard by the waterfront.  A decade of Jarndycean litigation ensued, and when the smoke cleared, McCourt emerged as the title holder. Happily for him, during that time his legal opponents had turned the yards into a parking lot, generating $4 million in annual income.  The parking lot now belonged to Frank and became his personal cash cow. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts paid him $30 million for use of half of it during the construction of the Big Dig. He then sued the state for infringing on his property rights and won an additional $32 million.  In 2004 he bought the Dodgers, leveraging the equity he had in the parking lot in Boston.

Let’s unpack this. McCourt puts up less than a million dollars to be a developer, develops nothing in two decades, and ends up owning one of the storied franchises of sport.  Eight years later, without a World Series appearance or any serious investment in the team, he sells for….$2 BILLION.  That’s twice the price of any franchise in history. That’s $1.3 Billion more than the Dodgers were valued in 2010 by Forbes magazine.

Here’s the punch line: McCourt gets to keep a 50% ownership of the stadium parking lots and their yearly income of…reportedly, $5 million.  Have you ever heard such madness?  Who would be the signatory to a deal like this?  Where is this money coming from?

And now the Dodgers are off television in 80% of LA, hostage to machinations between competing cable interests. Or so we are told.

Here’s the real punchline: McCourt is not actually the villain here.  You read that correctly. Other than being a cheapskate owner and living like Croseus off increased ticket prices, what are his sins?  He made two exceptionally advantageous deals, one to buy and another to sell. On neither occasion did he hold a gun to anyone’s head.  Under his reign, all Dodger games were on TV, half of them on local broadcast, freely to be had with an antenna.

No, the villains here are prominent local businessmen Stan Kasten, Peter Guber and Magic Johnson. They may be rich, but they don’t have a billion dollars between them. They don’t have half a billion.  What they have is the cable rights to future Dodgers broadcasts, against which they have leveraged this deal.  Under the new regime, Dodger games are available only on a newly created one-team channel called SportsNetLA. Time Warner Cable is demanding from competing cable operators $5 a month/per subscriber to carry the broadcasts.  Naturally, Direct TV and others are resisting.  What the new Dodger ownership is demanding is nothing less than a lien against the earnings of every working southern Californian with a TV connection, whether they watch baseball or not.

The Dodgers have the right to charge $20 for parking and $40 for nosebleed seats, even $10 for a hot dog, if they choose. They can package all their broadcasts behind a paywall like NFL Sunday Ticket.  May the team live and prosper, and I say that as a lifelong SF Giants fan. What the new owners DON’T have the right to do is off-load the obscene weight of the McCourt buyout on the unsuspecting people of Los Angeles. If selling the Dodger channel on an a la carte basis was a viable business plan, (i.e, if there were enough Dodger fans willing to pay), they would have done so. It isn’t, therefore they haven’t.

The investors are not paying McCourt, we are. Against our will, and without being told we are.

Photo courtesy of EchoPark Now

Photo courtesy of EchoPark Now

So, if I have this straight in my head, I am now in a position of rooting for the remnants of the Howard Hughes empire to hold the line against the former head of Sony Studios and a subsidiary of the 3rd largest media company in the world in a battle over who will finance the contracts of Zack Grienke and Clayton Kershaw, and possibly a Grove-like development in the hills above Echo Park. Because if Direct TV caves, the others will as well, and very soon we will all be getting a bump in our monthly bills, and when we sit down to write checks every month a nice piece of that will be going directly into the pocket of Frank McCourt, parking lot king.

No wonder they got Magic Johnson to be the public face of this deal.

That’s one way people in Brentwood screw people in Van Nuys.

‘I paid $2 million for this house. Get your shitty car out of here’

No more Runyon Mellow

No more Runyon Mellow

Giles and I returned to Runyon yesterday, on the Mulholland side.  Got my work done early. Figured mid-afternoon, weekday, light traffic on the trails…since there’s no longer parking at the bottom of the hill, I’ll hike in reverse.  So off we went. My first clue something might have been off was the absence of any available spots around the Runyon gates.  Unusual for the time of day, but it happens.  I ventured into the windy streets below Mulholland where there are always spots.  Always.  Usually not far off. And then I saw this sign.  (Note the shinier exposed steel where the old sign used to be)  Now, for those unfamiliar with Runyon, probably 80% of the users access the park from the bottom of the hill, from Vista or Fuller, and that’s where the parking drama has historically resided.   The upper gate is for the Valley folk and people who live in the hills, and generally has been a low-key affair. Runyon Mellow. The sudden appearance of a new battleground in the War of Rich Douchebags vs. The People of Los Angeles, here, threw me.  Having slept on it, I don’t know why I felt surprised.  I circumnavigated Upper Nichols Canyon chastised by a succession of No Daylight Parking, District 38 Permits Exempt signs in all the old familiar places. I did not see a parking permit tag on any car.   Could it be no one who lives in that neighborhood needs a permit, because…they don’t actually park on the street, because….well, they can just park in their own garage?  I looped around then ended up back on La Cuesta when I noticed a hand-written sign pertaining to parking, pinned to a privacy wall. Intrigued, I pulled to the curb, left the car running, and went to read it.  Immediately, an angry bellowing erupted behind me, and I mean angry.  A man and his Boston terrier were walking straight at me, gesturing and demanding to know what the f*** I thought I was doing and how I had no f***ing business parking there. I started to explain I wasn’t parking, only reading the sign, but he was having none of it.  “Get your shitty car out of here.  I paid $2 million for this house and I don’t have to have people parking their shitty cars in front. You’re trespassing.  This is private property. Now get the f*** out of here. You have five minutes.”  I’d been out of the car all of ten seconds. As much as I would like to report any number of snappy comebacks from yours truly, the truth is they only occurred to me later.  Like all tough guys, he closed the garage door behind him and disappeared into the house. Flushed with renewed affection for my 2002 Honda Civic, I drove to Fryman Canyon, where this week at least there is still parking, sort of.  If you don’t mind hiking a bit, to get to your hike.  Just to be very clear about this, all dialogue is verbatim.  So there we have it: La Cuesta Drive, Nichols Canyon, and by extension, the park itself…all proclaimed private property now, by decree of the wealthy.