Verisimilitude

There are no streetlights in Baywood.  No sidewalks. The only public light sources are the Alehouse, the Merrimaker and the laundromat.  Locals hear the surf crashing on the sand spit a mile away across the estuary and complain, the way one might complain about the freeway noise back in Los Angeles, where the over/under starts at $100,000 year.

Baywood is where you retreat when LA doesn’t work for you anymore but you want to stay in California. It’s where the life you wanted to have in Van Nuys or Echo Park is re-booted.

L.A. 2.0, on wheels...

L.A. 2.0, now on wheels…

It is where you park your RV in your friends driveway and figure out your next move.  And where you go when you close your bike shop, once named Best in the City by the LA Weekly, after 11 years.

Where you break out the wrenches and drill set, and turn the RV into a mobile bike base camp and solar-powered graphic design suite.   Where you simplify things by designing your own escape pod.

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LA being LA, the bike shop lives on as the filming location for a Netflix escapist fantasy called Flaked.  The show is set in Venice and centered on a guy named Chip who owns a store hawking hand crafted three legged stools of his own design, but has no apparent customers yet manages to stay afloat.  Chip also lives rent-free by the beach and dates women half his age, and spends much of the first season perambulating around Venice on his bicycle, unencumbered by adult responsibilities like a monthly nut, or a business plan.  Flaked, by objective measurement, is not a quality show. The verisimilitude problems are impossible to get beyond. But I binged on it as a secret vice, the way Mrs. U watches the housewife shows. Punching a clock in the Valley, who wouldn’t want to live the life of Chip?

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The world is smaller than we think it is.  Fate not long ago placed one of the Flaked co-stars not named Will Arnett in the backseat of my Uber and he would spend the ride home trying without success to court, Chip-like,  a much younger female passenger. After she exited the car without yielding a number,  he laughed about it with me.  He agreed with my assessment of the show.  The lie it was telling about Los Angeles was his livelihood. He couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious.

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The real life Chip is more more athletic and better looking.   Also un-entitled and self-effacing and responsible. As he packed up his store he found letters to his workers he never sent, some dated five years ago, listing all the reasons he could no longer keep it going. Owning a business is not like a regular job. You cant just flake. He employed 15 people and spent years working with the city to open up bike lanes and paths. Now he loads up on packets at the hamburger stand to take back to the RV as he waits to hear from unemployment. Ask him if he’s bitter and he says no.  He’s put in his time in LA. The only thing he misses about it is being faster than every car on the road when riding his bike.

The trail forward looks like this

The trail out of LA looks like this

 

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.

Escape from Van Nuys

The hidden village of Greenwood Square

Hey, let’s duck into the hidden village of Greenwood Square…

A European with cobblestone streets

…with cobblestone streets like Chestnut Lane.

And ersatz streetlights

And ersatz streetlights.

And structural beams made of wood chips and glue

And structural beams made of wood chips and glue.  

Wait, what?  Seriously?

Sssh. We didn’t see this.   Strike it from our memory.

It’s not like it’s illegal or anything.  They do this all the time now.  Movie set construction, for example.

We can rest on assurances from industry lobbyists, manufactured joists will last at least….thirty years. Assuming no one lets their bathtub overflow.  And nobody split the 1×3 bottom plate with a nail gun while nursing a hangover.

Look how well that mid-80’s housing stock has stood the test of time.

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Back to Van Nuys, and its dependable squalor of concrete blocks, old growth timber and strip malls…

and occasionally glorious marling

…and occasionally glorious muraling. 

The Way We Live Now, Pt. 1: Sherman Oaks

Option #1, Kodachrome Redux

Option #1, Kodachrome Redux

In the late 90’s,  there was a film called Two Days in The Valley.  Predictably, most of the film took place off Mulholland Drive.  In mansions. The few flatland scenes featured a bearded Jeff Daniels ranting defensively that it “was a nice place to live,” as though the proposition were very much in doubt.

The Kardashians claim residency in the Valley, by way of Calabasas.

Frank Zappa enshrined the eponymous Valley Girl in the pop lexicon from his redoubt in the Encino Hills.

Free Fallin, the closest thing we have to a local anthem since Bing Crosby, was written by Tom Petty in a post-heroin haze in Hollywood.  The jump off phrase: ‘It’s a long day, living in Reseda, there’s a freeway running through the yard,’ was chosen randomly for its imagery and meter, not for geographical coherence.

If you cross the Sepulveda pass on your drive home, that is sufficient, in our cultural understanding, to be Valli-fied.  In politics, if your district touches any ground north of Mulholland you “represent” us.   A study of legislative maps is an exercise is residency-avoidance.  Richard Alarcon, holder of one of the few seats wholly contained within the flatlands proper, managed the trick of never living here for years.

While the Valley serves on television as a perpetual stand-in for everything from the midwest to contemporary Appalachia, you have to go back to Fast Times at Ridgemont High for something approaching an accurate depiction of where and how people live here.

I’m going to make a ruling. The Valley begins at Ventura.  If you have a view, by definition you have no claim to Valley citizenship.   The real Valley is a place where nobody who matters lives and nobody knows.  Except the 1.5 million of us who do.  We’re the orphaned colony of Sacramento and City Hall.   And yet, Los Angeles would grind to an apocalyptic halt without us, even for one day.

Which raises the question, how do we, deep in the stucco boxes, our little lights twinkling in the street grid down below, how do we live here?   What are we getting for our money? It has occurred to me recently the math in the city no longer adds up.

Mrs. UpintheValley and I, the Little Marital Engine That Could, find ourselves, after paying an upside-down mortgage for several years,  sitting on a modest amount of equity.   What if we wanted to trade up?  Is it possible? What could we get?

Join me while I take a tour of the neighborhoods,  starting with Sherman Oaks.

The house above is listed at $900,000. Post-war, three bedrooms, 1600 square feet. All upgrades.  It is not, to use the industry term of art, ‘South of the Boulevard’. In fact, it is well North. North of the freeway. North of North, just off Burbank.

This used to be the American Dream…3o years ago.  It’s the kind of house no one builds anymore in the post-Sopranos, open-floor plan, granite kitchen, Great Room exurban splendor. This is an artifact of Americana, like Kodachrome film stock.

When it was built, who lived here? A teacher?  An auto mechanic? A grocery store assistant manager?

Who buys this house today, a junior partner at a corporate law firm? A dentist? I doubt this is what they had in mind on the climb up, but this is Los Angeles and what can one do? Even the swells must make compromises.

Do you make over $150,000 a year?  No?  Neither do we.  We’ll have to look a little further north.

Option #5, Poso-ville

Option #2, POSO-ville

A standard post-war stucco box, with predictably small square footage, but nicely fixed up.  Usually a good kitchen remodel, and lots of native plants in the yard.  Crucially,  south of Oxnard.  South, mind you. People aren’t paying $150K more for the same house as the neighbors two blocks to the north in Van Nuys for nothing.  They’re no longer Van Nuysians!   They’ve petitioned the city for redress and the city has lifted the mark of Cain from the chain of title, the albatross,  the hex on their postmark. They’re Part of Sherman Oaks, now. The dusky hordes and their obese children are Up There, tucked safely on the other side of the Orange Line.  One almost never sees them. Almost.

Unfortunately these houses are in the $650-700K range.   We could live here if we made $100k a year. What used to be the gold standard of earnings success gets you this…and white neighbors…in the Valley.

We don’t make that kind of money, but we’re getting closer.

Option #2, The Condo

Option #3, The Sad Condo

This is half a block from Sepulveda, about two miles north of Ventura Blvd. Like most condo buildings in the Valley, forgettable, colorless, slightly dated.  Not run down by any means, yet bearing the vague stigma of 80’s dreck. The apartments are what you’d expect: well-carpeted.  The elevator is very slow.  The only amenity within walking distance is Target.  Basically, a place to sleep, stash your belongings and watch TV after work.  Or a place to watch as much TV as possible, if that’s what your life has come to.  A friend of mine bought an apartment here in a bidding war, all cash. Divorce settlement.

This is where you end up when he leaves you for someone younger and prettier.  This is the House that Built the Botox Industry.

There are two listings here on Zillow, both two bedroom: $425,000.  If we wanted to live out our days like George and Martha, we could afford this!

Girls of Slender Means

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.

Just off Woodley, next to the airport

House proud, Van Nuys version

Trailer proud in Lake Balboa

I’m consistently amazed when I meet people to find they’re paying $700-$900 for a room in someone’s house. In the Valley. In one of those don’t wear shoes inside don’t watch TV in the living room don’t take a dump in the bathroom without lighting up a Glade and preferrably not at all don’t have people over don’t park in the driveway never bring GMO food into the kitchen confine yourself to the left side of the third shelf of the fridge arrangements.   People with mortgages and insufficient income go on Craigslist and summon forth strangers to service their debt for them, while somehow acceding to demands to leave invisible footprints in a two-bedroom house. I’m further amazed people who work retail, or do digital piece work or hustle gigs as production assistants are paying these prices.   But this is the way we live now in Los Angeles, doubled and tripled up together, somehow making it work. By comparison,  a funky Airstream trailer next to the Van Nuys airport has a certain appeal.  Note the tidy mise-en-place. The front porch coziness.   It almost looks inviting. Until you consider what it would be like in July.

Still life, with flags and flowers

Future housing, with flags and flowers

What’s the alternative?  Well, there’s this…and in the near future, the cargo container, the next resource material in the New Urbanist architectural movement.  The door is already open, beckoning us…