Son of Carnage

There are no boundaries between them. She pushes him around the store in a stroller he’s two years too big for.    He grabs everything he can reach and throws it to the floor and she exclaims theatrically as though he hadn’t unveiled the same delighted gesture the day before.  She basks in the attention while brown-skinned people drop to their knees and attend to his mess.

She deputizes the floor cleaners into her circle of conversation as though they were a paying audience for her one-woman performance art show.  There are no class distinctions acknowledged in Brentwood, just people with nametags who can be pressed into service as loyal family servants but to whom there are no reciprocal obligations.

The boy shrieks and reaches for new things to topple, for levers to yank, for containers to spill.  He has worlds to conquer and a mother who needs drama.

“Look Nikolas, you’ve created an album cover.”

Back to the Quonset Hut?

Quonset housing, 1946
Quonset housing, 1947

Nothing like martial virtue to inspire biblical relations between genders. When we slaughtered the Hun and subdued the Japanese Empire in four years and warplanes rolled off the assembly line every ten hours in Long Beach, King Priapus ruled the day.

Wingfoot housing
Victory jizz, plus three years=Wingfoot housing

During the Depression very little housing had been built, and during WWII, none at all, creating entire communities living in temporary housing: trailers, quonsets, Wingfoot huts, and repurposed tugboat cabins.

Tugboat housing



Our little working class brigadoon in Van Nuys was carved from Carnation creamery cow pasture in 1947 as something called Allied Gardens.  A GI and his brood could have one for $10,400. That’s $119,000 in 2017 dollars. No landscaping. No frills. A three circuit Zinsco electrical panel, no insulation, no AC.   Fittingly, it was developed by Louis Kelton, for whom Kelton Street in Brentwood was named, establishing at conception the master-servant dialectical between the two communities.


At those prices, who wouldn’t want one?  The stucco box was a pleasure dome after the quonset hut. Colored veterans were excluded by covenant from buying.  Colored people lived where colored people lived and the women tended the homes of rich people on the Westside, like Louis Kelton.   White people manufactured things and saved up for a backyard pool.  Service at the pleasure of others, specifically of a household or agricultural nature, was nigger work. White people didn’t do that.

For forty years this arrangement held while white people gradually decamped to Santa Clarita or Thousand Oaks, discarding neglected houses like beater cars.  Black people moved to Riverside, or all the way to the Mississippi Delta. Latino/Asian/Armenian immigrants, stacked up in apartments, busily practicing biblical relations between genders, counted the bedrooms, and said “we’ll take this gone to hell stucco box. Where do we sign?” In they came and out went grumbling white people, trailing blight.


Along the way, California stopped making things and began designing them. China makes our things now, in vast factory campuses, where workers sleep in stacked bunkbeds like poultry in battery cages.

Nobody uses the phrase nigger work anymore. We’re too enlightened for that. We just have a vast army of surplus labor doubled up in rooms and secreted in trailers behind the hedge, rising at dawn to beat the traffic over the 405 to serve provide for the grasping needs of Brentwood.  People who question these arrangements are bigots.

Walking the dogs yesterday I encountered a new neighbor who crossed the street to pet Trixie but really to introduce himself.  We chatted amiably about Van Nuys.  He worked in a law firm. His wife was a special ed teacher. They had two luxury brand cars in the driveway. He outlined the improvements he had planned for his house and wanted to reassure me the tacky car shed over the driveway was going, and the yard was going to be re-done.

“This is going to be Echo Park in a couple years,”   he pronounced, seeking my affirmation, which I gave, but secretly doubted. Highland Park, maybe, but who am I to prognosticate? When we moved here from Los Feliz in the oughts, I was certain there were 10,000 people hot on my heels. We were going to be trend setters! We were going to plant the flag of gentrification reap the benefits of being first.   Who wouldn’t want to own a nice big yard for the price of rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood?  Yeah, it might have been a little kitschy, a little dated, a little Fast Times at Ridgemont High 20 years after, with bars on the windows, but it was have-able, and fifteen minutes from Town.

Oof. I was only off by a decade.   Now I just subtract a few years from my biography and pretend to be half a genius.

Van Nuys is changing, though, and quickly. The 1200-square foot stucco box is back in vogue, by demographic necessity.   Which raises a question: how long before the quonset hut returns as a housing option? It’s rather spacious when considered next to Tiny Houses.


It’s already undergoing a revival as repurposed office space for creative types.


And as an architectural motif for people very far removed from utilitarian necessity. Perhaps the trend lines will converge. Everything old can be new again.

Friendship, $1 a minute

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This is where we’ve arrived in Los Angeles. Rich people hiring underemployed artists to impersonate friendship, and the artist eager to sell himself in this manner.

are you tired of social media and just want to be social?

do you need a sidekick to help you finish those 10k steps?

some company on the way to your destination? 

an attentive audience?

someone with whom to complain about the general state of things? 

a way to connect with the outdoors?

maybe you want to hear a story on a neighborhood stroll?  

we can talk about whatever you feel like talking about. we can walk however you like to walk.

The paid companion, or lady-in-waiting, has a deep tradition, going back to English court.  It allowed women of a certain class but lacking a dowry proximity to the wealthy and enhanced marriage prospects.  You might meet Maxim de Winter on a cliff in Monte Carlo, and he might make you his nameless second wife.  Then again you might gain the attention of the Earl of Essex and send Queen Elizabeth into such a paroxysm of jealousy she drags you bodily from court by your hair, and has you flogged.

In other words, woman’s work.

But what does woman’s work mean, in an iPhone economy?  Anybody with any sort of personal service to sell can do so formally with the insertion of a Square card reader.  If what you have to sell is empathy, why shouldn’t you?  And if it pays more than your creative endeavor, then you may have little choice.  Man’s work, as it was formerly known, doesn’t pay a dollar minute unless it involves plumbing or electricity or transmission repair.    Therein lies the paradox of higher education.  If there should be a warning label for anyone entering the liberal arts, it would look a whole lot like this flyer, posted by a Yale man.

Knockdown, Improve, Engulf and Devour


When I park my car on Westgate, I walk past construction sites like these on my way to the store.  Every single storey house north of Montana is getting knocked down upon change of ownership.   Perpetual construction. Multiple job sites on a single block.


A couple weeks ago I arrived at work to find I had become a reluctant, though inadvertent, villain.  Whole Foods was in the process of evicting the Brentwood newsstand, a neighborhood institution for 28 years, and I was compelled to walk past a picket line to enter the store.

Marck Sarfati, the owner, put on a full court press in the media, deploying celebrity petitioners, and a Holocaust survivor father, whose “survival” depended on the stand’s income.  About his expensive watch and luxury car, nothing was said.

Before it was a Whole Foods, the Brentwood store was once called Mrs. Gooch’s.   There were seven of them in Los Angeles when they were bought out by John Mackey in 1993.  The parking lot, that most prosaic of LA disputed zones, was shared by the store and the stand, and a perpetual sore point of overlapping demand.  Whole Foods had waited years for the lease to expire, and now they were getting the parking spaces back, and there wasn’t nothing Tommy Chong and Dustin Hoffman could do about it.


So there the drama percolated for a few days, before we discovered Whole Foods had just been devoured, plank and nail, by Lex Luthor for $14 billion. The flagship of organic food and upper-middle class virtue-signaling consumption was now a subsidiary of the largest retail entity in the world. Amazon stock increased $18 billion in value on news of the merger, which meant Jeff Bezos had purchased 432 stores and 91,000 employees for the price of lifting a pinkie finger and cooing: because it’s my birthday Smeagol, and I wants it. 

Walmart killed Main Street (sort of) and now Amazon is killing Walmart. To avoid being overtaken in ten years by a more nimble start-up yet to rise from a Y Combinator confab, Bezos is buying up the premium real estate of retail.

American wealth is moving, inexorably, like metal shavings in a magnetic force field, toward the coasts. In the coastal areas, it is piling up into the canyons, and closer to the beaches, or to higher floors downtown. A winner take all economy concedes nothing to the middle.


I don’t think Mr. Sarfati is going to be able to keep his newsstand. On the bright side, I have bitchin new Ikea cabinets, and one curious foundling black kitten.

Leaving the 405 Behind

Mario, heading south

You live in Northridge. Do you vary your commute, or are you a creature of habit?  Sometimes I take Sepulveda on the way home.  It’s longer, but more contemplative. Sometimes the moon is out and you can enjoy it. I love the grandeur of the lights twinkling.

Music in the car, or quiet? Music. I’ll listen to the same piece of music for about a week then change it up.   I ponder where I am in my life, but try not to think about it too much.  I am inclined toward depression, but I don’t take medications. I don’t believe in that.  I jog instead.

Religion? I was raised Buddhist.

Is there a caste system in LA?  Yes, but you can break through it.  Socially, women don’t like to hear you’re from the Valley. There’s a stigma. But I don’t lie about it.

Do you find driving over the hill to wait on wealthy people uncomfortable?  Not really.

You live with your parents, is there any tension over that?  No pressure from my parents. They don’t have a timetable for me.  They understand the cost of housing in LA. I put the pressure on myself.

You’re a jazz musician. I’ve been playing saxophone since I was a kid.  I also really like grappling.  I train at the Gracie Barra gym in Northridge.

What’s your favorite virtue?  Awareness.

What’s you idea of happiness?  I’m still trying to find my own happiness, so I don’t know how to answer that question.

What’s your idea of misery? Misery would be not fulfilling your life’s mission.

To that end, you’re leaving the store. What will you be doing? I’m going to be training a lot more.  In a couple months I’m going to go to Brazil, but I’m not going to fly. I’m going to take the bus through Central America.  I’m going to find my way there.

That’s a very long way from the 405.  That’s as far as you can get, and not get lost.



What’s with all the dying? said Mrs. U.    Everyone just stop for a few days.  Please.

The day after Christmas, I drove two 20-something girls home from Santa Monica. George Michael was playing on the radio and they jumped right in, singing note for note.  They were careless, happy drunk, with no reason not to be unguarded. They knew the lyrics to “Faith” from memory, even the vocal inflections, which made no sense to me at all as they weren’t even born when the song came out.

Did they work in a dental office?  No.  Did their mothers play the album for them? No, they said.  If they didn’t hear it on the radio a thousand times during high school, how did it reach them? Some songs just achieve critical mass in the elixir of pop culture, and decades later emerge, like a catechism,  from the mouths of babes, without them knowing why.

When we tell someone we love them we remove death’s power to take them away from us. If we sing their songs, they never leave.

My evening began by driving a nice young gay boy to a George Michael tribute party downtown.  “Too early,” he said. It felt exploitative on the part of the club promoter.  Not enough to prevent him from attending, however. All his friends were going to be there.  George had become a recluse because he couldn’t bear people thinking of him as fat, and now all the pretty skinny people were grinding on each other in his honor.

Somewhere in the downslope of his fame George either overdid it or had the usual, but it was a scotch/speedball/fettucini alfredo too far. He was overtaken by his own carelessness. He let himself go.


This is how easy it is.  Would you park to the right of this sign?  I did, and I read it.

I could take refuge in the excuse the signs give multiple instructions and seem to be saying different things. Or the crucial part, the one indicating hazard, is in shadow. But the truth is, quite plainly there is a line in the ground in Brentwood and if you park to the right of it, your car will be seized. Yet I didn’t see it, even though it was right in front of me, because I wasn’t looking for it.  I was thinking only in terms of two hour parking ending at 6pm, and it was 4:03 and I was already late for my shift and if I parked right there, two minutes from the store, I wouldn’t get a ticket and I could still be within the grace window of timeliness.

My horizon line was short. I was careless.

In 2009 Air France Flight 447 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean while three pilots huddled around the instrument panels ignoring the fact the nose of the plane was too high, it was stalling, and they were losing altitude at a rate of 10,000 feet per minute.  A warning alarm in the cockpit was sounding repeatedly: “STALL…STALL…”   The corrective is simple. Throttle back on the engine and let the plane level off.  Aerodynamics do this naturally.  Yet the plane was pitched upward at a 40 degree angle when it hit the water, engines turning at full throttle.  Any loose items in the cabin would have tumbling down the aisles, passengers would have been screaming, and yet the pilot was pulling back on the controls like Evil Kneivel performing a stunt in Vegas, refusing to believe the instrumentation in front of him.


Two days after Christmas I walked past this mini-favela on the Raymer Street bridge, and from beneath the folds of improvised habitat a radio was playing and I heard the familiar melody of “Careless Whisper”.  I wondered what role carelessness played in their coming to bivouac at this particular place in the world.

Every dollar I’m going to make driving New Year’s Eve is already spoken for by the tow charges I incurred this week.  But I’ve decided not to look upon it as a $400 exercise in municipal ass-rape.  Maybe it was part of God’s plan. I was being kept off the road that night, because someone else was due to be careless.

The Opposite of Bitchitude

IMG_8433 (1)

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 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.


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.  


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

“Nope, it’s just not appealing.”

Her mama raised her right.

Made in Mexico*


Nothing gets done in this city without a Mexican, people are fond of saying by way of explanation Why Things Are.  By people, I mean those who who are on the vertical side of the capital/labor equation.


People who live here, for example.   Why should they have to bend over and pick up their socks in the morning?   There are Mexicans* for that.  They’re everywhere. Abundant and cheap.


They don white aprons and fetch things for us.  Who knows where they live?  We summon them, and they appear. Why shouldn’t it be this way? Wasn’t it always like this?


Don’t they have houses in the Valley, or something?


Or apartments, of some kind?  Seriously, I don’t see the issue. Americans don’t want to do these jobs.


No, I don’t know what happened to the people who use to live in those apartments…I don’t know where they went.


They probably went back to Oklahoma, or something.  It’s the natural order of things.


Hey, have you been to the new Whole Foods 365 in Silver Lake?  Talk about abundance.  Unfortunately, there are really long lines…