Erocide, USA

America 2020, waiting for tokens

Suppose you woke one morning to find yourself inside a sci-fi film…

…where no one was allowed to show their face in public. Everyone had to stand six feet apart and line up in rows for basic goods and services.  Most small businesses were closed by government policy but corporate chains like Target were declared essential and prospered.  People who couldn’t telecommute were paid to be idle.  Paid more than what they were earning before the movie started.

No one was allowed to name the virus or its point of origin. To say the words Wuhan or Chinese or was to self-denounce as racist and risk de-platforming.  The limits of speech were proscribed by three tech companies in San Francisco which made no apologies.  Without an ability to organize online, resistance dwindled.   People were bribed with their own money to be docile (TBC: their children’s future earnings)  and they accepted it.   They gave the minutiae of their lives to Chinese software.  They streamed webcams on 5G internet switching from Huawei. They made TikTok videos and attended Zoom cocktail parties.

Drug dealers and pizza delivery and porn prospered.  The fat and unhappy got a little fatter and unhappier than they were already.  Main Street declined, the stock market boomed. In the name of safety the media normalized this, then the rest of us. We agreed to be faceless in public.  There are no emojis IRL to hint at irony or dissent.

Schools were closed to in-person instruction.  Students pretended to attend online and were handed “diplomas” in the form of yard signs. They queued up in cars for graduation while teachers danced and waved goodbye.

On any given day only 36% of middle and high school students in Los Angeles participated, i.e., submitted work, took tests, posted on a discussion board.  Another 25% logged on, but didn’t participate.  40% never showed up at all.

Knowing the kill rate on distance learning was 64%, the teacher’s union refused to return to the classroom in the fall.   They had terms:

1% wealth tax
1% millionaire tax
3.3% income tax raise
$250 million federal bailout
A moratorium on charter schools
Paid sick leave for parents of sick kids
Defunding of police
Medicare for all
Homeless housing as a “right”

That these wishes were not politically possible, or virus related, was beside the point. With taxpayer money, UTLA erected hagiographic billboards to celebrate their refusal to report for duty.

In China, the teachers and students reported for class. In Sweden, they never closed.

If you are a really well-off Chinese businessman you fly your kid to Los Angeles and pay $40,000 to send them to the prep school where Mrs. UpintheValley teaches.   You get in-depth, hands-on instruction from her. You get an entire software package designed by her.  So do the children of the American professional classes and entertainers and professional athletes. The parents of unnamed prep school voted 70% to return to the classroom and were only prevented from doing so by Gov. Newsom. The minute waivers are allowed, the kids will return.   Until then, there is a brisk side business for private tutoring at $135/hr.

If you thought the country was divided by privilege before, what does it look like now?  Have another stimulus check. Consult Weedmaps. Buy porn tokens. Those girls in the top picture are America. They can be bought. It says so in their Twitter feed.  Tell me how this movie ends.

From Wuhan, With Love

In January, when I reported for jury duty there were a number of older Asian women in the pool wearing masks, which I found a bit paranoid, though polite.  I chalked it up to cultural differences, but now you can’t buy one.  My nephew this week is in the desert winds of New Mexico wiring a cooling tower without a dust mask in violation of OSHA regulations. Masks are great for industrial particles. They don’t do squat against the pandemic, but he waits on Amazon to fill backorders.

On Saturday I picked up a woman in Marina Del Rey a bit miffed at developments. She owns a condo in Palm Springs which she AirBnBs for Coachella.  It’s certain to be canceled, she said, and soon she’ll have to refund the $5000 she’s already collected. Was she worried about taking an Uber, a natural vector for infection? Of course not. “No one under 60 needs to worry about COVID-19”. Is she right?  Yes…but there are caveats.

Mrs. UpintheValley went to Trader Joes yesterday to discover a run on canned goods.  She settled for pasta sauce.   She went to Target to double our reserves of toilet paper and tissue.  They were all out of bacterial wipes.  I went to the gym and had to stand in line to use the treadmill. The Zumba class was full. All the dumbells were in use, one sweaty hand after another trading off on the same damp bacteria encased grip.  Tame Impala played a sold-out show at the Forum last night.  Snctm, the $75,000/year Beverly Hills sex club, will be proceeding with its scheduled orgy this weekend.

We are free with our fluids in month two of the pandemic, then we reach for bacterial wipes and wonder about our neighbor’s cough. We go to the Laker game and then blame the President for not doing….well, something more.  He stopped flights from China in January and they called him racist. Tonight he embargoed flights from Europe for 30 days and the media is in an ecstasy of sanctimony: Too late! Our American Chernobyl is upon us!  Get the widow on the set!  Get me B roll of people on ventilators!

Except…its not happening. Yet. The seasonal flu kills 50-80,000 people every year, mostly the very elderly. Wuhan virus, we’re looking at hundreds.  So far, all elderly.   But…the vectors have been established. The bacteria has breached our shores, and if the epidemiologist math is correct, its spread should peak on March 21.  If there was a time to self-quarantine it was now. Naturally, I went out for a beer.

MacLeod was not wanting for business. Andrew was there and confessed to anxiousness.  We had entered a time of madness, but there was no way to wash your hands of it, he punned. On cue, the bartender brought me a ten-dollar bill I had mistakenly folded into a pile of singles I had given him.  It was a gesture of honesty, and I accepted it from his bare fingers, which had handled dirty sweaty cash all day, and then I put my hands into a bowl of peanuts and helped myself.  Everyone who came to MacLeod before 7 pm was now in my mouth.

I stopped at Target on the way home, just in case there were provisions for the siege not yet obtained and was greeted by an exodus of carts piled high with bleach, the wipes having sold out.  Alternatively, you could simply sing “Happy Birthday” twice as you washed your hands and achieve a better result.  I happen to be both a thorough hand-washer and at the same time an indiscriminate muncher of free grub from sneeze bowls. That is my particular dementia.

The last generic DayQuil in Van Nuys…for now

Get some DayQuil, Mrs. U advised, you never know.  I’m not entirely sure what good that would do in the event of respiratory illness but I scrounged the very last box in the store, forgotten on the bottom shelf.  When I got home she announced school was canceled for the rest of the month, all the private schools in LA,  and she would be undertaking “distance teaching”.  The NBA was suspending games until further notice.  Coachella was postponed to October.

I texted my nephew. The power was out in the mountains. He was assembling an automatic rifle by headlamp.   No cough medicine for him.  To each his own prep.

Rock Bottom, Meet Basement

Aldi, the estranged cousin of Trader Joe’s, just opened on Roscoe Blvd.   It’s about the size of TJs, but with a bigger parking lot.  The most successful grocery chain in the world with 8000 locations, and expanding aggressively into southern Cal, this is their first store in the Los Angeles proper, and but a mile from Chez UpintheValley.  Let’s check it out.

The product mix consists of a lot of private label brands I’ve never heard of,  containing items I’ve seen before in different wrapping. Or at least think I have. Is this not a Kind Bar, with a new label?

Isn’t this Duncan-Hines? That’s what ze Germans want us to think.  For all I know it is Duncan-Hines. Is this important? Probably not, in the case of cake mix.

But what about organic?   The Whole Foods version is on the right, a dollar fifty more.  So is Aldi buying from Horizon and undercutting on price, or are both Horizon and Aldi buying from third-party vendors? Or is the Aldi version deficient in some way? Are they getting the chaff from the first cut of quality control and passing the savings on to you?

The nutritional information is identical.  Aldi is opaque in the provenance of their products. Reading the label tells you nothing. Everything is “distributed” from Aldi. Inc., Batavia, Illinois.  One can see how semi-familiar packaging flattens the branding distinction, bringing the price point forward in the decision process.

Do I really want to go below 50 cents a pound for pig meat?    Five more days of Lent….think it will keep?  Tempting…

Here’s where the store goes sideways for me:  a surprising quantity of non-food items clogging the aisles.  With limited shelf space and a deficit of certain products I was hoping for -better beer selection, more vegan ice cream, Trader Joes-like stuff- why so many steering wheel covers, fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide alarms, gun safes, dog crates, bookshelves and garden furniture? Do you really want to sell shovels and bagged soil three blocks from Home Depot?   How about a two-ton car jack? Why these products? Were they remaindered?  The margins on a square foot basis can’t possibly work. Unless they can.

China is 43 miles from Van Nuys, disgorging craptastic product lines at the Port of Long Beach like the Normandy invasion.  Every single day. In that environment, nothing should surprise us.

Aldi has the warehouse feel of Costco but without the scale.  Priced to compete with TJ’s, but grey, institutional and cheerless, and lacking the unique gourmet items.  I was hoping for Fresh and Easy,  which I loved, and this is not it.    Fresh and Easy is dead as last weeks mackerel and Aldi is expanding, so what do I know?  Then again, so is Harbor Freight.

Take the Copper, Leave the Drywall

Tweaker…picking the remains, Van Nuys.

The timbers, I notice, are well-preserved, straight-grained and true.  Old growth, probably. You can’t get it anymore, at any price.

Anything hockable has been stripped, hauled off in shopping carts and bartered at the scrapyard, then converted to crack cocaine and exhaled,  unsatiated, in a fit of tachycardia in a tent by the Orange Line.  The metals will journey onward via container to Long Beach, then China, which will melt it down and sell it back to us as a consumer good.

In a couple days, perhaps tomorrow, the carcass will be demolished along with the other homes and taken to the landfill, save the fireplace masonry, with will be salvaged by the specialist, and retailed for a buck a piece at Balboa Brick.


Bamboo flooring! Oh, the hopes someone once had for the place.

…and a swimming pool, even though the backyard abutted the 405. The concrete will be broken down into aggregate and live again, as some sort of structural underlayment, perhaps as a breakwater.

In six months the lots will be consolidated and a six story Bento Box apartment building will sprout in their place.

I think of the Moroccan tile we installed over the summer.    How satisfying it felt as the back butter grabbed the floor and the corners met precisely, within 1/32 an inch of tolerance.  How permanent.

Hope is not a plan

No kidding
No kidding

Just as a thought experiment, substitute the word neighbors for in-laws as you consider this bus shelter PSA which sprouted across the Valley this week. For it is a peculiar moment in which we have placed ourselves, as a nation.  There are now fewer people working and paying into the system than not. Next year, there will be fewer still. Fully one third of able-bodied working age Americans are unemployed and living to a large degree a life subsidized by the state. Or to put it another way, by their neighbors.  Except we usually don’t think of it in those terms. No one really says ‘I’m gonna walk across the street and ask John if I can borrow a cup of sugar and this month’s rent. I’m gonna go next door to Alice and ask her for groceries and this month’s 401K deposit.’  And yet….what are we doing, but precisely that?  In a rational policy marketplace we could have come to a reckoning with our obligations and adjusted accordingly.  Instead, we keep borrowing 40 cents on the dollar to postpone the inevitable for another year. Which is to say, we print money, i.e., sell Treasury bonds. And who has to pay the bonds off?  Maybe us, maybe our neighbor’s children. Maybe his children’s children, not yet born.   We have passed agreements paying out to retirees in public pensions far in excess of what was paid in. We know this, yet we cannot summon the political will to make even modest curtailments of benefits for the survival of the system.  Even in the face of municipal bankruptcy we don’t do it, at least not in California. There’s a phrase for this. It’s called eating the seed corn.

This is not the Chinese way. The Chinese are working. They are saving. They are buying the bonds our grandchildren will be working to pay off.  They are coming to our schools and dominating our STEM programs. Then they are taking what they learn and selling it back to us at a profit. Meanwhile, an unhealthy percentage of Americans are sitting at home watching TV and listening to appeals from personal injury lawyers and sucker bait payday/car title lenders, the subtext being you can painlessly obtain something for nothing.  The conventional wisdom, particularly here in California, is deficits don’t matter. They can be rolled over indefinitely, or failing that, if push comes to shove and we really, really need to get serious, we can always reach deeper into the Magic Money Bucket that is Apple, Google and Facebook, and grab even more than we already are.  As though these companies were a permanent extractable resource, like coal. Fifteen years ago, Apple was staving off liquidation. Google was not even a listed stock. Mark Zuckerberg was in high school.  Microsoft and AOL were the dominant players, and look where they are now.  No one in a world of Deep Think tome-wielders and stock pickers predicted what happened.  Literally, no one.   To hang the future of California on three new media companies when no one knows what the next 15 years will bring, is to cleave to hope. And hope is not a plan.

Remnants of industrial America

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This spur went somewhere, once upon a time.  People manufactured things right here. The things were loaded onto railroad cars and dispersed across the country.  We don’t make stuff anymore. We design things.  Incredible stuff, actually. Like this iMac.  We send the blueprints to China and they make it for us.  The designers do very well in this arrangement.  The Chinese do well. Industrialists in China don’t count their money, they weigh it.  They give some of it back in the casinos of Macao, but mostly they double their return by buying our Treasury bonds.  We sell bonds to raise money to send checks to idled Workers Who Formerly Made Things in This Country.  We have decided, in lieu of Unpleasant Decisions, to make our children pay these bonds for us. A century ago, the Chinese sent coolies to America to build the railroads.  Today young American women doll themselves up, get on the plane to Shanghai and Macao and offer themselves as mistresses to Chinese industrialists.   It’s a living.