Verisimilitude

MARRIED -- Pictured: Nat Faxon as Russ. CR. Matthias Clamer/FX

There’s a new show on FX called Married.  It’s set in the San Fernando Valley, and I must admit, rather entertaining.  Look honey, I said the first time I saw a preview, that’s us! The mordant relationship humor, the quiet sexual desperation, the abundant use of familiar locales, a male lead who dresses like he looted my closet, it’s all a bit close to home, but in a well-written way.  Just to set the record straight, Mrs. Upinthevalley is hotter than Judy Greer.  I want to make that clear.

After watching Nat Faxon, the husband, wander through the first few episodes in cargo shorts and hoodies, I assumed he was unemployed.  But no,  oh no no, he’s a ‘freelance graphic designer’.  She’s a stay at home mom.  I know this because the plot lines of  recent episodes have turned on this point.   And they, a family of five, manage to live in a lovely house in what appears to be …Studio City or Valley Village…on his earnings from digital piecework.  There’s another word for ‘freelance graphic designer’:  barista.  Or stockboy at Trader Joes.  Actually that’s not true.  There are a great many freelancers in this city who would trade it in for a steady job at Trader Joes in a heartbeat.  Apparently this is how TV writers, many of whom live in the Valley, think people in the Valley live.

Don't we all live like this?
Don’t we all live like this, without working?

Normally this wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me. Television shows frequently depict families living beyond what is feasible in the real world.  Usually, however, the characters are at least portrayed as having a job.  Maybe because Married is set in the Valley and maybe because we have frequented the locales used in the show (Oaks Tavern, Starlight Lounge) there’s a verisimilitude issue for me.  No one lives south of Burbank Blvd by freelancing, part-time.  Mrs. Upinthevalley and I live in Van Nuys.  And by live, I mean we bought a tiny s**tbox with 1948 infrastructure we spent years fixing up. Our mortgage payment is $2500/month.  That’s thirty grand a year, right off the top.   Well, not exactly.  First the government takes about twenty grand, money we never see.  Then Wells Fargo takes its piece. Then we face the bills.  We’ve never taken a vacation. We still use flip-phones.  We have dial-up internet. We have one car.  We use coupons. We have no savings.   We’re extraordinarily fortunate to have survived the Great Foreclosure Flood of 2009.  Barely.  To not have to rely on roommates.   There are ten people sharing a three bedroom house to the left of us. Six adults,  all legal residents of the US,  working in the service economy.  Collectively, they can pay the mortgage, and make car payments and that’s pretty much it.  There are seven people living in the house to the right of us. Three generations under one roof.  That’s how it’s done. Unless you’ve lived here for twenty years, or inherited property or have a six figure income, this is the only way it is done.

We  grind it out and grind it out, all of us, month after month, and hope the edifice of cantilevered credit by which we keep it all going does not collapse upon our heads.   And that we don’t drive each other crazy.

We say a little prayer each evening and are grateful. Even as we slum it in that vast terra incognita north of Burbank. We, the invisible people.

Two or three things about Her

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We watched Her last night and were given a glimpse of Los Angeles in the Near Future, as nice liberal Hollywood folks would like it to be.  It is a city which looks a whole lot like….Shanghai.  Except with white people.   Lots of white people.  It’s a Los Angeles without houses. Or traffic. Or strip malls.  Or bodegas. Or any Latinos.  Or manual labor of any kind. Imagine a Benneton ad airbrushed of two-thirds of the faces, and plunked down into a utopian city designed by Apple.   The characters all work in social media, spend their days interacting with technology, and are whisked home on silent trains to glass-box apartments with polished floors.

Who polishes these floors?
Who polishes these floors?

This bright future is of course only physically possible through the off-screen labor of a vast blue collar army, from construction to maintenance, who apparently live far away in a forest somewhere and stitch things together like the birds and squirrels in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  When beta male Joaquin Phoenix sits across from Olivia Wilde at a restaurant, unseen hands whisk plates away and refill glasses. Everyone is coming home from a shopping excursion at an expensive boutique, or enjoying an outing vaguely associated with cultural enrichment.  There is no drudgery and nobody’s fat.    It’s a paradise on earth for tech nerds. In addition to Olivia Wilde,  Theodore, slump-shouldered in his high-waisted pants and buster browns, manages to attract and spurn Rooney Mara, Amy Adams and a fourth unnamed hottie who physically embodies Scarlett Johansson who in turn embodies the voice of the O/S of Theodore’s new computer and with whom he has fallen in love only to have the operating system outgrow him and leave for another O/S inspired by Alan Watts, the man who introduced Zen buddhism to America.

Trust me, it makes sense in the context of the film.

If the future as seen by Spike Jonze is one is which cubicle workers live on a scale comparable to one-percenters today, they seem to be…if not miserable, then oddly unfulfilled by all the ease and gadgetry.   Anhedonia hangs over Los Angeles like a cloud.   What does this portend for the clock-punchers and strivers of Van Nuys, the invisible people of the urban forest?

A bike ride downtown

Air-conditioners, one loose screw from becoming a bomb
Aesthetics  and necessity at war

Downtown LA has two faces. Street level blight and architectural grandeur overhead.  Two adjacent worlds not necessarily in opposition but now a symbiosis of urban life.   Those who are drawn to the aesthetic of Tribeca West cannot wish away Skid Row. Those who live a blighted life cannot wish away the new, moneyed  intrusion. Inevitably one must give way to the other, but for now its sort of a draw.

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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.

An afternoon, a game of Scrabble, and Thou

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‘Let’s go for a drive’, says I. ‘Let us bid farewell to Van Nuys for a few hours.’  ‘Yes, Lex!’  replied Mrs. UpintheValley. Slip into her ModCloth dress she did and away we went.  Downtown!  Where she soon drew admirers…

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Giles is game for all outdoor adventuring, but Santee Alley was a bit chaotic and crowded for a small dog underfoot.  It’s a world of commerce in extremis. Men in slim-fit suits lurk next to the mannequins at the front of stalls whispering: ‘Fendi, Fendi, Valentino.’   Then you walk around to the service alley and there are Koreans in beat-up vans unloading garments in huge trash bags through the back doors of the stores.

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The contrasts are remarkable. Here we have another mixed-use industrial building being converted into high-end lofts….directly across the street, however:

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…there are poverty stores where the great unwashed are reminded not to wash their hands in the melted ice of the soda cooler.  The Brazilianization of California continues apace.

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After an hour or so, Mrs. UpintheValley had her fill of the garment district,  so we moseyed east of Alameda, to the Arts District.  This was more to her liking.

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There’s something about the arts district phenomenon, here and elsewhere, that fetishizes and celebrates the architecture of the manufacturing age. This is partly inevitable. Vacant buildings in a post-industrial landscape offer the dormant capacity needed for residential re-development. But that’s not the only reason. Even the most utilitarian structures from the golden age offer aesthetic delight and authenticity difficult to re-create today and this is part of the attraction. The workmen of the day (and it was men, working then) were frequently artisans, even in the construction trades.  As someone who has built and re-built a thing or two, let me bear witness to the staggering amount of craftsmanship and nearly flawless execution in this single brick wall.  Mark Zuckerberg himself couldn’t buy the people with the skill set to duplicate bespoke masonry at this level, at any price. The people who could do this sort of thing are no longer to be found in Los Angeles. What does it mean if the most enduring artistic achievements of the area prove to be the structures themselves?

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Just down the block from the swanky National Biscuit Company lofts we found this cafe tucked nicely in a narrow curved alley. Only after we walked around the corner did I realize beneath this brick patio was once a railroad siding that served the Nabisco loading docks. From this spot biscuits and crackers began their dispersal throughout the rail networks to the far corners of North America, once upon a time.  Now it’s a lifestyle playground.

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On the other side of this mural, we discovered the Urban Radish, uber-gourmet grocery.  I would be lying if I didn’t say we both lusted in the aisles of this store.  Artisanal cheese!  ($35 lb) Gourmet sausages! ($15 ea)  Dry-aged beef! (don’t ask)  Organic brickleberry flavored ice cream made from pastured cows! ($11/pint)  I would also be lying if I suggested if we could afford any of it.  Clearly, this is someone else’s lifestyle playground.

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But play, we did. We ended up at the ironically named Pour Haus, for happy hour and glasses of wine and a game of Scrabble.  At the moment of this photograph I had just laid down a seven-letter word to leap 60 points ahead. She is amused by any confidence on my part I will hang on to this lead.   ‘You have no chance of winning, my dear. None.’  The word was: Serious.

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She was almost gracious in victory.

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When we reached the limit of our $20 budget for the afternoon we returned to the car, and the trek back to the Valley and its particular cake of comfort and squalor.  On our way to the freeway we passed the American Apparel factory and its huge Legalize LA banners and the image seemed to encapsulate everything about our political and cultural moment in Los Angeles.  Here at the crossroads of the garment and arts districts, where the new economy embeds itself within the ruins of the old (Southern Pacific, no less), where the new fortunes are being made or blown…here, the poster child of DTLA proclaims to the world: ‘Pay Americans Less Money’.  Let there be no immigration law which would prevent millions of unskilled workers coming here to do battle in the labor marketplace with those already arrived and the native-born hanging on by their fingernails. May the devil take the hindmost.  They even sell Legalize LA t-shirts to the hipster kids who wear them in a celebration of ignorance of the laws of economics.   Van Nuys is boring. But it’s mostly honest. If you stick to a budget you can own a house there. For now.   I love my wife.

‘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.

Peasants, exit to the right

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Giles not sure how he feels about the New Way
Giles not sure how he feels about the New Way

Hikers to the top of the Runyon trail are now diverted around the property line of the Mississippi Riverboat casino masquerading as a house on Solar Drive.  (AKA the Pink Elephant, the Wedding Cake, the Big Pile)  Structurally dubious stairs have been cobbled together out of unpainted, non-pressure treated lumber, and spiked on 4×4’s directly into an eroding hillside. Giles created his own workaround to the new arrangement, his back kicks sending little babbling brooks of gravel rolling down toward the fire road.  I assume all this to be temporary. Negotiations with the city are…ongoing?

White people live here

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This is how much one appreciates a house in California when one can buy it for $40,000.  You let the yard go. Let the paint go.  Bit by bit, you melt into your gone to hell barcalounger and watch TV eight hours a night for years on end.  You peer out the ragged window blinds and say to yourself, ‘when did all these spics move into the neighborhood? Why me?’  Out of spite, you refuse to spay your cats and in short order they multiply across the cul de sac and into the blocks beyond,  like Darwin’s own nightmare .   The spics,  first generation strivers from Tegucigalpa, Luzon and Hanoi, buy up the houses around you at eight, ten times what you paid. They rise before dawn and set out over the canyons, like ants, to perform feudal service to the Liberal Gentry on the Westside.  On weekends they’re out patching the stucco and throwing sod. Then come nightfall, bouncy houses for the kids in the front yard and cumbia under the magic lights in the back.  All that Whoville-like endeavor up and down the block and there you sit in your ammonia-reeking sty, estranged from your neighbors, the grateful stakeholders in the Dream.