So You Want To Be A Juror?

Be prepared for roll call at 10:30 only to wait in the hall until 11:20 before they open the doors of the Chambre du accusation.  After 40 minutes of voir dire,  adjourn for lunch until 1:30.   Wait again in the hall until 2:10 for Mr. Serious, the courtroom manager, to poke his head out the door and call numbers. By the second day, we were fully institutionalized. Any murmurings from an official person and we queued up as submissively as lemmings.  We were on government time.

At least we were free of the rubber room downstairs, waiting to be assigned a case, listening to the Orientation Lady explain the Rules of the Hardship Exemption for an hour straight, like she was hawking cubic zirconia on QVC.  Five times she reminds us to turn in our forms, lest we not get credit for service. No certificate, no credit.  Understood.

Lunch is a blessing as Grand Park is rather grand at midday: yoga classes, futbol, and sunshine…

…and photoshoots on the City Hall steps.  A culinary cornucopia but a short walk away.  It’s the nicest public space in the City. Say this for the One-Party State, they spare no expense making downtown wonderful for public employees.

Then its back to the 11th floor and its unforgiving benches forged from the same material as bowling balls.  Confined in the brutalist aesthetic of the building, it’s easy to forget the rich legal history that played out here: OJ. Manson. The Menendez Brothers. The Nightstalker.   Remembering the acquittals, is there something about the confinement of jurors in such unforgiving architecture which causes them to bond with defendants?

The accused was frail and elderly,  a dead ringer for Ho Chi Minh, down to the wispy grey beard.  Small, 5’2 at best, like Manson. Bespectacled, inexpressive.  He sat with bony hands clasped on the table in front of him, listening to his translator through earphones as though receiving a telegraph report from overseas.  During the sidebar, he rubbed each of his fingernails in turn, like worry beads.   He and his lawyer sat at separate tables, and she did not confer with him.  When the judge read the charges: sexual assault against a child, an audible shudder passed through the room.   There were no family or friends in the courtroom bearing witness.  He was as alone as a man could be.

We were in the Clara Shortridge Foltz building, named for the first female lawyer in California.  Both Public Defender and D.A. in the case were women, and looked like TV Lawyers; trim, well-coiffed, ready for a close-up.   They wanted to know we felt about memory, ten years after the fact.   How we felt about the testimony of teenagers, recalling events of early childhood.  Were they capable of lying?  The defense counsel offered a hypothetical: if I told you a man was eating a BLT sandwich, how would you really know it was bacon between the bread slices? The D.A. altered the metaphor to the example of peanut butter and jelly: if you saw a man holding a sandwich and there was jelly in the corners of his mouth, would you consider that evidence he had eaten a PBJ even though you never saw him take a bite? The defense tried a new tack in the voir dire:  If a witness states she doesn’t remember something are you willing to not fill in the blanks? I could sense the lineaments of the case take shape and realized I wanted no part of it.

As Juror No. 60 in the pool, I was never called into the box. After three days of feinting and bluffing and prodding of the jury pool, both counsels engaged in a late afternoon flurry of peremptory challenges, not unlike the call and raise cycle that finishes off a poker pot, and suddenly the jury was seated and sworn.

Spared another week downtown,  I saw the Valley as so many of my neighbors do: as a stream of taillights inching up the 405, our non-negotiable tax.  I tried a podcast, but it didn’t hold my attention.   I found myself thinking of Hiromitsu Shinkawa, the Japanese man who was swept out to sea on the roof of his house after the Tsunami and floated in the North Pacific for a week before discovery. In that scenario, you have nothing. Or you can have nothing, plus God’s mercy.   That’s up to you.  Maybe that’s why the defendant’s hands were clasped, facing twelve angry commuters who hated him the moment they heard the charges.

 

To Live and Die in the Arts District

My encounter with the old Pacific Electric right of way on Parthenia put me in a railway frame of mind this weekend as I was walking down by the river.

Much of the Arts District sits atop a half-submerged grid of spurs to abandoned freight lines from the industrial era.

Before they were converted to lifestyle porn or subject to historic preservation, the James Hill Pickle Works, the Packard Building, Barker Bros., Edison, Nabisco, all had quotidian purposes.  The rail lines snaked right up to the loading bays.

Then, the world east of Alameda was wholesale.  Now it’s where you sample handcrafted gin made from tangerines.

Today all you see here below is retail.  There is a ten-story parking lot in place of the switching yard.

Only a generation ago, it was a perfect backdrop for a hard-boiled action film set piece.  If you’re familiar with the area today, this chase scene is a remarkable piece of unintentional found footage around Santa Fe and Mateo Streets when it was dirty, men were sweaty and everybody smoked.

There weren’t no murals then. No rescue dogs either. We soft now. About some things. When it comes to our American Civil War, the Sequel, we are pitiless with one another.

The Theater of Disappearance

Remember, we all must die.

Down at the Geffen Contemporary freezers run 24/7 preserving that which cannot be preserved… meat and driftwood and man’s creation, from birthday cakes to tennis shoes to bicycles, the vanity of earthly life arranged like bouquets…a memento mori for the anthropocene.    There is no heaven nor hell depicted by Adrian Villar Rojas, only the opulence of decay, and man’s fruitless quest for immortality. He is coy on the topic of the soul.  He places fish strategically, though perhaps ironically, throughout the exhibit, which is massive, 100 trucks of earthworks and salvaged pieces from prior exhibitions to form a stuffed timepiece, a man-made fossil. I suspect he doesn’t believe in divine judgment, though he trades on it.

What I really wonder is what Rojas would make of the Defenders of Boyle Heights. If they crossed the river to picket his installation, would he hand them bullhorns and cheer them on,  thereby defanging them?  Envaginating them, to employ a more proper metaphor, within his own work:

“Villar Rojas sees each project as an educational opportunity not only for those who visit the exhibition but equally so for himself. The institutions are given an opportunity, in turn, to reconsider the use of their own architectural assets, filtered or focused through the lens of Villar Rojas’s highly attuned sensitivities..this invasive dynamic allows Villar Rojas to develop an almost—in his own words—“parasitic relationship” with the institution; it is in this radical dialogue and exchange where both the artist-parasite and the institution-host explore the limits of what is possible and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not, what is negotiable and what is not. Ethics and politics, no less than agency and decision-making, are at stake in the project, opening a series of tough questions: When and where does a project actually begin?”

“Artist-parasite”…Adrian and the picketers are already speaking the same language, separated only by a million dollars in funding.

Remember, our disappearance will be theatrical.

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Who we’re told to be, who we pretend to be, and who we are, framed within a frame within a frame.  Faking it, loving it, and not caring.

Be pretty, I command, always with encouragement.  Turn your head into the light. 

We abandon the Valley on Sundays and forage the city for new locales. Stand here,  I smell blog,  and she peeks from doorways for me and poses Instagramably atop boats and in front of murals and descends staircases and makes faces until she gets bored with it (which is soon) but there is a window, a golden mean in an afternoon before the misty glow of alcohol hardens into caloric grumpiness and the dread of the looming work week when she’s eager to muse.  I am Pygmalion. We defy time.  We create our own mythology. 

Three Versions of the Life You’re Not Having in LA

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Why aren’t you living in this building? It’s only $24,000 a year, per bedroom.  You’re 26, you can afford it.  They call it adulting.

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Strong women love peeling potatoes in their under-lederhosen. Didn’t you know that?

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Your boyfriend is right around the corner, waiting to kiss you, and he’s dressed in a tailored suit.

When The Bike Was King

The first Arroyo Seco freeway
The first Arroyo Seco freeway

Imagine biking from Pasadena to downtown LA on a dedicated boardwalk, at rooftop level, then pedaling home in the evening under magic lights while serenaded by bullfrogs and crickets. Like the NYC High Line, but without pedestrians.

In 1900 you could do this. For about two miles.  The remainder of the California Causeway foundered for lack of paying customers, and the ungracious and untimely arrival of the automobile. Like so many magnificent wooden structures of yore, inevitably it would have burned to the ground at some point.  Instead the lumber was sold off, repurposed in local houses.

Oh, to have ridden upon it, even once!

A century later one is taken by the separation from streetcars and horse-drawn carriages. Here, in first conception, the bike fulfills transportation needs and communes with nature in equal measure.

Steve Jobs was fond of saying the condor was the most efficient creation in nature. It moved the greatest distance with the least amount of energy. Man, by contrast, was way down the evolutionary list. Until he got on a bike. A man on a bicycle was the most energy efficient creation ever. He moved at four times the speed of the pedestrian and used five times less energy. A computer, he added, was a bicycle for the mind.

Bicycles take less space, require less public infrastructure, impose less on the physical space of our fellow citizens. If unimpeded, a woman on a bike can cross the city like a wind deity. A boy on a bike arrives at school like a knight in training. Imagine if we had a whole network of cycleways like this connecting the neighborhoods of the Valley.  Oh, wait.

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So we are obliged in the absence of civic leadership to play Russian roulette on public streets, our laptops tucked neatly in our backpacks, spinning the pedals with Jobsian hyper-efficacy, masters of our own movement until a hit and run driver says otherwise.

Surcharges and Grace

Why optional?
The muddy waters of “optional”

Karl Strauss, a mid-major brewery out of San Diego, has a new branch pub in DTLA. Interesting beer, if not quite as fresh, or as sublimely complex as at MacLeod.  Good happy hour pricing.   Nice appetizer plates. Terrific service. Also, as Mrs. U and I were to discover, surcharges. Related to labor. Which are optional. Confused?

Lemme back up.  We knew about the surcharges in advance because they were referenced in the Yelp reviews.  Those who referenced them were outraged.   As in: “You should not pay it or even go here. I have never seen this kind of unethical business practice before and you should NOT visit here.  -Bo L.”  As in:  “there is a 2 dollar charge on our tab for some sort of minimum wage increase bs story our server told us about which we highly disagreed with so we took it out of the tip, that’s not cool. -Erik D.”

Over our beer flight, we talked about it with our server who explained it was due to the Los Angeles minimum wage going up Jan. 1. Instead of raising prices on food and beer (and purchasing new menus), and to keep the prices uniform across the other seven pubs in SoCal, they were adding a 3% surcharge. But, she assured us, we could talk to the manager if we wanted it removed.  Hello?

No, we said. If it’s going to wages, we’re happy to pay it.   Who would refuse to pay this?

As the Yelp reviews suggested, she let us know some customers were deducting the surcharge from servers tips.  On her behalf, we left $30 on $24.63.

Later, driving, I thought about it some more.  The surcharge wasn’t going to her. It was going to the kitchen people. Servers feed off tips. The back of the house runs on wages. Since the opening in November Karl Strauss has used four different terms: “GovMandatesSurcharge”, “EmployerSurcharge”, “KARLcharge” and now, simply: “Surcharge”, with the caveat you can opt of paying it altogether.

This raises more questions than it answers. If the 3% add-on exists to satisfy the minimum wage mandate, then it shouldn’t be optional. Raise prices and be done with it. Optional makes it seem like only some of the money is going to Carlos at the fry bin for making the garlic truffle fries just right, the rest is fattening profit margins.  The skinny girl in the black t-shirt behind the bar was implying it was going to her. Naturally, we overtipped (modestly) to compensate for those she implied were punishing her in retaliation.

Who, exactly, is electing to cross this unspoken line of shame and demand the manager to recuse them from the 3%?  As someone who works in Brentwood and drives Uber at night, I think I have a pretty good idea. The mannerless wealthy, that’s who.

Lemme paint a picture here.  There is a certain type of person who returns from a weekend ski trip to Utah, walks pass the cab stand at the airport into a waiting Uber, leaving three enormous suitcases on the sidewalk to be loaded into the back. As you enter the onramp to the 105 they demand to know, in a particularly anguished tone of voice, “why are you going this way?”   Because the 105 to the 110 to the 5 to the 2 is the most direct route, you reply.  By about eight miles. You point helpfully to the Uber app mounted on the dashboard, which displays the correct route on a map,  clearly visible from the back seat.  In response, they passive-aggressively open up their own navigation app, turn up the volume on their phone, and you spend the next half hour taking orders from a disembodied voice with a British accent: “in one quarter mile, merge right….” Orders which duplicate, turn by turn, the exact route you are already taking.

When you arrive in La Canada, a maid scampers out to take the bags as you unload them.  They disappear into their five bedroom house, unburdened. You’ve just saved them about $30. They tip you…..nothing.  And why not? Travis Kalanick told them the tip was already included.   Everybody knows you tip for service, even when not explicitly told to. But when you tell people it’s optional…

That’s the problem with financing wage increases through semi-voluntary surcharges.  A certain type of person will feel entitled to opt out, and it won’t be the guy who delivered pizzas in college. Anyone who worked in service or owned a business serving the public knows better.

Which makes me wonder why Karl Strauss is doing it this way.