Heedless, In A Mirror Blackly

Jaywalking, Manhattan-style, the 1970s. Transgressions against civic order this small were leavened by the five murders a day the NYPD had on its hands in those years. In midtown, even the well-dressed joined the scofflaws.

The phrase “jaywalker” doesn’t begin to describe the suicidally aggressive people ubiquitous in the streets of downtown LA at night in 2018.

They lollygag across thoroughfares with their back to oncoming traffic. They lurk between lanes in the unlit portion of the block, clad in dark clothing head to toe, arguing with ghosts. Dark shapes shamble through dark backgrounds, towing crazy, shadow dancing in headlights, drug sweaty, angling for insurance payouts.

My biggest fear as an Uber driver has never been robbery. It’s clipping one of these guys and spending the next year fighting in court. They’re a menace and the City has granted them dominion. It no longer issues tickets on Skid Row as the recipients would never pay them. Unpaid tickets add up to bench warrants. Bench warrants require jail time. And jail is the states most valuable commodity. It won’t part with a bunk for less than a felony. Besides, the whole business of citing unsafe behavior is now racist and classist. We can’t have that. Our feral metropolis is Woke.

Into this heedless breach approaches our near future of headless Ubers. The case for Autonomous Vehicles is offered as a fait accompli, first as freight, soon as rideshare. Ecce technocratic determinism!

Progress™ suffered its first casualty this week in Tempe, Arizona. The victim, a homeless woman pushing a bike laden with plastic bags across a boulevard at night. The car had a human backup driver ready to seize the wheel in just such an eventuality, but she was otherwise occupied. It was a well-lit suburban arterial with no traffic. The victim managed to find the shadowiest spot from which to emerge, then proceed heedlessly into the path of an oncoming Volvo going 40mph.

And so we have reached the Black Mirror inflection point.

1) Let us tell it like it is: the Safety Operator is merely a psychological prophylactic. Human backups won’t hit the brakes in a pinch any faster than the autonomous functions will. Their role is theatrical; to look purposeful and not text behind the wheel. Whoops.

2) the Futurists can site the slow/non reaction of the backup driver as confirmation of the supremacy of AV technology. Human negligence kills 30,000 people a year, sayeth the mantra. Refusal to adopt transformative change is unsound reasoning. Luddite.

3) the beta-testing cities are now playing the role teaching hospitals do in the medical profession: patients/riders as guinea pigs. To paraphrase Atul Gawande, without teaching hospitals there cannot be doctors, including himself. Would he allow his own children to be treated at one? Never.

4) In 2015, Arizona declared itself a regulatory haven in order to attract testing operations from self-driving car companies. Other states will follow suit, competing for the business.

You can see where this is going. Robotics will force moral dilemmas we are hard-pressed to answer individually, which renders them all the easier to ignore collectively. The auto fatality rate will become our moral calculus. As long as it ticks down each year, the “robotics is preferable to people” ethos will prevail.

Which means self-driving Ubers are headed for the Serengeti of Skid Row Los Angeles and an inevitable paso doble with its peripatetic residents. If you were looking for a natural laboratory for perfecting the kinks in the autonomous backup braking systems you couldn’t do better.

As a driver I’m not sure who to root for.

Crossing Alameda

Darkness invisible, Arts District
La belle époque in the Arts District

Five years ago this summer 17-year-old Lily Burk stopped at the Southwestern School of Law to pick up some papers for her mother.  It was three o’clock in the afternoon.  As she approached her parked car on a side street off Wilshire, a career criminal and crack addict named Charlie Samuel, on a day pass from a nearby drug treatment facility, persuaded/intimidated/forced his way behind the wheel and drove off with her inside.  A half hour later they were at an ATM in Little Tokyo attempting to withdraw cash.  Surveillance cameras showed Lily standing mutely next to her abductor, surrounded by passerby.  She did not cry out or attempt to flee.  She called her father, a music journalist, then her mother, a law professor, asking for instructions in withdrawing cash using a credit card. Lily gave no indication she was in danger.  Only later when she did not return did they find the calls alarming. After walking her up to several ATM’s where she failed to retrieve cash,  Charlie returned with Lily to the car and he drove to an empty lot at 458 S. Alameda St.

On the other side of Alameda
The state of nature on the other side of Alameda

At 5 pm a mounted policeman encountered Charlie a short distance away in Skid Row, publicly intoxicated.   A search revealed a crack pipe, and the keys to Lily’s Volvo. He was taken into custody for possession.  No one knew he had any connection to Lily’s disappearance.  Or even that a girl named Lily had not come home. At this point even her parents hadn’t started making calls.

At dawn, following a night of agony for her mother and father in Los Feliz, Lily was found in the passenger seat of her car, throat slashed.  She bled out a short distance from passerby, in daylight hours, probably within minutes of her last ATM stop. She had dislocated her ankle in her final struggle with her murderer.

Why did she get back in the car has always been the tragic riddle in the middle of a tabloid horror show. How could she be so naive? Did the parents raise her that way?  Shame on us for even thinking that. The parents’ suffering is biblical. Who are we to second-guess? 

What did the killer have to gain?  He didn’t rape her.  She was unable to provide cash.  He possibly could have slunk safely away with an apology. Left unharmed, she might not even have called the police. Though she was in rehearsals to perform onstage at the Oakwood School in The Boston Marriage, she wasn’t given to histrionics, that much he could deduce. Lily could/might have chalked it up as a lesson learned and undertaken in the future a keener sense of self-preservation and a greater vigilance for creeps.

Charlie knew where to go. Fifth and Alameda, an industrial and lightly policed DMZ between the nouveau-monied world of Urban Radish and Wurstkuche and the blunt facts of the Union Rescue Mission. Venture a few blocks north and one is neck deep in sushi restaurants. A block east and one can purchase a pair of dungarees and a handmade batik blouse for $300. But turn left into the tent city east of downtown….and one enters a state of nature.

In a normal day in in Los Angeles, these worlds overlap only in the geographical margins. One can live in Los Feliz or Santa Monica and have only the most passing interaction with the small army of service economy workers who commute in from Panorama City to tend to your daily wants, nor know their names, nor understand their cosmology.  A particular worldly and artistically inclined teenager might maintain a wide circle of social acquaintances across the city, none of whom attend public school.  Or at least the sort of public school most Angelenos attend.  One can walk Wilshire Blvd, camera in hand, and admire the landmark Art Deco edifice that is the old Bullocks Department store and feel very much the urban explorer, and yet not push in half a block deeper to the SRO hotels, methadone clinics and four-to-a-room immigrant stash houses that lurk beyond.   One can be that Right Thinking Person who votes against the Three Strikes Law, or welfare reform, or border enforcement, or quality-of-life policing, and never know the consequences of the blight one piles up in someone else’s neighborhood.  Who feels categorical judgements about Good and Evil are for the unsophisticated. Right up until the day your neighbor’s daughter is snatched like Persephone and dragged down into the underworld on Hades chariot.

There they were in the car, Charlie and Lily, in a utilitarian No Man’s Land chosen by him where neither she nor he would be recognized.  What was said?  What was left unsaid?  We know only the denouement was not like its more famous cinematic analogue…which also took place on Alameda Street:

china 1

Jesus Week begins downtown

Trouble, walking through the frame
Private troubles, public crossing
St. Francis of Skid Row
St. Francis of Skid Row
Prayer, upstaged at the Belasco
Prayer upstaged at the Belasco
Neon, no longer lit, upstaged by new development
Neon Jesus withdrawing behind new development
Print fading on Spring Street
Print fading on Spring Street
I guess we've figured it all out
I guess we’ve figured it all out