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.
In three thousand rides, I’ve never kicked anyone out of my Uber. I carry no weapons, no pepper spray, not even a strobing LED penlight, like the bouncers use to disorient testosterone-raging patrons. I have no dash cam.
Perhaps I’m shooting dice with fate. Or just rather blessed. Or possessed of a sublimely American faith in my fellow man. But I drive bareback, and so far it has served me well.
No man has tried to grab my steering wheel while driving on the freeway, praise Jesus, on the 110, down in the luge run south of USC, at late-night velocity. Can you imagine the sphincter-clenching craziness?
Women break the rules in rideshare, not men. Because they can. They jump over the back seat to engage you in conversation. They shriek in the middle of chaotic intersections, posing for selfies. They demand to be taken to the Taco Bell drive-thru. They put their hand on your arm, and say “you think I’m pretty, right? Right?”
They fall asleep with their dress hiked over their hips, and don’t respond when you tell them they’re home, leaving you to decide whether to ‘nudge’ them awake, with all the potential liability that might entail. They grab the aux cord and volume control and play their jams. They stand with the door open, talking with their friends, causing traffic jams in front of nightclubs. They refuse to leave the car. They overshare. They interrogate you with intimately personal questions.
None of them have reached for the wheel, however. Deep in the limbic brain, they know not to.
So what to make of tragic, doe-eyed, all-American Justin Lavelle cruelly ejected from a Lyft on the Harbor Freeway by swarthy, villainous Tariq Rasheed, after being pepper-sprayed (allegedly) because he grabbed the steering wheel (allegedly) while having a panic attack, which he was prone to, though there is no way of knowing he was actually having at that moment? Justin was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking along the shoulder, sobbing on the phone (also allegedly) with his mother in Virginia.
Who could do such a monstrous thing? Would I? Perhaps I might.
A 1 am ride from WeHo to Long Beach is a big, big moneymaker for a driver. You have distance, plus a late-night bonus of 50-60%, plus open roads. One can earn an easy $50 in half an hour, and still have time to make it back downtown for last call. Rides like that make driving profitable.
It would take an extraordinary provocation to cut it short.
“I couldn’t move the steering wheel an inch. I could have died. I had no choice but to save my life”.
Only the two of them know why this ride went south in a hurry. Justin, sitting in the passenger seat, called his boyfriend to complain the driver wanted to drop him off. A three-way argument ensued, then Justin “held” the wheel (twice, allegedly), forcing Tariq to continue on to Long Beach, rather than taking an off-ramp. Bad idea. That’s how you end up walking along the freeway shoulder, wiping pepper spray out of your eyes.
This is how far he had to walk. Stay well to the right of the white line, and you’ll be okay. So why didn’t he? The mystery of human behavior is revealed in danger.
David Madson, Andrew Cunanan’s second murder victim, watched as he murder his lover, Jeffrey Trail, in his apartment. Then he rode round with him in a truck for several days. Given a number of opportunities, he didn’t attempt to escape. Friends of David saw him with Andrew, walking the dog, but he made no outcry for help. Perhaps he was hoping, when the moment came, he could talk his way out of it. Watching the Versace miniseries, we root for him to slip away, but we know he won’t. He was executed in a lonely spot by a lake where he allowed his captor to take him. Don’t Be A Victim 101 says: never let someone else remove you to a remote location. Don’t relinquish authority over your destination. Don’t let them take the wheel. Fight or flight begins there.
The circumstances in these two cases couldn’t be more different. Intoxicated he may have been, Justin’s desire was to get to Long Beach. Tariq’s desire was to get home to his two sons. He had no margin for error. There begins the tragedy.
The driver of the death car, the person who didn’t stop? Now he’s in a fight or flight with his own conscience. That’s a longer, stickier narrative.
So it’s 2:30am, and you’re heading home from the beach towns on the 405, listening to The Cask of Amontillado on the radio, headlights piercing fog banks at 80 mph, when a ping comes over the Uber app. An easy pickup, right off the freeway.
Easy pickups are the Uber driver’s fool’s gold, particularly when you’ve already called it a night. Convenience has a way of luring you in, then sending you all the way to West Covina just at the moment you’re ready for whiskey and a plump pillow, to punish you for wanting one more.
The GPS location is a bar. The bar is closed. No one is hanging out in front of the bar. Not a pedestrian in sight in either direction. So you wait, and listen to a chain-smoking actor from the 1940s melodramatically recite Fortunato’s visit to the wine cellar. At the five minute mark, a young woman emerges from a service alley behind the building: no shoes, no purse, short black dress, clutching an iPhone and looking like bees slept in her hair, or worse.
She skips to the car on the soles of her feet, shivering. She smells of alcohol, but she’s upright and near as you can tell, compos mentis. Though she looks exactly like the nameless victim in the opening scene of a slasher film, no one is chasing her. The destination is the Airport Hilton.
Nobody goes to a hotel, shoeless, at 2:30am for a good reason. Who goes shoeless across the pavement of an American city for any reason? Shoelessness is crisis in motion. Why no purse? The only thing which distinguished her in vulnerability from a deer in the forest was the glowing phone in her hand, which vibrated loudly every ten seconds, bearing urgency which had no explanation.
Was she okay, you ask. Yeah, why, she replies dismissively. Due diligence complete, you take her to the Hilton as she has paid you to do. You purloin glimpses of her in the rear view mirror.
She dashes across the bright entryway on dirty feet, flashing a glimpse of butt cheek as she pushes through the spinning glass door. You linger a moment to see if someone is there to meet her, but there isn’t. Is she arriving, or returning? Fleeing danger or diving headfirst into a whirlpool of foolishness? The elevator door closes on her, and with it any clear explanation.
On Friday, Mrs. UpintheValley is walking the dogs at her usual hour: 5am, i.e., total darkness.
Thwap Thwap Thwap she hears to the left of her. A blur, running past porchlights. She turns the corner, keeps walking. Two blocks later, the thwapping returns, and another blur runs past her, moving in the opposite direction.
Mrs. U bends down to retrieve dog poop, and suddenly there is a loud thump directly overhead.
A woman wearing only a bra top and a pair of leggings has jumped atop the roof of the car next to her. No shoes. No purse. No phone.
The woman waves her hands hysterically in front of her face. She’s terrified of pitbulls, she says. Meaning Trixie. Also, she’s just been pepper-sprayed.
She was a stripper at Synn, up on Sepulveda. There was a misunderstanding about money another stripper accused her of taking from a purse. She didn’t have her glasses on, she explained, and might have been mistaken in whose purse it was. But she didn’t take nobody’s money. Plus, she’d been drinking.
She had to drink because she hated stripping so much but she needed the money to pay for kinesiology school. But that didn’t mean she was stealing.
She had a long-winded, barely believable, non-theiving explanation for how she came to be running barefoot through the neighborhood in the wee hours with nothing on but a bra top and leggings and Mrs. U listened to it patiently until the police arrived, shined a flashlight into her blinking face and administered the Three Questions.
My life is boring, I think, when I consider these two night couriers, these harbingers of drama. How predictable I have grown. You can set a watch by my responsiblity. I’m a guy who lives in the Valley and pays his bills. Banks love me. People call me sir.
Oh, to heed the siren call of barefooted women, and swagger into the Mystery Elevator, careless and eager.
The first puker I had in my Uber was a teenaged girl who got ditched by her date.
“Make sure she gets home okay,” he declared nobly, before returning to the party.
“You’re not coming with me?” she asked in plaintive surprise. He kissed her through the window, then tapped the roof. I snapped the reins like a liveryman in Jane Austen and off to the Palisades we went, in unhappy silence. Then muted sobs. Then chest heaving, behold-the-perfidy of-men-type sobs. Then a baby hiccup, followed a split-second later by a giant splash on the floor behind me. No warnings.
Make sure s/he gets home okay is Uberspeak for I really want to have sex with someone else right now. Also, you have a ticking bomb in your car.
So….New Years Eve. Normandie Club. A guy asleep on his feet by the entrance, propped up by a girl in a tiny black dress who couldn’t wait to scurry back to the action. Make sure he gets….. to Long Beach. At 5x surge pricing, I wasn’t about to refuse.
I thought if I made it to the freeway without incident, we would be okay and navigated the bumps and turns like Roy Schneider with the truck full of nitro-glycerine in Sorcerer. We safely reached the 110, and then, as though sensing my relaxation, he roused himself from sleep, leaned forward and filled the car with a floral bouquet of cheap scotch, guacamole dip and gastric acids. The kind of thing that really gets deep, deep into the fabric and makes itself at home. I have a picture, but it’s just too gross.
Mrs. UpintheValley contacted eight auto detailers Monday morning. Only one got back to us. My new man crush, Arik from LA Mobile Detailing. On a national holiday.
Four years ago Arik was making crowns and veneers for his uncle before he decided to go into business for himself. Uber and Lyft drivers were a natural market for eco-wash services. He left cards at the Greenlight stations, thinking he might get some conventional cleaning business. Not quite. Emergencies of bodily effluence were the order of the day. He found himself taking puke calls with great regularity. He hired his brother to help with the grossest stuff. Most of the work is hand wash, enabling him to clean an entire car inside and out with two gallons of water. His business expanded to boats, planes, RV’s.
If Woody Allen is right and 80% of life is showing up, then Arik would embody the principle. He came back not once, but twice, to do battle with stench el pukus, which had an unfair head start seeping into the fabric all the way to Long Beach. A natural businessman, he was un-resentful of the call backs, and business is prospering. His entire family works for him now. His mother answers the phones. An Israeli immigrant, he’s engaged to an Azerbaijani woman, who is taking conversion classes at AJU. A very modern love story with old world trappings.
A pushcart + iPhone + Yelp = the New Economy. A pushcart – iPhone = Delancey Street, 1918. Technology may not improve human nature, but it will separate those who have their act together from those who are wanting. It will place rocket fuel to virtue and raise the cost of vice in equal measure. In something as basic as car cleaning the scissors graph of the two narratives part ways.
Los Angeles is ground zero for the new American century. It’s an animal like no other.
I picked up Tha King in front of the Sofitel in West Hollywood. He was headed to Bare Elegance, down by LAX, with $4000 cash, ready to make it rain.
But first we had to wait for his pool rider.
He was wearing a hoodie, and had a voice like Tone Loc from away back in the 90’s, gravely and debauched. He reeked of weed. As an icebreaker, I asked him if the ladies liked his voice that way. All conversation flowed from this point. He was surprised I didn’t recognize him, cause he made beats for Future. Also, Young Thug. That’s why he wore a hoodie. He couldn’t take it off in LA, cause the ladies were all up on him as soon as they saw his distinctive array of tats. He also wanted me to know, for a second time, he had $4000 cash in his pocket for the club.
It occurred to me to ask why he didn’t just take his shirt off and save himself the money, but that wouldn’t be in the spirit of our conversation and I didn’t want to step on his flow.
Tha King was flowing. His beats were the bomb. The shit be blowing up because the world wants it. They were so good, everyone wanted to work with him and he couldn’t go back to Texas cause people were looking to shoot him, which was too bad because he had a purple Bentley in his garage. But he was tearing it up in LA. He owned this motherfucker. Besides, the Cowboys were having a terrible year, and he was ready to be a Rams fan.
Did I know The Illuminati chose hiphop as the musical force for taking over the world? Oh, yeah. They got that shit locked down. Also, they cloned Tupac, then they killed the clone to deceive everyone. The real Tupac was still alive and kicking it in tunnels somewhere, waiting for his instructions to return. All the name rappers out there couldn’t carry the message because they had made deals with Satan. The proof of this was while they said God, none of them could say the words Jesus Christ.
Listen to that shit, none of them say Gee-zus cries.
In any case, Jesus had already returned in the form of Tupac, and was chilling in the tunnels.
When I got home I couldn’t help myself, I searched for Tha King on YouTube. There he was, flashing his tats and spitting the hard shit. His video had been up for a year and had enjoyed a total of….437 views. There were two fan comments from a girl who claimed to be his daughter, and by her picture looked to be about ten years old:
hi there its arie love you daddy
come to winsconsen dad love you daddy love you love you
For some reason, it made me think of this:
Here’s a bittersweet factoid: halfway through a massive buildout of the rail system, Metro ridership is down 16% in the past three years. Transit ridership is down nationally, but nowhere more so than Los Angeles, which alone accounts for nearly a quarter of all rider losses in America, even as we’ve connected the San Gabriel Valley to the beach through the addition of the Gold and Expo Lines. Anyone want to guess how many riders ended up in the back of my car?
This is a forbidden topic of conversation in policy circles, where 30-year plans continue apace, as though rideshare never happened.
On paper, transit oriented housing has much to offer. If we build snazzy new apartment complexes adjacent to train stations, the thinking goes, we can whisk people to and from work without anyone having to get into their car. It’ll be clean and fast, and people can sip their coffee and look down on the gridlock below with bemusement and relief. Throw in a little music, and….here, why don’t I just let Cameron Crowe perform the honors:
If we gave them great coffee! And great music! Such was the pre-Jobsian America before the iPhone, and the Cambrian explosion of apps.
Overlooked in the optimism is an inherent contradiction in transit-oriented development. It ain’t cheap. The very people who pay $2400 for a very modern, desirable one-bedroom apartment, fully stocked with amenities, are the least likely to utilize public transportation. The train ushers in the housing, the housing sets gentrification in motion, the transit-oriented demographic gets pushed further away from transit lines, where people can afford to live. If they can swing it, they take UberPool home for maybe a buck or three more.
I drive a lot of people home from work. As rideshare spreads, this is more and more of my clientele. In 2014, Uber lowered the per mile rate in Los Angeles to 90 cents, an act greatly decried by the drivers. The Uber argument was: the cheaper the rate, the more the demand, and greater revenue overall for drivers. Uber runs on metadata, and the data was correct. My hourly has risen significantly each reach year I’ve driven.
Los Angeles does not run on metadata, it runs on politics. Metadata says you match shift workers with employment zones. Which is to say, you start the rail system in Van Nuys, and East LA and Torrance, and you work your way toward downtown. Politics says you do the reverse. You build trains in the
whitest, wealthiest, liberal precincts of the city, where there is 98% approval for public transportation…for other people. Because, climate change.
Last Sunday, we rode the Expo Line from the Rams game to Bergamot. We whisked silently along the treetops, peering down into pedestrian-free neighborhoods brightly jeweled with succulents. Near the stations, giant excavations were being dug for parking garages atop which fresh Bento Box transit-oriented apartments would soon sit. It was the most civilized public transportation experience I have enjoyed since crossing Puget Sound in a ferry, way back in the ’90s.
I had two thoughts. First, if we cannibalized our not insignificant equity at Chez UpintheValley, a princely sum in the red states, if I could obtain every dollar of paper profit today, fat stacks of cash in my eager hands, there was nothing we could buy here, as far as the eye could see. Secondly, where we build trains, the whiter it gets. The whiter it gets, the more money I make driving.
Thursday night in Studio City, I get a ride request from a 7-11. A man gets in and asks a familiar question.
“How long have you been driving for Uber?”
“Really? Me, too. I’m a driver, also.”
“That makes us veterans. A rare breed.”
“You ever think about driving for Lyft? Cause I can sign you up right now, in ten minutes.”
We pulled into a parking lot of a bar, and a woman, his supervisor, hopped into the back seat. She opened a briefcase. They had a Lyft recruitment packet ready to go.
They were brand ambassadors. They seemed to already know who I was. Like how I had partially completed a Lyft application in 2016, that I never followed up on. They were friendly, eager to have me. Flirtatious, even.
“We can do the vehicle inspection right here in the parking lot, while you download the driver app.”
Suddenly it was happening. I was being jumped. By the rival gang…
They photographed me standing in front of the bar, submitted my background check, gave me my pink trade dress. I was on my way to being a bi-sexual driver, as so many of us are, now.
It explained a few things. Like the generous spike in Uber driver bonuses of late. And the fresh TV ad campaign for Lyft featuring Jeff Bridges and Tilda Swinton. Los Angeles is the biggest ride share market in the country, and Lyft has steadily been gaining ground.
LA is the misty plain upon which each company is intent on luring the other into a Pickett’s charge. If there is going to be a defining slaughter, it’s going to happen here.
Much is made of Uber as a tech company, but the technology behind rideshare is easily duplicable. The company owns nothing, not even the infrastructure. The phones and the cars are the infrastructure. What Uber owns, and Lyft desires, is the transaction itself, the connective tissue between rider and driver. This too, if you think about it, could be re-positioned onto a publicly-owned forum that could match drivers and riders, Craigslist-style, or more accurately Waze-style, in real time.
Rider demand is unslakable and growing. Cheap fares get people off the bus. Fewer working people on the bus means the derelict/normal person ratio becomes less palatable, leading yet more people to get off the bus. More cars on the road mean fewer people want to drive, and more car owners booking ride share.
So the drivers are the whole ball game. This may sound counter-intuitive. On paper, we’re 1099 peons from Palookaville. We have no collective bargaining rights, no benefits, no employment status. While nearly anyone without a DUI or criminal record can become a driver, in practice very few people do so. Most who sign up wash out after a few months. There is an initial gold rush when Uber enters a new market, after which subsequent driver recruitment efforts yield diminishing returns. In a few years the market is established and pretty much anyone who is going to be a driver is already doing so, or tried it.
Los Angeles has entered the Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars phase of rideshare. We’re all smoking cheroots now, trading our services back and forth to rival bands offering no quarter to the other. The money has never been better. I’m ready to be a
ho samurai. I got my ho shoes samurai sword/six shooter out tonight. I got my pink dress. I’m bisexual, for like, whatever.
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.
It is possible in Los Angeles to list your apartment on AirBnB on Friday afternoon, crash with friends or lovers until Monday morning, pocket the cash flow, and in the right sort of neighborhood prize the rent without a day job. That’s one kind of gig.
There’s an app you can use to clean the place and handle the next booking for you. That’s a gig for the cleaners. Also, the bookers.
If the guests can get hungry, they can scroll through their phone, and someone will shop for them, then dash to the door with food. That’s a gig for the dashers.
If your guest gets bored she can press a button on her phone and a car will arrive at the door in minutes and take her to the club. Driver gig. Or side hustle, to borrow the corporate sales pitch.
Her boyfriend can beg off, stay in the house and go online. “Take off your underwear,” he can text, and somewhere on the other side of the city or the planet a woman will remove her underwear, slowly, to keep the meter running. The sharing economy, in action.
More of us are working, but fewer us are employed. Our world is rounded in 1099 forms.
Uber has been extraordinarily good to me. So good I don’t have to consider renting a room in our house on AirBnB. Everyone knows what it’s doing to the taxi business. Few know Uber has become so ubiquitous in the past two years it has displaced rental cars as the most commonly utilized ground transportation, even among corporate clients. Last week Hertz disclosed massive losses, and may default on its bond debt. Its fleet of aging cars are flooding the after-market. The inventory spike will put pressure on the dealerships to unload inventory, which makes for a buying opportunity if you want a new car to drive for Uber.
Whole Foods has been good to me, but its formerly dominant position in organic foods is under extraordinary price pressure from all sides and it may not survive another two years in its current form. Uber has been selling rides at a loss since arriving in LA, with no plans to stop doing so. Amazon and Etsy are slowly strangling Fashion Square. On the other hand, the Century City mall is expanding, upscale. Our economy is bifurcating into hyper-luxury and dollar stores. Concierge service or waiting at bus stops with street people. UberPool is getting cheap enough to displace Metro riders. Soon, perhaps only derelicts will ride the bus.
Steve Jobs’ bicycle has democratized capitalism. It means MacLeod Ale can rise out of an auto repair shop, find a clientele, and prosper where retail never could. It also means 100 people are simultaneously gripped by the same fever dream of selling biscotti made from their kitchen. Ninety-nine of them end in tears. But they can console themselves by renting out the spare room. Unless there isn’t one. Then they make themselves scarce while tourists cavort in their bed and rifle their drawers.
It’s an extraordinary time to be grinding out a living in Los Angeles. Unless you’re not.
Perhaps we should hedge our bets, like my friend Johnny.