Careless

nintchdbpict000290936724

What’s with all the dying? said Mrs. U.    Everyone just stop for a few days.  Please.

The day after Christmas, I drove two 20-something girls home from Santa Monica. George Michael was playing on the radio and they jumped right in, singing note for note.  They were careless, happy drunk, with no reason not to be unguarded. They knew the lyrics to “Faith” from memory, even the vocal inflections, which made no sense to me at all as they weren’t even born when the song came out.

Did they work in a dental office?  No.  Did their mothers play the album for them? No, they said.  If they didn’t hear it on the radio a thousand times during high school, how did it reach them? Some songs just achieve critical mass in the elixir of pop culture, and decades later emerge, like a catechism,  from the mouths of babes, without them knowing why.

When we tell someone we love them we remove death’s power to take them away from us. If we sing their songs, they never leave.

My evening began by driving a nice young gay boy to a George Michael tribute party downtown.  “Too early,” he said. It felt exploitative on the part of the club promoter.  Not enough to prevent him from attending, however. All his friends were going to be there.  George had become a recluse because he couldn’t bear people thinking of him as fat, and now all the pretty skinny people were grinding on each other in his honor.

Somewhere in the downslope of his fame George either overdid it or had the usual, but it was a scotch/speedball/fettucini alfredo too far. He was overtaken by his own carelessness. He let himself go.

IMG_2267

This is how easy it is.  Would you park to the right of this sign?  I did, and I read it.

I could take refuge in the excuse the signs give multiple instructions and seem to be saying different things. Or the crucial part, the one indicating hazard, is in shadow. But the truth is, quite plainly there is a line in the ground in Brentwood and if you park to the right of it, your car will be seized. Yet I didn’t see it, even though it was right in front of me, because I wasn’t looking for it.  I was thinking only in terms of two hour parking ending at 6pm, and it was 4:03 and I was already late for my shift and if I parked right there, two minutes from the store, I wouldn’t get a ticket and I could still be within the grace window of timeliness.

My horizon line was short. I was careless.

In 2009 Air France Flight 447 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean while three pilots huddled around the instrument panels ignoring the fact the nose of the plane was too high, it was stalling, and they were losing altitude at a rate of 10,000 feet per minute.  A warning alarm in the cockpit was sounding repeatedly: “STALL…STALL…”   The corrective is simple. Throttle back on the engine and let the plane level off.  Aerodynamics do this naturally.  Yet the plane was pitched upward at a 40 degree angle when it hit the water, engines turning at full throttle.  Any loose items in the cabin would have tumbling down the aisles, passengers would have been screaming, and yet the pilot was pulling back on the controls like Evil Kneivel performing a stunt in Vegas, refusing to believe the instrumentation in front of him.

IMG_2254

Two days after Christmas I walked past this mini-favela on the Raymer Street bridge, and from beneath the folds of improvised habitat a radio was playing and I heard the familiar melody of “Careless Whisper”.  I wondered what role carelessness played in their coming to bivouac at this particular place in the world.

Every dollar I’m going to make driving New Year’s Eve is already spoken for by the tow charges I incurred this week.  But I’ve decided not to look upon it as a $400 exercise in municipal ass-rape.  Maybe it was part of God’s plan. I was being kept off the road that night, because someone else was due to be careless.

Step Into My Headless Uber

Oh c'mon, don't be so uptight
Oh c’mon, what are you waiting for?

This week Uber began Beta-testing driverless cars in San Francisco, without passengers.

“In a challenge to state authority, Uber is refusing to seek a permit for the self-driving cars it rolled out in San Francisco on Wednesday, prompting California regulators to immediately attempt to shut down the program…California defines “autonomous vehicles” as vehicles that can drive without a human operator. Uber says its cars don’t count because they always have a driver behind the wheel ready to take control if the car encounters a situation it can’t navigate. Uber intends to launch driverless cars in the future, but the technology isn’t there yet.”  –San Jose Mercury News.

At a holiday dinner, I asked a teacher of robotics if she would be willing to beta-test a headless Uber without a steering wheel-grabbing back-up driver at the ready.

Her answer was unhesitant: No.

“I know from experience all the things which can go wrong.”  Her husband, an engineer, gallantly offered to play the role of, as he put it, Neil Armstrong.

MTM5NTIzMjMxMDM5MTA0NDMy

I can foresee a driverless long-haul truck on the 405 more readily than a driverless Uber doing pickups on the streets of Los Angeles.  Ride-sharing is a social process. It’s also a very improvisational one. There are few acts behind the wheel more complicated than plucking two drunk people from the corner of Santa Monica and Robertson on a weekend evening.  West Hollywood permits clubs and restaurants, no matter how large, to operate with exactly two parking spaces, one for passenger loading and another for the valet.  The drop-off/pickup process plays out in a gray area of good manners and traffic laws, with cars half in the street, half in the crosswalk, double-parked, texting alternative locations two doors down, driving around the block, waiting for bar tabs to be signed.

In brief: there is no legal method for getting it done without creating gridlock, and that’s when the passengers are behaving well. Improvisation keeps the city flowing.

Enter the Headless Uber.  That sleek grey Volvo with the radar/camera array on the roof is going to proceed exactly to the address entered on the app. A third of the time, the pin drop is on the wrong side of the street, or in the service alley. No matter, Headless Uber is going to the pin and it’s going to stop and wait right there…and wait, in the only available place, the street itself. The only alternative is to circle the block until the single space loading zone in front of Pump opens up. For how long, 10 minutes? Twenty?

It won’t respond to honking, valet parkers waving LED flashlights, outcries of irritation or obscene gestures. With that simple act of traffic obedience, lane one of Santa Monica Blvd. will disappear, from Doheny to La Cienega, so Uber Technologies, Inc. may defend itself from civic injunctions for being a serial traffic scofflaw. Lane two is going to have carry the rest of the thru traffic, the cabs, the limousines, and the old school Ubers manned by second-jobbing drivers doing night work.  The Social Contract in Los Angeles will be put to the test.

And yet!  There will always be early adopters. Techies, men mostly, won’t be able to resist the siren call of new gadgetry.  The same people who paid the equivalent of $5600 for the 128K Macintosh in 1984, with a screen the size of the iPhone 7, pixellated graphics and no applicable real-world functionality… those guys will elbow each other out of the way for a shot at Headless Uber action.

Look at us, we’re Neil Armstrong!

I can think of three wrinkles already.  1) alcohol; 2) irritation with being made to wait; and 3) machismo, fueled by nostalgia for 2015.

Club security ends at the velvet rope. The sidewalk operates by its own rules.  A latent and only half-understood class consciousness will re-assert itself, even though Los Angeles won’t have a name for it.

Call it the Tragedy of The Commons, 2.0.

Take Me to the Nail Salon, for 79 cents

The future of ride share?
The future of ride share?

Mrs. UpintheValley decided she wanted to get a manicure over the weekend. ‘Twas raining, so she called an Uber.  She claims her app was set to UberPool by mistake, but a car was at the door in three minutes, having already picked up another passenger in the neighborhood.  Off they went, and she was deposited, quickly and dryly, two miles away at the salon.

Her bill: 79 cents.

You can’t even buy the weekly edition of the LA Times for that.  You can’t get a candy bar at the corner store.  The Metro bus is $1.75, one way.   Normal UberX is 90 cents per mile, with a five dollar minimum, and a four dollar cancellation fee.  But if you can slipstream in as the second passenger on a short Pool ride, you can turn another working American’s Prius into the Tap-Tap bus of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Uber drivers, needless to say, hate UberPool.   First world service at Third World prices, with first world overhead eating your balance sheet.

“But I tipped him!” Mrs. U says in her defense.  Not having any singles handy, she handed him four quarters.  I type this to shame her.

To be fair, UberPool rides are rarely this cheap, but they are now an inescapable part of driving.  The arc of economic justice may be long, but in the end, ubiquity bends all prices toward zero.  In theory, a driver can turn down Pool rides. In practice, once his acceptance rate drops below 80% (and it will if he says no to Pool) he loses driver incentive$. Without incentive$, his take home drops below what one could justify for wear and tear on a good vehicle.  Pool was created in answer to rider dissatisfaction with surge pricing. Uber created incentives to mollify drivers dissatisfied with Pool pricing, but the catch is you have to drive a whole lot more than you normally would in order to attain them.

It’s a splendid thing working class people can avail themselves of an affordable ride hailing service.  It’s a blessing for the formerly unemployed and people in need of extra night work to have a side gig. The unknown element in the equation is the means of production: the car itself. We are very early in the life cycle of ride-share apps.  In my experience, the Uber payout justifies new tires and brake pads. New transmission, not so much.

When the heavy repair bills roll in this coming year or two, what then?  How many drivers will leave the app?  How many will buy the new transmission? More telling, how many will stay on the app but ride the old transmission until it spits metal shavings and drops like a hansom cab draft horse in the August heat, right in the middle of the 405 commute?

Most of them, I suspect.

Jack Baruth, who writes beautifully at The Truth About Cars, has some thoughts on that topic.

Aren't they pretty?
Aren’t they pretty?

My wife tipped her manicurist three bucks for a job well done.  She can afford to be generous with my money.

I wonder what my brother Uber driver did with the quarters.

The City’s Shameful Secret

IMG_8675

It was here, not long ago, during a break in my nocturnal journeys around the city, I overheard two women discussing theater, and bumbled inadvertently into a sketch from Louie.

Me: “Are you an actor?”

“Why are you asking?”

“You were talking theater, and I–”

“That’s not something I can readily answer.”

“Okay.”

“When you say ‘actor’, what do you mean?”

“Are you of a theatrical inclination? Do you go on auditions?”

“Why do you want to know about auditions?”

“I just wrote a–”

“Auditions are a private matter.”

“I was speaking figuratively. But I accept your reticence on the matter.”

“Really, it’s not something you should be asking people.  It doesn’t belong to you.  Hate that conversation. People make assumptions.”

“Hate that conversation, too.”

“Then why are you starting it?”

Friend: “Yes, maybe she’s acted. Maybe. But you shouldn’t assume that.  It’s demeaning.”

“Acting? Or discussing it?”

“What the f*** do you do, anyway?”

Bloggers give it away for free, that’s what we do. We easy.

Musicians also give it away for free, but they often get laid in the process. Artists pay to hang their work in a group show, and people come to swallow the hors d’oeuvres and discount chardonnay and flirt with other patrons of the arts and make plans to meet up later and ignore the obscurantism on the walls.  Theater is a pro bono exercise in social obligation.  Stand-up comedians have to persuade a requisite number of their friends to pay a cover charge and a two-drink minimum or the club owner won’t let them assume the stage for a 5 minute slot on open mic night. YouTube is a global flea market of platonic self-conception and exhibitionism which generates a billion dollars a year in ad revenue for …Google.  Unless you’re in Jenna Marbles territory, you don’t see a dime.  Most of her money comes from products she promotes through her site.

IMG_0336

At CicLAVia I watched Jamey Mossengren, a “world champion” juggling unicyclist spend the last ten minutes of his performance aggressively panhandling from the audience. He had worked twenty years perfecting his craft and could we not thank him by dropping some singles in his bag? Some of us did. Most didn’t.  His naked insistence he be paid for his work was noble, and at the same time, degrading.  I’ve felt better leaving a dollar on the tip rail at a strip club.

So why is there, in the city Greta Garbo built, something particularly shameful about being an actress?   The woman in the bar was the third in recent weeks who responded angrily to inadvertent conversational tripwires on the apparently forbidden topic of thespianism.

Perhaps because Hollywood is thought of as a giant machine for taking money away from pretty people who want to be famous.  To admit to longing is to confess to being a sucker.  To admit spending milk money on lottery tickets. To admit to carrying a crack pipe of ambition in your purse.  To feeding off the half-eaten desserts of wealthy people at your catering job.

What would Barbara say?
What would Barbara do?

It is all those things, of course, and probably always has been.  But there wasn’t Vanderpump Rules in Barbara Stanwyck’s day.  A successful actress didn’t ‘play herself’ for $700 a week in a cross-branding exercise promoting a rich woman’s portfolio of restaurants and claw for screen time by….acting out.

giphy-1

Brava.

A Night of Wet Pillows

Javits Center

In a long election year of Uber driving, I heard many things. On occasion, I was asked pointed political questions.

Guess who people wanted to talk about?

Some were eager to let me know how wonderful or terrible Trump was. Others, very furtively, wanted to suss out my views.  It was phrased in terms of gee, what are other people saying? 

Quietly, they were seeking my consent to vote for him.

Lotsa Bernie People in my Uber, too, and they were a very agreeable bunch.  Free college for everybody may not be sound fiscal policy but it galvanized people and you have to give a measure of respect for the enthusiasm of your fellow Angelenos.   Bernie put meat on the table. So did Godzilla.

No one asked about Hillary.  Her name went unmentioned in Hillary-ville, across a span of 1,436 Uber rides.   Jill Stein was mentioned once.

A month ago, I watched her motorcade roll down San Vicente on her way to a fundraiser…black, silent, funereal, an ambulance bringing up the rear.    In Brentwood, no one waved.  In the break room, my Latino co-workers ignored the TV when election coverage was on, which surprised me.

The gulf between moments like these and the smug triumphalism in the media could not have been broader.

Eight years ago, Barack Obama was presented to the world as Jesus Christ in political form.  Once in office, he had nowhere to go but down.  Even competent governance would play as anti-climax.

The Trump election has been presented to us as an extinction-level event for democracy.  If he manages to not burn down the White House while chasing Melania through the East Wing with a cigar in his mouth, he will surprise to the upside.  Imagine all the wet pillows then.

Club Etiquette, Explained

clubbing

The ladies have something to say about men in the clubs.  The men are doing it all wrong.

The male approach is awkward/douche-y/pathetic/creepy.  Compounding their errors, they frequently fail to approach at all.

They get too close when they dance. Unless they never dance, which is most of the time.

They stare in a weird way. They never look up from their phones.

They lack confidence. They don’t take hints their attention is unwanted.

They smile as though we were smiling back at them, which we’re not. Most of the time.

We dance together in a protective formation of three. Don’t they know that’s a clear message to squeeze into the space between us?

Except for the guy with the Adam’s apple.  What was he thinking? Clueless.

We spend an extra hour getting ready, just so we could ignore them. Why don’t they understand that?

Why don’t they look like Zac Efron? Why can’t they appreciate our ample booty?

Zac has permission. So does the guy is the blue shirt. Is he looking over here?

We talk amongst ourselves with our foreheads practically touching.  Our loud laughter is a verbal cue to buy us a drink.

But a drink doesn’t entitle them to linger. Don’t they respect boundaries?

There’s a right way, and a wrong way.

They doing it wrong. Losers.

Text me, Tinder boy. Can’t you take a hint?

F*** him. I’m going make my friend flirt with the Uber driver.  He has that sad, married look.

The Opposite of Bitchitude

IMG_8433 (1)

Here is something I’ve been turning over in my mind for awhile: working-class Latinos are the only people who have ever tipped me as an Uber driver.   Tipping is not expected.  Nor hinted at, by me.  It rarely happens, but when it does…its never white people.

How do I know the tippers are working-class? Because I drove them home. The more modest the neighborhood,  the likelier the tip.  In a city as diverse as Los Angeles is seems odd the blessings of gratitude should be so unevenly distributed among its peoples, but there it is.   You save someone an hour on the bus to Huntington Park, or $50 on a cab, or worse,  a potential DUI, they put a couple singles in your hand and thank you for delivering them safely.  It’s a learned behavior.

These are my happiest rides, and it’s not the money.

Latinas are chatty.  They sit up front, they want to know all about you. If she’s going to Pacoima, she will find out you live in Van Nuys and this is your last ride of the night, and she knows implicitly there will be no 30 minute dead-head return home.

“How serendipitous for you.”

You speak of your shared joy of multi-syallbic words. She tells you her brown family never played Scrabble when she growing up, they played Sorry!, but she understood, even as a kid, it was a first-generational thing.   When her son is old enough, she’s going to make him play Words With Friends as a condition of having a phone. She’s also going to be open with him about sex, in all the ways her parents weren’t,  when he’s old enough to ask.

Or she’ll tell you she was born in Nicaragua and lived her whole life in Cudahy and her favorite musician is Toby Keith.  “I should have been born white trash,” she laughs, as you weave like a tank through street fireworks in Boyle Heights on Fourth of July. ‘”I don’t care if all my friends think I’m a redneck.  Every country song has a story.”

Or she’ll talk about her commute, or her worst customer of the week,  or the worst date she ever had, or why she came back to the church.

Polite, always polite, even when intoxicated. Like their parents beat it into them.

We’re living out Uber as the ride-share it was meant to be and not the discount limo in Prius form it has become.  In a city of a dozen dialects, shift work is the common tongue. They’re just getting off theirs, I’m in the middle of mine. In recognition, there is empathy.

As California inches ever closer to becoming Downton Abbey on the Pacific, there will be a growing class of people with no knowledge of work, as it has been historically understood. Or have any need to work at all.  Or living on the dole. Then there will always be a much larger population which does nothing but grind out a paycheck.  Then there is a billionaire in San Francisco who tells the customers not to tip the driver, the tip is already included.

Proving truth can be more ironic than fiction, the billionaire grew up in the Valley.

I don’t know how this is all going to play out, or how much longer the center will hold. Recently Finder.com created a profile of the “average Californian”, drawn from statistical databases. Turns out she’s Latina, lives in Koreatown, works in retail, and commutes 28 miles a day.  That should give us all a little hope.

IMG_8421

The woman in the picture hasn’t been one of my riders, but she does take Uber from time to time.  I work with her during the day.  She also lives in K-town. Adding another layer of historical irony, she was born in the wake of Prop. 187.  Now she assists the grasping women of Brentwood in obtaining cage-free, nitrate-free, non-GMO gourmet food items.

I asked her if she would appear on a reality show if it meant she could quit her day job.  

Nah.

Not even if it meant never having to punch a clock again? Ever?

“Nope, it’s just not appealing.”

Her mama raised her right.

Ditching Beauty

Cleavage

Last night, around midnight, I got a ride request in a swank beachfront condo community.  My passengers were waiting outside the building when I arrived.  Three men, two women.  This was going to be a problem. Only four seat belts.  This happens from time to time and I’m obliged to explain seatbelt law and liability to intoxicated people, with very limited success.

But only two of the men and one of the women get in the car. The third man remained on the sidewalk talking to the second woman, sitting on the front stoop. Even in the dark, I can see she had a terrific profile.   Everyone is a bit wired.

“Okay, drive around the corner and wait.”

I drive around the corner and wait.  Much texting ensues between passengers and the guy talking to the woman in front of the condo.

“We’re trying to ditch “XXX”.  You know who she is, right?”

They named an adult film star who is broadly famous for being famous in and out of the porn world.

We waited.

“This is a kind of a reverse Ray Rice situation,” they explained.   “We’re doing an extraction.” XXX’s boyfriend had summoned them to his condo to witness her outlandish behavior and help him get her out of the building with a minimum of drama.  They told her they were all going out to a club together.  A reverse Ray Rice situation sounds like the shadiest wife beaters defense ever. But what can one make of claims to which one is not a witness?

Finally, they called the fourth passenger on the phone.

“Just pretend we’re the neighbor calling, complaining about the noise. Tell her you’ll be right back.”

The gambit worked.   He jogged around the corner and squeezed in, all steroid biceps and tribal tattoos. Off we went.

“F**k, that was intense.  Thanks for coming.”

“How many glasses of wine did she have?”

“Only four, I thought.”

“That’s not that much.”

“Not if you do them in a row,” said the girl, in pre-cancerous tones.  “Older women can’t hold their liquor. They get cray-cray.”

I drove them to a friends house while they discussed the pornstar in disparaging terms.   Earlier in the evening she gave the boyfriend a DVD of her reality show appearances.  As a relationship builder.

“You’ve seen the worst of me, now see the best.”

The four of them found this very amusing. Pathetic was the consensus verdict.

When I got home from my shift I Googled her.  She was raised by her grandparents. She started out in ballet. She went to college. Then she started stripping. And so on….and now she was a tangle of capped teeth, platinum hair and pneumatic breasts sitting on the curb on Saturday night, deserted by people who knew her well enough to no longer desire her company.

Adding to my karmic deficit, I was the wheel man.

I thought of the boyfriend, hitting the weights with youthful ardor, crunching, taking stock of himself in the mirror, dreaming of the hotties to come, who knows, maybe even a porn chick, and now he had obtained her, finding out she was more complicated than she looked on video.  Worse, old. In her thirties, practically Betty White years by industry standards.

And I thought of her appealing to her reality show appearances as a selling point: You’ve seen the worst of me, now see the best. On the face of it, yes, pathetic.  At the same time, sweetly hopeful, in my imagining.

Night Work and Bitchitude

DSC_4571

Los Angeles likes to put its feet out after sundown.  The roadways clear.   You can cross the twinkling plain of the city in 20 minutes.  You see it the way Nathaniel West did.

Thirsts are indulged. People become just like themselves, only more so.  They bring margarita belch and testosterone into the car. They bring reflective moods.  They confess to illicit behavior. They invite you upstairs to play Twister.  They withdraw into their phones, ghostly apparitions in the backseat, necks drooped like penguins, swiping, scrolling.  They over-share.  They pitch their sizzle reel and Soundcloud release.   They want you to tell them stories of other Uber riders.  They want to know how terrible they are.  Tell us about the drunks!  But the drunks are predictable, rarely a problem.  Entitlement and ingratitude are.  But you don’t say that, because the asker of the question is more often than not a white woman from the Westside, and white women from the Westside are the worst riders you encounter.

They love to make you wait, double-parked in a bus lane, while they say goodbye dawdle with their friends in the restaurant. In West Hollywood.  You circle the block and try again. Cars honk at you.  Other Ubers honk at you. Valet parkers wave flashlights. She emerges, texting, flops down with a weary sigh in the back seat, but doesn’t close the door.

Wah-ut?  I’m waiting for my friend. she’s in the bathroom.”

“I can’t double park here.”

“She’s in the bathroom. She’ll be right out, okay?  Jeez.”

Now an actual city bus is behind us, honking.

“You gotta shut the door. I’m gonna get a ticket.”

“Why is your car so dirty?”

“What are you talking about?”

“There’s a streak on the window.”

You just cleaned the windows, as you do before every shift, and there is indeed a streak on the passenger side window, incriminating in the glare of the sodium lights.  An LA Sheriff’s Dept. patrol car barks orders over his PA: Move your Uber, NOW.  Mercifully, he’s on the other side of the street and some other luckless driver is about to get ticketed.

The friend lollygags out of the restaurant.  They sink into Phone World on the drive to Santa Monica, scrolling, swiping…a monkish silence punctuated by the Snapchat feed, shrill, distorted bursts of music and random shrieks from friends somewhere in the city, doing Something Which Must be Shared.   Either they bore of it or the feed runs dry and they begin to whisper to each other.  Then the Alpha Girl of the two speaks:

“You should clean your car better. You should clean it every day if you want to charge people money. Seriously.”

And for less than the price of valet parking, I whisk them to their front door.