The City’s Shameful Secret

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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.

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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.

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Brava.

A Night of Wet Pillows

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

The MILF Hunters

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She was about 28, Latina, packed into a short dress. He was in his late 40’s, balding.  They were going to Manhattan Beach, ‘Milf hunting’, she announced, as they climbed into my Uber.

She had taken on the role of ringmaster for the evening, squirming in his lap as she explained the rules to him.

“Number one, Milfs like to be petted.”

“They do?  How exactly?”

“Two fingers. Stroke her hair.  They like to be touched. But not too hard.”

“Are three fingers too many?”

“Five are too many. That’s aggressive.  Rule Number Two: avoid anyone dressed in red. They’re batshit crazy.”

“What about bright colors?”

“Seriously, no. It’s nature’s way of warning you of danger. Number three, I’ll signal you.  If I go like this: (playing with necklace) that means you have ten minutes to close the deal.  If I go like this: (flips hair) it means yes. If I rub my belly, it means I’m ready to go home.  Basically, the lower I go, the crazier I think she is.”

“Got it.”

On the freeway, her phone rang.  She was not pleased. “Why are you calling?….none of your business….why are you going into my computer?…there’s nothing there for you….nothing….I’ll be there when I get there. Don’t call.”

Turning to her companion, she breathily told him, “he’s really obsessed with you.”

The phone call provided some kind of accelerant to the purpose of their evening. The conversation trailed off into wet, smacking kissing sounds for the remainder of the ride.  Who she was to him and who the caller was to her, and how the Milfs fit into it remained a mystery, but I was entertained.

It also occurred to me my marriage was distressingly stable and predictable.

On Sunday we went to Chibiscus for noodles. Obeying an impulse, I publicly violated the Two-Finger Rule with Mrs. UpintheValley.  Cupping her face in my palm, she responded with something tantalizingly akin to submissive purring.  Perhaps the Milf hunters were on to something.

“Darling, I’m so happy….my ramen is here.”

And on that note, two bowls appeared before us, and we commenced to supper.

A Head Banger’s Story

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“If I have a seizure, I need you to hold my head, so I don’t bang against anything. They last really long, about five minutes. So you’re gonna need to pull over.”

On that note, he climbed into the backseat of my Uber. It was 1 AM in Glendale.

He looked like Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein.   Hulking, shambling, half-drunk, big shoes… an Armenian Peter Boyle, with sad eyes peering from deep orbs.  I could feel the driver’s seat headrest bend backwards as he gripped it with his meaty hand and lowered himself in, directly behind me.

“It’s been four hours since my medication, so I should be okay.”

We got on the freeway. He shifted around in his seat continually. With every twitch, I couldn’t help but think…good grief, is it starting already? …was that it? Will his arms swing wildly, knocking me unconscious before I can pull to the shoulder?  Why me?  Why tonight? 

I had not been so wired into a passenger’s movements since I picked up a gang banger in K-Town who never removed his hoodie, refused to enter an address into the app and muttered vague commands: turn here, go left, go straight, now go back until we ended up in some godforsaken alley south of downtown, with no witnesses, the perfect location for relieving me of my wallet, iPhone and car keys,  but which turned out to be an underground gay sex club instead.

“I’m sorry about the itching, but my histamine levels are really high. Cause of my medication.  I’ve had twenty seizures in the past year.”

“How long have you had seizures?”

“Since I got injured at work.”

He went on to detail his many medications, none which he prized more than Lunesta.   It was the only one which really put him to sleep.  They cost three dollars a pill, which he couldn’t afford since he wasn’t working anymore, but he couldn’t sleep without it.  He had to give up other pleasures.

“Shit. Something’s wrong…”

My heart fluttered, but he was looking at his phone.

I longed for animated green dragonflies to swim through the windshield, like they do in the Lunesta commercial, and woo him to sleep with the batting of their wings .

“Something’s wrong. I’m hungry. There’s an In-and-Out Burger at the next exit.”

I got off the freeway. Something was wrong,   Two cars had just collided at Harvey Drive, in front of the In-and-Out. Both airbags had blown.  Bumper parts and colored glass littered the intersection, bright grit twinkled under the sodium lights. One of the bags had shot straight past the driver seat, covering the windows in white silk, as though the god of chaos had drawn a curtain against an unpleasant sight. The door cracked open and after a long moment, a woman crawled out, dazed.

The other car was an Uber.

What were the odds? How close did I get to receiving his rider, or he mine?  How many sliding door moments do I have on a given night?

Everyone was ambulatory, which was a relief.   911 was dialed, and we continued into the burger parking lot.

“I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies,” announced my passenger.

“Were you in the armed forces?”

“I worked in a mortuary for eleven years. I’ve performed 20,000 enbalmings.   I don’t do that anymore, though. A casket lid fell on my head.  That’s why I have seizures. That’s why I can’t work anymore.”

He decided he was going to walk the rest of the way home from In-and-Out.  We parted with blessings for one another.   I turned the app off for the night and drove home to Van Nuys.

There, but for a casket lid….

The Agony and Ecstasy of Surge Pricing

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A word to the wise partygoer: if you’re standing in front of The Abbey at quarter to two in the morning with your phone out, waiting for an Uber home, you do not have a strong hand to play. It’s a tough get on an average Saturday night.  On New Years Eve?  Well, as they back East,  fughetaboutit…

The delicate mechanics of rider and car finding each other at the corner of Santa Monica and Robertson can be challenging.  This is where, at a certain point the evening, the normal order of cars-on-the-street, pedestrians-on-the-sidewalk gives to way to a state of nature.  All pretense of traffic signals, loading zones, crosswalks and waiting ones turn is in the wind.

The conversation runs something like:  “We’re across the street from the fire truck. See us?”

Beyond the sea of faces jaywalking past my windshield, in the middle distance, I can make out the blinking orange lights of a fire truck. Anything beyond that might as well be in Orange County.

“Just pull in behind the fire truck. We’ll find you.”

“I’m not turning onto Robertson. We’ll never get out of there. Meet me at the corner.”

The Corner: Dozens of cell phones twinkling,  each surrounded by a cluster of hopeful riders.  Some are utilizing the flashlight function, as though waving a bright light into the windshield of an approaching Uber will expedite matters.  It doesn’t.

No sooner do I pull to the curb than the door is yanked open and a theatrical couple take possession of the back seat.

“Oh thank God you’re here.  We’ve been waiting for-ever.”

I ask for the name on the account. Of course it doesn’t correspond to my rider.  Regrettably, I’m here for someone else, I explain.

“But we’ve been waiting so loooong…”

After several long minutes in front of Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant, fending off pirate boarders, the correct riders find me.

Four people, one passed out drunk next to me in the shotgun seat, another passed out in the back.  Lucky Couple Number Two rounding third base necking, all the way home.  I didn’t mind. Getting people safely where they want to be in whatever state they are in at the moment, is at the core of Uber service.

When we reached Calabasas it was 31 degrees. Nobody could find the keys to the house.  Make Out Girl was hopping about in bare feet, holding her heels in one hand, and patting down pockets of her slumbering friends. Eventually the keys were located and Make Out Guy fireman-carried the slumberers across the threshold. My evening was done.

Three hundred and twenty bucks. That’s one hell of a hangover.