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.”
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.
“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.
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.
I pick up a lot of Uber riders who look like this, or are trying their damnedest to. Not so much in the Valley, that goes without saying. Maybe Studio City on a weekend, coming out of Black Market or Page 71. But more likely emerging from an expensive apartment building in Brentwood, going home, alone, to a modest building in Koreatown.
Frequently the name on the Uber account is male.
She has Expensive Hair, and a $300 pair of 5-inch heels, but she’s not going out to the club with her friends. She announces she needs to finish her cigarette, and you wait for her because women like this know just how deep a line of credit they have with the male species ay any given moment. On the ride, she lowers her window, leans back and watches the city go by, brushing strands of hair from her face like she’s modeling Wistful, by Calvin Klein. You realize she’s using the open window to sneak a second cigarette but you say nothing. She catches you looking and asks where you’re from and you tell her, and she announces she’s from Kentucky. Apropos of nothing, she goes on to tell you, her Uber-confessor, she’s been here eight months and she doesn’t have a job.
In a city few people can afford to live in, on paper, people live here all the same. They arrive in greater numbers each month. How does anyone pay $2400 for rent? If their parents aren’t supporting them, then who?
There is no starker demarcation of class in this city than the Beauty Line.
The Beautiful are waited upon. The Unattractive, The Squat, The Dark, serve them.
Before you start hating, be honest. How many beautiful waitresses do you actually see anymore? Besides in the movies.
The Beautiful Waitress was once a Los Angeles institution. When one could prize a one-bedroom apartment in Los Feliz with an avocado tree outside the window for $650, one could get by waiting tables. Back when one could buy acting classes a la carte, instead of being compelled to enroll in a accredited acting program (for profit, natch) with Ivy League-level tuition, the Beautiful Waitress could be the agent of her own destiny.
Today’s waitress is fat, heavily tattooed, and living rent-free at home with her parents. In the Valley.
Stop hating. Look around you. Who’s bent in half, doing nails? Who’s getting her nails done? Who’s fetching items from the stockroom? Who’s cleaning? Who’s making the caramel macchiato? Who is tapping her fingers impatiently on the counter? Who is working the register at Whole Foods while a parade of underfed fawns in Lululemon clutch the arms of their 45-year-old ‘boyfriends’ and display conspicuous public affection for the benefit of onlookers?
These are observations, not judgements.
I’m not sure what the half-life of a Sugar Baby in Los Angeles is. I know they don’t last long in your mouth. You can suck on them for a while, but then the temptation to bite down into the chewy part overtakes you. It’s an autonomic, id-driven thing. Then you reach into the bag for another.
The Sugar Daddy calls an Uber.
Beauty is a form of Capital, until it isn’t. Then it’s just another form of Labor. The cry ride across town with the window down is the time to assess. Before you end up bent over a rail at 3 am at Charlie Sheen’s house while he prattles in your ear about undetectable viral loads and lambskin condoms.
Maybe at the end of the day, the clock-punching women chained to their meager paychecks end up happier. I don’t know. I’m just the guy who gives the rides, and I know the math in this city doesn’t add up.
“Dude, can you take us to Santa Clarita? We’re going to Mabel’s Roadhouse.”
They exulted the name Mabel’s the way one might mention Bunny Ranch. I had never heard of the place.
“We’re going to get laid.”
“Seriously, can you get us there in 20 minutes? We need at least an hour to work before last call.”
They were professional types in their 20’s and they had just ditched a family BBQ. As we made our way up I-5 they plotted strategy and I tried to get my head around the idea of two young men, money in their pockets, fleeing Los Angeles, to the exurbs, to score chicks. One would think the natural currents flow in the other direction. On this Saturday night one would be wrong.
Santa Clarita is all broad, sweeping boulevards, immaculately swept of any trace of ugliness or disorder, landscaped arterials connecting walled developments with fanciful, arbitrary, non-geographic names like Portofino, River Village and Canyon Heights. Names chosen with the same marketing whimsy applied to color chips at the Lowe’s paint department. Not a single streetlight bulb was missing.
Bike paths abounded, I couldn’t help noting, with envy. Also, bridle trails. Later, when I got home, I looked at Google earth and saw the developments were built inwardly, with streets ending in open cul-de-sacs, connected by greenways, lagoons and hiking trails. Mr. UpintheValley experienced gnawing disloyalty to his beloved working-class brigadoon.
The master-planning abruptly halted, and we pulled into a dreary 1970’s-era Van Nuys-like mini mall. We had reached Mabel’s, a windowless bunker with metal bars around the entrance, the most un-Santa Clarita-like place in Santa Clarita.* To complete the tableau, the police were making an arrest in the parking lot.
My passengers sprung from the car like gazelles, ID’s in hand for the doorman.
I assumed this would be a deadhead run. A long fare to the middle of nowhere, and no fare back, making for a haircut to my hourly rate for the night. Again, I was wrong. My next ride was waiting at Wokcano, next door in master-planned Valencia. A young couple, they were familiar with Mabel’s. For the next hour I did a brisk business shuttling people home from upscale chain establishments like BJ’s Brewery on placid, car-less, pedestrian-free boulevards, and everyone seemed to have a Mabel’s anecdote:
I stopped going there. The fight rate there is like 75%.
Only after one A.M. Until then it’s more like 50%.
I wish I could go back, but my ex lives there. Now if I want to dive, I have to go to Schooners.
The bartenders are thieves, but the women are hot.
The women are skanks and the bouncers are thugs.
The a/c never works.
What became clear was Mabel’s was the place people in Santa Clarita went to bark.
At 1:40 am, on my way back to the freeway and to LA, ready to call it a night, I got another ping…this time from Mabel’s Roadhouse. I couldn’t resist.
I parked by the entrance, alongside the exiled smokers, and caught a whiff of spilled beer and ammonia coming from the open doorway, and glimpses of bare legs dancing in the dim light. Then three girls in short-shorts and crop tops –I call them girls because they looked that young– emerged from the mouth of Hades, one after another, fresh-faced as a Mountain Dew commercial.
Every male watched them climb into my Uber like it was the last helicopter out of Saigon. Off we went.
Girl 1: That seemed like the kind of bar we should be snorting coke in the bathroom.
Girl 2: It’s the kind of bar they should just give you coke when you go the bathroom.
Girl 3: I’ve never done coke.
Girl 1: You’re not missing much.
Girl 2: Gyllenhaal fucked up my whole evening again by not showing up.
Girl 1: Jake, where were you?
Girl 3: Jake!
Girl 2: I’m so into him I could wrap his body around me and wear it like a skin jacket.
I mentioned I had dropped off two men there earlier in the evening. They were hoping to meet girls.
Girl 1: That’s SO not happening.
Girl 2: I’m hungry.
Girls 3: Can you take us to the Taco Bell drive thru?
Girls: Taco Bell!
Girl 2: I could live at Taco Bell six days a week.
There endeth their evening, at the drive-thru, Three Beauties gorging happily in my car, just about the time they turn on the ugly light at Mabel’s.
Probably about the time when the fight rate hits 75%.
Asian Woman: I got pulled over right here once. This stupid person was driving so slow, I just passed them on the shoulder. This cop saw me and pulled me over. It was the one and only time I ever played the Asian card: “Me so sorry. Me no understand. Me not from this country.”
White Man: Did that work?
Asian Woman: I told him I was from Taiwan and “me always drive on shoulder.” Because of the pig trucks taking up the whole road, it’s a very common practice. I never had to show him my license.
White Man: I want to play the chink card! (kissing) Can I use yours?
Asian Woman: (kissing) You’re terrible.
White Man: I’m not the one doing accents.
White Man: Driver, we’re not going to the karaoke bar. Just take us home.
The following evening, Three White People are picked up in front of a restaurant in Beverly Hills:
Man: What was up with John’s dad calling Marshall a chink? Who says that?
Woman: I felt embarrassed for him.
Second Man: Don’t feel bad for him, he’s rich.
Woman: So? It doesn’t entitle you to call people chinks.
Second Man: He was born in Mexico. He came to this country with nothing. He’s self made. He built his business out of nothing.
Man: What’s he really do? That’s what I want to know.
Woman: He’s a contractor.
Man: I work with contractors every day. I don’t know anyone who has a Black Card.
On the third evening, Two Asian Women are picked up in Santa Monica:
Woman #1: He’s so shady with me. I don’t understand why I keep following him on Instagram.
Woman #2: Stop following him already.
Woman #1: Then how will I know what he’s doing with her?
Woman #2: Gimmie your phone, I’ll delete him right now.
Woman #1: No! I have to know. I’ve synced up with her.
Woman #2: It’s not like she’s the moon.
Woman #1: It’s like she’s taken an axe and cut a chink in the armor of my dignity.
Blogging has been light lately, what with the night work, so I took a break from my labors Saturday and go to a poker game in Los Feliz at the invitation of friends. A night off. That was the plan anyway.
Getting in the car at 9 pm, temptation whispered coyly in my ear: “why waste a trip to town? Just turn on the app….pay for your chips on the way.”
One ride, what could it hurt…it will probably be going to Hollywood anyway.
An hour later I was in Brentwood listening to a couple fight in the back of the car:
You blew it in there!
No, I didn’t.
I can’t take you anywhere.
You just don’t like it I understand people better than you.
Oh yeah, you got superpowers…
I texted my friends to say I was running a little late. I would send be heading to the Eastside and would make my apologies with a few bottles of Jackie Tar.
Two hours later I was sort of East…but more Southeast, down on Traction Street:
So what did he say?
He didn’t. He was rock hard quiet.
He thought it was sexy. Like defined abs or something.
Silence is negativity. Don’t let it mess with your head, girl.
He’s already in my head, like a virus.
By 2 AM, I was back in the Arts District again, by way of LAX, Glendale and Carthay Circle. The night was shot. The card game long over, and I was a no-show. For the second time in a month I had stood up the same friends on the rationalization of “okay, just one ride….”
Addiction is characterized by the inability to abstain. The re-wiring of the personality around reward circuits. Besides easy and certain money, what am I chasing?
Mrs. UpintheValley has a theory that I’m an extrovert who has chosen an introverted life, for the most part. Maybe this has something to do with it. Maybe I’m Bruce Wayne leaving my bat cave in Van Nuys at night, heeding the thrum and pull of the city. For now, I’m enjoying not knowing Why.
On my night job with Uber I got pinged by two college-aged women outside the Lucky Strike in Hollywood. When I arrived, they weren’t standing anywhere they could be picked up. Meaning, they were still inside.
“We’ll be right out. Just a few minutes.”
There’s no place to park and wait on Highland, not at night, not even in the daytime. Not even illegally. Six lanes of angry, angry drivers nosing each other’s bumpers like cattle shoving their way up the chute to the knocker, only with Bluetooth and spilled coffee and riptides of tourists clogging the intersections. I drove around the block, which proved a ten minute ordeal in Hollywood Blvd’s new incarnation as Times Square West.
Ping. “Where are you?”
“I’m just now pulling back around in front of the entrance again.”
“Oh, we’re not there anymore. We’re across the street. My friend needed some smokes. Can’t you just do a u-turn?”
“I could if I wanted a $500 ticket.”
For the second time I circumnavigated the madness of Hollywood and Highland. We negotiated a pick up at the mini-mart up the block. They were from Philadelphia and both were interning at a public relations firm for the summer. As part of their duties they attended a celebrity bowling function at Lucky Strike and were headed back to their apartment in Westwood. I asked them how they liked PR. They liked it well enough. They were a little bored though.
“I sat on my ass staring at the walls for five hours yesterday before I fell asleep at my desk. I think they hired too many of us. There isn’t enough to do.”
The both of them managed to sit very erect, chests forward, davening over their iPhones, fingertips floating across the screen like 1950’s secretaries taking shorthand.
I asked if they been asked to do anything objectionable. By objectionable I meant …. putting their fingerprints on a press release defending a Cosby-like guilty client, issuing opposition research, things of that nature.
“We haven’t been asked to do any bitch work, if that’s what you mean.”
Bitch work=demeaning errands. Like picking up dry cleaning. Fetching coffee. Any incarnation of unskilled labor in a professional setting. Our conversation had stumbled, inadvertently, across the great dividing line of privilege. These young women, and they were nicer than I’m making them sound here, were living in West LA on their parents dime, simulating resume-building fake work for no pay, but couldn’t bear the thought of dirtying their hands with actual entry-level labor. And here I was shuttling them across town for the reasonable price of $12, which sort of made me their bitch.
Meanwhile all over the city, college students graduates are doing actual work, useful things like making coffee and stocking shelves, or wearing a name tag behind the counter at T-Mobile because….well, no one is paying their rent for them. This labor is a source of secret shame as it just doesn’t resume well. It also tracks one semi-permanently into the service economy, and no one wants that, at least not a certain type of white college-educated person. The iPhone and the App may have connected us all very quickly, but also allowed for us to hide from ourselves a little bit. We can pretend to be busier than we are. We can pretend to be more important than we are. We can postpone Self-Recognition for as long as possible.
Woman, into phone: “You don’t treat me right. You keep thinking I’m disposable, but I’m not. I cannot be flushed. I will circle your bowl, bitch.”
Second woman: “Are you the Dykestalker?”
“She needs to know how I feel. She doesn’t understand the sincerity of my emotions. I’m clogging her toilet.”
“But every time she tinkles, there’s your face ….”
“Deep down, she wants to know I’m there for her.”
Lugubrious Armenian: “This the best of Glendale.”
“This the very best. Not like down there. Much better people up here.”
“Do you have an address?”
“Just go straight.”
“I can’t go straight. That would put us over the embankment. Left or right?”
“We need to enter an address.”
“I hired you, so you drive. I tell you where to go. I say you go straight, you go straight. That’s the way it works.”
“I’m going to go left. Maybe you’ll see a familiar landmark.”
Into phone: ‘My Uber driver is lost. Two minutes and already he’s lost.”
“How long do mushrooms last?”
“Five hours, I think.”
“No way! I can’t do this for five hours. I have curfew.”
“Do you think I giggled too much when I was getting out of the pool? I do that when I get nervous. Why did I have to ask him to bring me a towel like that? Do you think he thought I was being bitchy and stupid, our do you think he thought I was cute?”
“Do you want Doritos?”
“Tell me I was cute.”
“Do you want Doritos or the guac chips?”
“Now you’re freaking me out. You HAVE TO TELL ME I WAS CUTE.”
“Why am I the one going in? I don’t even have the munchies yet.”
“I’m texting C. She’ll tell me the truth.”
“I can’t do five hours of this. My parents will have to put my brain in an institution.”