In A City of Constant Yang

Yang in ecstasy, Los Angeles, 2019                                                                                 Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

SO I PICKED UP two ladies in West Hollywood at bar close last night.  They paid me for service. Oh baby, they paid.

The first woman was going to Sherman Oaks. She had a friend going to Brentwood.  Could I add her to my route? Her last two Uber drivers had stood her up.

Sure. Just add the address.  She did, and -oof- the fare jumped to $110. Ms. Brentwood kvetched as we climbed Laurel Canyon. How difficult it now was to get an Uber now, especially out of LAX since she was only traveling a short distance. Drivers were holding out for rides to Disneyland or Palm Springs.  This was unfair.  Ms. Sherman Oaks noted the number of office mates who had repatriated to their places of origin during the pandemic but still on the payroll at LA salaries while Zooming in from Maine or Idaho.  This made no sense.

Actually it made perfect sense, in Ayn Randian terms.

There is a shortage of Uber drivers now as there is a shortage of service workers everywhere. This is the natural consequence of the government paying people to remain jobless.   Uber is a real-time spot market for service on demand: how much will you pay to get home now, as opposed to an hour from now?  Riders groan in dismay, but they’re playing against the house, which sits on years of metadata. Uber knows what you will pay.

So I earned $85 for 34 minutes of driving, plus an additional $12 in incentives above the fare as an inducement to keep me on the road.  What Uber doesn’t know, and no one does, is how deeply or how far in the future riders are willing to be gouged. Thus, incentives, a hedge against uncertainty.

Technically L.A. fully reopened June 15, no mask, no social distance, full capacity. Practically speaking its “Help Wanted” signs and signing bonuses everywhere.

Establishments that are able to reconstitute their staff are making a killing. A third of my weekend trips involve just seven Westside businesses:
The Lincoln
Brennans
Roosterfish
Venice Whaler
Townhouse
The Victorian
Bungalow
There are frequently one hour lines.  For bars.

One might ask: how long can this go on? I thought when word leaked on chat boards this spring of all the fat, once-a-decade money being made behind the wheel, drivers would return.  My contemplative brethren have failed to heed the call. Then the Biden administration extended full PUA and UI benefits through September.  The California eviction moratorium was extended to October, with taxpayers picking up 80% of the back rent and landlords required to eat the remaining 20%.

Protections for some tenants could last into March 2022 while they apply for financial aid from the state.

Okay, March then.  Maybe. But why would it end there?  People (some, not all) can double-dip with impunity, taking the dole and shorting the rent. Woe betide the politician who says yes to the first televised eviction in Los Angeles.*

And there’s more. Buried in the “infrastructure” reconciliation bill now before Congress is a $7200 refundable child tax credit: the old, reviled AFDC/cash welfare resurrected by another name. That’s per kid, permanently, on top of EBT, Section 8, Medicaid and free phones. Add it up. No one collecting $50K in baseline support is going to apply for shift work at Costco and its not because she is busy writing a novel.

How far we have moved the Overton window in 15 months. In 2019 the Universal Basic Income proposed by Andrew Yang was a $1000/month supplemental floor, which would scale downward with earnings, intended to augment, not replace work. I thought it a potential boondoggle, but it would pass for sober and responsible now.  Easily Americas most likable politician, Yang got a respectful hearing, but his proposal didn’t achieve liftoff . That was so 2019, when we paid lip service to moral hazard and inflationary pressure.  Now we pay $100 for Uber rides and $100 for a sheet of plywood.

If one were to conjure a black swan event which would fundamentally weaponize America’s most self-destructive proclivities: safetyism, media hysteria, profligate spending, veneration of bureaucrats, corporate oligarchy; if would be hard to improve on the Wuhan virus.

If you’re wondering when the bill will come due for all the deficit trillions, it’s already here.

Here’s a sweet coda: despite her frustrations with Uber Ms. Sherman Oaks left me a $22 tip. On top of the $110. Some people are innately gracious.

For now.

 

* Actually, enormous respect and quiet appreciation would flow to such a person. The rending of garments on social media would be considerable.

Our House of Special Purpose

The sarcophagus of Czarist Russia
Christmas shopping, 2020

So I went to the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square mall last night thinking I would buy a little something-something for Mrs. UpintheValley only to be the last to learn Williams-Sonoma had shut its doors at that location. Moving on,  I tried to buy a different something-something at the home furnishings department at Macy’s and found myself in an empty register line for ten minutes waiting for the cashier to return from an errand. He never did and I left the mall -the mall!- empty-handed the week before Christmas.   Some day, twenty years from now, an archivist of late-stage capitalism will find me there in the security tapes, a box under each arm, muttering in confusion. Perhaps I will become a meme: 2020 Man.

There were no piped-in carols, no piano player, no sugary bread dough smells wafting up from Cinnabon on the ground floor to tickle my pleasure impulse feedback loop.  Fashion Square wasn’t closed entirely, that would be a bridge too far, a decision had been made, the line had been drawn…it just wasn’t very…open. The skeleton crews keeping the lights on were indifferent to my secular holiday desires. I could have walked the items out the front door without encountering an employee or fellow shopper.  Jennifer Connelly could have shown up on roller skates at any moment.  This was retail in a medically induced coma and I was molesting the patient.

As one not inclined to seasonal affective disorder, I’m discovering the absence of happy people in close proximity can be surreptitiously, accumulatively, depressing. It’s not a matter of seeking meaning in gift-giving or trying to re-create particular shared anticipations of years past.  Tis the creepy normalization of surrender all around us.

Ten minutes away, Hollywood Boulevard without people is like a scene from Vanilla Sky, deserted in a cinematic sort of way. Disorienting.  Foreboding.  Yet somehow there were enough weed shop derelicts loitering under the eaves, puffing away their EDD money, to make the entire street smell of cannabis from Vine to LaBrea.  I used to be pro-weed. Now it’s becoming synonymous with the failings of national character.

A depressing glimpse into the near future in which fewer of us work, more of us shall be high, most of us will be obedient to diktats from a nomenklatura which does not practice what it preaches.

How fearful, obedient, and self-jailing is America now.

Tangentially, I’ve binged The Last Czars, and find myself identifying more than I should with the Romanovs during their time in Yekaterinburg, at the House of Special Purpose, where they were taken in the final months before execution.

Nicholas the II was an incompetent head of state, presuming the throne by a divine right achieved via court inbreeding, a royal autocrat with one foot in the pre-modern world, and very likely Rasputin’s cuckold.

Like he, I am cooped up in a house for weeks on end on someone else’s orders. Beyond our gates, we sense the rules of the world, the operating presumptions, have changed. Nicholas and Alexandra were led to believe there would be a public tribunal.  They were strung along by a series of notes from guards pretending to be sympathizers, promising an imminent rescue.  Notes authored by Bolsheviks for the purpose of pacifying them. It will not be long, only a few more weeks…

The parents may have had an inkling of what was in store for them when they were asked to gather in the basement for a portrait photograph but didn’t think the children would be murdered in the same lot.  Shooting unarmed girls, even in the direct aftermath of WW I trench warfare and revolution, was the moral beyond.  Half the execution team couldn’t go through with their orders, which came directly from Moscow but had no author.  Lenin himself made certain his name was on no paperwork.

Yet it got done. The deep state blooms in the shadow of accountability. It took Russia seventy years to come back from this.

In a few months, er, sometime next year…the administrative state will declare permit the public to resume its normal freedoms of assembly and commerce. Only they won’t be freedoms anymore, but privileges revocable at any time.  Because we let them. It won’t be 2019, plus one year. We will be in a different “America” altogether, one in which freedom of speech is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Facebook and Alphabet, subject to deletion if determined to be misinformation by a Trust and Safety Council staffed in part by contract workers from India and China.  A Los Angeles ruled by selective prosecution, with permission slips for woke mobs to loot businesses and intimidate the public, with salutary beatdowns of dissenters pulled from their cars to serve as an example.  An “America” with unenforced borders, few reciprocal obligations of citizenship, and a whole lot of people as well as corporations seeking some version of free money.

I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to come back from this.  We’re still on the downslope. Something we can reflect on this Christmas, each of us quartered in his own house of special purpose.

A Love Story for Mayor Cancel Everything

She was on the upswing of happy drunk when they entered the Uber.   They had been Skyping for a week before braving a meet-up for drinks at the Venice Whaler. It was her first date since the beginning of Covid, and she had already made two decisions.

Her: We should totally disregard politics. We should do the kissing part and the sex part and the fun part first. Let’s wait a week or two to find out if we don’t like each other. Do you know what I mean? I’m just so glad you’re not 5’5”. I’m so glad you’re tall enough and I get to go to your house and meet your penis and we can have a good time together. Driver, what do you think?

I said there was wisdom in avoiding politics after 10 pm. We were rolling through downtown Santa Monica at night, a ghost town sealed in plywood.

Him: Is everything really out of business? Why are all these stores boarded up? The riots are not gonna happen, unless Trump comes back from the dead.  

Her: Don’t say anything more.  

Him: The media poisons everything.

Her: Yeah, but it also tells you things you didn’t know. You have to look for the silver lining. Like this is a weird analogy, but my best friend got black mold in her apartment and had to move out so now we get to live together. Or like breaking up with someone just before Covid and having to wait the rest of the year before going on a date. Then meeting you and Facetiming and praying to God you weren’t 5’5” and finding out you weren’t and you were really funny and now I get to meet your penis. We can wait a month to figure out if we hate each other. Or a couple of months. Or six months.  How does six months sound?

Yes, this conversation really happened.  When I left them they were standing in the street in front of his apartment building, holding hands. I choose to believe they made it up the stairs. I choose to believe they forgot all about the election. Someone should.

But this was two weeks ago when our collective pent-up need for touch was finding cautious release after eight months of Covidian restraints. The question then was: in our headlong rush to intimacy would we come to doubt our choices?

His right Lord Mayor of Thou Shall Be C*ckblocked has put an end to philosophical questions.  Thou shall not have dinner with friends. Thou shall not visit family.   Thou shall not go on dates.  Thou shall not have moments on the stairs.  A long hard winter is your lot, by proclamation.  Hunker down. All is canceled. Order a vibrator from Amazon, if you must.

“All persons living within the City of Los Angeles are hereby ordered to remain in their homes.”

Cancel everything is a rather advantageous arrangement for the richest man in the world and his armada of independent contractors in sprinter vans.  Pineapple Hill not so much:

What public health argument justifies this?

If someone said to you five years ago this surrender of sovereignty was not only possible in Los Angeles, but would be fully normalized in a matter of months, would you have believed them?

If someone said to you in March Jeff Bezos’ wealth would increase 56% before Christmas, while our national debt would increase by $4 trillion and we would behave as though this were the rightful order of things, would you have believed them?

More kissing, please.

Witness

Standing alone for the blue, Ventura and Sepulveda.

The Sherman Oaks BLM chapter has been busking in front of The Galleria for 113 consecutive afternoons. On Sundays, Benjamin stands on the opposite corner and witnesses for the police.  Sometimes the BLMers cross the intersection and do a walk by.  Compared to scenes from Portland the exchange, or lack thereof, was civilized.  Score one for the Valley.  He gets grief from passing drivers sometimes but doesn’t mind too much. He says he enjoys it.

So You Want To Cast a Ballot?

It might be a couple of hours…
Sepulveda Rec Center, 4:23 pm

We reported to our normal polling station today,  with the familiar poll workers and trays of supermarket cookies and easy parking and the short lines, to find it…closed.   I was vaguely aware the L.A. county polling system was undergoing a few changes, including early voting, but I didn’t realize this meant the neighborhood polls had been consolidated in favor of regional ones.

So we drove a couple of miles north to the new location only to find a line snaking around the building and no parking.   We walked a few blocks, and settled in at the tail of the snake, fell into civic conversation with the people next to us, (one of them a refugee from the long lines at Sherman Oaks) and after about ten minutes…we noticed something: The line had not moved at all.   I followed the snake around the corner and into the gym to find a dozen unoccupied polling machines and two poll workers doing intake, issuing ballots. Slowly. Only two people were voting.

Someone vaguely authoritative announced it would be a two-hour wait, and we might have better luck at Sepulveda Middle School, up in Mission Hills.

Goodbye Chad. 

Exodus, take three. To Mission Hills we raced, and as promised, greeted by a mercifully short line. We also found ourselves standing next to the guy from Sherman Oaks, to our mutual amusement. At check-in, they issued a blank paper ballot with a QR code that you feed into the machine, then complete by touch screen.

No more chads. No more ink dot. Lots of gooey fingertips caressing the names, sharing cooties.   Bacteria and democracy together at last. Not a germaphobe, I found it both recklessly intimate and weirdly impersonal.  Our ballot may be secret, but a pandemic we can share.  Here is a dystopian movie plot just waiting to happen.

The machine prints your ballot, offering a moment to double-check your answers, then you “cast” it by reinserting it.  Under the new VSAP system, the ballot is read electronically but retains a paper backup in the event of a recount. Suspenders and a belt, in theory.  There is a bit of wrinkle, though.  Your vote is converted to QR code in order to be counted. See that matrix of pixels on the left side of the page?  Those are your choices, all of them, squeezed into a 1.5 inch grid of dots.  Do the dots and names match up?  Let us hope so.  Does the printer ink ever smear, even slightly, altering your intent?   Could you recognize your own name in QR code?

A few things to consider as you fall asleep while wondering if anyone from your precinct recently visited China.

Vanderpumping the Valley

A new season of Vanderpump Rules is upon us, with a new twist. The cast members (who make $25K per episode) have decamped from their apartments in West Hollywood and purchased homes near each other in…Valley Village and Sherman Oaks and Valley Glen.  Mrs. UpintheValley is in ecstasy.  Practically neighbors.

If you’re a reality star in your eighth season, what do you buy?  What does $2 million get you?   Farmhouse modern, glossy white with black trim, newly constructed.   One of the houses, I noticed, actually abuts a major Valley boulevard. Who would pay seven figures to live next to traffic?  Bravo stars, that’s who.    It’s also possible they chose houses with a generic facade/motif to discourage fans from identifying their location and pestering them with vegan housewarming gifts.

This strikes me as a seachange in how the Valley will be viewed in pop culture terms, going forward. This is not Calabasas. This is the flatlands, north of the 101.  Adam Carolla-ville. Almost Van Nuys adjacent. This is us, albeit on a grander scale.  It’s the inevitable consequence of too much money chasing too few houses.   The little ones go down, and bigger ones take their place, to the limit of the setback.

Then there’s Cleveland, which has been rebranding for two generations in the hope bargain hunters from Californians and New Yorkers will head there in search of a price point too good to refuse.

After my last post, alert reader James noted an earlier Plain Dealer branding campaign from the 80s:  New York may be the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.  

This sort of civic boosterism inevitably gets trumped by crowdsourced public branding. Healthy cynicism, like cream, rises to the top.   Shame can be a social glue, if not a left-handed expression of pride. It offers consolation without changing facts on the ground.  But in the end, King James will leave you, not once but twice.

In America’s great divergence between the boutique cities on the coasts and Everywhere Else, the New Urbanists keep waiting for people to respond to economic signals. Logic says move to the Rust Belt: big house, tiny price tag, short commute. Be a big fish in a smaller pond.  Locate your start-up here, cut your burn rate in half. California responds by saying, meh, I’d rather just move to my own personal Cleveland called the Valley, and turn that into West Hollywood.

Yes, please. Keep pumping.

Jeff Spicoli Lived Here

Fast Times at Ridgemont High was on TV the other day…I was drawn in by nostalgia but stayed for the spectacle of teenagers working after school.   I couldn’t get past it.

Every character in the movie had a job, including Phoebe Cates, the Megan Fox of her time, dutifully served the public while draped in a corporate issue smock so unflattering it would never make it past the wardrobe assistant today.

First, the oddity: when do we see this anymore?  Then the deep memory: we all did this when were young.  Then the recognition: how completely we’ve restructured things.  White teenagers working at the Galleria? That’s what an open border is for.

A job used to be the first step to adulthood and freedom from parental constraints, the children of professionals just as likely to be slinging pizza as those of an auto mechanic.  Almost everyone today not explicitly rich claims membership in the middle class.  It’s the conceit at the heart of the 1%/99% formulation. But in 1982 it was mostly true if you viewed it aspirationally rather than by income quintile.

1982 was faux wood paneling, Formica countertops, cheap linoleum, tchotchkes, and self-maintained yards.  This could be Sherman Oaks as easily as Arleta.  All rather downmarket by modern Dwell standards, but perfectly in keeping with the aesthetics of the time.

Anyone whose house looks like this today is, well, probably “poor” or elderly.  Escaping…this… prison of dreck is the great motivator of contemporary LA.

The first commandment of Valley 2.1: all ranch houses shall be gutted and made Zillow-ready.  Better yet, they shall be replaced with more units. Which brings me to the condemned house in the first picture, in the shadow of an IMT apartment block on Sepulveda. I have it on good authority Jeff Spicoli lived there. Now it’s going to be six McMansions.   If they have kids, they won’t be working after school.   They will intern.  Peasants from Chiapas will man the espresso machine and pull the weeds.

The global south is on the move. The Red State high achievers are on the move. Both are coming here. Ambition leaves Cleveland as quickly as honorable men flee Chapo’s brigades in Sinaloa.

Chinese yuan is in search of a safe harbor. The Federal Reserve is printing money and handing it out at no interest to banks: start funding things, anything, spin the dials of consumption. Come pension fund apparatchiks, say the banks, come ye Central Asian strongmen, ye Israeli billionaires and Gulf sheiks looking to elude the virtue police, build an apartment block in Van Nuys, start collecting rent and citizenship is yours. Hedge your bets here, in the former land of hedges.

Stacy and Brad, Damone and Spicoli, Linda and Ratner, they had no idea what was coming.

Postcards from YIMBYville


The upper picture was taken in April.  The second one I took at the open house last week.  That’s framing to Zillow in two months.  This ain’t your grandmas accessory dwelling unit.  Granny flats will be granny-free in three years. Sooner, perhaps. For this kind of rent money, people will let her sleep on the living room couch.

In its own halting way, Van Nuys is going Sherman Oaks. Sherman Oaks is going West Hollywood, which is going Tokyo.

In a related development, one of my neighbors put new siding on his house.

And the City of Los Angeles chipped up some perfectly good wheelchair ramps and filled them back in again.  Because the money has been appropriated progress.

Ask the city for basic beautification and neighborhood street lighting and you will be told there is no money at all. The City is broke. Broke!  The field deputies rattle their chains of poverty the way my mother used to wail over her $100/month land payment.  But when it comes to Keynesian ditch-filling stimulus, the bucket of Monopoly money is bottomless.

Ginger Drysdale At Home

November 6, 1961: “These are exciting days for the Valley’s Ginger Drysdale, the beautiful 22-year-old wife of the famous Dodger pitcher. Ginger, a photographer’s model who has done many television commercials, recently was summoned to Warner Bros., placed under 90-day option and given a part in ‘Hawaiian Eye.’…Ginger is going to spend this weekend helping Don paint their comfortable, modern three-bedroom home in Van Nuys.” 

I’m trying to get my head around a major league athlete moving to Van Nuys at the peak of his career, let alone a Hall of Famer, even if he grew up here as Don Drysdale did. But then I would be forgetting this was before free agency.

Drysdale won 25 games in 1962, for which he earned…$36,000, together with Sandy Koufax half of the dominant pitching duo of the decade.

They were paid at the pleasure of owner Walter O’Malley who thought of contract negotiation thusly: “Baseball is an old-fashioned game with old-fashioned traditions.” Translation: you are bound to me by a reserve clause, while I enjoy a congressional exemption from anti-trust laws.  

It was not uncommon for players to take second jobs in the winter.  Stars like Drysdale opened businesses.  The Dugout, on Oxnard St., lasted until 1982.  Today it is the location of La Serenita, a Mexican restaurant.

Koufax owned the Tropicana Motel in West Hollywood,  which would prove both lucrative and historic in the 1970s.

America wasn’t winner-take-all then.  There was a lower ceiling but a higher floor (for white folks). Teachers and Dodger wives shared driveways and did their own house painting.

Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw were paid $62 million this year.   There are people on my block who live in converted tool sheds, then commute to work, in keeping with our New Normal.

On the other hand, I have Moroccan tile in my bathroom now, which no one in Van Nuys had in 1962.   I also probably eat better than the Drysdales did, and so can pretty much anyone who takes the time to shop creatively in the cornucopia of LA. Most of us don’t. We eat with our hands from a salty greasy bag without portional restraint. Right now I’m eating Japanese buckwheat noodles and bok choy, watching an ad for Progressive insurance and here’s Stephanie Courtney as Flo,  TV’s top pitchwoman. I think of the few hundred actors below her who book regular commercial work and below them, the Breughel-like masses, the 100,000 actors who book nothing and try to create mystique on YouTube….and there, in the background, are the picket fences of Orion Street,  Van Nuys’ contribution to Americana porn.

All these things are true simultaneously.  Los Angeles is nothing if not polarity.

Ron Shelton wrote a wonderful speech for Bull Durham neatly summarizing the distance between those who make it to the major leagues (and enjoy million dollar contracts) and those who languish in the bus leagues until they give up hope:

“Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”

In 1969 Ginger filed for divorce and a restraining order against Don, citing 30 separate incidents of assault. Don passed away in 1993, alone in a hotel room.

Drysdale’s second wife sold his memorabilia for over a $1 million in 2016, twice the sum he earned as a player in his entire career, making his memory more lucrative than his performance.  Ginger got nothing.

Photos courtesy of Valley Times Collection