Archive for October, 2012

Jack wanted to ditch my mother and sister and head back to the hookah place to smoke shisha. I wasn’t convinced it would go down well. Jack was adamant. He was in California and he wanted to have fun, fun, fun.

Our day trip to Santa Barbara was nearing its end. We drove up the Pacific Coast Highway that morning experiencing one of the most beautiful car journeys in the world. I was having my best day in California so far, so I didn’t want to ruin it by following one of Jack’s whims. I knew where that would lead me, where it would lead all of us.

Jack was my favourite uncle growing up and still is. Even in his fifties he has a teenage wildness, the craziness which is both his most charming and most destructive quality. If you ever wondered what Neal Cassady – inspiration for Kerouac’s manic character Dean Moriarty in On the Road – was like in real life, you should meet my uncle. I guess it helps that Jack actually is crazy – bi-polar and schizophrenia are the correct medical terms. “Mad one” is the phrase Kerouac used.

When I was a kid Jack once drove for two hours to find a roadside hot dog stand he liked on a mountain somewhere in West Virginia. The place was in the middle of nowhere and served up delicious foot-long dogs. He took us there on a whim but we were all happy at the time – crazy, seemingly pointless excursions like that broke the monotony of our stay with my grandmother in Ohio. My siblings and I loved him for it. We still do, but we’ve also seen enough of the dark side of madness to have grown slightly weary of his whims. Tonight wasn’t going to be one of those nights. Jack forgot about the idea after we ambled around long enough.

We left dusk by the pier and evening followed us up to Main Street, covering Santa Barbara in the Persian blue night of the Pacific coast. Everything was beautiful – the city crawling up the hillside, the warm ocean air, the percussive cicadas playing in the bushes. Here was a city you could walk around, a town you could drink up like the local grapes and then wander home up hillsides or down ocean paths.

What a break from LA. What a break from the parking lots they call highways and the Kingdoms they call towns. From air full of lead and nitrogen dioxide, the incessant rumble of cars and helicopters, from blustering billboards and obnoxiously illuminated fast food signs, crazy homeless people, vulgar rich people and indifferent everyone-else-people. From everything everyone loves about LA – the hustle, the bustle, the Venice Beach muscle.

Back in the car I felt like I had taken a week-long vacation. I hadn’t noticed how much the city was getting to me. As much as I love tarmac, my heart lives in the country. I slumped into the front seat and slept while Jack drove back to LA.

We knew Darth Landlord would be hard to pin down. He wouldn’t arrange a meeting but his secretary mentioned he was in town for a week before going to his home in Palm Springs – a city where, according to Urban Dictionary, “old people go to die.” Dammit! We were running out of time. We had to catch the old bastard before he earned himself a Death Star on the Walk of Infamy.

We rapped on the door of his office and walked in, Kate carrying documents which included a written complaint and testimonials from her tenants. Thanks to Martin, Darth Bernstein was convinced Kate had done nothing as co-manager of the building, but these testimonials proved otherwise. With this evidence Bernstein had to give Kate her job back.

“Can I help you?” Bernstein’s secretary asked.

“I would like to see Mr Bernstein, my name is Katharine Mellors.”

“I’m afraid Mr Bernstein has just left for Palm Springs,” she replied.

Suddenly a voice came from behind her.

“Who is it Eleanor?”

When you read about real life bad guys you picture them like movie villains with gruff intimidating voices.  I hoped somebody as ruthless as Bernstein would be as impressive as a Bond bad guy or a don from The Godfather.

Bernstein shuffled out of his office. A small balding man with his sleeves rolled up, he resembled Gollum more than Goldfinger. Only his eyes suggested he could do the things he did; cold, dark eyes that questioned your very right to live with a single glance.

“Katharine Mellors wants to meet with you sir. I told her you were leaving for Palm Springs.”

He hesitated for a second before walking around the desk. His shoulders slumped worse than mine, hands twitching.

“I’m sorry Katharine, I’m about to drive back home.” His voice was soft, almost apologetic.

“Please take a look at these documents, Mr Bernstein. I have testimonials from tenants which prove Martin is lying.”

Kate handed him the envelope. He stood for a second, hesitating.

“I’ll look at them on the weekend,” he said curtly, before turning abruptly back into his office.

That was it. Show’s over folks. The big show down ended with a whimper; he didn’t even give us a chance to talk to him. We dragged our feet back to the house in defeat.

A week passed before Kate heard from him. Bernstein wrote an email promising he would give her a good reference in the future. There was no mention of giving her job back and no mention of Martin. Case closed, as far as he was concerned. He was probably annoyed a minor thing like unfair dismissal took up so much of his time.

Minutes were money to Bernstein and there was never enough money so there was never enough time. People who stole his daylight hours were as bad as the scumbags who lived in his apartment buildings, the ones he harassed and intimidated because they couldn’t afford to pay premium rates.

With no job prospects and no cash we were desperate. Then we got an email from my mother. She was arriving with my uncle in a few days with the best gift anybody can give: Money.

Tune in on Tuesday for the next installment of The Road to Skid Row.

Darth Landlord was an unscrupulous property developer with a small empire in Los Angeles and a history of abusive behaviour. His parents gave him the name Bill Bernstein, but his tenants rechristened him “Darth Landlord”. Or as one tenant fondly called him, “that prick.”

This was Kate’s former boss, the man Kate’s flatmate Martin had turned against her and who now refused to give Kate her job back or even write her a reference. This was the asshole we were about to meet in his Beverly Hills office.

I dug around and turfed up all kinds of shit on this guy. Bill Bernstein was one mean hombre.

Breaking the law was nothing to him. Seven years earlier Bernstein had a class action lawsuit slapped on him for harassment, abuse and discrimination of tenants. 20 tenants, mostly working class Hispanics, clubbed together to file the suit.

Witnesses testified that Bernstein delayed making repairs to their apartments. He also instructed his residential managers to put three-day eviction notices on the doors of tenants the day after rent was due, not giving them the customary three days to pay their rent before threatening eviction. That was just the beginning of the onslaught. Bernstein wasn’t being a jerk just for kicks however, he had motives.

In a deposition, Bernstein said he bought the apartments intending to renovate them and rent them out at a much higher rate. Existing tenants couldn’t afford the new rates, so they wanted to keep the status quo. Apparently Bernstein tried offering cash incentives to get rid of them, but most tenants wouldn’t bite. That’s when he cranked up the pressure.

Two sets of residential managers weren’t comfortable with the scare tactics so they quit. Bernstein wouldn’t give up, however. He hried two guys whose sole qualification was their lack of conscience. Apartments were broken into, personal property was vandalized and children were banned from playing in the courtyard. When kids broke the ban, they turned the water sprinklers on and soaked them. One tenant tried standing up to them; he quickly found himself in jail on trumped up charges of assault. Charges that were later thrown out by the police.

Now were up against the same crook. A man who would stop at nothing to get his way. In a few minutes we would take on Darth Landlord, the most evil proprietor in the universe.

Tune in on Thursday for the next installment of The Road to Skid Row.

Ocean air blows in from the coast, drifts through Santa Monica and Marina Del Ray, climbs up through Century City, and gets about as far as Hancock Park and Beverly Hills before giving up. It’s too hard a slog up that hill. Hollywood and Downtown bake in the summer. The Valley fries. Cool air is a lot like money in Los Angeles. It trickles down through the rich neighbourhoods but doesn’t get any further.

You could divide LA in this way: not by race or class but by temperature, by the cool and the hot. Hot folks sweat in hovel apartments while cool folks sip cocktails by the pool. Hot folks have given up on feeling a refreshing breeze in their neighbourhoods – they know where the cool air is and they know it’s going to stay there.

Air pollution, on the other hand, is a great leveller in Los Angeles. Everybody breathes it in, no matter where you live. It might be slightly worse in some neighbourhoods, but it is very bad everywhere. Beverly Hills – one of the richest neighbourhoods in LA – scores 47.1 on the Air Quality Index for example, and Compton – one of the poorest – scores 47.6. The national average is 32.0, putting both cities way above the rest of America. Malibu is one of the few cities in Los Angeles which scores anywhere near average, hitting 35.2 on the AQI. Must be the effect of their fascist police chief.

Of all the harmful externalities from industrialisation, air pollution is one of the more egalitarian. This is the case in Los Angeles at least, where air pollution in rich Santa Monica and working-class Inglewood are about the same. On a national scale the picture isn’t so democratic and, predictably, the poor fare badly.

Who would have thought Los Angeles was so close to the spirit level? Pollution in LA doesn’t give a shit if you’re rich or poor, black or white; it sinks in your lungs regardless. There is equality in lead and nitrogen dioxide, but as Albert Camus wrote of death’s equality, “it was not one that anybody wanted.”

Los Angels is ranked third in the United States for annual particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association. It is ranked first for ozone pollution – a gas which, when at ground-level, can cause premature death, asthma, bronchitis and other illnesses. A study by the University of California School of Public Health found that people who live in areas with high ozone levels are a third more likely to die from lung disease.

What is the cause of LA’s pollution nightmare? The automobile. There were 6,675,888 vehicles registered in Los Angeles County as of January 2007, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. That’s a lot for a county with a population of 9,889,056. Poor public transport infrastructure means that 79.5% of commuters drove their car to work in 2005, with a mere 10% taking public transit.

Los Angeles’ extensive freeway system is another major cause of pollution. People who live near freeways are twice as likely to suffer from a hardening of the arteries which causes heart disease and strokes, according to a study by USC, UC Berkeley and other institutions.

Rich or poor, there is something in the air in Los Angeles and it is slowly killing everyone.

They’ve Got it Made

Posted: October 15, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

Watching the Food Network when you are hungry is a stupid idea. My stomach was rumbling and all I could think about was that juicy rib-eye steak, fried to a perfect medium-rare with a sprinkling of Himalayan pink salt. What a terrible time to go vegetarian.

We were running out of money. Kate hadn’t worked in months and I had already depleted my meagre savings. Job hunting was going nowhere, and even if something did come up it would be weeks before we would see a pay check.

We settled in for the miserable ride Europeans call ‘austerity’. Meat was too expensive, so we cut it out. We cut out snacks and deserts, bought the cheapest possible ingredients for meals and stopped buying alcohol altogether. (Note: I did occasionally indulge in a cheap beer from El Salvador which was around $2 per litre and mighty delicious too).

Living on a budget in Beverly Hills is like being on a strict diet over Christmas – you are surrounded by people enjoying themselves in the most decadent way possible and all you can do is watch.

On my way to the public library – my daily escape from the cave I lived in – I walked through the most famous shopping district in the world. Rodeo Drive is where rich people go to buy self-worth but walk away with overpriced high heels and diamond-encrusted wristwatches. It’s the kind of place where seeing a Rolls Royce isn’t out of the ordinary and where California suits (t-shirt and Ray Bans) sit outside cafés talking about their latest screenplay.

Whenever I walked past a high-end restaurant I felt conflicting desires to either throw a brick through the window or sit down and order a steak. I gazed at the happy rich people eating their meals like a street urchin from a Charles Dickens novel. Please sir, I want a rib-eye. They didn’t notice me, of course. Rich folks like this wouldn’t notice a bum if they drove over one in their Bentley.

The only rich people that give a damn – or pretend to give a damn – are celebrities. Apparently Hollywood stars often encounter homeless folks on the streets of Rodeo Drive. It must be a crazy fucking sight to see.

Paparazzi surround them and take thousands of photographs. Half blind from flash photography, the poor homeless person stretches out a hand and asks [A-List Celeb] for change. The most unknown poor excuse for a human being coming face to face with one of the most known, celebrated persons of our time. Such a scenario is so absurd I wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sight of it.

Your average rich person doesn’t worry about this though. Ordinary rich folks don’t have a public image to maintain. They are in the enviable position of being able to do and say anything they want. Pass the Himalayan pink salt, please Monica.

When you are living the good life you don’t stop to look outside the restaurant window. It’s like Bob Dylan sings: “Aw, princess on the steeple and all the pretty people / They’re all drinkin’, thinkin’ that they’ve got it made.”

And they have got it made. They have the whole world made for them, one rib-eye steak at a time.

The Goth Next Door

Posted: October 11, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

Mercedes’ apartment was a small cave, just big enough for one person to live in comfortably or two people and a dog to live in very uncomfortably. That’s the price you pay for a 90212 zip code – there is no space for you or your hyperactive border-collie but you get warm smiles when you go for auditions.

Upstairs lived the noisiest walkers I have ever heard. I swear they wore clogs just for fun. They clunked around every morning at 6am – no doubt practising a traditional Dutch barn dance because why else would you wear clogs in an apartment – while I lay on the couch cursing their love of European folk culture.

The girl next door played loud music on her stereo each night until 1am. At first I cursed her too – vicious curses I won’t repeat in public – but then I softened towards her. When you live in a pigeon hole you can’t help learning about the birds around you. Part-goth and part-biker, the girl next door was unhappy. I only knew because I could hear her crying through the walls of the apartment building every other night.

When you are 8 years old it’s great: you have the pool, the lawn, the basketball hoop and the crime-rate of a country town in Iowa. But when you’re older you suddenly realise you live in one of the prettiest, safest, most affluent neighbourhoods in the world. And it’s boring as fuck.

If they’re smart they see through the shallowness and want to puke. That’s how I felt some days. Middle-aged moms with Botox fresh in their face walk around in tight tracksuits while white collar dads drive their Toyota Prius’ to work. Everyone’s keeping up with the Jones’, but the Jones’ own an island in the Caribbean with their own air strip. So everyone just keeps on keeping up, even if deep down they know it’s a load of horse shit.

A lot of teenagers have a healthy “fuck that” attitude to hypocrisy. Some teenagers I saw were happy to drive their parents’ Bentley to school. The goth next door wasn’t. That’s because she suffered an additional alienation – she was a Beverly Hills Hillbilly. She lived in a shitty little apartment with her mother and younger sister and had no spacious lawn to sunbathe on, no swimming pool to drink cocktails by, and definitely no Bentley to drive to school.

Given the circumstances she did what most kids would do. She became a punk. She played loud music ‘til late and wore black makeup with a black leather jacket. The goth next door stuck out like Marilyn Manson at a GOP Convention.

A freak teenager can devalue property prices in a neighbourhood like this, so I’m sure she wasn’t popular. But popularity is an expensive luxury in Beverly Hills – it costs your life and your soul as well as your cash. That’s the price you pay to be liked in a 90212 zip code.

Even the Dogs are Racist

Posted: October 8, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

Some things  in life are guaranteed. Will & Kate will adorn the covers of gossip rags, Meryl Streep will win an Oscar at least once a decade, and pick-up trucks full of Mexicans will drive into Beverly Hills every morning.

If it weren’t for Jackson, I probably wouldn’t have noticed how Beverly Hills swings to its own rhythm. Our morning walks coincided with a daily ritual in Beverly Hills. Rusty old pick-up trucks pulled up outside beautiful McMansions and dropped off teams of Mexican labourers who quickly got to work with their leaf blowers, lawn mowers and hedge clippers. Jackson hated them. If we walked too close to them he would explode into a tirade of barking and desperately try to savage them. That’s the kind of town LA is. Even the dogs are racist.

While Mexicans were busy manicuring the already perfect lawns and gardens, housewives and retirees were out jogging or walking their dogs. Some people, usually older folks, stopped and chatted for a while. One guy in his sixties talked about a border collie he worked with on a movie. An old Jewish man stopped and talked for nearly ten minutes about how he loves his new puppy. We met him again a few days later while he walking his dog. Not feeling sociable, Jackson growled and barked at the him. The old timer didn’t chat much after that.

Afternoon walks were more relaxed. Sometimes we would see kids coming home from school. They climbed out of big SUVs, their little legs just able to touch the concrete driveway. We saw a kid selling lemonade one afternoon. I thought I had walked onto a movie set – there was this little girl standing behind a table shouting “lemonade!” every ten seconds. She was cute, but she didn’t get any customers. Maybe her screechy little voice pissed off the neighbours? Either way, the cheap bastards wouldn’t even buy lemonade for 25₵ a cup. (I legitimately left my wallet at home, I will tell you now.)

Most teenagers I saw looked depressed. They wore miserable faces like they grew up in a garage in Seattle, listening to grunge music and fighting rats for food. Hatred emanated from their eyes whenever they looked at their parents; their voices harboured the kind of resentment you hear about when they profile serial killers on the news. Norman Bates was Californian, wasn’t he?

Evening walks, by contrast, were peaceful. Night settled on Beverly Hills like in a fairy tale: houses and gardens lit up with twinkling lights, sprinklers danced their wasteful waltz and quiet filled the suburban streets with the kind of tranquility only money or death can buy. Jackson preferred evening walks too. Hardly anybody was out, so he could take a dump on the swankiest lawn around and it would be our little secret – or not so little, depending on his constitution. (Note: I did pick up his turds. I am not that big an asshole!)

I looked west from an alleyway and saw the high-rises of Century City looming in the dark. Because Beverly Hills is higher than Century City I was looking down on the skyscrapers –a genuinely disorientating experience. Walking back to the house I passed more tinkling water features, illuminated lawns and jasmine bushes with their delicate scent.

Every night the grass on those lawns grows 2 millimetres. Just long enough for the truck full of Mexicans who show up the next morning.

The Kingdom of Beverly Hills is a small principality within the greater metropolitan area known as Los Angeles. Like Monaco and Andorra, it is full of rich assholes and is largely independent.

Beverly Hills, California, has a (surprisingly) lot in common Beverly Hills, Missouri, in addition to the obvious. For starters, both cities are dominated by one race: white in CA, black in MI. Both cities have median household incomes out of whack with the state average: in CA they earn about $20k above average ($81k), in MI they earn about $12k below average ($33k). Finally, both cities are home to a significant minority living below the poverty level: 10% in CA, 30% in MI. That’s right, 10% of residents in Beverly Hills, CA live below the poverty level.

The Kingdom of Beverly Hills has absolutely nothing in common with the small Caribbean nation of Haiti, except its fascist police force known as the Beverly Hills Police Department. If you are not white or rich then you are not welcome. Unless you happen to be working in one of the fancy restaurants or hotels that is, in which case you are tolerated.

My Vietnamese friend was caught in the act by the BHPD. He was walking through Beverly Hills when a cruiser pulled up and asked him what he was doing. In fairness to the cops, so few people walk in Los Angeles I can understand why they thought it was illegal. They probably confused the word walking with the word murdering. It’s an easy mistake to make. At any rate, it shows the BHPD do not like strange folks – Asians, Hobos etc. – going through their town.

The Kingdom of Beverly Hills has very little crime, unless you count white-collar crime, in which case it is more dangerous than Honduras and El Salvador combined. Because the judicial system doesn’t count white collar crime, it’s considered safe. Despite this, every house in Beverly Hills has a little sign on display in the front lawn saying how it’s protected by a private army. ADT, Protect America, Frontpoint Security, Alarm Force, First Alert, Protection One, Broadview Security, Monitronics, Pinnacle – these are just some of the companies providing household security systems.

Sound a little paranoid? Unwelcoming? That’s nothing. Up until 2006, Beverly Hills was one of the loudest opponents of the “subway to the sea” – the extension of the LA metro system from Wilshire & Western to Santa Monica – because they didn’t want trains stopping so near. Why, you ask? Do residents enjoy the daily parking lot Wilshire Blvd. turns into? Probably not, but sitting in traffic listening to Taylor Swift is better than having undesirables swamp your town because it’s suddenly easy to get to Beverly Hills.

Residents in Hancock Park and other affluent areas were equally stuck up. “They didn’t want those people coming into Hancock Park, low income people,” said former Star Treker George Takei.  The Royal subjects of Beverly Hills decided they didn’t want a quick, convenient train service connecting their town with all the poor people living in East Los Angeles. An influx like that would make the place so uncouth.

Would a city really block a project which promised economic benefits out of pure snobbery? No, a city wouldn’t. But a kingdom would. Snobbery is currency in kingdoms. I lived in Britain long enough to know that.

Four: The American Dream

Posted: October 1, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

If I was a Mexican with a leaf blower or a little girl with an ice cream, I would not have had a chance. The hiring man made it clear when he didn’t like someone. Jackson wore his prejudices on his sleeves. Or he would have done, if he wore clothes.

Weighing around 18kg (39lbs), with 90% pure muscle, I wasn’t ready to argue with him.  We all have our pet hates, but when it’s your pet doing the hating, well that’s even more reason to play dead.

Jackson’s mommy was a beautiful blonde actress from Alabama with a soft spot for crazy canines.  Mercedes was heading north to shoot a web series in Frisco and needed someone to look after her baby. Correction: Not some-one but some-two. One person couldn’t handle this little fella.

Jackson – and Mercedes’s Beverly Hills pad – was ours for a month, providing he liked me. The odds weren’t good. We were warned beforehand he doesn’t like men – it took him three-months to get used to Mercedes’s boyfriend. Then there was the persisting jet lag from the 12-hour flight to La La Land which messed up my sleep. I’ve been to some tough job interviews before but this was a cake taker.

Mercedes walked the Border Collie – now you understand why I say he’s crazy – to the sidewalk where I waited to meet him. Ruff, ruff ruff! He let rip like it was feeding time and I was the plat du jour. I was sure he’d get me: Mercedes looked like her wrist was going to snap trying to hold him back. We walked around for a while and the crazy mutt calmed down. He even did a shit on some greener-than-Ireland, Beverly Hills grass. Something in me enjoyed that. Dog’s got to poop his Lincoln Logs somewhere.

Within 20-minutes we were best pals. I was throwing his ball; he was catching it, bringing it back and dropping it at my feet. I’d never met such a clever dog, or a more exhausting one. After 30-minutes of catch I was ready to crash out.

Playtime paid off. We got the job and moved in with surprisingly little hesitation – all we had to do was survive the pup for a month.

This was my second zip code in a week and it was a hell of a step up. We were less than eight-miles away from East Hollywood, a mere 20 minute car ride in good traffic, and yet average property values jumped by $200,000. In one week I achieved the kind of social transformation most Americans never get close to. Of course it was false. We belonged in Beverly Hills about as much as Jackson did. Even less so, at least Jackson had a rich mommy.

I was living the American dream in the way comedian George Carlin understood it. “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it,” Carlin joked. After a week of jet lag I was ready to believe any dream, so long as I could sleep through it.

Tune in on Thursday for the next installment of The Road to Skid Row.