Archive for November, 2012

Dan stood over 6ft tall, was ripped like a jock and had a jaw like a vending machine with a crew cut to match. He shook my hand firmly and studied my application. I could tell by his poker face that he was the bad cop.

“An interview is a lot like a first date, Tom. You’re showing your sweet side to me, you know, and I’m showing my sweet side to you.” Jesus, this is his sweet side?

“But two weeks down the line, we’re going to discover things about each other we might not like. You know what I’m saying?” He brushed my nodding aside with a wave of his hand.

“When we’re in the trenches Tom,” he pointed to the deli counter where two girls were making sandwiches, “I need to know you’re going to be there for me, because things get tough in the trenches. When there’s orders flying in, lines of people waiting, that’s when the pressure is on. You know what I mean? So when we’re over there in the heat of it, I need to know I can count on you.”

“So I’m going to ask you a question now, and I want you to know I have decided to not to hire people based on their answer to this question. I have had people more qualified than you sitting in front me who, because they didn’t answer this question honestly, didn’t get the job. Okay? So think about this one: What is your weakness? What is going to show up in two weeks’ time that I need to be aware of?”

“Uhh, uhhh, weakness?” I was stumbling over my words. All of this for a cafe job?

“I make mistakes,” I stuttered. “The pressure gets to me and I make mistakes with peoples orders… it’s happened before.”

Dan looked me over for the pathetic specimen I was.

“We all make mistakes, Tom,” he said disdainfully before standing upright.

“Thanks for coming in today. We’ll call you in a few days and let you know how you got on.”

I walked out feeling like I had just undergone psychological profiling for the marines. A ninety minute interview? A smarmy good cop and a militant bad cop? The trenches? What just happened?

Three days later, Sven called me saying how much I impressed them. The job was mine if I wanted it. Sure, see you on Monday, I said. But I never showed up on Monday because I got another gig – a boat job in Long Beach Harbour.

I walked through sliding doors in to the reception of Skechers Corporate Headquarters. It was exactly how I imagined it to be: shiny and metallic with a robo-receptionist who smiled so hard it was only a matter of time before she tore a muscle in her face.

A few days earlier I got a phone call out of the blue from a guy called Sven. He said he liked my application and invited me for an interview. I had sent off for so many jobs I completely forgot I even applied to Skechers. Now here I was, Skechers HQ at Manhattan Beach.

Everywhere I looked the room glistened. The sheen of a corporate building is the architectural equivalent of airbrushing a model to perfection. The same fantasy is played out again and again. A café attendant wears a perfect smile, with perfect teeth and the whitest shirt – all so he can carry rotting food out to the alley or scrub shit from a toilet bowl with a flimsy plastic brush. Corporate sheen is equivalent to Milan Kundera’s definition of kitsch: “the absolute denial of shit.” Focus on the smile, forget the toilet bowl.

Talking of shit, I arrived early so I had enough time to check out their toilets. Toilet tourism is a little hobby of mine; whenever I go somewhere, I like to visit their loo. I caught the toilet bug when I lived in Japan, the mother land of decadent johns. I became a connoisseur of the different brands and models: Toto represents reliability and stability for example, whereas Inax represents sophistication – hence why they play Op. 62 Nr. 6 Frühlingslied by Felix Mendelssohn each time you drop your draws.

Skechers’ bog was predictably cold. Black marble walls, low lighting, dark cubicles – I felt like I was taking a piss in an asteroid. Having gained a better sense for the place, I air dried my hands and walked back to reception.

Sven was waiting for me. Clean-shaven, wearing a shirt, glasses and a falsetto grin, he shook my hand enthusiastically and asked about my journey. We walked to the café, the area I was going to work if I pulled off my audition. He offered me a seat and showed me some paperwork to fill out – an application form, the same form I filled out online the week before. Only a monstrosity like a corporation would happily waste time by making me fill out the same form twice.

When I finished he sat next to me and flicked through the form like it was the first time he’d seen it. Maybe it was the first time he’d seen it.

“Before I ask you any questions, let me tell you a little about why this cafeteria is so important to me.”  I held my breath, expecting the worst.

Sven spoke gravely with the sincerity of a devotee about the history of the cafeteria, how he had been brought in as a consultant to build the thing and now he was hanging around to ensure his baby grew up right. I practised my listening face and nodded at ten second intervals.

“And you know my vision is… well, do you know why I love Starbucks? And it’s not just because they’re trading at $49.50 and I own stock.” Cue nod, suppress animosity.

“It’s because of their uniformity. They deliver the same service and the same product in every branch in the world.” Nod again.

“They are friendly, but not overly friendly. And their business model is just amazing…” Half nod and smile.

Sven eulogised the genius of Starbucks for ten minutes before finally leaving. He was handing me over to Dan, his “right-hand man here at Skechers.” So far so good, I thought to myself. I’ve been here an hour and they haven’t asked one question yet.

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

“How can I help you today?” The lady behind the desk smiled big and broad. She was a pretty woman in her late twenties with the calm demeanour you find in psychiatrists and flight attendants.

“We’re here to look for jobs. Maybe get some advice from somebody. Is there anyone we can speak to?” My sister and I did our best to look helpless.

“Okay, well if you take this paperwork here and fill it out for me. When you’re done you can use the computers to search the database for jobs, but there is a one hour time limit. Okay?”

Ten minutes later were sitting in front of a computer screen using Internet Explorer to search for work on the CalJobs website.

“We could have done this at home,” Kate whispered to me.

I nodded in reply. What a pointless trip. If I’d known that the job of the EDD was to sit people in front of computer screens and tell them to surf the web I would have stayed home.

Of course the EDD also hand out unemployment benefits, but we weren’t eligible for those. In order to claim unemployment insurance you need to have already worked in the US. The whole thing is damn complicated, but basically you must have earned a certain amount over a 12-month period before you can file a claim.

On top of that you need to be unemployed through “no fault of your own”. If you were fired or you quit your job (like I did), then you have to do a telephone interview with somebody from the EDD. An investigation is carried out with the employer and the EDD decides whether you are eligible for benefits. Seeing as I didn’t have “good cause” to quit my job, I was definitely ineligible. Unless you consider restlessness a “good cause”, which I happen to but the EDD does not.

Unemployment insurance, scroungers allowance, masturbation pay – whatever you want to call it, it sucks. You’re made to feel like a criminal when you apply for it. The whole set up – the interview, “investigation”, shit loads of paperwork – it’s all geared to be difficult, like you’re asking for something you shouldn’t really have. The process is either institutionalised hatred for the unemployed or monumental indifference. Maybe if poor people listed themselves on the stock exchange and asked the government for a “bailout” instead of a “hand out” they’d get a better response?

I looked around the room and noticed we were in a minority – most people here were black or Hispanic. Inglewood has a white population of merely 2.9%, which explains the relative poverty. It follows the usual trend in the USA – a majority black/Hispanic population equals a poor city. Some people here may be lazy, as Tea Party Congressman Blake Farenthold believes, but I bet he wouldn’t trade his life on Capitol Hill for the challenge of living the American Dream in a neighbourhood like this. With a per capita income of $14,776, Inglewood is ranked 776 on the league table of Californian locations by income. Could be worse – there’s 1076 in total.

Charles Bukowski observed that poor blacks and poor whites almost always hate each other. “It was only when blacks got money and whites got money that they mixed.” Half way through my internet surfing session a black woman, probably in her forties, started talking to me. Within a few minutes she showed me photos of her daughter and then, just before leaving, invited me to a local grill for lunch. Maybe LA had changed since Bukowski wrote Hollywood? A little less hate would be a good thing.

Eighteen: Ragged Bob

Posted: November 19, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

“I was $200 away from pushing a shopping cart for a living, that’s how low I got. But you know what? I plucked up, I turned myself around. Got myself a job and made something of myself.”

Bob Overton was a 21st century Horatio Alger. He espoused the virtues of American social mobility on a regular basis; it was his core belief and it was unshakeable.

“Now look at the caste system of India, where your whole life hinges on what caste you are born into. No, I don’t go for such injustice. I prefer our system of upward mobility, where everyone has an opportunity.”

Aside from the ‘low period’ in his life which I never learned much about, Bob always had a job. He had been a gas station attendant, a fisherman, a marine (narrowly avoiding deployment to Vietnam), a surfer, a customs inspector and a career guidance counsellor. Now he wanted to get into show business.

Bob set me up on CalJobs – California’s job service – and gave me lengthy motivational speeches on the key to success.

“You see, to achieve the kind of result you want – which is a secure job with at a salary of at least $40,000 a year; I mean that is the minimum to afford a car, new clothes, a nice apartment, a meal in a restaurant once or twice a week and still have some disposable income to spend on your interests, whatever they may be. Now what’s the best kind of job which will give you all that?”

“I don’t know…”

“A government job. A job with the federal government will give you all that, plus medical benefits and a 401K plan, you follow me? You need to start preparing for retirement already; you need to think about your retirement and how you are going to fund that retirement. “

“Now I am living off a comfortable pension which I paid into during years of service as a federal employee. I was rewarded… did you see my plaque, on the wall here? This was from 12 years of service. So you see, to achieve that kind of result you need to have the right skills for the right job, you follow me? I landed my job because I had those skills. I developed the skills and knowledge when I did my Masters at USC. Get the skillset and you get your job set. That’s how easy it is.”

One evening Bob spoke for two hours non-stop about the secrets to landing a great job. All you had to do was go out and “pound the pavement.” Walk up and down Main Street, follow your future boss into his office, hand over your resume and hey presto! You’re hired.

“There’s people saying we’re going to have more riots this summer, but there’s nothing to riot about. Nothing to riot about if you got no skills. That’s why these kids can’t get jobs, because they’ve got no skills. How do they expect to find work if they haven’t got any skills?”

His faith in opportunity blinded him to other forces in society.  I wanted to tell him the USA ranks near bottom for social mobility, in comparison with Western Europe (only the UK fares worse). That there is 11% unemployment in California and over 30% youth unemployment: the reason why young people don’t have jobs is because there aren’t any.

Bob felt counter-arguments like a needle in soft flesh. He bent over in pain and lost his temper. The idea he could be wrong was inconceivable to him. So I gave up. It would be easier to convince an astronaut the earth is flat.

After two weeks, and about a dozen hours of motivational speeches, I agreed to Bob’s persisting request: to go to the Employment Development Department for “expert advice”.

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

At six by twelve feet, our new home was like Jeffrey Archer’s prison cell, albeit without the extra pillows and weekly laundry service.

Bob Overton had just showed Kate the shower and was now bringing a futon into the room. It was time to talk money. I thanked Bob for his help and insisted we pay him something. A couple days ago Bob said we could stay for free until we found work and could pay rent. Secretly I was very happy with this, but I knew it would be rude not to offer something. People appreciate such social displays, even if they lack conviction.

“We have to pay you something for the room,” I protested mildly, fully expecting him to reject my offer.

Bob took an unusual moment of silence.  I could see dollars and cents calculating in his head as he looked at us.

“Well, let’s call it $500 a month,” he muttered casually.

I must have looked surprised because he quickly reassured us that our first week would be free.

“You’re my guests this week,” he enthused, before giving Kate a prolonged hug and going to bed.

$500 a month, that’s not so bad, I sighed. At least we have somewhere to stay. Sure Bob’s charitable gesture had turned into a commercial venture, but what could you expect? Whims of generosity only go so far before they peter out with hard feelings and eviction notices.

Bob had quite a setup, I learned the next day. He had built three outhouses in his yard and was renting each room for $500 a month. He was renting most of his house out to a family from El Salvador and the front room to a lady from Chile. Without realising it, we had moved into an migrant lodging house with at least three countries represented.

“When all these rooms are occupied I’ll be taking in over $2,000 a month in rent,” Bob told my sister.

Later, after I discovered more about his rental practises, I would regret agreeing to $500 a month. For now, though, I was happy to have a place to sleep. I didn’t want to think about how we would pay the rent, on top of getting money for buses and food. I was too exhausted from moving everything into storage and driving that dammed U-Haul truck.

We were both exhausted and so was Navid, the poor bastard. He almost threw out his back helping us carry our couch down two flights of stairs. That was one act of kindness he’ll regret for a while.

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

“Don’t worry, they make these so even idiots can drive them,” Navid laughed.

I felt my hand shaking as I turned the ignition. How big of an idiot will that make me?

I only passed my driving test four months before and now I was about to drive a U-Haul truck down Sunset Blvd. This was the first time I had driven a vehicle larger than a Peugeot 505 and just the second time I had driven in a city, let alone a city with a notoriously aggressive driving culture and an infamous disregard for traffic law. I was fucked.

I followed Navid’s silver Honda onto Sunset. Stay on the right, stay on the right, stay on the right. Once I got on Sunset I could relax. Just drive straight, just follow Navid. It was easy, dull even. Driving in this city is like driving a train, I thought to myself smugly. I read every billboard I drove past; my eyes lingered on them, then flicked to the next. A big sign advertising Fatburger appeared. Mmm, Fatburger. I could really go for one of those. I wonder how fat they really are? Can’t be worse than Mc…  Red light! Shit!

I slammed on the breaks and stopped a patty’s width from Navid’s bumper. Phew, that was close. Before I had time to think the light turned green and I was back on the gas. We drove further down and finally turned off into Stor-Quest and unloaded our stuff.

As I started the engine for the journey back I was more confident. I followed Navid onto Sunset again, heading east. Everything was going easy until it started raining. Rain? In Los Angeles?  This wasn’t just rain, it was one of those freak rain storms that blow over the Los Angeles Basin soaking everything within five minutes and flooding whole neighbourhoods. My wipers were going nuts but still couldn’t part the water for more than a millisecond.

Navid was a couple cars ahead by now, so I followed his brake lights from a distance. Suddenly, I lost him. Where is he? I panicked and slammed on the breaks. Irate drivers pummeled their horns and sped past me waving their fuck you fingers. I sucked in some air and started again. Hands on the wheel, foot on the gas. I saw him, finally. He was less than twenty feet ahead, waiting in the U-Haul parking lot. I slapped my signal on and swerved abruptly right to a chorus of more honking and middle fingers. I pissed off every driver in East Hollywood but I made it. Navid parked the truck for me – I couldn’t face driving it again– and dropped off the keys.

“You guys want to grab a Fatburger?” Navid asked.

We ate our burgers while trying to ignore the obese family sitting in front of us. I almost crashed a U-Haul truck into my sister and her friend because of this burger. Imagine crashing a car because you were drooling over a fast food sign? That wouldn’t fly back in the old country; you would be a laughing stock.

Looking at the family ahead, I got the impression people here would be more sympathetic.

Nom, nom, nom.

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

Dreams of East Hollywood

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

When things which are usually fixed in life – like location, cast and plot – change suddenly and frequently, one feels like one is either in a movie or a dream. If it’s a movie I hope it co-stars Rachel McAdams.

Five weeks after arriving in Los Angeles I was about to move twice more – first back to East Hollywood to pack up all the furniture and then onward to Westchester, home of Bob Overton. Navid kindly agreed to help Kate and I move from Beverly Hills to East Hollywood, saving us the demoralising prospect of having to move house by bus.

We loaded all of our stuff into Navid’s car, kissed Jackson goodbye and headed back east. I could get used to this, I thought, as Navid taxied us around yet again. He was becoming a regular driver for my sister and me. It was a welcome change from riding buses. Suspension, climate control, soft seats. Man, this was luxury.

24-hours – that’s all we had to get everything packed, put it into self-storage and then move ourselves to Bob Overton’s place. This was going to be tight. We packed like crazy until midnight when I had to stop. We had already moved once today, I couldn’t take anymore.

Somewhere between hitting the pillow and my eyes closing, a big gorilla conked my head and sent me to Downtown Dreamland. I was in a dive bar drinking beer with a load of blurry faces which gradually became clear. It was like an episode of Cheers: everybody was there and they all knew my name – Obese Bob H, Taxi Driver Navid, Jacked-Up Jackson, Car Tag Jack, and even Big Rims from the Social Security Administration. My dreams are usually small shows, one or two lead roles, intimate storylines and quirky dialogue – an indie movie, if you will. They don’t usually have such high production values and rarely have ensemble casts. Something was changing. My brain was turning Hollywood.

I woke up suddenly and checked the time – 3am. I walked to the window and looked outside. I could just about make it out. It was kind of blurry, but there it was – that white smudge on the mountain was the Hollywood sign. HOLLYWOOD in big bold letters; it was visible from every street corner. When I first arrived in LA it looked surreal but now it looked powerful, almost totalitarian. Was it giving people a dream or imposing it? The sign is so far away from the city it’s the perfect symbol for itself – the dream of Hollywood, distant and nearly impossible to get to, so dangerously high you can die climbing it. Hollywood is an idea, a beautiful dream, more beautiful than Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland combined, and between us we all make it real.

Down below, far below the Hollywood Hills, I saw two shadowy figures walking around in circles. Loitering on the corner of Sunset and N Kingsey were two black women, dressed in black leather with black mini-skirts and knee-high boots. They stood outside a sleazy motel beneath a street lamp. A man came round the corner and one of the women followed him as he walked down the street but got nowhere with him and came back. I watched the scene for a couple minutes before I had seen enough.

Waking up the next morning, I immediately looked out the window to see a steady stream of traffic moving down Sunset and families walking to church.  Maybe it was all a dream? Up above, the Hollywood sign was grinning. It resembled a set of perfect bleached-white teeth, the original Hollywood smile.

Bob’s car blustered into the alley, alerting everyone in the 90212 zip code to his presence.I walked out to meet the man who would drive my mother and uncle to the airport.

As I entered the alleyway I could almost feel the reverberations through the concrete and I imagined the engine, hotter and drier than Death Valley, spinning insanely like a High School science project gone wrong. Bob Overton’s car was born the same year I was but had evidently aged badly. A classic Mercedes Diesel 500D, the only way Bob could turn the engine off was by lifting the hood and pressing the kill switch. So this was their airport limo?

We squeezed into the car and drove to an Indian restaurant near LAX. Bob was one of Kate’s more unusual friends – a 400 pound, fifty-five year old with long blonde beach-bum hair and the verbal equivalent of irritable bowel syndrome. Bob talked the way his engine ran – boisterously and without stopping. The key difference being that you could kill the engine, but you couldn’t kill Bob’s train of verbiage.

Bob drove us back to his house, where he invited us all for a quick drink before take-off. Kate’s Iranian friend Navid joined us and said he would drive us back to Beverly Hills afterwards. Half way through our second bottle of wine and Bob’s eighteenth story of the evening, I pointed out the time. “Don’t you two have to be at the airport soon?” My mother and uncle looked at each other. Bob took a long swig from his wine glass and announced sonorously it was time to go.

We hugged and said we would see each again soon. My mother was worried about what would happen to us, what with my sister being evicted and our stay in Beverly Hills coming to an end. Bob honked the horn goodbye and swung his car recklessly onto the road. Kate and I waved them off, wondering aloud whether they would actually make it to the airport.

Navid took us home for our last night in Beverly Hills. I was happy to be leaving, even if we were about to be evicted from Kate’s East Hollywood apartment and effectively made homeless. Los Angeles is a lonely city but Beverly Hills is the loneliest place of all. Unfriendly and boring – there was nothing to do at night unless you were willing to haemorrhage $100 bills in a fancy restaurant. I was willing; I just couldn’t afford the medical bill afterwards.

I was tired of living next to people who earned more money in one year than I could earn in ten. Tired of sending out my resume, tired of watching Seinfeld reruns – something I never thought could happen – and tired of not knowing anyone in this town.

The whole urban alienation thing didn’t work for me. I didn’t want to be a Haruki Murakami character, cooking pasta alone in an apartment while waiting for an erotic phone call from a mysterious woman which in real life doesn’t come – the nearest I got was a call from a Baptist minister inviting me to join a prayer circle. I didn’t want to be Chandler or Bukowski either, washing down whisky with regrets on the Pissed-up Cirrhosis Highway.

I was ready to give up on the whole adventure and go back to England when the phone rang. I hoped to God it was the lady in The Wind-up Bird Chronicles. I answered, staying silent.

“Hello? This Bob Overton. Tell your sister you are welcome to stay with me in Westchester if you can’t find anywhere to go. Just tell me when and I’ll make up the room for you.”

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

After about thirty minutes I woke up and saw Jack bent to the steering wheel. Something wasn’t right. We were going way too fast.

A silver pickup suddenly appeared to the right of us, then broke past our car before hitting a steady speed about five car lengths ahead.

“See this Toyota pickup here, we’ve been playing tag all night,” Jack said as he kicked down on the accelerator, crept up alongside the car and tried to overtake. He was going about 80mph, well over the speed limit.

“Let me teach you about driving, Tom. When you’re in a situation like this where you’re playing tag you’ve got to keep pushing the guy. See, I’m pushing him right now; I’m going to push him all the way back to LA.”

Jack “pushed” past the car, zoomed ahead as if making a declaration of victory and then sat back, watching in the rear-view mirror for the pickup’s next move. About five minutes passed before the pickup saw an opening and calmly overtook us, establishing itself in the lead once again. It was about 9pm and traffic along Highway 101 was heavy but moving.

The game carried on like this until Jack lost the pickup somewhere near LA. I was amazed we weren’t pulled over by cops – Jack drove nearly the whole way from Santa Barbara going at least 10mph over the limit. By the time we reached our exit my sister and mother had woken up, completely oblivious to the car chase we had been playing for the past hour.

Later I did some research and discovered The Car Tag Manifesto online. Urban Dictionary describes the game as an activity “enjoyed by young adults whom have recently aquired drivers licenses (sic)” – there are always exceptions.

We took the off-ramp into darkness and followed a winding mountain road through pitch-black night. It’s amazing how dark it can be up in the mountains, when you are just a few miles away from the enormous grid of burning filament and neon spread over the Los Angeles Basin.

We came out in the northern stretch of Beverly Hills, not far from home. We didn’t know for certain where we were until we spotted actual mansions hiding behind tall hedges. These weren’t the McMansions of the flats – the part of Beverly Hills I was staying in – these were the stately homes of Los Angeles, the buildings which will be bought up by charities and opened to the public after the age of celebrity has ended and Hollywood’s steady decline to nothing is recorded as yet another historical example of an exploitative system based on idolatry withering to dust.

Something about the darkness of these hills changed the tone of the evening; it made me feel like we were driving past living relics desperately fighting off entropy. I don’t know why I got like this. Maybe it’s the craziness brought on by living under two skies: the warm California sun and the cold California stars.

Maybe it’s because serene darkness and jasmine can be worse for the soul than glaring sunlight and carbon monoxide. Maybe it’s like Marlowe said. Maybe we all get like this in the cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right.

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