Thursday, July 25, 2013

Near Naked Protest

I witnessed a wet and near naked version of “Occupy Wall Street” this past weekend. It was civil disobedience by middle class Americans at a water park, people in bathing suits who fought for fairness in a small but direct way, and their protest went viral and swept through the water park faster than toenail fungus in a shallow pool of warm water.
            My daughter Lily, who just turned eight, loves water parks, and we’ve been going to Raging Waters in San Dimas, California for the past four years. Raging Waters is the largest water park in California, with over 36 thrill rides spread over 50 acres.
            I’ve never screamed or laughed louder than on those thrill rides I’ve ridden with her at that park, and she feels the same. All day long we talk about the drop into darkness on “Neptune’s Fury,”  the bounce you get on the second waterfall of “Speed Slide,” the minute long ride of “High Extreme,” and the velocity of “Raging Racer.”

            I also love it for another reason. Raging Waters is America stripped bare, literally, and within the microcosm of the park the issues that separate our country disappear.
            Class disappears. Out in the parking lot there are Hyundais next to Hummers, and BMWs and Range Rovers next to Corollas, but once inside, there’s no way to tell who earns $200,000 a year and who earns eight bucks an hour. You can be a professor or a millionaire or a busboy or a high school student, it doesn’t matter. We all look the same in our swim trunks, rash guards and dorky sun hats.
            Race disappears. Caucasian, Asian, African, Latin, are all mixing. You hear people speaking Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, English, Korean, and we all laugh and scream and giggle and yell at our kids “don’t run!” in the same way.
            Most importantly, all pretense disappears. At a water park, there is no roller coaster car to protect you; you either ride on a mat, or you sit in an inner tube, or it’s just your flailing body hurtling down a rushing wall of water that rockets you through dark tunnels and then spits you out over the falls. You feel scared, thrilled and embarrassed all at the same time, and after you splash down and climb out, the adrenalin still courses through you. That’s when I turn to my daughter and we laugh out loud, our faces beaming, and we dash to the next line and join the other giggling riders anxious to do it all over again.
            The last time I saw a line of such happy people was at my daughter’s primary school, watching the 1st and 2nd graders line up at recess. Adult lines are never this happy. People don’t grin when they line up at the DMV.
            There’s a natural sense of fairness that happens when kids line up. In grade school, front cuts are never allowed, and back cuts are barely tolerated. Screaming “that’s not fair!” is common at that age, and only when we’re older do we tolerate the response that “no one said that life was fair.”  Adulthood is where we learn how the world really works.
            But although we tolerate it, that sense of fairness never disappears, it just falls dormant within us, until something happens that makes it reappear.
            And that’s where the damp protest comes in.
            Raging Waters has instituted a “fast pass” line this summer. If you pay double the regular admission fee, you get a plastic wristband and you don’t have to wait in line on certain rides.
            When my daughter Lily asked why those people got to go ahead of us, I explained that they paid twice as much money, so they get to cut the line. I then asked her how she felt about that. Her gut reaction was the same as on the playground -- “that’s not fair.”  Her grade school belief that “cutting the line” was wrong turned out to be shared by a lot of adults at the park as well.
            When we got to the front of the next line for Raging Racer, we had to wait for the people exiting the ride to hand us their mats, so we could have our turn. Two people wearing “fast pass” bands came up alongside, and they put their hands out, expecting to be handed mats ahead of everyone in line. After all, they had paid extra.
            The first person coming off the ride refused to hand the mat over, and pushed his mat into the hands of the person at the head of the regular line. The second person coming off the ride saw that, and immediately copied him...and then so did the third through the eighth person coming off the ride...and the trend took off. This spontaneous protest happened without a word. No one shouted “no cuts,” or “that’s not fair.” No one slapped “high fives” or pointed. Everyone continued to be polite. The people in second class simply refused to cater to the people in first class.
            An employee from Raging Waters was standing there to enforce the new rule, but it quickly became clear that she could not. Eventually, the people who paid more did get their mats, but I could tell they were uncomfortable. They felt...shame.
            The protest went viral and spread to other rides, and for the rest of the day I saw many “fast pass” purchasers awkwardly waiting to get mats and rafts from the second class people, who refused to participate. 
            I am not against exclusivity. Country clubs have their place, and so does first class on an airplane. But with country clubs and other places of privilege, your money buys “separateness” from the masses, where you can enjoy greater creature comforts with other wealthier people like yourselves, behind walls or curtains, and avoid encountering average folk. The masses are not in your face, and your wealth is not being shoved in theirs.
            The people who bought the fast passes had done nothing wrong either; if we had been out in the real world, where class, race, and pretense insulate and separate us, the masses would have accepted this two-tiered system without complaint. 
            But because class, race and pretense had disappeared, that dormant sense of grade school fairness had spontaneously reappeared. The equality of the playground trumped all rules, and it became impossible for the employees to enforce the new policy.
            It felt a bit like grade school as well; after all, everyone is wearing damp shorts, rash guards and dorky sun hats. When the “fast pass” purchaser thrusts out his wrist to show that he’s wearing a band that proves he should get the mat first, it’s hard to take him seriously.
            However, as our society divides further into the haves and the have-nots, it seems that “fast pass” and “first class” lines will pop up in more places where the general public gathers. Wealth won’t be used to just buy an exclusive place or an exclusive product that the masses can’t have.  Wealth will be used to first “dibs” on what everyone else must wait for.
            I can imagine it starting with beach parking lots, the line at the pharmacy and the banks, and checkout lines at the mall stores at Christmas time.
            In the past, this would never have been imagined -- we all wanted to appear to be part of the middle class.  This used to NOT be the standard; if we were poor, we wanted to appear wealthier, and if we were wealthier we wanted to blend in with those who had less.  We shared a bias to join the middle class, and to stray from that was crass and invited public shame.
            Keep your eyes out for this new twist on class division, and see how the public reacts to it.  If Raging Waters really is a microcosm of America, however, people will find a way to protest it, and cries of, “THAT’S NOT FAIR,” will no longer be reserved just for children. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dark California Part 3 : Porn on my block

I’ve been writing about crime on my block for the past two weeks. In this third installment, I want to write about something that’s not criminal, but it’s definitely naughty.  Pornography. For a year, on my block in Studio City in the San Fernando Valley, a neighbor was filming porn in her house across the street.
            Nothing she did was criminal. In fact, pornography is big business in Southern California, especially in the San Fernando Valley. When Hollywood shoots its mainstream movies and TV shows out of town, and when the economy is bad, porn’s money lubricates a lot of businesses around here, so we mostly ignore it. It’s also easy to ignore because it’s always shot somewhere else, somewhere far from your home.
            When actual porn is produced on your block, however, it’s impossible to ignore, and it gave our suburban lives a weird surreal skew. It also gave everyone who lived on the block something to talk about whenever we saw each other.
            Across the street and three houses down is a small bungalow with a brick front facade. The house itself isn’t brick -- it’s insane to build a brick house in earthquake-prone California unless it’s reinforced with steel I-beams, so the body of the house is a wooden frame covered with stucco. And just like the house itself, our neighbor’s exterior appearances did not match their interior lives.
            In other words, they looked just like us. 
            But then again, how else are porn producers supposed to look? 
            It started in 2006, when an undercover police officer lived in the house, a guy I’ll call Chuck. He was the one proud Republican on the block (most others are closeted around here) and he stuck placards for conservative candidates into his front lawn. He could never tell us what he was doing until the case he was working on was over. For a time he grew a long beard and rode motorcycles and never spoke to us -- and it turned out he was infiltrating a motorcycle gang somewhere at the north end of the vast Los Angeles urban sprawl.
            He also had a girlfriend, whom I’ll call Margaret. She was an attractive redhead who never smiled and never made eye contact, but we could often hear them fighting at night, and her shouts were louder than his.
            Chuck was a great neighbor (when he was around); he helped people with their cars and sprinkler systems, and he mowed the lawn for Sybil, the old lady who lived next door to him. Because he was so gregarious, the other guys who lived on the block (myself included) often ended up standing on his front lawn drinking a soda or a bottle of beer on a warm spring night. He told funny stories, and we all felt that some of his legit toughness might rub off on us.
            Sam, the neighbor directly across from him, asked him about the shouting.
            “I’m scared of her, man,” Chuck said. “She is freaking me out.”
            “Why don’t you break up with her?” one of us asked.
            “Because we bought the house together. With prices going up, it seemed like the smart thing to do,” said Chuck.
            We all nodded in sympathy, but I’m sure we had the same thought. He’s one of LAPD’s toughest undercover cops, and he’s scared of his girlfriend Margaret?  How bad is she, if she can scare Chuck?
            And then suddenly, Chuck was gone. He moved out without a word to anyone, and only Margaret lived in the house. She came and went and still never spoke to anyone. But she looked like an average middle class working woman in gray business skirts and blouses on the weekdays, walking to and from her Toyota in the morning and evening, and then in jeans and T-shirts on weekends...just like the rest of us.
            Then her father moved in with her. He was in his 60’s, tan with gray hair, and he dressed in Hawaiian print shirts, drawstring pants and flip-flops. He was all beach, all the time. But that’s typical around here as well. Every fourth guy over 60 looks like a Jimmy Buffet fan or a Trader Joe’s employee.
            Then her father bought a house further down our block. This was before the crash, when everyone was leveraging their money and getting crazy loans for homes, and suddenly Margaret and her Dad owned two, with Dad in one house and Margaret in the other.
            And then movie production began.
            It started at night, and it looked like a regular film production. They had a generator in the street, and a big burly guy in a t-shirt and cargo shorts was yanking cable from the generator into the house, and then they lit up the interior like Dodger Stadium, but kept the blinds drawn.
            They parked a white cube truck with all the lighting and grip gear at the curb. A cube truck is a production vehicle with only four wheels, so it’s more like a moving van than a big movie truck, so it can be in a residential neighbor without special permits. Luxury cars would arrive and park and stay there into the wee hours. Coming home late, you’d notice the extra vehicles, the whirring electrical generator, the bright lights in the house, and the people coming and going from their cars.
            But by the next morning, all the cars would be gone. Margaret and her Dad were following the rules, and as long as you have your permits in order and no car or 4-wheel truck stays in one place longer than 24 hours, you can shoot a student film or a sequel to “Titanic” in the privacy of your home. 
            None of us on the block really cared that much -- we’re used to movie and TV production happening everywhere in Los Angeles, and we were glad to see that people were working.
            Then the shoots started happening twice a week, and then three times a week, and it went on for months. We started to notice and wonder -- what IS Margaret doing in there?
            Neighbors asked her and her father, but neither of them volunteered much. When Sybil, the old lady who lived next door complained about the moaning and grappling she heard from next door seeping into her bedroom at night, Margaret and her Dad told her that they had the right to do whatever they wanted.
            Then, the gossiping began. Instantly, we all knew that middle age Dad had been a porn star in the 1970’s and that Margaret had grown up with her mom and then her dad, but had really raised herself. Dad had connections in Japan, and together he and Margaret were making DVDs and Internet porn for the Asian market. And now the feral red haired child and her Dad were cranking out the porn three nights a week.
            Then, just as quickly, Margaret and Dad switched to daytime shoots. Maybe they had to meet higher demand. Maybe Sybil complained too much about the bumping and grinding disturbing her sleep. Maybe they realized that fewer prying eyes were around in the daytime, there was more parking, they could use mostly daylight for their scenes, and as long as their cast and crew cars were gone before 6 p.m., hardly any neighbors would notice.            
            But I noticed. I was working from home during some of that time, and I witnessed some wild stuff. I remember playing with my then two-year old daughter Lily on our front lawn when a sleek black Mercedes pulled up in front of our house, so new it had no plates yet. Two brunettes were inside, and they cranked their music and were drinking Jack Daniels from the bottle and singing. 
            Then one answered her cell phone, the music went off, and they left their parked car and headed to Margaret’s house. One was dressed as a sexy red devil, with a headband with horns and a little tail coming out of her mini-skirt, and the other was wearing a teeny weeny nurse’s costume. Both teetered as they strutted down the street in their platform shoes, passing their bottle of Jack as they headed past Sybil sitting on her porch and into Margaret’s house. That was very common at 2 in the afternoon.
            “Daddy, is she a nurse?”
            “No Lily, that’s a costume.”
            “They like dress-up?”
            “Yes, sweetheart. They like dress-up.”
            “I like dress-up too!”
            It was hard to explain that it was a different kind of dress-up.
            Later, the Dad grew bolder and bought a big RV and parked it in his driveway, and that became his make-up and costume department, with the house itself being used for props and storage. The performers would show up in their fancy cars but they were now dressed in street clothes, and then they’d knock on the RV door. Dad would swing it open, and they’d climb inside.
            Music, laughter, howling and shouts would spill out of the RV’s windows, and then the door would open and the performers would emerge in a cloud of marijuana smoke, dressed as judges, cops, girl scouts, pool boys and pizza delivery guys. They’d trip over some empty bottles of booze as they came down the stairs and they’d head across the street from Dad’s house to Margaret’s house, to perform their scenes.
            In the middle of the afternoon, actresses with curlers in their hair, wearing stiletto heels and bras and panties covered only by sheer negligees, would cross paths with the neighborhood school children walking home from school in their traditional uniforms.
            The schoolgirls did head turns after the groups intersected, but the actresses did not. They could care less.
            There is an adage that the biggest house on the biggest hill is always owned by the pornographer -- yet Dad and Margaret never upgraded. Although production was increasing, they never seemed to be driving better cars, and Margaret’s sprinkler system still shot a fountain of water straight in the air every second morning at 7 am.
Either the Japanese weren’t paying on time, or Dad and Margaret weren’t making money fast enough.
            Then, the economy crashed.
            The first clue that things weren’t perfect in porn land was their garage sale. They hung a hundred costumes of every variety on massive clothing racks in the driveway. Those who weren’t “in the know,” thought a costume company must have gone out of business or was releasing some excess inventory. The word spread to the other blocks and their garage sale did well. But on our block we knew where those clothes had been…and that they had a story to tell.  We shopped slowly and asked questions.
            “What was this costume used for?”
            “When was the last time this was dry-cleaned?”
            “Do you know how to get these stains out?
            Margaret answered questions with a shrug and “I don’t know.”
            Dad’s house went into foreclosure first. The “Bank Owned” sign went up, and he moved out in a weekend. Margaret hung on a bit longer, then did a short sale with a broker, and she moved out as well.
            No goodbyes, no nods, no waves as their cars drove away.
            That was in 2008. It was a crazy time. New owners are in both homes -- and although that’s a story that could only happen in Los Angeles, homeowners have pulled some wild stunts to keep their homes.
            What’s the craziest story from YOUR BLOCK?
            What have people done to save their homes in your neighborhood?
            Let me know!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Dark California : Easy Access to Crime Part 2 : On my street


              Last week I wrote about crime and suspicious activity on my street -- not just my neighborhood, but also my actual suburban Los Angeles block.  I like to build to the good stuff, so this is the second blog post of three that are coming. 
              Last week I mentioned the crimes of commuters speeding during rush hour, failed actors abandoning their cars, and the exchange of stolen property (electronics, luxury cars and weapons), which happens across the street on the corner. This week, let’s discuss home invasion, drug deals, and stabbings, all of which have happened on my block as well!
The first type of crime occurs in the middle of the day.  Because I work in TV, I have odd hours, odd jobs, and sometimes no job, which means I am often home between 11 and 2.  Here is what I’ve witnessed:

The Casual Home Invasion
            I am home alone, writing, and I hear someone trying my doorknob.  I go to the front door and I ask “who is it?” and I hear no answer.  I look out the window and see that the person who tried to open my door has already left and is proceeding to my neighbor’s home.  He’s average in every way, but he also is wearing an orange vest, the kind that street workers use, but also the same kind you can buy at the hardware store for twelve dollars.  I step outside to track his actions, but if he’s aware of me comma he’s smart enough not to look in my direction.
            He has a clear strategy.  He walks with authority and confidence up to every door on the block, one after the other, and tries the door to see if it’s open. If it’s not, he just keeps going.  When I call the police they tell me they haven’t caught him yet, but this crime is common and profitable.  1 out of 50 homes is unlocked, he can easily try 50 doors in a little over an hour, and he’s sure to find a home to invade and rob soon. 

The Violent Home Invasion
            The violent home invasion involves the mule kick, and for this crime the perps usually arrive in pairs.  Two guys approach the house, and one rings the doorbell and knocks on the door while the other checks the driveway and the side of the house. If someone comes to the door, they make loud noises and shout, scaring whoever is inside -- the last thing they want is for the homeowner to open the door and see and identify them.  They say things like, “Hey, we got a live one! I don’t like this!  No way!  Wrong house!  This isn’t Jim’s place!” 
            They are loud and scary, but the comments are general and not legally “threatening,” but the homeowner hears them and stays inside. But if no one answers, one will turn his back, brace himself and mule kick the door, which rips the door through both the frame and the locks.  They grab what they can in less than a minute, and they go.  This hasn’t happened to me, but it’s happened on my block.
Evening crime:

The Drug Deal
            I live one block off a major boulevard and there is a narrow alley between the boulevard and my block.  The residents of the apartment buildings on the boulevard use the alley to drive into their ground floor parking lots, and on the residential side, the owners store their garbage cans and have access to their own detached garages on the alley.
            At night the alley is dark, with only the light from the gas station on the corner illuminating the narrow strip of asphalt.  If you drive down this alley after 11 p.m., cars will be parked there; lights on, engine running, and the men are doing business.  They will not let you pass and they will motion for you to go around.  If you insist you’d like to drive by, someone comes close and tells you to turn around.

            I should make this singular, because there was only one stabbing, but it was directly in front of my house and on the opposite side of the street.  The crime was simple: A drug buyer approached a drug dealer in the alley, somehow got the drugs in his hand before handing over the money -- and he ran.
            The dealers pursued him down the alley on foot.  He cleared the corner, turned right and tried to go deeper into the neighborhood to elude his pursuers, but made a right again on our block.  This, unfortunately for him, is where the dealers caught up.  There were no gunshots --- they just stabbed him three times, a car roared up, the dealers jumped in and drove away.
            Bleeding badly, the drug buyer banged on doors, but no one opened up for him at 1 in the morning.  Knowing he needed an ambulance, he then ran two blocks to the main boulevard. Where he ran into traffic and risked getting run over -- but someone stopped and called 911 and the ambulances came.  He survived.
            The next morning all the neighbors seemed to instantly know about the stabbing, as if we all learned it through atmospheric osmosis.  We crossed the street and looked at the red stain on the sidewalk where the victim had lost several pints of blood, and it looked like spilled wine.  The sprinklers came on and washed it away.
            We compared the details we heard and we talked about how we need to put lights in the alley. 
            A police cruiser turned the corner and came by, and the two officers on patrol drove by slowly.  We all waved nervously, they waved and nodded back.  They were just keeping tabs on the street where the bad stuff went down the previous night.  They kept rolling.  The crime has come and gone, but we felt better, for some reason.
Still, what creates the most stress is knowing how random it all is. Like a tornado that touches down in the Midwest and destroys some homes while ignoring others, crime works the same way in Los Angeles.
I want your feedback!
Is your neighborhood like mine?
Or is Los Angeles unique?
Do you feel that crime is random no matter where it is, or is there a pattern than can be gleaned through observation -- and therefore prevented?
I want to know about crime where you are, what we can learn from its patterns and how we can stop it.

Next week -- San Fernando Valley Pornography -- filmed right on my block.  It’s as much as story about a dropping economy as dropping clothes, so please read!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dark California: Easy Access to Crime - Part 1

I live on a street that’s perfect for random Los Angeles crime. In LA, the flow of traffic determines our decisions.  If we can get somewhere easily, park easily, and leave easily, we choose that route and that destination over others. Whether it’s a job, a store, a restaurant, or a school - if it’s easy for us to get there, that matters as much as cost or quality.  Lost time in traffic is just too frustrating.

The same logic applies to crime as well, and unfortunately for me and my family, we live on a street where the flow of traffic makes random crime easy. I live in a wonderful neighborhood with nice front lawns and white picket fences.  My street is also one residential street away from two major surface streets, and we are the first residential street you find when you exit the freeway and head south. 

Two right hand turns, park the car, do your nefarious business, and you can zoom back down the street and get back on the freeway in less than two minutes. One or two blocks deeper into the neighborhood, and that ease disappears. Like random molecules in space, moving blood vessels, or water in a stream, traffic follows the easiest route, and thus so does all the trafficking in which humans engage.

Crime in Los Angeles only seems random.  Whether it’s road rage or robbery, it flares up suddenly and then disappears, and we all wonder, “why did it happen here?”  Looking closer, I believe that the seeming randomness of the crime can be explained by how traffic made that crime convenient to commit.

In increasing order of magnitude, here are the crimes that occur in front of my home every year:

Aggressive Speeding

I live one block from a major North/South artery, and one block from a major East/West artery, and the flow of traffic backs up on both the morning and evening rush hours.  Drivers sit in their cars in bumper to bumper traffic, watching the traffic lights at that major intersection change again and again, yet they never move forward.

Until their frustration builds and they finally reach our block first.  Why wait another ten minutes to go one block?  They make a turn, zip down our street and make a quick right hand turn and they’re heading where they want to go that much faster.

That’s not a crime.  However, when they reach our street their frustration is released -- and they punch that gas pedal and go from fifteen to fifty miles per hour, gritting their teeth to hold in their road rage.

Crossing the street or backing out of our driveway is tough when you’re up against the Road Warrior.

Abandoned Cars

People get tired of life in Los Angeles, and they need to get away.  Sometimes they need a vacation, sometimes they need to leave the country for a few months, or go home to Tennessee to stay with their parents for awhile.  Sometimes they’ve given up on Tinseltown and they drop everything and go.  Sometimes people steal cars and they just need to leave them somewhere.

I’ve seen all of the above happen, and they all leave their cars for me to monitor.

More than once I have seen people drive up, park their car in front of my home, get out and lock their cars, and another car zips up to pick them up, and they disappear.  And that car stays there for days, weeks, and then months.

Each car has a story, and if the car is there long enough for a spider to weave a cobweb on one of the tires, I start poking around and peering in the windows.

They sometimes have school parking permits hanging from the rear view mirrors,  or out of state license plates, or a pile of actor head shots on the back seat.  Sometimes the back window is shattered, or the trunk has been pried open then tied shut with twine.

Once I called a phone number I saw at the top of head shot, and another time I called the sheriff in a small county in Tennessee -- but no one appreciated my amateur sleuthing. “It’s not illegal to park my car there!”

Actually, it is.  It’s called abandonment, and now I just call the City to tow it away.

The Exchange

“The Exchange” is more dramatic and happens several times a year.  My block is easy to find from the freeway, it’s easy to get back on the freeway yet again, it’s quiet and there’s usually plenty of parking.  This means that it’s a perfect spot for a quick exchange of illegal goods.

I’ve seen two cars turn the corner and roar up -- one is expensive and usually without plates.  Leaving the motors running, men get out of both cars and stand there looking tough while two of them exchange cash. 

I am playing in the front yard with my daughter, dancing on our lawn surrounded by a white picket fence, and I stop playing to look at them.  They see me watching and they stare back at me, and their message is clear -- “What are you looking at?”

If I keep looking they will take a step forward, and if I look away, they will I look away.  They complete their transaction, the cars are exchanged and roar away.

Other times I see trunks open and the men move items from one trunk to another. Sometimes they move boxes of electronics, and sometimes they move long sturdy objects wrapped in burlap or oil cloth.

The men glance at me again, questioning why I am watching, and again I look away. Cash is exchanged, the transaction is completed, and they leave as well.

I then go back to playing with my daughter and drift back into our version of suburban bliss.

Over the hiss of the sprinklers, however, there is a high-pitched hiss that never goes away -- the sound of the freeway half a mile away, with a noise so continuous that you never notice it unless you someone points it out to you, or you notice its stunning absence on certain holiday mornings when the freeway is empty.  

That’s our urban river, and these random men finish their business and flow back into the stream of cars and disappear.

Next week, we’ll continue with drug deals, stabbings, and home invasions.