Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hiatus Week Four: Who You Callin' Yonque?

Yep, it must be street-sweeping day...

One of the odd rituals many denizens of Hollywood must observe – those of us who, thanks to the cold-hearted parsimony of evil landlords, are forced to rely on street parking rather than harboring our cars in a clean, safe garage – is the weekly mass migration of vehicles from one side of the street to the other. On my block, Monday morning brings a noisy lumbering mechanical street-sweeper to hoover up the assorted broken beer bottles, dead animals, pizza crusts, dog shit, plastic bottles full of urine, discarded dildos, used condoms, mysteriously tied-up grocery bags full of Something Really Nasty, and great, dirty snow drifts of advertising fliers that invariably pile up in the gutter over seven days time. To accommodate this essential urban ablution, all vehicles must vacate the east side of the street between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. Come Tuesday morning, the situation reverses when the west side of the street receives its own badly-needed cleaning.

Prisoners of the nine-to-five civilian life need not be concerned with any of this -- they’re long gone by the time the meter maid cruises by on her fund-raising rounds, and thus do not fear the curse of street-sweeping tickets. We who work free-lance, however, lead unpredictably chaotic lives far off the mainstream cultural grid of five-days-a-week, fifty-weeks-a-year normalcy. With our highly variable work days/hours, we're often at risk of violating these iron-clad rules of the street. If I go to work on Monday afternoon, toil through the night, then drive home at 7:00 a.m. Tuesday, I must remember to seek out a parking place on the eastern side of the street before hitting the sack – and by that time, these precious ticket-free spots are in very short supply.

The price of forgetfulness is a forty-five dollar ticket these days. In what now feels like another galaxy, far, far away and a long time ago, street-sweeping tickets around here used to cost five bucks – but that was back before cities, counties, and the state (not to mention the Federal Government) all went broke. Now that we’re apparently doomed to lives of permanent debt deep in the Red Zone, every level of government is raising funds any way they can. I wasn’t happy about getting dinged for five bucks back in the old days, but after coming home dirty and exhausted from an 18 to 20 hour day, it seemed a small enough price to get to sleep as soon as possible.

Forty-five bucks is a different story -- I’ll drive around for half an hour in the pre-dawn dark seeking out a ticket-safe parking spot, even if it means leaving the car a dozen long blocks away from home. But in our modern Zero Sum world, this creates another problem: trying to remember the next day where the hell I parked the damned car in my post-work fog of fatigue the night before. I’ve taken many a rambling, bleary-eyed early afternoon walk around the neighborhood searching for my car, all the while wondering if some shit-head really did steal it this time.

So far, so good, but it’s never a comfortable feeling.*

At a certain point, the street-sweeping schedule becomes more or less embedded in one’s brain – but alas, perfection is not possible in life. A few weeks ago, I overslept and had to bolt from the warm bed, jump into my work clothes, and lead-foot it over Laurel Canyon to get to the studio on time. It was only while crawling home in the post-work traffic crush that I realized it was Tuesday, and that I’d forgotten to move my ancient motorcycle to the east side of the street. The rest of the way home, I thought about all the things I could have done with that forty-five dollars – maybe a nice dinner at a decent restaurant, or two bags of groceries from Trader Joe’s, or a bottle of Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon and two bottles of more-or-less drinkable red wine from the local BevMo. Forty-five bucks could lend a hand to a worthy organization such as Greenpeace or the Union Mission, or buy half a goat for some Third World family halfway around the world.

It could also pay the cable bill for another month of All-U-Can-Watch TV.

Every other choice held infinitely more appeal than throwing forty-five hard earned dollars into the bottomless Black Hole bureaucracy of City Hall, where it would vanish without a splash, in utter silence. It was too late, though – I hadn’t even seen the ticket yet, but that money was already gone.

Sure enough, a pink and white ticket was tucked into the motorcycle seat strap, along with a cheap flyer. I studied the ticket long enough to make sure the meter maid hadn’t neglected to dot an "i" or cross a "T" -- thus leaving me a legal loophole (no such luck) -- then looked at the flyer. There in basic black-on-white, was a picture of a tow truck hauling away a wrecked car.

“SE COMPRAN CARROS PARA YONQUE DE $100 A $500” it read, “PREGUNTE POR JESSE.” A phone number was printed at the bottom, the area code scratched out and another one scrawled in.

Given that my grasp of Spanish remains exceedingly weak, this appeared to be an offer by some guy named “Yonque” to buy a car for between $100 and $500 for a poor pregnant girl named “Jesse.” Maybe “Yonque” had knocked-up his girlfriend, and was now looking for a cheap car. Exactly how a hundred-dollar car might solve his problems wasn’t quite clear to me until I turned the flyer over and found the English translation on the other side.


So much for my high school Spanish.

This was disappointing on several levels. No longer a romantic tale of a young guy struggling against the odds do the right thing in a world gone wrong -- the instant movie I'd created in my head -- this was simply another money-hungry vulture hoping to pick clean the bones of other people's misfortune. It was also mildly insulting. If “yonque” meant “junk,” then Jesse the tow truck driver must have cast his critical eye upon my trusty old Honda and judged it an aging pile of yonque. Must I now add gratuitous, profit-seeking insults from total strangers to the endless hail of slings and arrows flung in my face each and every day here in this sun-blasted urban dystopia?

So it seemed. Death, where is thy sting?

Still clutching the ticket and flyer, I stepped back to inspect my two-wheeled mount -- something I seldom do, for reasons that became increasingly obvious the longer I looked. With an old bath towel tucked in around the edges of the seat to serve as a cover, the remaining chrome rusting and dusty in equal measures, the once-shiny black gas tank faded to a mottled gray by the merciless Southern California sun, a pair of seriously cockeyed rear turn signals (the result of some long-forgotten mishap), worn tires, and a weathered wooden clothespin clamped on the choke cable to help control the fuel/air mixture, my once-upon-a-time gleaming new motorcycle did indeed resemble a rolling pile of yonque. The messy, leaf-strewn spider web spun across the handlebars and headlight only added to the impression of a mechanical steed that had given its best, and was ready for the glue factory.

Enter Jesse and his tow truck...

We all get old, humans and machines alike. If this motorcycle looked a hell of a lot better when I bought it back in 1984, well, so did I. The years have taken a heavy toll on both of us, but it still gets me to the Farmer’s Market down on Ivar every Sunday morning, where parking spots are more precious than gold. The bike can be parked almost anywhere, in a matter of seconds. I’ve seen people trapped in their cars wait twenty minutes or more for a space to open up – and in that time, I’ve already filled my bag with fresh produce and am on my way back home. When I need to get to the grocery store, bank, or Post Office -- where parking a car requires the patience and opportunistic reflexes of a hit-man to nail a recently-vacated spot before one of the endlessly roving herd of well-coiffed, over-caffeinated, cell-phone yakking Yuppie Scum in a shiny new Ranger Rover nabs it first -- the motorcycle is the only way to go. The modern urban parking environment is a Darwinistic arena in which only the quick can survive and prosper – and there, the motorcycle retains a distinct evolutionary edge.

In general, I’m not one to anthropomorphize machines. Unlike some people I’ve known, I don’t assigned names to my vehicles. In my blissfully heedless youth, I was acquainted with a young woman who did just that – naming her car “Alpha,” and her VW van “Bus” -- as though she was the queen of a small tribe, and those two vehicles her loyal subjects in the fantasy world between her ears. For me, a car or motorcycle is a collection of moving parts designed to take me where I want to go -- and I pretty much stick to that story right up until it’s time for us to part. But when I finally do have to sell that vehicle to some stranger (or as on one occasion, sign over the pink slip in the impound yard), I no longer see things quite so clearly. Suddenly that collection of moving parts comes to represent all those miles we traveled together -- the joy, the pain, and the flatline drone of boredom in between. When the new owner drives it away, I invariably feel a deep pang of regret.

Which is how I felt clutching this flyer, and looking at my once-sleek motorcycle.

Sorry to disappoint you, Jesse, industrious collector of vehicular yonque that you are. While I respect your hard working self-promotion, this old motorcycle isn’t quite ready for the junk pile yet. Sure, it looks like hell, can be cranky and hard to start, burns a little oil, and leaks gas every now and then, but mostly it just keeps chugging along, answering the call whenever needed. You could say the same things about me -- a highly imperfect collection of aging parts navigating through an equally imperfect world -- and in time, we’ll both be hauled off to the junk pile. But until then, we still have a few miles to travel on this Hollywood journey, and many more places to park.

Sometimes on the wrong side of the street.

* This is highly irrational, I know. There’s just as much chance my car would get broken into or stolen when parked directly in front of my apartment as when it spends the night many blocks away in the company of strangers, but insecurity and fear do not walk hand-in-hand with well-reasoned logic. This is doubtless the ancient Reptilian Brain doing what it does best – really, the only thing it does – serving as our own personal primordial guardian of hearth and home...


Nathan said...

In my Sophomore year of college ('79-'80) I inherited the 1974 Plymouth Valiant my Dad was replacing. I drove it up to Boston (from its previously balmy home in Florida) and proceeded to drive it into the ground. (What the hell did I know about winterizing a car?)

Eventually, the engine block cracked and I couldn't afford to fix it, so it sat on the street collecting tickets until it was finally towed away.

My father knew nothing about any of this until the city sent him a notice saying he had a choice of paying for 36 tickets or paying a towing fee of $45 and forfeiting the car.

He paid the $45 and I inherited no further vehicles. It certainly sounds like you've got a few more good rides from your bike. Screw the YonqueMan.

Nat Bocking said...

Good story as ever. In my neighbourhood the no parking hours on street cleaning days were suddenly changed from 9 AM to 8 AM so that all the regular working stiffs also had to worry about what side of the street they were on as well as us freelance types. It quickly turned an integrated neighbourhood into a war zone as neighbour fought neighbour (literally) for a parking space every evening before street cleaning days. About the dumbest thing LA City ever did.