Tuesday, November 12, 2013

fear and loathing of transition

custody battles make grown men weep, send sensible kids into screaming fits and thrashes emotions around like a pack of wild dogs with still-kicking, live prey in its grip.  judges assigned to the impossible task of neutrality often lean towards the mother under the often faulty assumption that each parent holds the childrens' best interests at heart.  even with such leanings, only a truly disastrous father is kept away completely.  when the parents really do have the kids' best interest in mind and only have problems with one another, the judge may order some sort of trickery, asking each parent to ask each child individually which parent they'd choose.  at a young enough, tender enough age, what choice does the child have but to lie and tell each parent she or he is the preferred one?  when each parent reports back the conflicting answers, joint custody is awarded, at least in my particular case.

joint custody has its benefits.  there is no feeling of abandonment, relationships continue on relatively uninterrupted and, with no access to weekday friends on the weekend, sibling rivalry intensifies.  the most awkward aspect of this weekday-with-mom-weekend-with-dad arrangement is friday.  before the kids can drive, the transfer of them has to be arranged.  since the parents clearly do not want to see each other, more clever methods of transfer had to be devised.  for me, it was saxophone lessons friday after school.  i'd hop on the bus after school to go downtown for my lesson and my dad would pick me up when i was done, no risk of even accidental parental face time, all under the guise of nurturing my love for the worst saxophone music in the world, school band music.

lugging my instrument from my locker to the bus stop was embarrassing enough, but enough school books, school supplies and some clothes for the weekend would be stuffed into a too-small duffle, strapped to some part of my body like an army pack, smacking my saxophone case with every other step.  i know at least some school kids laughed at me, but that was nothing compared to the five blocks i'd have to trudge downtown from the bus stop to my saxophone teacher's apartment.  nicely dressed strangers on break or perhaps even leaving their cushy office jobs stared at me, wondering not how on earth parents could let their child wander around alone, but how could this husky-pantsed child endure such weight.  was this some sort of corporal punishment all chinese inflicted on their kids?  did you know they take their shoes off right when they get in the door too?  and have you tried the orange chicken at chang's?  under the weight of all those weekly stares, for the first time in my life, i preferred the homeless to the homed.  at least they understood both the need and feeling of a human playing the role of pack mule.

though there were probably reasons besides the embarrassment of the trip to lessons, i eventually gave up the saxophone.  however, the need to transfer from mom's to dad's did not stop.  my trips downtown on the bus continued.  some friday afternoons were spent in the library, soaking up chess books and science fiction while pretending to understand what quarks were.  other fridays i'd be in the $2 matinee wondering how in the hell rambo could be in the movie rhinestone.  and yet other fridays, my dad would check me in to the nebraska department of revenue building, where text-only computer baseball surrounded by stacks of very wide green and white striped printer paper would occupy me for a couple of hours before a trip to the ice cream stand and the drive to my dad's.

on one of these bus trips downtown, i even made friends.  one of my sister's classmates saw us and came over to talk to her.  we ended up on the high school magazine for a year before being regular attendees of shows on the local music scene together and me helping him with his fish tank cleaning business.  eventually, i was his best man, an honor i would have returned if not for the drive-through nature of my wedding.

eventually, these bus rides ended.  my dad met an untimely death just after my 13th birthday and jaunts downtown to hang out with the sophistication of both big money and downtrodden lincoln, nebraska had to wait until i could drive.  by then, i was playing the bass, thinking my musical talent only needed long hair and hobo clothes to be cultivated and that the college kids would be more appreciative of such things than my highschoolmates.  i only ended up playing one gig and in a town where coaching football is a qualification for federal office, my counterculture appearance only made others repeatedly mistake me for a woman or pawnee indian.  after two fine years of driving displacing bus-riding, it was off to the east coast for college, where there were only my own two feet and the t.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

fear and loathing of vegetable oil

i wasn't alone in my desire to withhold money from the oil companies.  most who had taken up the cause of the boycott, even those of us who converted to public transportation for commuting, would still drive occasionally.  by the middle of the decade following 9/11, people had re-discovered that the diesel engine was actually meant to run on peanut oil and modern diesels could do so again with only minor modifications.  soon, every fucker with a trust fund and a trucker hat who had heard the letters d i y and whose time wasn't already taken by some other conscience project was in the market for a converted diesel.  i got swept up in the vegetable oil revolution and got me one, sans trucker hat.

while the satisfaction from outsmugging every prius driver i saw with "still runs on gas, asshole" was great, free fuel was the real objective, that grand notion that you could go from l.a. to s.f. on what kfc threw out last night*.  securing this free oil required dealing with sleazy restaurant managers, assessing the quality of the received product, ensuring that rules skirted are not exposed and all manner of other activity similar to buying drugs in an unfamiliar city.  but even after finding and laying claim to an oil source, turf wars could ensue.

the vegetable oil revolution had taken such firm footing in silver lake, heart of hipsterville, that presumably precious land was housed a used car lot dealing in converted vehicles.  once acquired, these cars had to be fed; and owners competed for feed.  in these weird vegetable oil contests, attrition was usually the winning strategy.  as the weak and undetermined falter in their attempts at refining and otherwise have their spoiled temperaments bored, they eventually give up.  this was verified with glee in craigslistings reading "wvo system for free" accompanied with a location too close to the restaurant not to be the vanquished.  unfortunately, this was also the first sign that the diy vegetable oil revolution would be short-lived, as any movement counting on the attention span of combatants so easily thwarted can only be doomed.

even for the victors of such battles, things were not easy.  making the weekly pick-up rounds was invigorating at first, a sense of purpose satisfied.  as with any responsibility, it eventually became grating and tiresome, especially when your wife has a weekly date with lonely kitchen staff because the hours available for pick-up were during my day job's work hours.  even if i could take my mind off any potential misbehavior there, perfecting the refining process took many iterations, each one painfully accompanied by a call to aaa and a trip to the mechanic.  and if even that wasn't enough, a garage full of hoses, pumps and weird interconnected containers full of weird liquid was easily mistaken for a potentially explosive reaction from a distance.  the parallels with illicit drugs in unfamiliar places continued.

when gas reached $4.25/gal again, my suppliers were no longer content with the free oil-hauling service i was providing.  others were offering cash.  solar panels and electric cars were now cheap enough so i traded vegetables in for the sun.  others also abandoned the vegetable oil revolution.  trucker hats gave way to spandex jeans and energy independence got lost in talks of occupying something or other.  though diy vegetable oil may be dying because it's just too hard for its idealistic practitioners, biodiesel, especially in places like brazil, will carry their flag into the future.

so long, old friend.  and thanks for the memories.




* -- something i actually managed to do once, albeit not with stuff from kfc.  that shit'll fuck up your engine if you don't have serious chemicals to treat it with.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

free transit?

here's an interesting article on a couple of experiments in free mass transit.  i have absolutely no delusions that such a thing could work for los angeles.  but that it works at all anywhere gets the brain-wheels turning, don't it?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

fear and loathing in the driver's seat

the endless loop of a municipal bus driver's route is enough to drive one mad.  this sisyphean task is almost interesting the first few times, but the eventual redundancy of the route, meaningless "good morning"s and countless explanations of the fare structure pounds the senses so dull, it makes an opium-den look perky.  add the occasional raving, psychopath's behavior and the frequent raging, sociopath's driving that surrounds a typical bus driver and little room is left for sanity.  as if the cultural hostility towards the bus weren't enough, the anti-transportation folks exhibit street-level hostility when they drive, honking when the bus makes a stop, cutting it off when it tries to merge back in and passing with dangerous speed and expeditious intent nullified by a red light or the stop sign at the next intersection.

coping with all this hostility is primarily achieved by taking the occasional power trip.  when people don't give a handicapped person a seat, the bus driver pulls over.  when passengers don't stand far enough behind the yellow line, the driver stops again.  this one negotiating lever is all it takes to go from being the shithead driving that hulking tank that's in everyone's way to god.  the peer pressure that coerces the sober into drug use can not compare to the rage an entire bus can bring down on someone who holds up the already slow and stop-filled trip.  bus drivers have little in their repertoire other than this to whip pesky bus riders into shape.  luckily, its use is rarely needed.

another primary coping mechanism is commiserating with riders.  thanks to the "unnecessary conversation with driver is prohibited" sign, i always worry that the weaving in and out of rush hour traffic takes too much concentration and discussion of which toys a particular rider is buying for his child for the party in the park their entire extended family of 60 is coming to will cause an accident.  as yet, no such misfortune has happened while i've been riding.  the only time i've had to get off a bus and wait for a replacement to show up was when the wheelchair lift strained too hard to lift an obese rider and prevented the door from shutting.

Friday, October 26, 2012

fear and loathing of greed

it was the early 80s.  unadulterated greed was sweeping the country in unprecedented fashion and those who weren't good at it were being dispatched into unemployment, poverty and homelessness with ruthless efficiency.  urban cores all throughout the country were decimated by job losses brought on by ever-cheaper offshore labor.  those good at being greedy celebrated and flaunted their status, snorting enough cocaine to keep the cartels' armories better stocked than the colombian government's.  this drug-addicted wealthy class and an otherwise idle lower class busying themselves supplying the wealthy addicts combined for more violence than the u.s. had seen on its own soil since the civil war.  amazingly, the violence was contained almost exclusively to the suppliers.

the initial currency for the costs of this class warfare appeared to be inner-city, lower class lives.  it became clear later that the economic experiments being conducted here had spread all throughout the globe and infected all facets of life.  the iran-contra scandal displayed the immense international reach of this purest greed ever conceived, a gigantic machine chewing whole countries up and spitting them out with a smile on its face and a wink in its eye.  sons were selling out fathers and brothers, even mothers and sisters to get in on the fancy clothes, hard charging parties and sheer euphoria of seeing some number on a slip of paper from the broker get ever larger, convinced the consequences were inconsequential.

as a child in his formative years, i couldn't get over just how uninteresting it all appeared.  how did so much money lead to so little taste?  the clothes, the yachts, the hair, the golf courses, the jewelry, interviews with robin leach, it all screamed of an early retirement gone wrong, one of imaginations so starved in the pursuit of wealth that inspiration for how to spend newfound idle time came only from elderly grandparents.  i had no interest in any of this, a life polished so clean that feathered pubic hair sounded plausible next to ass bleaching.
Every Time I Tried to Windmill
while most kids were rebelling against their parents, i was busy rebelling against all these fuckers who idolized "dynasty."  i would collect junk from construction sites, piling them in a box in the garage, treasuring them for some eventual use my genius would uncover.  i would skateboard through tunnels my friends told me were storm drains, without being able to shake the feeling they might have been for sewage.  i thought breakdancing and graffiti were the most mind-blowing art forms ever created, my injury-addled attempts cementing the rock steady crew's place in my hero pantheon.  and while it was obvious the "dynasty" lovers had no moral code, none of them declared their atheism as proudly as i did.  i'm sure the irony of a chinese boy virtually practicing communism while growing up in a family moved to nebraska to escape it wasn't lost on everyone.  in this drive to find the most despised things, i found them in the usual places greed detested, places of government -- libraries, parks, schools, streets and, of course, public transportation.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

fear and loathing of divorce

it was lincoln public schools's 1985 winter break.  already disadvantaged by poor english and being of color in snow white nebraska, my mother was spending this normally festive time alone.  in one of many common but strange twists divorce proceedings take, the parent that "wins" joint custody weekdays, already relegated to most of the responsibility and little of the fun of child-rearing, gives up holidays.  so there i was, in my father's tan/gold ford station wagon, making the seemingly endless journey to his brother's and my five cousins' house in texas, cutting through kansas and oklahoma too fast to stop and look for twisters, but not so fast dwight eisenhower's memorial would be passed up.

The Cornhusker Lone Star Express, my dad's 1976 Ford Gran Torino wagon
despite being alone in a cold house, i'm certain my mother had the thermostat set to 60F or lower.  one other cruel twist of divorce proceedings is that the honor of monthly mortgage payments is considered an asset.  while my mother could live in the house and technically owned it, the salary of a single mother whose only previous work in english was managing a restaurant simply could not sustain the expense of it.  we eventually moved out, but not before every trick in the book was employed in an attempt to hang on.  while slightly uncomfortable, stretching a dollar became kind of a fun game, one that led my mother to actually use the city bus stop in front of our house that my father had only spoke of using.

we later found out much of the time we thought my mom was alone, she had actually hopped on a greyhound bus and gone to visit her brother and his family in the chicago area.  though she wanted to keep it a secret, she underestimated just how deeply every aspect of her life could be infected by inquisitive children.  when we'd call on the weekends, there was no answer.  if we had forgotten something and went home to get it, she was not there.  once, i asked about greyhound when a commercial came on during a football game.  my mom simply knew too much.  whether out of necessity or admiration, i would follow in her footsteps years later.

no one thinks twice about a college kid hopping a bus to get home for holidays or occasional weekend visits.  students are poor and young folks are always up for an adventure.  on those trips, covering four states in just a few hours as can only be done in new england, i came to understand why people thought it odd my mom had taken such buses voluntarily and so often.  the stations in new haven, bridgeport and numerous villages and towns in between looked like they were recently converted homeless shelters.  looking at such places certainly conjured imaginary danger in every dark corner.  only seasoned riders realized the subterfuge.

beggars, homeless, vagrants, transients and scum have no business harassing bus riders.  forcefully repossessing a rider's ticket to white plains was hardly worth the risk of jail time.  wallets and purses usually hold little money and bus riders are always collected in packs, scattering once a trip is over, but well aware that defense of each other was imperative to survival.  also, it's no secret that many riders are graduates of the hard knock life themselves, too hardened to be afraid and too savvy to fall for tricks.

despite having navigated this web of danger numerous times on the east coast, i bought into car culture when i moved to l.a.  public transportation, the story goes, gets you nowhere you want to go and even when it does, does so slowly.  it's difficult to reconcile this with equally horrific tales of traffic.  was l.a. packed so dense people simply couldn't move?  had smog fried everyone's brains?  or were people just so charismatic and magnetic, no one ever wanted to move away from others quickly?

answering none of these questions, i purchased a bmw.  the acceleration was excellent.  the handling exquisite.  really shallow women in the bad parts of town flocked to it.  and after a year of driving the damn thing, i no longer cared.  like every other vehicle i ever dared call my own, it needed to be fed, groomed, cared for, registered, insured and housed.

somewhere between those long rides in my dad's station wagon, my mom' frugality and frequent greyhounding and my own experience owning a car, i really had a very difficult time seeing what all the fuss was about over driving.  every freedom it affords comes with shackles of a different variety.  each second saved, another spent wondering what the fucker in front of you means by leaving their left blinker on.  every relationship nurtured in private leaving ten public sociological observations unmade.  driving has its place, but i'll be damned if i fall for its entrapment blindly.

Friday, October 19, 2012

fear and loathing of downtown

skid row and the homeless are a small part of the collection of scum that frequents downtown.  though dangerous and projecting an unpleasant presence at times, they are avoidable and predictable.  the really insidious scum occupy the bank buildings, institutes of government, and law and insurance offices.  they greet you with a smile, peddling services they call "essential" while using scraps of paper and computer transactions to suck the life out of people.  they dress well and are expert at putting people at ease, making sure they promote just the right level of fear first, lest the innocent bunnies not know what kind of deadly risks they're taking.  outside their offices, this courtesy tends not to be exercised so carefully.  after all, what's in it for them?  being courteous to a client might land a contract.  taking up two seats on a train or feigning a handicap merely reinforces a mutual contempt with the locals.

despite all this, downtown is the best melting pot los angeles has to offer.  the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing act is one everyone is happy to play.  the benefits are just too good.  there's so little risk and so much money, so little guilt and so much free time, so little responsibility and so much power.  anyone with an education can play, the rules written by the players so the sooner you get in, the more rules you get to write.  how can anyone resist?  this unbridled show of greed allows downtown to stand in stark contrast to the rest of los angeles.

the county of los angeles is a grand paradox.  by almost every measure, diversity is very high, people from all over the world collecting here to seek out dreams.  yet by almost every measure, los angeles is heavily segregated, huge racial majorities the norm in neighborhoods all over town.  watching the legions push off to their battle stations from these disparate places everyday, coalescing into this army of greed, is a grim reminder of predator and prey.  by its labyrinth of rules, the predators paralyze, neutralize and pacify their prey, promising to bring order to a chaos of their own creation, pushers in every sense, like arms dealers inciting war in some backwater banana republic to create demand for their product.  but like lions and tigers and leopards, predators are a necessary part of the landscape.  how else to weed out the weak?  how else would this train i'm writing from get built?  and how else do you keep a restless population occupied when basic needs, food and housing, only demand a quarter of them work?  with too much free time, people revert to their animal states, a healthy occasional exercise; but when guns, knives and hundreds of horses under a hood are so readily available, it's not long before prolonged reversions turn into true chaos.

of late, the sanitizing forces of the gold line have begun invading downtown.  dog-walking, posh pubs, art galleries and the general stench of trust fund backed lifestyles, failed creative projects and all, are everywhere.  it's like the kids from the privileged parts of the west side grew up and needed a change of scenery, volunteering as refugees.  they didn't realize being a refugee is uncomfortable, so they took their cool and convinced developers to provide them with new fortresses where moats made of concierge desks, paid armed security and gated underground parking keep the unwanteds out until they're needed as extras.  they also didn't realize the food and entertainment were a bit different, so they convinced the city to build them new playgrounds where concrete and advertising made sure others wouldn't linger while the chosen were resting in their loft-fortresses.  slowly, surely, they are realizing they didn't want a change of scenery at all, but somewhere their parents were too afraid to go so they could be left alone.