7/30/2004

Covering Ralph Nader, Poorly

Today was my last day at work, and my last assignment was to cover a press conference held by independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader at a hotel near (but not in) Beverly Hills. At this event, Nader planned to bash John Kerry and deliver pretty much the same complaints about the two-party system that he always does. I know it's not the worst article I've ever written, but considering the situation, it's probably the one I feel worst about.

The "situation" is not something that I can explain in a sentence or two. It is basically the combination of a bunch of different things, which include the following: I am very familiar with Nader's candidacy. I followed his campaign closely in 2000. As recently as two days ago, I wrote a carefully composed e-mail to a friend (which I had planned on posting to this blog) about why I felt the media coverage of Nader's campaign was and is awful. I have thought a lot about media coverage of Nader, both this year and in 2000. I also have strong, left-leaning political views. And finally, I voted for Nader in 2000 because I have never agreed so strongly with a candidate's platform and positions -- but I will not do so again.

None of this was on my mind when I sat down in the hotel conference room, because my editors had received a phone call, probably bogus, two hours before the press conference, telling us that Nader would announce he was dropping out of the race and endorsing John Kerry. This was a very questionable assertion, especially since the caller gave only his first name before hanging up. But, the caller also knew the press conference's time and location, and this information is not usually made public. So there was an outside chance. I had already called Nader's D.C.-based campaign, and they denied it, but still, this was on my mind when I arrived at the event.

It was clearly not on Nader's mind. About 30 seconds into his speech, it became obvious that he was not dropping out. I relaxed my finger on the cell phone's speed-dial, and began taking more serious notes. This is where the trouble began. If you're Ralph Nader, there are so many problems with this country, you can't possibly get into them all in a single press conference. But you have to try. So you start talking about the overarching themes: how corporations have usurped the political process and sullied our democracy with tainted donations and lobbying. How the country's foreign policy is dictated by multinational corporations. How the two political parties have grown so close that they are now just two heads on the same bestial body. How millions of Americans have no health insurance and earn less than ten dollars per hour. How corporate malfeasance is so often overlooked by governmental regulators. How military spending now comprises half -- half -- of the federal budget. How hundreds of Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis have been killed and continue to be killed in a war declared on bogus pretexts. How the electoral system is ripe for fraud and failure. And how little is being done about any of this.

I take notes furiously but with a sinking heart, because I know all of it is true, and I know that none of it will appear in my story. I write down everything he says, but I underline the sound bites -- no matter how polemic he is, after a wide-ranging campaign last time around, Nader knows how to deliver pithy two-liners between his policy rants -- because I know they are what will appear in my story. Substantive policy discussion that touches on nearly every aspect of the actions of the federal government of the world's most important country is not on the table today.

What you should know about the media is that news stories can be divided into two categories: those that can be written before the event actually happens, and those that cannot. Those that can be written before occasionally are, as this one was. I banged out 150 words of background before I even went to the press conference. All I had to do was go back and plug in some new information, like a Mad Libs, but tragic instead of funny. The only thing that could bump this story into the second category is if Nader actually said something new, like he was filing a lawsuit against the Kerry campaign, or he was dropping out. But that didn't happen, and I essentially filled in the blanks of the story outline with a few new quotes and a new dateline.

You might think that is a cynical take on an important part of our system, the free and unfettered press. My response is that you are free to think whatever you want, but that doesn't make what I just told you any less true. Any working journalist in the mainstream media will tell you the same. Ralph Nader could have talked about two topics, and as long as one of them was John Kerry, the other could be anything from Honolulu to Larry Flynt, and most of the coverage would have been unchanged from what was published today. Today's articles and TV segments were pre-ordained to follow one template and one template exactly: Nader denounces Democrats, followed by explanation that Democrats fear he could swing election to Bush, followed by rehash of 2000 election, followed by polling statistics, followed by minutiae regarding ballot access in various states.

This should come as no surprise to anyone. Think about anything you've read in a newspaper about an ongoing issue. I think of my articles about the port lockout in 2002. Union workers at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles were locked out by their employers during a contract dispute and allegations of work slowdowns and production speedups and whatnot. Then the president invoked the despised Taft-Hartley Act to force the ports open and get the cargo moving again. Guess what? That story falls into Category One. I knew what the president was going to say before he said it. So did anyone who'd followed the issue for more than ten minutes. Then when he said it, I wrote two paragraphs explaining what he said and slapped it on top of the same background that I'd written in a dozen stories before: why the lockout began, the union says this, the employers say that, XXX amount of cargo is waiting to be off-loaded, the showdown has hurt the GDP by X billion dollars, ad infinitum. Newspaper execs wonder why no one reads the paper? It's because about 50 percent of the stories are Category One, and a large chunk of each of those stories is just rehash.

So why do we write the stories like that, if they're largely a waste of time? It's just one of those things, really. The ostensible explanation is that you can't assume your reader is familiar with the issue, so you have to explain anew all the background. Every time. That means every story about the grocery strikes has to include some boilerplate on when the strikes started, how many employees on strike, how many stores, what the sticking point in contract talks is, why that matters, etc. I covered Courtney Love in court yesterday. Category One for sure. Just explaining all her different legal troubles took four paragraphs, and the story was only eight to 10 grafs anyway. Throw in two grafs explaining what actually happened that day, two quotes, wrap it up with when her next court date is, and you're done. Go home and tell your friends you saw Courtney Love. Same with Nader.

I'm not bashing all news coverage here. Category Two is what keeps us alive. Finding out something new and reporting it is a total rush. I remember digging up the story that the LA City Council was trying to take a piece of land to build a new police station on, despite the fact that the school district had already started building a new elementary school there. It can even just be a new angle on an existing story -- like how UC and CSU students feel about having the Terminator's signature on their diplomas (my most popular story ever). I've been through that a lot, and I love it. There are tons of these stories, and they're what people really want. You know why we were all talking about Janet Jackson's nipple for weeks after the Super Bowl? Because nobody saw it coming. The drama of the unknown, the what-happens-next is what keeps people glued to CNN during the war, not because they love bloodshed. We all want to find stuff out. It's just unfortunate that not everything in the news fits this description.

Is this a horrible situation? I don't know. It works on one level, because the news media in America has thrived on the same formula for at least a hundred years. There are obvious defects, like the glazed look your eyes take on when you read the paper sometimes. That comes when the Category One formula takes over and the reporting no longer even conveys any information. Try this experiment. Take whatever big paper that circulates where you live, and read every front-page article on John Kerry for two weeks. I guarantee you will go insane. It is amazing how many words can be wasted on the exact same thing every day. I don't envy campaign reporters. The convention gave them a shot in the arm, but this time next week, they'll feel the same way they did two weeks ago and for the two months before that -- bored off their goddamn asses. Same thing, every day. Same thing, every day.

Why don' t they break out of the mold and do something different? Why don't they write some Category Two stories? The answer is that they do, but only occasionally, because there isn't much Category Two action going on at the campaign. More important, though, is the need to match your competitors. Within the media, nothing is worse than getting "beat" on a story. If you're CNN and MSNBC does a story on Kerry's dumb speech in Pittsburg, you damn well better have that story too, because you don't want people to think that CNN doesn't carry important news. And so it goes, until you can watch MSNBC or CNN or Fox News or Peter Jennings or Dan Rather and get all the same information, with nothing out of the ordinary thrown in (aside from the right-wing spin on Fox) and no danger of very much real reporting getting in the way of things.

And so it goes with Nader. Occasionally, a new organization will "pass" on a story, meaning they decide it's just not important, and won't cover it. Nothing made me happier where I worked than hearing that we were passing on some dumb story, be it Mary-Kate Olsen getting out of treatment or some unsubstantiated Michael Jackson rumor. It was good to work somewhere with standards. Of course, we can't pass on everything, even if we probably should. Thus, I was at the Nader press conference today -- and it's a good thing, since other media was there, too. (Guess what? Those reporters' stories read just like mine.)

I thought about this a lot as I drove back to the office from the press conference. I knew that my story would be crammed into the template no matter what. Should I care? Flash back to my explanation of the "situation" a few paragraphs ago. I have paid much attention to media coverage of Nader, and it's all poor. Poll numbers are trotted out with scant analysis, and are even used to back up assertions that seem laughable. Nader polling at seven percent? That's more than twice as good as he performed in the last election, and this time around, he's got less money and no Green Party apparatus to work with. Clearly, there are some people saying "Nader" to the pollsters who will never vote for Nader. Similarly poor are the descriptions of his policy standpoints. This may seem extraneous in an article about someone who will never win the presidency. Really, why bother? But the readers deserve to learn at least why Nader is running, rather than simply being forced to accept that fact with no explanation. Maybe if they learn his platform, they will even understand why some people support him. (Of course, most articles about George W. Bush or John Kerry also leave these details out.)

I can do this, I said to myself as I drove up the freeway and prepared to exit. I can't write the Ralph Nader polemic that I would like to write, but I can write a fair and complete article outlining not only the endlessly repeated bits about how he could take votes away from the Dems, but also why he's running, and whether there is more to the election than a dozen competing polls.

Part of the blame for my article's failure on these two key issues falls at my feet, and part of it at my editor's. The ultimate reponsibility, in a sense, is mine, since I can argue with an editor for inclusion of certain things, and my name is on the story. The simple explanation goes like this: explaining why Nader mayn't be as big a threat to the Dems as everyone makes him out to be is complicated. The gist is that 3rd-party candidates typically do poorer the second time they run, like Ross Perot, as well as the previously mentioned facts that Nader doesn't have as much money or a party infrastructure to work with, combined with the facts that he gets way less press coverage than last time, he doesn't have as many endorsements, far fewer people are coming to his rallies, and top it all off with this one: last year he was polling five percent but only registered 2.7 percent of the vote. Fitting all that into a 30-word paragraph, and somehow attributing it to the obligatory pollster or expert, is nigh on impossible. But before I was even able to get into it, the deadline asserted itself, and I pretty much forgot that I was going to include that part. The template is there for these Category One articles, but that doesn't mean writing them is a brainless pursuit. You have to think about 25 different things while flipping through 14 pages of notes, rewinding your tape recorder and answering the phone while writing your story. So it's not unusual to forget something, sometimes, especially if your story is a roundup of a dozen different little points.

Which is what I tried to make this story become. I included a few paragraphs outlining Nader's platform, about how he wants to reform the health-care system, and clean corporate influence out of Washington, and so on. I couldn't fit it all in there, but I got in a lot. And then it got cut out by the editor.

This editor is a very sharp guy. He's probably the best editor I've worked with. And I can see why he cut that stuff out. Because, in the big picture, it's irrelevant. What's the most important thing about Nader's candidacy? His impact on the outcome of the race. The claim that he threw the White House to Bush in 2000 is strong, and there's a chance he could have the same effect this year. That's way more important than what he thinks about lobbyists. So that stuff was removed from the story.

Does the story read more easily without that information? Yes. Is it simpler, and easier to understand? Yes. Does it get to the point quicker? Yes. Do I think those paragraphs should have been removed? No. But that's the way it goes sometimes.

In other news, now that I am unemployed again, expect a lot more blogging! Or, a lot less. I haven't decided yet.

7/26/2004

eBay and the quest for a tenor saxophone

I decided to look for a tenor saxophone on eBay because, frankly, I didn't really know where else to go.

Hold up, there. Why am I looking for a saxophone? The answer is I'm not; not really. Rewind to a few weeks ago when a certain friend reminded me of my promise to play sax at her wedding. I made this promise long ago, when I still played saxophone regularly, and at the time, I think I did so because I figured that by the time she got married, she would have forgotten or changed her mind. She's not getting hitched any time soon, but when she told me that she'd decided which song I'd be playing, it started me thinking, and I didn't take long to decide the song requested would probably sound better on tenor than it would on alto. And I don't have a tenor.

A quick primer for those of you unfamiliar with what I'm talking about: saxophones come in different sizes, each with a different sound and character. Altos are smaller and pitched higher than tenors, which are larger and therefore more expensive. Think of the alto as the Kobe of saxophones, and the tenor is Shaq. There are others -- the tiny soprano, played by the evil Kenny G (with a last name like Gorelick, you'd go by an initial, too), and the large baritone, about the size of a bazooka -- but the alto and tenor are the most common. What? You won't understand unless I continue with the Los Angeles Lakers analogy? Well, um ... the soprano is like Derek Fisher, and the baritone is like Andre the Giant. Yeah, he was on the Lakers. You just don't remember.

Anyway, with that decision made, I had to figure out how to get my hands on a tenor. Sure, this is a non-paying gig that's at least two years away, but it never hurts to plan. I could borrow a sax from my acquaintance, the UCLA music performance Ph.D. (2003), but somehow I'm uncomfortable with that. This guy has a set of professional horns, which were expensive, of course, but it's not just that. He's a swell guy, but we're not exactly tight. If it weren't for my old roommate, I never even would have gone this guy's recitals. So I'd feel awkward asking him for a favor of that magnitude. I will say that if he called me up out of nowhere and asked to borrow my sax, I'd say OK in a heartbeat. But it's easy for me to say that, because I never play my sax, and he still plays his. All of them, I bet.

So what options does that leave me? Basically none. I'd pretty much have to just ask any saxophonists I know if they know anyone who would loan me a horn. Because I'm sure as hell not going to buy a tenor saxophone, even a cheap one, for a wedding gig. Though I suppose it would be possible to buy one and then sell it after ... no. Don't be stupid. But, what if I found one for cheap and could re-sell it for more ... no. This is ludicrous. Never in a million years. Although ... it wouldn't hurt to look, would it?

Turned out there were actually many saxophones available on eBay, far more than I would ever have expected, given their size and weight, and concomitant shipping fees. There were impressive-looking pro horns, crummy student models and plenty whose brands I'd never heard of or that were unidentified. These last ones were being offered by people who either found them in the garage or found them at a garage sale, and therefore don't have a clue what to do with them. One person described their sax as such: made in Italy and about 26 inches high. Thank you for that helpful description. Imagine a car ad that didn't list the make, model or year, but told you it was made in Japan and is about twelve feet long. And then imagine that car is up for auction, and is bidding at one-fifth to one-tenth its probable value. Would you bid, just to get a deal, and possibly sell it again for a mark-up? Or would the overall shadiness of the transaction turn you off?

I backed away from that horn (I believe the winning bid was $19.99) but not without first e-mailing the seller to tell them they were blowing it. Of course, I don't know of any quality saxophones that were made in Italy. (Perhaps some Evette fans will take issue with that -- my advice to them is, stick with your flute.) But it got me thinking about buying a sax if the bid was below, say, $50, and then reselling it for $200. This is very possible, based on the number of piece-of-shit saxophones for bid, particularly altos. There are far more alto saxophones floating around out there than there are tenors -- or, for that matter, sopranos or baritones. The reason is that altos are smaller, and therefore are made with less metal, and therefore cost less. So when your loser friend in 5th grade decided he wanted to be a band stud, the choices presented his parents were to rent an alto for $40 a month or rent a tenor for $60 a month. (Or buy a student-model alto for $600 vs. $900 for a tenor.) Oh, and the tenor is too heavy for him to carry, and too big for him to strap to his bicycle. Guess which one his parents stuck him with? And guess which one goes on eBay after he graduates junior high and realizes that marching band is -- gasp -- for nerds?

Thus: literally hundreds of alto saxophones available on eBay. You can pretty much sort saxophone manufacturers into three categories. 1) Professional. 2) Cheap contemporary imitators. 3) Cheap vintage imitators. As you can probably guess, Category 3 is no longer with us, but their horns are still in circulation. You can typically identify Category 3 by the following phrases: "Classic style" -- what does that mean? Not actually classic, just classic style. "Lacquer slightly worn" -- this is a bad sign. Sure, lacquer gets worn over the years. But it only really gets worn if you don't take care of your horn. If it was a good horn when it was made, it would have been taken care of. "Charlie Parker played one like this" -- sounds good, but unless it's a King Super 20 or Conn 6M, it's one of the horns that Charlie Parker played and rejected. Besides, Parker's sax was falling apart, held together by rubber bands and bubble gum, according to what I've heard. Plus he was a heroin addict, so what can you make of that? "No longer made" -- this is tricky, because there are many very good saxophones that are no longer made, like the Mark VI or Buescher Aristocrat. But a decent sax that is no longer made is still known among the community of saxophonists; you don't have to explain that it's no longer made. "No longer made" is code for "You've probably never heard of this sax," and there's a good reason for that.

Category 2 is easier to identify, largely by process of elimination, because there are so few contemporary professional-quality sax makers. So if the horn was made within the last 15 years and it's not a Selmer (Paris), Yamaha, Yanigasawa or maybe B&S or Keilwerth, then it's a cheap imitation of one of these saxophones. There are some other red flags. For example, if the saxophone is multi-colored, like red, white and blue, I'm staying away from that particular specimen. Or if the ad makes a big deal about something that goes without saying, like "shiny!" or "comes with neckstrap!" Yes, of course it does. They all do. Which means your saxophone from a brand I never heard of is not going to be bid on by me. I pity the poor sap who offered $500 for it, I really do. You should feel ashamed for taking advantage of them.

(I am leaving out student model horns from this categorization, because some professional manufacturers make piece-of-junk student horns, which are intended to be pieces of junk so that your friend from 5th grade doesn't destroy a quality work of art when he drops his saxophone while trying to play catch with it. However, for the most part, student model horns fall into Category 2.)

That leaves Category 1. You can tell a pro horn by its make and model, though for vintage horns it sometimes it takes some serial number reference as well. The industry wasn't what you would call standardized back in the 1920s, and there are still some quality saxophones from that era that can be had. But you have to know what you're getting. Another tip-off is that it's bidding on eBay for more than $1,000. I saw a Mark VI tenor going for $6,000. However, I decided that the most I am willing to spend for this wedding is about 48 cents, so this one was out of my price range. I was heartened to see that the saxophone I currently own -- that's the Selmer (Paris) Super Action 80 Series II Alto, for those of you keeping score at home -- was bid up to $1,645. I would have hoped for about two grand, but at least it wasn't going for a couple hundred bucks and a six-pack of Michelob.

Cheapest saxophone seen on eBay: $11.61 for a Conn alto. Why so low? A) The seller knows nothing about saxophones, by which I mean nothing, not even the fact that they retail in the hundreds of dollars for even the lowliest of aluminum horns. B) The seller provided the serial number for this horn, which, to the astute saxophone dork, reveals the fact that it was made in Mexico, when Conn moved its manufacturing there after the war in an effort to cut costs. I have no doubt that there are plenty of people in Mexico who know how to make a decent saxophone. However, these people did not work at the Conn factory. (As a side note, I have nothing against Mexico. I would similarly not buy a saxophone made in Canada, Russia, or any number of countries.) Also, the folks at Conn headquarters in Elkhart, Ind., ordered cheaper, thinner metal for these horns in another attempt to save a few pennies. Long story short, no one wants to buy the Mexi-Conn. Will the top bidder get it for 12 bucks plus shipping? No, since the eBay reserve was not met.

So, I haven't yet purchased a used horn for ten bucks and change, but I'm still looking. If I had two saxophones, that would make me much more of a pro than I am now. More than one saxophone means you have a reason to have them, like you could be called up for a gig at any moment. Even if they're just gathering dust in the closet, like the one I have is now. It's been years since I played a single note, but just thinking about it got my musician juices flowing. I remembered the old standards I'd learned, and the hours spent testing new reeds, followed by more hours in the practice room, playing the same eight bars over and over and over again. That might not sound like fun to you, but oddly, it's the mundane and trivial things that I remember most and miss the most. Looking at those pictures of crummy old saxophones on eBay brought all that back. It wasn't to the point where I was going to get my sax out of the case and actually play it, but it was close.

7/22/2004

That was fast.

And now my car is back. Rather anticlimactic, that. I was told when I dropped it off on July 8 that it would take 20 business days to repair. I don't object to the alacrity with which it was completed, but I had geared myself up for a long ride without a car of my own, so this sudden change threw my well-calibrated internal system out of whack.

Let's take a moment to say it's a good thing that insurance is required by the state. Because I probably wouldn't have it if it weren't. That may sound preposterous, but I don't have health insurance, and car insurance costs way more. Without Mercury, I would have been stuck with a $3,700 bill for all this repair. Not to mention the other guy's repairs. As it stands, I only had to cough up the $500 deductible. Which still sucks, but I suppose it's better than the alternative.

I wonder, though, if the cost would have been so high if the repair shop did not go into the project knowing that everything was covered by the insurance. I suspect they ordered some parts and performed some labor that was not really necessary simply because they knew the insurance company would pay for it. For example, why did they feel the need to repair and refinish my right front fender and right front fender panel, when the impact was entirely on the left side? And why does the itemized bill include $75 for "AC freon" when I don't even have air conditioning? I suppose this phantom work would bother me a little less if they had repaired the scratch on my rear right door. That would have been just as dishonest, since the damage was not incurred by the accident. They could have gotten the same joy of ripping off the insurance company, and even charged their same exorbitant labor rates (which appear to be $30/hour). But I guess that's only fun if you're charging for something that doesn't exist, like the left front power mirror. I don't have power mirrors.

Graft aside, the car seems to be in fine shape. Driving it home certainly reminded me why I like small cars better than SUVs. I was actually able to accelerate and brake without feeling like I was carrying three extra tons of steel. There are things about the Blazer that I'll miss. Air conditioning tops the list, followed by ... okay, I guess that's it. I really have no cause for hauling a bunch of shit around, so the extra cargo capacity was wasted on me. As was the four-wheel drive. But air conditioning, and power windows, were a recognizable luxury.

More good news! I found out that the two women who claimed to be injured in my last car accident have settled their claims against me. They each ended up getting $2,000, as opposed to the $15,000 and $20,000 their attorneys had sought. I suppose $2,000 is a lot of money to get for claiming you have a headache, lower back pain and soft tissue injuries -- which can, of course, be real injuries, or can be bullshit -- as a result of a minor rear-end collision that didn't injure me at all. I don't really know what to think. One woman claimed to have missed work, and the other one was 19 weeks pregnant at the time of the accident, so having the insurance company drop a few grand to send them to the chiropractor can't be all bad. Even if they were trying to perpetrate a little fraud, it's not like they got rich off the accident -- all that money went to the chiropractor and their lawyers, I'm sure.

Anyway, it is all one to me, since it's well below my maximum liability. Now I just have to deal with claims from my other accident.

7/18/2004

I Am Your Soccer Mom

Driving in an SUV is an experience that requires some getting used to. I know that one in four new vehicles America is an SUV, so I'm not exactly some sort of groundbreaker here. In fact, I drove around in Mom's Ford Exploder back in high school. But it's been years since then, and somehow I forgot what it was like. Bouncing around over the slightest bump in the road, lurching forward like a malfunctioning wheelchair when the accelerator is pressed, that sense of vertigo from trying to turn right at speeds exceeding 7 mph. Oh, the joys of life.

And it's just a a Blazer. It's probably the smallest SUV that Chevrolet makes. I can't even comprehend driving a Suburban, or (to switch brands) an Excursion or H2. That'd be like driving a small house. My Mom likes to drive SUVs because she feels like she's in a big vehicle and has a good view of the road, etc. But this thing is dwarfed by just about every other SUV out there. Which is different from me being dwarfed in my Civic. That comes with the territory. But when you get an SUV, you think like my Mom did, and you want to be among the biggest on the road. The problem is the biggest keep getting bigger. It's like growing up as the tallest person in a town of short people and then moving to another town where everyone is tall, and it turns out you're the shortest tall person there. You ever wonder why tall people go postal more often? It's true. Think about it.

The real challenge is fitting in my parking space. It's a squeeze getting the Civic in there, and Mom's Blazer is nine inches longer. That's a noticeable difference. Getting out is tougher. You know that scene in Austin Powers where he tries to make a U-turn in a golf cart in a narrow hallway and gets stuck? That's me when I have to go to work in the morning, except instead of running into the wall, I'm going to run into my neighbor's Mini Cooper. Someone needs to tell that guy to pull his car all the way forward into his spot. The car's about four feet long, and it sticks out three feet. Maybe three and a half.

Then there's the mileage issue. This vehicle only gets 15 miles per gallon, which I find absurd. I've always known this about SUVs, but I guess I never really felt it. I just kept driving around in my sedan, going 30 to 35 miles for every gallon of gas. Back in high school, the Exploder got 16-20 mpg, if you can believe that. And I never had to fill it up, heh heh. For some reason, the Blazer is worse. I suddenly sympathize with everyone who complaints about gas prices. It cost me $32 to fill up my car today! And it was full when I picked it up last Monday! You're goddamn right we should invade Iraq. We should invade Saudi Arabia next. Did I hear they have weapons of mass destruction there? Call the White House! (202) 456-1414.

(By the way, all the mileage and size specs on the Blazer were obtained online. The owner's manual could not be bothered with supplying such information. The owner's manual has fifty pages -- fifty pages -- on proper seat belt use. But no specs.)

I guess I should be thankful for having a car to drive around in after wrecking my own. At least no one has slapped one of those "I'm Changing the Climate! Ask Me How" bumper stickers on it yet. (Not that I would object.) In fact, it is nice to have air conditioning in the middle of this godawful heat wave. (By "heat wave," I mean "July.") That will be unpleasant, going back to my non-air-conditioned car in a couple of weeks. It means I'll be sweating by the time I get to the unemployment office, and no one will want to stand in line with me.

7/17/2004

On War

This is from "Tropic of Capricorn," pub. 1961, Henry Miller's inferior follow-up to "Tropic of Cancer." Read the first one, if anything.

"The day I first realized that there had been a war was about six months or so after the armistice. It was in a street car on the 14th Street crosstown line. One of our heroes, a Texas lad with a string of medals across his chest, happened to see an officer passing on the sidewalk. The sight of the officer enraged him. He was a sergeant himself and he probably had good reason to be sore. Anyway, the sight of the officer enraged him so that he got up from his seat and began to bawl the shit out of the government, the army, the civilians, the passengers in the car, everybody and everything. He said if there was ever another war they couldn't drag him to it with a twenty-mule team. He said he'd see every son of a bitch killed before he'd go again himself; he said he didn't give a fuck about the medals they had decorated him with and to show that he meant it he ripped them off and threw them out the window; he said if he was ever in a trench with an officer again he'd shoot him in the back like a dirty dog, and that held good for General Pershing or any other general. He said a lot more, with some fancy cuss words that he'd picked up over there, and nobody opened his trap to gainsay him. And when he got through I felt for the first time that there had really been a war and that the man I was listening to had been in it and that despite his bravery the war had made him a coward and that if he did any more killing it would be wide-awake and in cold blood, and nobody would have the guts to send him to the electric chair because he had performed his duty toward his fellow men, which was to deny his own sacred instincts and so everything was just and fair because one crime washes away the other in the name of God, country and humanity, peace be with you all."

7/16/2004

New York Is So Cool

I need to get this song. Largely because it so effectively encapsulates how I feel about NY scenesters. If you've heard it, you know what I mean. I can't find the lyrics on Google anywhere. If you've got 'em, e-mail me.

7/11/2004

Why I Did Not Rent A Car (or, Why I Am Now Not So Cheap)

So, I decided not to rent a car after all. I borrowed Mom's spare car. (You should read the post below this one to understand what I'm talking about.) Why no rental? I'm glad you asked ...

First of all, why do I need a car, when, as discussed in the previous post, there are so many options available to the disenfranchised driver? (Even the 25-cent, limited-route DASH bus, as some smartass pointed out.) Let's put it this way. Some poor sap at the AP Los Angeles bureau has to work a shift that starts at 3 a.m. and wraps up at 11 a.m., Monday through Friday. Until August, that poor sap is me. The subway and light rail trains stop running at half-past the witching hour, and I'm not keen on standing around at 2 a.m., waiting for a bus that will only take me within a mile of the office.

Anyway, in an attempt to keep costs down, I found Ace Car Rentals, or Ace Rent-A-Car, or whatever it's called, near the airport. Actually, Neal found it, being the kick-ass travel agent that he is. I should point out that he warned me that although this place is cheap, it seems kinda shady. After all, they misspelled the words "waiver," "avenue," and "terminal" on their website. Ace, it seems, is the Crazy Gideon's of car rental companies. You get a good deal, but you feel kinda weird afterward, like you're not sure if you are on the right side of the law. To top things off, they have this reassuring statement in their "FAQ":

How far is your office from Los Angeles International (LAX)?

Our office is located 1.5 miles from LAX which is approximately 10-15 minutes (depending on how heavy airport traffic is).

Ten to fifteen minutes to go 1.5 miles! That works out to an average speed of 6 to 9 mph. Most people can sprint faster than that.

Regardless of my sprinting ability, on Monday I rode the Red Line, transferred to the Blue Line, transferred again to the Green Line, hopped the free shuttle to LAX, and then hopped the shuttle to the car rental facility to get a Ford Escort. Unfortunately, when I made it to the front counter, they looked at my insurance policy and revealed to me that I'm not covered for rental cars. Apparently, when I sat down at the Mercury Insurance office to buy my policy from the guy who looks like Tony Soprano, I decided to go cheap and not pay the $50 or whatever to extend my coverage to rental cars. It was also this miserly streak that prompted me to not get coverage for a rental car in case of an accident, which is what got me into this whole mess in the first place. (Some might suggest that rear-ending that guy two weeks ago is *really* what got me into this whole mess, but I don't have time to get caught up in all the minute little details. Let's stay focused on the big picture here.)

Now what? I rode three trains and two buses to get to the airport and rent a goddamn car, and now I can't. Ace won't sell daily prorated insurance "wavers" to local drivers. This is apparently a company policy, albeit one that was not pointed out to me on their website. So I'm stuck at the airport, with the option of going home or renting a car from, say, Hertz, for about $22 a day, plus at least that much for insurance. Keep in mind that I need a car for an extended period of time -- two weeks or more. At these rates, the total outlay would easily exceed my monthly car payment, and would likely approach apartment rent proportions. With unemployment beckoning, this is not a sunny prospect.

So, I hopped a shuttle back to the airport, took the elevator to the top level of the parking structure, whipped out the cell phone, and called Mom, who listened to the sob story and said I could borrow their car. At that point I boarded another shuttle, rode Green Line-Blue Line-Red Line to Union Station, where Metrolink took me to Irvine for $7.50. Mom picked me up, drove me home, handed me the keys to the Blazer (ugh) and away I went. (In case you're wondering why my two parents have three cars, it's because Dad bought a new one, and one of the old ones is being held for the younger brother. That's right, punk, I'm tooling around in your new wheels!)

I guess the lesson here is not to be a cheapskate and think you're saving money by not buying those extras on your car insurance. You'll feel better driving that fully insured rental car than you will riding a bus all day. Oh, wait, you say you'll never be in an accident? Best of luck with that approach. I went 10 years without a collision, and then had two inside of 11 months. Better get that insurance, if only because you and I are driving the same streets. Anyway, I have to go now. It's time for me to chug a pair of sleeping pills in hopes of catching some shut-eye before getting up at 2 a.m. for work.

7/10/2004

Walking in L.A.

So, the reliable Honda Civic is in the shop again, meaning at least for a while, I'm dependent upon a combination of bus, subway, light rail and bipedal motion for getting around. Which is eminently feasible, so long as one is prepared. And by that I mean the driver and the non-driver have different mindsets, and there is a gap of sorts between them. Or, at least, there is for me. The point is I don't find it easy to go from driver to non-driver and back again at the drop of a hat. You have to learn to evaluate little errands that could easily be done via car on a cost-benefit basis. For example, two days ago I wanted to go to Kinko's and make some copies of some clips (job hunting, what a drag). Then I remembered that Kinko's is about 1.2 miles away, and I don't have a car. So, is making these copies right now worth the $2.40 it would cost me (at a minimum) to get there and back? Or, is it worth the hourlong walk there and back? Or can I wait until I go to work and make copies then? For anyone glued to the edge of their seat, I did not go to Kinko's. Chalk up the loss of about a buck's worth of xeroxes for the free market.

Just yesterday, fully three days after I had last driven a car, I had a similar moment. For reasons that will remain private, I needed to find the name of a city in Washington state that is on the way from Seattle to Vancouver. (Just accept this as an ordinary thing, please.) Of course, Google would resolve that for me easily enough, but I've got a dial-up connection, and didn't want to wait for the modem to connect, and then for the images to load, etc. And I remembered that I have a freeway map that devotes one or two pages to each state in the union, so I could just run out to my car and take a look at the map. You'll be glad to know that I did not make it all the way to the parking lot behind the building before remembering that the car is not there. I did, however, stand up, walk over to the dresser and grab my keys before realizing it was a fool's errand. Then I sat back down and fired up Internet Explorer.

At this point, the reasonable person would ask: "Why didn't you take your stuff out of your car before dropping it off at the shop?" The answer, of course, is that I did -- except for stuff I didn't think I would need over the next couple of weeks, like the map of the United States or the spare tire. I only relieved the car of things I would need, like the approximately ten bucks in change from my ashtray, or things that would be stolen if I left them behind, like the stereo faceplate or my clip-on sunglasses. Before you laugh, I should point out that the last time my car was in the shop for two weeks, guess what got stolen ... clip-on sunglasses.

Enough digression. Back to the point -- no car. This city has more buses than you can shake a stick at, or so it seems when you're driving home at 5:30p on Sunset and get stuck behind at least 10 of them on a five-mile commute. The buses even run red lights, so you can get where you're going faster. I have yet to ride a Metro bus during my current car-less shift, but it's early yet. For you snoots who take pride in saying you've never ridden on an MTA bus in Los Angeles, I can say I am not among your number. I took a Metro bus from Hollywood to Melrose and back about this time last year, and it was just as clean and safe as a Santa Monica Big Blue Bus or a UCLA Ackerman turnaround shuttle. Does this make me a hardcore, Bus Riders Union type, who counts the number of passengers on the bus at rush hour and files TRO requests in federal court? Do I chant, "This is how racism looks today: MTA, MTA!" before refusing to pay my fare? No. But I suppose it'd be fun to think so.

Then there's the subway/light rail system, with its convenient color-coding system (transfer from the Red Line to the Gold Line!) and lack of turnstiles or payment cards. Yes, if you're lucky and larcenous, you can "Go Metro" scot-free. I've been on the red line from Hollywood to downtown about 50 times, and made about a dozen trips on the other lines, and on only five occasions have I been asked by a cop or Sheriff's deputy to show my ticket. I have paid every time, though. Once I considered hopping the Red Line to go just two stops, and that was only because all I had was a twenty and the ticket machine wouldn't take it. But I saw a pair of cops down on the platform, so I headed out of the station, caught a cab, and expensed the ten bucks to a certain wire service I once worked for. (It was work-related, after all. I was returning to my office after covering the Grammys.)

The BRU would also have you believe that the subway and light rail system is indicative of the MTA's inherent racism and class-based bias, since (apparently) white people and upper-middle-class types are more likely to use the subway or light rail, while the minority and working classes are stuck with the buses. If you don't follow, the point is that subway/light rail construction is about a bazillion times costlier than buying, say, 25 new buses, so the MTA is racist for sinking all its cash into the mode of transportation preferred by rich white peeps. Now, I'm white, but last year I only made $26,000, which doesn't exactly make me Mr. Moneybags. But regardless of my income, I've been on the Red Line, Blue Line and Green Line, and I'll tell you that the passengers look like L.A. It's largely working-class minorities on the trains, and that's true at all times of the day. In fact, I think the city's wealthy and decidedly middle-class are just as underrepresented on the subway/light rail system as they are on the buses, and that's probably because the trains don't go to A) the West side or B) the Valley.

An interesting digression is the Orange Line, which is slated to open next year. The Orange Line is intended to be the Valley portion of the color-coded transportation scheme. The problem is that it's buses masquerading as light rail -- or, as a perceptive BRU member once put it, "rail on wheels." It's a dedicated east-west busway through the middle of the Valley, where buses drive on lanes built specifically for them and closed to all other traffic, and stop at about 12 to 15 dedicated stations. It really is like taking a light rail line, ripping up the rails, and driving a bus on the same route. The confusing part is, I'm a not-so-rich white person. Do I ride the Orange Line, because it's like light rail, and that meshes with my elitist worldview? Or do I shun it, because it's a bus, and buses are for poor people of color?

The answer is it's in the Valley, so fuck it.

There is another option, though it's not often discussed. If you're reading aloud, please drop your voice to a whisper. I'm talking about ... walking. I know, I know. This is L.A. Nobody walks in L.A. Wasn't there a song about that, or something? Remember that scene from "L.A. Story" where Steve Martin gets in his car to drive to his next-door neighbor's house? Yeah, that's us. In L.A. you drive everywhere, even to your kitchen. I recently became a true Angeleno when I stopped walking to the grocery store and the laundromat. These were the only places I ever walked to, but then the laundromat went out of business, and Ralphs decided to lock out its union employees, at which point I discovered Food4Less. So now I don't walk anywhere. Except now my car's in the shop, and I have to walk everywhere. Make sense?

The thing about walking is that for most of us, there aren't a whole lot of places you can walk to. I suppose there are a few. I could theoretically walk to a dinky movie theater, a book store, a grocery store, Jamba Juice, Starbucks, Blockbuster, a donut shop, the Christian Science Reading Room, Griffith Park, the Los Feliz branch library, a pool hall, Bank of America, Baskin-Robbins, Pink Elephant liquor store, the post office, about two dozen restaurants and a thousand different apartments. All of these things are within a mile of my place. So I could survive on feet, if I had to. But the list of places I can't really walk to is a lot longer, and a lot more substantive. Amoeba, Kinko's, the West side, the Valley, work, Central Library, LACMA, an Irish pub, Dodger Stadium, Parker Center, Target, my parents' house, my parents' weekend house, Steve Martin's house, the Beverly Center, the comic book store, Santa Monica, Trader Joe's, MOCA, Jack in the Box, Casino Morongo, the outlet mall, the Hollywood Bowl, Universal CityWalk, the Viper Room, the beach, Boyle Heights, the filming of "That 70s Show," Ikea, the Arclight Cinemas, The Grove, Grauman's Chinese Theater, a bowling alley, the Getty, Staples Center, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Hollywood Park, Chino, El Coyote, the Academy Awards ...

Suffice it to say, the list goes on and on. Now, I can still go to these places, but it'll cost me in the form of a $1.20 bus token, or $3 Metro day pass. Plus I'll likely have to walk a bit anyway. For example, the nearest subway stop to my office is three-quarters of a mile away. This is the route recommended to me by the MTA website. There are no buses that go any closer, because of where the office is located, on a one-way street next to a freeway on-ramp. No buses drive by because the road goes nowhere unless you're getting on the 110. I'm not complaining -- I could use the exercise. You think I'm staying in shape by staying up all night, staring at the eerie blue glow of the laptop screen? But I think there's something to be learned from this experience, of losing my preferred mode of mobility, only to find that the "alternative" mode -- which, for many people, is the primary mode -- is a far cry from perfection. You'd think I would have realized this from the street signs that say "No right turn -- RTD buses exempt," bearing in mind that the RTD changed its name to MTA about two decades ago. But it's kinda one of those things you have to experience first-hand to know what it's really about.

And yet, I haven't even experienced that particular ignominy that so many bus riders in L.A. are familiar with: the bus route that simply isn't there any more, despite signs indicating a stop on a regularly staffed bus. I've read of people being simply stranded by unadvertised, midweek alterations in bus routes, their stops never picked up by another driver. It's like something out of a Steve Erickson novel. The city is littered with signs for bus stops that no longer exist. There's a good chance I could one day be one of those poor saps, standing at the corner of Fountain and St. Andrews Place, waiting in vain for the 183-B bus to whisk me to Silver Lake so I can finally buy that used coffee table I've had my eye on. I wait, and I wait.

Screw that. I'm going to rent a car on Monday.

7/07/2004

L.A., and this blog, by the numbers

Number of condom wrappers, with or without condoms inside, seen on the ground in Hollywood and surrounding areas in the last week: 4

Number of meaningful, worthwhile posts to this blog in the same time period: none

For those of you scoring at home, that's careless condom owners 4, big M zero.

7/06/2004

John Kerry Is A Baby-Eating, Puppy-Kicking Monster!

WE MUST UNITE TO STOP THIS EVIL INFLUENSE ON OUR COUNTRY!!!! HE WILL TURN THE GOD-LOVING USA BACK INTO RUSSIA AND APPOINT KNOWN MEXICAN ANTONIO VILARIAGOSA AS HIS SECRETARY OF LABOR! SOMEBODY REMIND THE SO-CALLED DEMOCRATS ... oh, forget it. There are so many right-wingers publishing poorly written, typo-strewn, bigoted rants that it's not even fun to impersonate one. Moving on ...

WTF?

For those of you disappointed that I have lent my good name and credibility to the bogus phenomenon known among self-anointed Internet pundits as the "blogosphere," blame Hannah M. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some liberal phonies to expose through the power of my own incoherent ramblings. Blog on!