Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, July 26, 2004

When San Francisco people get on a high horse about how much better they are than the sub-humans who populate Los Angeles, they often start with the trains. Yes, that’s right. They’ve got trains and subways and buses and trolley cars. People actually ride them to get around, although this doesn’t seem to keep the time from crossing the Bay Bridge from Oakland to under 30 minutes. Somehow, this makes them so much more sophisticated than the poor ignorant cretins who have to drive from place to place in the comfort and solitude of their own car rather than crammed into a silver metal tube, sitting in a hard plastic seat next to a gamey-smelling anarchist with a $3000 laptop and a $3 cappuccino.

Still, we here in L.A. score a few points at their expense, too. Their freak factor lands right at the top of the scale at 1.9, while ours is a comparatively moderate 1.6. (The freak factor scale goes like this: 0.1 = the town from “Leave it to Beaver”; .5 = the town from ”Happy Days”; 1.0 = the town from “All in the Family”; 1.5 = the town from “Seinfeld”; 2.0 = the town from Woody Harrelson’s most recent acid trip.) Also, and I hate to be mean about this, we’re better looking, with less body hair and thrift shop clothes. And that’s just the homeless people.

So while it might be true that the Bay Area packs more people into its mass transit system, we do need to set the record straight and let people know that Los Angeles does have subways and trains. In fact, this week is the one year anniversary of the Gold Line, a new railway line opened connecting Pasadena with downtown L.A. From there, you can connect by bus, subway or train to just about anywhere you want to go. For example, before the train came in, if you wanted to go from Pasadena to Los Angeles Airport, you had to get in your car and drive as much as 45 minutes, using 2 to 3 gallons of gas each way. That adds up to $5 or $6 dollars round trip.

With the train, things have changed. Now, you can drive to the train station, get on a Gold Line train, get off and change to the blue line, then get to the airport and take a shuttle bus to your terminal in only an hour an 45 minutes. The best part is it only costs a couple dollars more than the gas it would take to drive. Of course, you do have to schlep your luggage on and off the train a bunch of times, but hey, that’s the price you pay for the convenience of the train.

Over the last 10 years, a lot of subway and train lines have been built around Southern California, and I think sometimes people actually ride them. To me, it’s like putting a salad bar into a wildly popular all-you-can-eat barbeque ribs restaurant. You already know that the people like ribs, and if they were salad bar kind of people, they probably wouldn’t be paying for an unlimited pig-eating license. Since you know this, you decide to put in a pitiful little salad bar so that you don’t waste too much money, but since it is a pitiful little bar, with wilty iceburg lettuce and a few sad little plum tomatoes, the fans of the pigsicle just ignore it altogether. Of course, you could go the other way and build the greatest, most expensive salad bar in the town, wasting even more money, but at least then you could blame the customers for being gluttons who don’t know what’s good for them.

Actually, the new Gold Line trains are kinda cute. The County built really fancy new stations with clock towers and interesting art, and they kept the involuntary demolition of poor people’s houses to a minimum. Your tax dollars at work! About 895 million of them, to be exact. To be fair, the Gold Line doesn’t seem to be a complete failure. It’s a nice modern train and the line is very well kept, graffiti-free and safe. Sure, the Transit Authority is only getting about 50% of the riders they want, but as my mother frequently told me as a child when I was being unrealistic, I want a lot of things. So the train is clean and not crowded, which is nice, but it does contribute to the general sense that you are actually on a Hollywood set rather than riding the mass transit system of the second largest city in the country. In fact, maybe the studios put pressure on L.A. County to build the trains so that they could stop traveling to New York to film subway and train scenes, but I digress. On the couple of occasions that I’ve ridden the gold line, I feel like I’m on one of those HO scale trains running through a diorama in someone’s basement. Someone who is still living with his parents.

This feeling is reinforced by the fact that there’s almost nothing that you’re allowed to do on the train or in the stations. Eating and drinking, for example, are completely forbidden. In fact, I heard recently of a passenger waiting on the platform who opened a sandwich and took a bite. The transit cops pounced, confiscating the sandwich and issuing a $250 citation. You have to make your own judgments about the truth of the story, since it is a friend-of-a-friend thing, but it’s true. Notice the police didn’t tell the guy to toss the sandwich or tell him not to bring food on the train again; they just gave him a ticket. I guess he learned his lesson.

And that lesson is: never ride the train. If you think you might get hungry or a little parched, drive. If you need to save time and a couple of dollars, drive. If you don’t want to run the risk of sitting next to a smelly communist (or a smelly Republican stockbroker, for that matter), drive. By all means, drive the most fuel-efficient car you can stand, but don’t get on the train to impress anybody. It’s not going to work.

Of course, if you live in a densely populated urban area and you need to go quickly from point to point and don’t have time to hassle with parking, then trains, subways and buses should work for you nicely.

But if that’s true, you’re probably already sophisticated enough to know it.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Letter from California-July 19, 2004

In my younger, more ideological days, I got a little steamed whenever I thought of the government making money from gambling. State lotteries, in particular, struck me a as a tax on the stupid, although I’m sure I softened it up with sympathy for the people who spent real money for a one in a zillion chance to win. The winners usually cash their oversized novelty checks and go shopping at the Porsche dealership, Mike’s Monster TV Palace, the Wholesale Liquor Barn and to a neighborhood where every house has a bonus room. Within a few years, they’re often broke, divorced, and hooked on something stronger than rock candy. Meanwhile, the state collects all those crumpled one-dollar bills in its giant money-counting room, like the guy with a monocle on the Monopoly board.
Time moves on. I’ve gotten older and my feelings about a lot of things have changed. I’m not angry anymore about states raiding your change purse like this. No, not me. Now, I think it’s hilarious. In fact, the showdown between Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the so-called Indian casinos of California has so much comedy potential that I’m surprised one of Arnold’s old showbiz pals hasn’t made a TV series about it. Imagine a new and improved Welcome Back, Kotter, with Arnold as the crotchety old school teacher and the casino owners as the wise-cracking Sweathogs. They’re always trying to put a tack in Arnold’s chair or re-arrange the letters of his name on the chalkboard to spell something naughty. Those wacky Sweathogs!
Indian casinos in California have slowly become an economic powerhouse. Just 10 short years ago, the casinos were limited to a handful of raggedy old card rooms where you could get the worst surf-n-turf of your life for just $8.95. Now, they’re bigger, flashier and everywhere. Last year, California’s Indian casinos did about $4.2 billion in business, which is about 10% of all the casino business in the whole country.
Did I mention that casino-style gambling in illegal in California? Illegal, that is, unless you’re actually not in California, but on a reservation which is technically its own little nation. As nations, though, they’re pretty pitiful, with no Olympic team, flag, national anthem or official bird; and, as Dudley Moore once said, Rhode Island could kick the crap out of them in a war. These little nations have in fact decided to skip all the silly stuff that those others nations do--print money, write laws, set up an army--and pretty much stick to casinos. Maybe that’s the problem with the American government; too much time wasted on things other than places to gamble.
The problem for California, as you may have heard, is that the state is a little short of cash, meanwhile the Indian casinos are making billions of dollars and paying almost nothing to California. The Nevada government mostly runs on casino money (and alien space saucer landing fees, of course), so naturally California wanted in on the action. Earlier this month, Schwarzenegger made a deal with several of the largest casino-owning tribes, allowing them to add more slot machines to their casinos in exchange for paying the state of California a fairly large chunk of wampum each year, including about $1 billion right away.
By the way, no one seems offended by the term “Indian casinos” for some reason instead of “Native American casinos.” Just thought I’d point that out.
Anyway, a couple months ago, I was driving through the desert about 2 hours east of L.A. through a particularly Road Runner cartoon-like stretch when I noticed that a very, very large building was going up. Most people, when laying out the kind of cash that builds 30-story buildings, look for little signs in the area that the big risk is actually going to pay off. Signs like people and other buildings. Little clues like that.
What kind of business builds an enormous, expensive building, miles from anyone, anything or any conceivable reason to stop on that particular patch of sizzling, dusty desert?
Only a casino.
Casinos know that people will drive through the desert for the privilege of giving away their money in return for nothing. You walk in on Friday evening with $10,000, and if you’re like 9 out of 10 people, you’ll leave on Sunday morning with nothing but the complimentary copy of USA Today they put outside your hotel room door. And don’t forget, USA Today doesn’t even publish on the weekends!
Most of the time, businesses expect to have to give you something back when you pay them giant gobs of money, and that’s what’s beautiful about the casino biz. It’s also why it’s illegal just to set up your own little gambling parlor in the garage. It’s just too easy, and the government thinks you should be challenged. It builds character.
Maybe you don’t mind turning a few greenbacks over to a Native tribe. After all, isn’t this an economic opportunity for Native Americans to expand their economic horizons and start the climb upward in society? Maybe you don’t mind because of that commercial in the 70s where Iron Eyes Cody shed that single tear at the sight of the garbage left there on the side of the road by slobs like you and me. Didn’t he make you feel like a real jerk? If you’ve ever wanted to apologize, you can do that by going to an Indian casino and hitting on 17 every time.
Oh, you didn’t realize you weren’t supposed to hit on 17?
The taxpayers of the State of California and the Agua Caliente band of the Luiseno Indians thank you.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Letter from California-July 12, 2004

Have you ever heard of a product called Cup-o’-Soup? Of course you have, but even if you hadn’t, you’d know what it was just from the name. Cup-o’-Soup? What’s that? Well, it’s a cup of soup. See, there’s some soup and it comes in a cup.
It’s nice when it works like that. Maybe Cup-o’-Soup has been so successful at providing bad meals for broke college students because the name is so simple. Or it could be because you can buy a month’s worth of truly awful soup for $1.78 and spend the savings on really cheap beer.
Too often, it’s just not the case. Names often conceal the real nature of something. For example, your cell phone company probably used to have a name like “AirPhone” or “Carolina Cellular.” I liked those because, again, the companies involved had something to say about what they did and the names just spit it out. Now, your cell phone company is more likely called something like “Triangulox” or “Velocitek.” At some point, these companies decided that they would no longer offer just one cingular product, cell phones, but instead would be broadening their verizons to include a wide range of t-mobile communications services. And in this bright future, who would buy an internet-connected toaster with a built in camera from a company with a name like American Telephone and Telegraph? Only people who still have telegraphs, the theory goes.
Still, as amusing as it is to make fun of cell phone companies, at least a name like Triangulox is simply meaningless instead of a flat out lie. Recently, my hometown newspaper, the Pasadena Star-News, reported on a potential ballot initiative in the city of Pasadena called “Fair Rents, Fair Profits.” Here’s a tip: whenever you see the word “fair” used to describe a potential new law, mentally pencil in the letters “un” before “fair” and nine times out of ten, you’ll have a better idea of what the people proposing the law have in mind.
Rent control. The proposed initiative would impose city-determined price limits on rent. In other words, the City of Pasadena would decide the maximum that can be charged for rent in many of the city’s apartments. Over the last ten years, Pasadena has been blessed with growth and redevelopment. Downtown Pasadena used to be a place you went for crack and to have an opportunity to try out your knife-fighting skills. Now it’s a place you can go for highly addictive $4 coffee drinks and a chance to try out your skills at getting a table at The Cheesecake Factory in less than 2 hours without resorting to knife-fighting. All in all, it’s an improvement, and as a result, people are willing to pay more to live here.
Crazy, eh? People will actually part with more money to live in a safe, pleasant area with a few attractions than they will to live in one where you can never be sure if thieves will rob you of your whole day’s crack dealing profits.
Enter rent control. The problem, a real one, is that as cities change, sometimes it gets harder for people near the bottom of the income scale to live there. As expensive houses and apartments get built, it causes the rest of the housing to go up in price and pretty soon some people just can’t afford to rent there. Rent control puts a simple and direct stop to it by capping the price. Is there a problem?
One foreign minister from a major country says there is. His nation’s capital dabbled with rent control in the 1970’s and lived to regret it, saying that as a result of rent prices being too low, the housing of the entire city fell into disrepair. Is the country in question the United States, where capitalism rules? Perhaps one of our semi-capitalist allies like Germany or Russia? Nope. None of them.
It’s Vietnam. Nguyen Co Thach, foreign minister for Vietnam in the 80’s, said that rent control had been worse for Hanoi than American bombing during the war. “The Americans couldn’t destroy Hanoi, but we have destroyed our city by very low rents.”
So there you have it. An economic idea so bad that even the communist Vietnamese government dropped it like a bad 1000-year old egg. On the other hand, rent control has its famous capitalist defenders as well. Ed Koch, former mayor of New York, for example, thinks it’s just a peachy idea. In his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump, the man who proves that money and brains are no guarantee of good hair, explains why Koch might feel that way: “Koch has a very nice three-room rent-controlled apartment with a terrace in a beautiful part of Greenwich Village. He pays $350 a month, about a fifth of what it’s worth.” Take your current rent or mortgage payment and cut it by 80%. You like the number you came up with? Now you know why Koch likes rent control.
But let’s look at it from the other way too. You might not be thrilled with your per hour or per week salary, but what if Ed Koch wanted to start paying you $4 an hour instead of $20? And what if the government made it illegal for you to charge more than $4 an hour for your services in the city you live in? What would you do?
You’d leave. Unfortunately, Pasadena has an extremely low percentage of mobile homes, so they’re staying where they are. Economists estimate that New York City’s rent control program led to 30,000 apartments being abandoned every year between 1972 and 1982. That’s enough to house all of Pasadena in just four short years.
If there’s anything that makes rent cheaper, it’s miles and miles of abandoned buildings.
And just think of how quickly you’ll get a table at the Cheesecake Factory.