Letter from California

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

Monday, October 25, 2004

Letter from California-October 25, 2004

Once you hit 12, you have to accept the fact that in today’s America, Halloween is not really designed for your enjoyment. Of course, nothing’s physically stopping you from putting on a Freddy Krueger mask, walking the streets with a pillowcase and asking for candy, but it’s creepy. Besides that, your wife will never believe your explanation for the five quarts of Good ’n’ Plentys and Tootsie Rolls you bring home.

Just because you’re not cute in a Chewbacca costume anymore doesn’t mean you can’t have your share of spooky moments, though. For example, just this morning, I had a bone-chilling Halloween experience of my own just sitting in my dining room reading the newspaper. Imagine my terror when I found out that in the last 15 months, the City of Los Angeles has only fired six employees for poor performance. Just so you know, not counting police officers, fire fighters, and politicians, LA employees 37,000 people. If only six have been fired in 15 months, only two possible explanations exist: first, the City of Los Angeles hires the world’s most talented people and makes almost no mistakes; or second, egg-headed Aliens routinely abduct incompetent LA City employees just before they’re about to be fired. I admit that both seem unlikely, but let’s be realistic. It’s got to be the alien abduction thing. Maybe the Visitors from Beyond need L.A.’s most useless civil servants to train the home planet on effective methods for human torture. Day 1: Extreme Surliness; Day 2: High Taxes with No Visible Benefits; Day 3: Start Street Construction Project, Stop Halfway Through, Disappear Forever, Perhaps Because of Alien Abduction.

Statistically, City of LA workers don’t stand much of a chance of feeling the sting of the firing boot. In fact, a garbage collector in the city actually has a better chance of being attacked by a pistol-packing has-been celebrity than being let go, and that’s even with Robert Blake in jail and OJ living in Florida! That’s how hard it is for the city to get rid of its most hopeless slackers. If you’d been suspended five times, caught making illegal turns in your garbage truck, skipped work frequently, and disobeyed your boss, what would you do to show your employers that you deserved to keep your job?

If you were like one City of LA sanitation engineer, you’d crash your truck into a pole. Not a wise career strategy you say? That shows what you know. That man merrily hauls garbage through the streets of LA to this day, still worried more about getting shot by Sharon Stone than in keeping his truck off the sidewalk. It’s so difficult and legally risky to fire even the most obviously brainless City worker that no one tries. They just move the real stinkers from department to department like a little kid moving peas around his plate, hoping his mom thinks it looks like he’s eaten enough of them to get dessert. Does it work? Well, did it work for you with the peas?

Big cities aren’t the only ones with a talent for using human resources badly. Our local paper this week reported that Monterey Park, a small city about 10 miles east of Los Angeles, got a $227,000 grant from the State of California to be used by its police department. What did they do to earn such an honor? They had the second most fatal accidents among pedestrians over 65 for California cities of their size. Huh? Am I reading this right? If you do a bad job keeping Grandma safe from runaway garbage trucks, you get money? Wouldn’t it make more sense to punish the city in some way? Maybe you could make the police and the mayor walk to work every day. If they survive the year, they get their cars back, but at least that would motivate them to fix the problem. I’d also tie teriyaki-glazed pork chops to their sneakers and release wolves two minutes after they left, but that’s just me.

Instead, the Monterey Park police are using the money to build a driving simulator that they can take to community events. Once again, that sounds like a reward to me. I’ve known some offices that had foosball tables or maybe even a video game or two. A full-blown driving simulator, though, might be a little too much fun, especially for a group that needs to spend less time on virtual reality roads and more time on ones that actually exist.

So if an L.A. city garbage truck comes barreling down your street, swerving from lane to lane, knocking down elderly strollers like bowling pins, you don’t need to worry. The Monterey Park cops will be along in no time with video games to take everyone’s mind off the whole situation.

Best of all, you’ll hardly notice the tax increase it’s going to take to pay for it.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Letter from California-October 17, 2004

Imagine that a friend of a friend comes to you unexpectedly and says that he’s going to give you $121 million dollars, paid out a little at a time over the next seven years. What would you do first?
If you were St. Mary’s College, in Moraga, just a little northeast of San Francisco, you’d buy a fancy new science building. After all, with $121 million rolling in, St. Mary’s could afford to upgrade its previously gray rectangular science building to one of these ultra-modern science buildings shaped like a Rubik’s Cube or Darth Vader’s head. Plus, you’d want one of those fountains out front that shoots out water in unpredictable patterns from about a thousand different places. Not only does it attract children like pigeons to a discarded hot dog; it also makes it easy to spot visitors. They’re generally the ones soaked to the bone in their good clothes, chasing their scattered and waterlogged papers around, and enjoying a pleasant chuckle at the whimsy of the outdoor fountain.
I’d like to think I would do things a little differently. Naturally, Science Centers aren’t at the top of my personal wish list, though maybe a Darth Vader-shaped vacation chalet might make the cut. More than that, I’d like to imagine that before building anything, I would have taken one critical step that the St. Mary’s people didn’t: wait to get the money. That would have been a particularly wise step in this case. It turns out that the donation pledges were an elaborate fraud by 83-year old John Banker. Banker, they say, has left the country, going 45 in the fast lane with his left turn blinker and a black ski mask on the whole way.
Obviously, I made that last part up, and it’s probably not true. Anyone who could concoct what investigator Neal Stephens called a “serious act of deception against the college” on this scale would probably notice the clicking sound the turn signal made. Then again, St. Mary’s administration didn’t quite have Encyclopedia Brown on the case either. Board of trustees member, Barbara Ageno, knew as early as 1992 that Banker had been convicted of trying to sell restaurants that he didn’t own, but she somehow never told the rest of the board about that. I guess there just wasn’t a “right” moment for it, especially with all the hubbub of building new science centers and such.
Not only that, but the first installment of the cash was supposed to hit the bank in ’97, which isn’t exactly yesterday. In ’97, no one had ever been voted off the island, most people still thought of Amazon as either primarily a river or the best description for Brigitte Nielsen, and in ’97, some people still knew who Brigitte Nielsen was. The point is that 7 years is a long time to wait to get money owed to you. Try it with your cable bill sometime. I don’t think they’ll wait until 2011 to cut you off from seeing 30 Ultimate Bad Boys of Rock on VH-1. (By the way, if Justin Timberlake makes that list, throw a shoe at the TV for me.)
Money, even the idea of money, has a lot of power to make people do crazy things, which pretty much explains how a group of presumably sane people running St. Mary’s College can make such amazingly bad decisions. On the flip side, money can also lead to things that otherwise would have no earthly business existing. For example, the news broke this week that L.A. resident and aging hunk, Fabio will be launching a line of clothes for women, designed and approved by a committee of him, his hair, his pectoral muscles, and the girl who does his make up. (Laugh if you will, but even they would have seen through the scam at St. Mary’s.)
Before you book your plane tickets to L.A. to buy Fabio’s line in the swanky shops along Rodeo Drive, relax. While Fabio’s goal is to provide women with fabulous, hunk-approved clothes, he doesn’t expect them to come to him. Instead, the Fabio line will be available in Sam’s Clubs everywhere. Feeling glamorous yet? For those of you who find Wal-Mart a little too “uptown”, Sam’s Club provides a cheap alternative. Now while you’re raking armloads of bulk-sized cornflake boxes into your cart, you can rake in a fashionable wardrobe as well.
Why a line of Fabio clothes? Simple answer: Fabio sells. Unlike some small liberal arts colleges northeast of San Francisco I could mention, Fabio and Sam’s Club checked to see if this would work first. Fabio toured several Sam’s Club stores promoting a certain brand of suede coat, and everywhere he went, the coats just vanished. Before that, publishers of romance novels learned that a book with Mr. F on the cover outsold the same book with more generic beefcake on the cover by about a third. And let’s not even talk about what happened to “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter” when he signed on.
It’s sad what happened to St. Mary’s, because I’m sure they’re not the kind of folks who generally spend $26 million on science buildings they can’t pay for. I do have a solution, though. Rename it the Fabio Center and sell suede jackets and romance novels in the front, with all the unsexy science happening discretely in the back. Convince Fabio and his committee that Super Hunks have a duty not just to make money, but also to help people. Especially people who have absolutely no ability to judge wild-eyed lies about millions and millions of dollars. He’s sure to lend a hand.
Call it the “I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-A-Legitimate-Donation” campaign. They’ll have that $121 million in no time.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Letter from California-October 3, 2004

Imagine that you’re the owner of a company. It could be any kind of company, but just for kicks, we’ll imagine that it’s a company that makes sock puppets. In fact, it’s the world’s largest manufacturer of google-eyed sock puppets, and business has grown so much that you need to hire a CEO. You want to make sure that the person you’re hiring has the experience, expertise and character to lead your puppet empire to greater and greater success. If you make the wrong choice, children all over the world will have to sit through story time with nothing to look at but the teacher’s bare hand folded over in an unfunny shape. It’s not a future that any parent wants for his child, but if you pick the wrong leader, the nightmare becomes real.
Only two candidates apply. You won’t have a chance to meet them, talk to them, or even see them. On the other puppet-covered hand, each one has written something on a piece of paper for you. You open up the first envelope and pull the sheet of paper out. In large blue letters, you read the word, “SUTTON.” You open the other envelope and on the paper, you read, “MACDOUGALD.” Ok, you’ve got 10 seconds to pick.
Of course, no one doing anything as serious as hiring the CEO of a sock puppet factory would do it this way. After all, you may think sock puppets are funny (or you may think they’re terrifying, and if so, I suggest either professional counseling or switching to decaf), but it’s still a serious job. Even if the job were a little less serious, as an unpaid standup comic for example, you’d still want a little more info than the person’s last name in giant letters.
I’ve noticed lately that at least one job generally does get filled this way, but as you’d imagine, it’s not something that most people have much interest or involvement in: local government. Before your eyes glaze over, let me assure you I have no intention of actually talking about local government. That’d be downright un-American. Some people disagree with me and think that everyone should stop wasting their time producing good and services, participating in a hobby, or relaxing at home and instead delve into the details of the street-widening project near the elementary school or the proposed sewer modernization project that’s proposed for 2008. My eyelids are getting a little heavy just writing about it.
Yet, once every couple of years, like some strange variety of flower, the yard signs begin to bloom in the September before an election year letting us know who’s running for State Assembly, judge and town council. Here in California, with more than 50 Congresspersons, plus a couple hundred more elected officials in Sacramento, plus city governments like Los Angeles with populations the size of some states, we get more than our fair share of campaign-by-yard-sign. The Presidential candidates get into the act too, sticking red, white and blue placards into the hydrangea beds, but at least we have other ways of knowing about them. They debate; they run commercials comparing each other to Hitler; they go on Oprah and share household tips; they get in hot air balloons and fly around the country throwing candy to anyone who waves at them. (That last thing is just a suggestion, but I do think it would work.) The two people running for President do everything but tie their left hands together and have a knife fight. That’s another suggestion I like, but my point is we do get a lot of chances to find out what they’re like as people and which set of great-sounding, impractical generalities they favor. It’s expensive and complicated, but it more or less works. Except in Florida.
With your local officials, though, elections all seem to come down to one simple thing: whose name did you see the most in other people’s yards. You’re standing in the voting booth, working your way toward the place on the ballot where you vote for President, looking down a long list of candidates that you’ve never heard of. Wait a second…Sutton, where have I heard that name? It says here his profession is “attorney,” so his mother is probably really proud of him. He might be one of those Yale Law School super-smart lawyers who fight to get the little guy enough money to buy shiny new SUVs and a very, very large screen TV. On the other hand, he could be more of a Hollywood Upstairs Law College type of lawyer who fights to get people shiny new SUVs and very, very large screen TVs while wearing much less expensive suits.
What about his opponent? MacDougald. I know that one too for some reason. His profession is listed as “Superhero.” Not bad, but is he more of a Batman-type of hero, where he’s really just a regular guy with some awesome gadgets and a black belt in Kung Fu? Or is he a full-on Superman-type Superhero who can melt things with his eyes and pick up buildings? That makes a difference.
But yard signs don’t provide enough space to explain if you’re a Batman or Superman type of hero. The main thing is that the candidate has gotten enough people to put up the signs so that when the voter gets into the voting booth, he or she has that vague feeling they know the candidate and that the rest of the names on the list are just a bunch of un-Super strangers.
So here’s a winning strategy if you’re thinking about getting into the high glamour world of local government: change your name to Superman. Then, go around asking people if they’d like to help get Superman elected by putting a sign in their yard. Of course, they’ll say yes. Who’d say “no” to Superman?
And when voters show up at the polls, they’ll say, as their eyes glance past the local elections, “Sutton, Johnson…never heard of them...Garcia, Liu, Scolinos…nada… MacDougald, Superman, Webster. Hey! I know Superman!”
You’ll win in a landslide.