Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chapter 2 - Seasons of Change in Los Angeles

The next morning, Art stepped onto the #14 bus at Beverly Boulevard. As usual it was standing room only; bus fare had gone up in the years since he got this job downtown, but the fare hadn't risen quite as fast as the price of gasoline. The advent of a sea change in public opinion on the net benefits of public transit seemed to have coincided with the moment when the system began breaking down from the accumulated wear and tear of years of neglect.

After hurrying five blocks from the bus stop to the City Engineering division, Art signed into the employee pool in the lobby. Putting the chained-up pen back into its stand, he asked, “So, Sheryl, what’re the odds of a grunt like me getting lucky today?”

“Pretty good, actually,” the portly receptionist replied. Her huge black beehive hairdo swayed as she nodded. “A bunch of the managers are looking for a P.E. and there aren't that many in the Lotto right now. You're a P.E., aren't you? I thought so!” she grinned.

Sheryl was telling Art that the higher-ups were looking for someone who had a State Board license to practice Engineering, and Art was one of those. He'd never used his Engineer's stamp to approve any actual construction plans yet. That was typically the duty of the higher-up Engineers, but with all the competition for employment, it took a P.E. license to work a relatively simple technician jobs like Art's.

The supervisors discouraged people from calling the new employee pool system “the Lotto,” but it was too late, the term had stuck. There wasn't much ongoing infrastructure work for City employees to do these days owing to the recent budget cuts; but surplus public workers couldn't be laid-off easily. Many had declined the city’s offer of early retirement because the City had slashed pension benefits in an earlier cost saving restructuring. The City’s solution was the Lotto, or labor pools from which workers were randomly selected according to the work load of the day, while the rest were sent home. This system even applied to fairly high-ranking Engineers. Thus Art was classified as a full-time employee (and, thankfully, still eligible for health care)… but, in reality, he was lucky to get a full day of work - and full day's pay - three days a week.

He earned enough to pay a share of the sky-high utility bills, the food and the property taxes on Mom's lot. He was keenly aware that most mothers wouldn't charge a live-at-home child for such things… even a child of 40… but that was how Mom did business. Times were tough, and she had lost half her retirement savings in the two big stock market crashes, eight years ago. Still, he reminded himself, he really needed to find a second job somewhere, if he wanted to keep his Honda repaired and gassed up -- let alone afford a new wetsuit.

“Did you bring your tie?”

This threw Art for a loop. He hated wearing a tie, and as a production-level engineer, he was rarely required to. That implied the task he was gambling for today was something other than Engineering. Yet they wanted somebody with a P.E. license. His look of consternation answered Sheryl's question, so she re-assured him, “Never mind, they'll scrounge one up for you somewhere.”

He took the elevator up to the third-floor Employee's Lounge, which was looking more like a waiting room these days, with people milling about or smoking out the windows, waiting to be called by the Lotto. Just as Sheryl had hinted, Art's supervisor Daniel entered the lounge and made a beeline towards Art after Art had barely been sitting for fifteen minutes. “Just the man I wanted to see,” Daniel shook Art's hand heartily. This disturbed Art; Daniel usually maintained an air of cordial diffidence, but today he was looking at Art like Art was a rescue dog who had sniffed him out from earthquake wreckage.

“You didn't bring a tie?” Daniel wondered. “Never mind, we'll borrow one from somebody. Look, buddy, I have a real simple task for you today. All you have to do is attend a meeting starting at 10AM, it'll take maybe an hour and a half, two hours. Take some notes at the meeting, give us your engineering opinion if any questions come up. You can go home right after the meeting and we'll punch your timecard for the full day.”

Despite the strange undercurrent of desperation Art detected beneath Daniel’s affected confidence, it sounded simple enough. “Who's the meeting with?”

“It's the County waterworks guys. It's about integrating our storm and greywater systems more closely with those new Water Sub-Districts that got created last year.”

Art's head spun. “But Dan, you remember that I'm in Public Roads, right? Wouldn't it be better to get one of the guys in the Wastewater division for this?”

Dan looked slightly evasive and avoided Art's stare. “Well, you know, the cutbacks hit that group pretty hard. We can't get ahold of any of their Engineers who are on call, and none of them are in the pool today. We can’t postpone this meeting; the push on this project is coming all the way down from the Governor's office.”

Art frowned, but a full day's pay for a couple of hours of sitting passively at a meeting was work that was really up his alley. He didn't have much Water experience, but he had some, and felt like he could pontificate and harrumph about the Engineering implications of hypothetical projects as well as any of the Senior Engineers. He had a good half-hour to find a tie, neaten himself up and have some of the Water interns debrief him about the project.

The background he got was sketchy, but the gist of it was that the Governor's office had been pushing to split up the massive L.A. Metropolitan Water District into two dozen smaller “Sub-Districts”. For some reason the Wastewater Division interns referred to this plan as the “Divide and Conquer” directive. Each of the districts would be more autonomous; they would still trade water between each other to make up shortfalls, but they'd be more responsible for negotiating their own water rights, and paying private water providers. One of the numerous and vague motivations behind this plan was supposedly security against terrorism - theoretically each of the smaller Sub-Districts could be isolated from each other if a criminal or operative introduced some kind of poison into one Sub-District's water supply.

Art calculated that carving independent Sub-Districts out of the whole would significantly increase the expense of City budget by introducing redundancies, such as separate billing departments for each sub-district. Furthermore, the County, which ran the drinking water system, was going to have to take control of a lot of the stormwater and recycled water treatment, which was currently a City responsibility, in order to secure control of the whole water cycle and lessen the need to import water.

All this was coming on the heels of massive repair expenditures related to freeze-proofing a lot of City water systems; the first winter snowfall in L.A. in living memory, January of 2014, had caught everyone by surprise - but the second and third ones hadn't. The City and the County seemed to be spending ever more money just to keep their existing systems operational. Each new surprise found the local governments overreacting, scrambling to install expensive new systems and replace failing ones even as the last round of under-funded projects stalled in the pipeline.

Art turned the implications over in his mind as he entered the conference room and pulled out a chair. “Hold on, Art,” Daniel pulled at his arm as he walked by. “You forgot to sign the sign-in sheet.”

Art backed up a couple of steps and grabbed the clip-board with the attendance sheet. He noted that half the people here were County Engineers from the Metro Water Board, and there was even one of the Board members here in person! This was obviously a high-powered meeting, he hoped no one noticed that he had failed to secure a tie before the meeting. Art squinted at the sheet self-consciously. “Where do I sign?” he stage-whispered to Daniel.

“Right at the top, Art,” Daniel whispered back. There was a blank row at the top of the sheet, but the title of the signatory was already pre-printed: “ACTING CITY WASTEWATER ENGINEER.” It made Art quite nervous to take on that responsibility, but the push was coming from the top. He signed in.

An Assistant County Engineer, a good-looking man about the same age as Art, re-capped the basics of the project that Art had already heard from the interns, one of whom was sitting next to Art at the meeting. The same one, in fact, with whom he had a fairly detailed discussion about the costs of capturing storm runoff, and the capacity and condition of the stormwater pipes in the Silverlake Sub-District before the meeting. This was a stroke of luck -- Art's Grandma's property had been located in Silverlake for sixty years and was Art's current home -- so he had a passing familiarity with the storm drain system there.

The County was going to provide most of the labor for isolating and connecting the storm water and recycled water systems to their own treatment plants. The meeting was mind-numbing at times, and the discussion bogged down in technical details that weighed heavily on the eyelids of everyone.

Art's cell phone suddenly rang, causing everyone to jump in their chairs. He had left it in his shirt pocket instead of his holster. The sound filled the undersized conference room with a stylized punk/Electronica cover of the Sex Pistols' “God Save the Queen”, performed by a now defunct local group called Pistol Apostle. Art instantly knew who was calling by the personalized ring tone.

Caught by surprise, unsure what to do, he sat paralyzed for a few seconds, looking nervously from the Water Board director to his own Supervisor to the interns. They stared back at him evenly. He began to sweat. Sheepishly, he muttered to the meeting participants, “Excuse me, I really should take this.” He slid his chair back from the table to the wall, trying to take himself out of the meeting, but that distance was only about four feet, so his movement accomplished little. He tried to cup his hands around his phone and whisper clearly.


“YES, ARTIE, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” Mom's voice screeched out at full volume while Art fumbled with the phone buttons to try and reduce it. Mom was obviously outside, a strong wind crackled Art's phone speaker, and she was speaking loudly and clearly in order to be heard over it.

“Yes, yes, can you try and hold it down!?”

“WELL I'M ON THE HARBOR FREEWAY,” she began, sending Art's blood pressure through the roof. Whenever Art wanted to spend a day at the beach, she gave him flak about the high cost of gasoline -- but whenever a new store opened up somewhere, she of course assumed that borrowing his Honda was the most expedient way to get there. He briefly recalled the cramped, sweaty, forty-minute bus ride to work. Art finally found the correct combination of buttons to reduce the speaker volume, but Mom's shrill tone still seemed to command the entire small room.

“…I'm trying to get to that new home-furnishing store in Alhambra, you know, the one in the paper last week!”

In her never-ending quest to improve the resale value of Grandma's property, Mom had become an expert bargain hunter for furniture and other DIY ways to remake the house on the cheap. No amount of resistance could convince Mom that Art wasn't just as interested in diligently keeping current on new hardware store openings, going-out-of-business sales, and comparative prices of home furnishings, as she was.

“I looked up the directions on your computer at home, but the freeway exits weren't labeled the right way, and now I'm starting to get into Pasadena, and I know that's too far!” she complained. “Are you sitting at a computer? Can you bring up a map?”

Art was stunned speechless at her presumption that he was available to do this while at work. He groped past his annoyance in order to find some words to terminate this conversation, get her off the phone and get back to his job. The noise of wind from the freeway on Mom's end whistled through the room. “Have you turned around yet? Can't you just get off the freeway and ask -
, he hesitated.
One of the Assistant County Engineers at the other end of the conference table interjected, with a look on his face somewhere between amusement and embarrassment, “Has she passed the Fremont exit yet?”

“Have you passed Fremont Exit?”

“No, dear, the sign says it's a mile ahead!”

“Tell her to take Fremont,” the Assistant County Engineer advised.

“It'd be faster if she went all the way down Garfield,” the Water Board Director disagreed. But the Assistant Engineer didn't back down. “No, she'll hit all the lights. She can take Fremont and then hang a Left on Main.”

“Did you hear that, Mom?”

“Hear what, Artie?”

“Take the Fremont Exit,” Art repeated. “South,” added the Assistant Engineer. “South,” Art confirmed.

“Which way is South?” Mom wondered.

“It should be labeled on the exit,” the Director confirmed. “That should be a Right turn, unless she's turned around already. Once she's on Fremont South, she will go about a mile, and then take a Left on Main Street. Big street, you can't miss it. Go another mile on Main and the new store is right on the corner of Main and Garfield. I was just there yesterday, it's got banners and everything. You can't miss it.” Art began relaying the information when the director deadpanned, “It's right next to a Men’s Warehouse, they have a clearance sale going on right now. Suits and ties half off.”

“You're such a help, sweetie,” Mom's praise echoed around the small conference room. Smiling, all the meeting participants felt the satisfaction of a job well done. Except for Art, who was too embarrassed to even roll his chair all the way back to the conference table. “Thank you all,” he mumbled, before lamely adding, “that's real dedication to public service...!” The others met his remark with bemused silence. The Wastewater intern picked up his explanation of a cost estimate table right where they'd been interrupted, and the other interns finished the meeting on Art's behalf. Art spent the rest of meeting in silence, with his head slightly downturned, and sheepishly scribbled notes on his yellow pad. Art's spirits picked up, at the very end of the two-hour meeting, when one of the management interns walked in with a huge plate of sub sandwiches and cookies.

A two-hour work day, and lunch is on the County to boot? All right, not such a bad job after all, Art thought, as he tucked into a Turkey Club.

Art arrived home two hours later after another sweaty, cramped bus ride. He'd gotten a seat this time, but the guy holding the hand strap next to him had spent the whole trip with his armpit about six inches from Art's nose. Mom had really gone to town at the home furnishings store -- the Honda's back gate was up and open, but the car hadn't been unloaded. Larissa was standing beside the car, tail wagging expectantly, as Art walked up the driveway.

Art moved a do-it-yourself solar water heater kit --
yeah, like Mom's gonna be the one climbing on the roof with her bad back and all -- and uncovered a huge box with foreign writing on it and a packing slip. Art hefted the heavy box of crystalware out of the back seat. “What in the world were you thinking, buying up this stuff when you never even want to invite anyone inside the house?”

“Oh Artie, it was such a bargain! Look, this is real Czech crystal! And it almost matches our wine glasses! The store manager was selling it on the side, at the back of the parking lot. He had a deal going. I avoided all the import taxes this way!” Art cringed at how expensive it was for his Mom to save money.

“At our next open house, this crystal will deliver the message that this is a safe neighborhood!”
“Mom, there were two people at our last Open House, and I suspect one of them was casing our place. How much did you spend on this illusion of affluence?”

“Well next time there'll be more people. Now be a dear and hide that box inside the Little House somewhere? My back is acting up again, I had to get the clerks at the store to help me load all this stuff into the car.” Mom's back typically held up valiantly during all-day shopping excursions, pushing giant warehouse-store carts for miles on end, up and down the aisles… only to give out the moment she got home and needed the overstuffed car to be unloaded.

“Just be sure and hide the crystal real good,” she continued. “I don't want that box to be visible through the windows.”

“Hide the crystalware!?” Art wondered, in mock horror, “But what kind of message about the neighborhood will that deliver?”

“Now, Artie, don't start playing games with me. You know perfectly well what I meant. We have to convince
the right kind of people that this is a safe neighborhood again. Then the neighborhood will really start getting safe!”

Still shaking his head and clucking, Art unlocked the mother-in-law unit, set down the crystalware, and started rooting around the dilapidated kitchen to find a pile of stored goods that he could hide the crystal box behind.

Mom had bought most of this stuff before The Fall, so replacing any of it (when it was even available) would cost a whole lot more today than they'd paid. For that reason, Mom would never tolerate any drawdown of their supplies.

Art and some of his online friends had started referring to the fall of 2013 as simply "The Fall", in capital letters, when the bottom had really dropped out of the stock market (again) and the infamous "stag-flation" had really hit. After The Fall of 2013, with that unprecedented winter snow hot on the heels of 110-degree summer temperatures and widespread blackouts... store shelves bare and electricity and natural gas for heat spiking so expensive all of a sudden... the U.S. economy never really felt the same. Something was different about it, but it was hard for a layman to say what... besides that it didn't work right. On any given day of the week, some crucial commodity like gasoline or ketchup might spike to seven times its past price... while some unrelated frivolity like fine imported furniture would sell for a pittance, tottering companies dumping their inventory on the market in a desperate bid to raise cash. Mom took the situation as a personal challenge to drive anywhere in the greater metropolitan Los Angeles to obtain fire-sale prices on frivolities. Art just didn't see the point of bothering, he mostly had what he needed to keep going.

He moved a set of heavy linens which were covering a crate of pretty decent wines. The wines made way to uncover two cases of motor oil and a case of canned Greek dolmas. The run-down little house gave no outside sign that it held such a treasure trove. Art's Mom had lived her whole life for the future -- like a squirrel saving nuts for a winter that never came. The habit had taken over Grandma's small rental unit right around the turn of the century, after Grandma had refused to fix the disintegrating utility pipes in the little house. “I'm too old to be dealing with a bunch of tenants and their mess; who can you trust these days!” Grandma had squawked, and from that day forward Art and his Mom stored their extra possessions in the run-down cottage on the sly. When Grandma finally passed five years ago, the sneaking became unnecessary. Nobody in the area could believe that a cottage one mile from downtown could remain vacant, and Art and his Mom going in and out lent it the illusion of occupancy. Nevertheless the moldering paint and sagging roof gave any potential burglar the impression that the fictitious occupants were too poor to own much that would make breaking the metal window bars worthwhile. Art and his Mom had inadvertently created an ideal storage vault.

Mom had been a Cost Club fanatic since long before The Fall. The left side of the non-functioning kitchen in the little house was stacked to the rafters with 100-packs of toilet paper and paper towels. Over to the far left, a dozen cases of Mom's favorite Slim-Qick™ diet supplement shake bookended the paper goods. Fifteen two-pound bags of quinoa, survivors of one of Mom's health food crazes, lined two walls of the pantry. Along that pantry's other wall, Mom had saved up every free bar of soap and jigger of shampoo that she had taken from every hotel room she had ever stayed in. A sane person could keep himself alive and clean from the cache inside the mother-in-law apartment for months, as long as he could pay the water bill, and didn't mind a certain monotony of diet while finishing off thirty pounds of vacuum-packed ladyfinger cookies.

Art slid the crystalware behind the wine and truffles, replaced both in front of the crystal, covered the pile with the linens, and hefted a case of 144 mini pickle jars on top of the linen for good measure. Even that much exertion, after running to catch a bus after work, left Art's forty-year-old bones feeling kinda sore. He locked up the little house and tottered past the kitchen, hoping to fall into bed for a brief rest before Mom noticed he had finished his chores.

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