On the porch that evening in August 2004, still wearing his plastic ID bracelet from the ER, my father laughed. The mental blowout, which doctors diagnosed as transient global amnesia, was his memorable way of retiring. I couldn’t blame him. He’d clocked sixty years on earth, most of it spent dodging shrapnel of one kind or another. As an infant, he sustained second degree burns when the windows of his house blew out from an explosion at Hercules’ powder factory, knocking over a pot of boiling water onto his high-chair. As an adult, he stayed inside his military-issue roadgrader to avoid being picked off by the Viet Cong. He’d been married twice, raised two kids, and been involved in enough lawsuits to have estranged his sister and chastened his cheating former business partner. He’d had enough of the unceasing flood of methheads and manipulators and emotionally retarded that made up our customer base.
Maybe there was a time when it made sense for the next generation to carry forward the old processes, but I didn’t perceive a future in this. With its dipping tanks and fin-pressing machines and toxic chemicals, my family’s automotive aftermarket company seemed less like a living entity and more like one of those historical recreation villages populated by actors with child-garnishments and prison records. However, as the newly appointed twenty-four year old operational manager of our family business, this was now officially my problem. My parents had been running this business for eleven years. Neither one wanted to continue doing so, but the mechanism for not running it while still making a living had yet to manifest. It didn’t matter if manufacturing in the U.S. was waning, or if globalization had skyrocketed the price of raw materials we used regularly like sheets of copper and brass; my family’s well-being depended on me figuring out how to make this business profitable again. A dopey business broker had been bringing potential buyers to the office like a hawk wrangler, giving them a hasty glance at our financials before urging them to fly free. And they kept flying free.
As a recent college graduate who wanted to be a writer, the world of business was not my first choice. I loved studying people for their humanity, not for how they could benefit the bottom line. But that was a position of privilege; the new reality of managing a company for the sake of my family would require me to put aside my love of literature and use my powers of observation to study some very ugly business indeed.
• • •
Over New Year’s Eve weekend in December 2016, my friend Paul, an architect, his boyfriend Jose, a buyer for a major retailer, and I, an essayist, were lounging poolside in a rented house in Palm Springs. The thing I’ve always loved about Paul is that while he is capable of clearly interpreting reality, he does so without judgment: he relates to each person he meets as if that person has value, even if that value isn’t necessarily one he shares. He understands, for example, that without a brick-layer, brick will not be laid. If the brick-layer is having a problem, Paul needs to understand how to solve it, not simply blow it off as being a menial labor concern.
We were trying to enjoy ourselves in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, before the swearing-in of reality TV fascism. The result of the election, which was being blamed on working class voters, seemed simplified to me. Or rather, it seemed to be the result of exploiting an invisible class breakdown between those who preferred to work with their hands versus those who preferred to work with their minds. As we switched from mimosas to wine, Paul spoke about relating to different sets of people he encountered in his work; everyone from the clients to government officials to on-site construction workers.
I met Paul in 2007 when we were both working for Frank Gehry. I had started work at the architect’s office shortly after successfully restructuring the pricing architecture of my parents’ business. Initially, to save money at the business, I had laid off the most recent hire, a phlegmatic receptionist. It wasn’t her fault that she had to be let go, but she was the most expendable of an already tight crew of ten. I offered to write her the best recommendation letter known to humanity, and then I took on her job of answering the phone in addition to what I was already doing, which included the books, handling HR issues, managing sales and production, and negotiating pricing with vendors. The business needed to turn a profit. But how? All the fat had been cut.
I had learned, after some intensive late nights of studying our manufacturing process in detail, just how vital each member of the crew was. Every person had a highly specialized skill, and it had taken years for them to learn how to do things like bend metal beautifully, or solder without leaving embarrassing stains and spurts all over the finished product. As much as a novel is heavily dependent upon its characters more than some abstract notion of plot, the business depended on its workforce more than some corporate formula for success. Although technically people could be replaced, the time and energy spent in retraining someone else would simply be money out of pocket. I was not a slash and burn operator; I had to find a way to keep the essential staff while making the company make more money.
Finally, I realized the problem was the solution. As I discovered later, it went against a primary principle taught at Harvard Business School, which was that businesses needed to offer a high volume loss-leader product that would draw in a larger customer base to the core business, but here’s why it worked: we were selling a luxury product. Nobody needs a handcrafted radiator for their 1912 Model T the way they need a pair of pants or a bottle of milk. We were selling a tangible item, but we were also selling an experience, a taste of the good life. By definition, luxury isn’t cheap.
And yet wealth, despite what rich people tell you, has very little to do with money. Wealth is a state of mind; money is the intoxicant that often makes reaching this state possible. But true wealth, in its varying forms, is not about Scrooge McDucking your way through an unending vault of officially-stamped lucre. To be wealthy is to be infallible: and for this reason, it is bound less with numbers and more with perception.
As an example, you can be wealthy on a street corner in Southern California, simply because it is Southern California. Pay a hefty Malibu mortgage or squat in some unpermitted lean-to in a Culver City backyard and you’re still waking up to daily splendor. The ocean lolls around like an untapped 401(k); the palm trees languidly bend like house cats. It’s a perpetual waking dream, a sun-dappled sanctuary 500 square miles in size. Why bother with unpleasant emotions when every available surface is bursting with beauty? This is the lazy wealth of abundant natural resources, and it used to extend in slightly less photogenic form across the whole of the United States.
This lazy wealth was a kind of ignorance that stemmed from a hard-won luck, which is to say we economically excelled in World War II and felt like we would collectively never have to work again. We would become the operational managers of the world, occasionally ordering the clean-up of a spill of communism in some third-world aisle.
It helped that during the twentieth century, China was doing its somnambulist empire thing: it would twitch occasionally in its sleep, but for the most part it kept everyone in the world entertained with its communist mumblings and dream-logic insistence on One Time Zone. Now and then, it also ran over dissidents with tanks. However, during the first decade of the twenty-first century, China finally stirred awake and began to heavily invest in industry. They partnered with a variety of European and American firms, intent on providing manufactured goods at a much cheaper price. The deal was, they would give us the cheap goods as long as we provided the instructions on how to make them. Raw materials like copper, zinc, and steel correspondingly shot up in price as China began manufacturing everything in the world.
Which meant if you were a soup-to-nuts manufacturer who had never had to compete with the demand for supplies of a billion-person workforce, your pricing architecture was quietly experiencing massive dry-rot.
For this reason, my family’s business model, the one that had paid mortgages and helped send children to school and funded a lifestyle that could be described as upper middle class, was no longer working. It wasn’t because of shitty management or untrustworthy employees or even the pressures of the newly environmentally regulatory government. It was simply a casualty of the times, a charming but outmoded curmudgeon in the reality of a fiercely competitive globalized economy.
With all that in mind, I decided to increase the end user price of our basic radiators from $425 to $850 with a mass-mailed letter and the knuckle-whitened hand of a Russian roulette player. There was a gasp, there were a few phone calls, and then… the number of orders stayed about the same, but our bottom line slipped effortlessly from the red into the black.
By December 2005, there was that sense of renewal that comes after the end of a long illness. By February 2006, the dopey business broker was gone, replaced by an ad on Craigslist and a sharp-eyed former food executive who was tired of drinking expensive sake with corporate fools and their hookers in Tokyo bars. He was looking for a nice, quiet business in scenic San Luis Obispo county where he could bring his dog to work. And, after replacing all the insulation of the pricing infrastructure, I delivered this ex-exec exactly what he was looking for: a small but genuinely profitable business that overlooked a cow pasture.
• • •
When I moved to L.A. to pursue writing and needed a job to support myself, winding up at Frank Gehry’s was an unexpected delight. FOGA even had Bagel Fridays, a luxury my parents could never afford at their business. Yet other than the fact that Bono and Jeremy Irons were in the Outlook contacts, the vibe was the same. Management (of which I was frequently exposed to by virtue of being an executive assistant) and labor (who I hung out with after work at various bars and cramped Venice apartments) didn’t trust each other. Each felt the other had a superior deal. From management’s perspective, they were providing a guaranteed paycheck to a bunch of whining, candy-assed employees who only had to do their jobs. To labor, the dictates of their bosses seemed to drop out of the sky with a randomness and ferocity that was alienating.
Both parties had a point. But what surprised me was that nobody on either side ever felt comfortable airing their true grievances to each other. Privately, it reinforced my childhood dream to become a writer, where I was neither the evil overlord of an aftermarket automotive company nor on the bottom rung on the Pritzker Prize ladder. But this essential divide still troubles me. Nearly a decade later, after publishing dozens of pieces I’m proud of and many that now simply bemuse me, I wonder that we are so quick to adapt to these roles, the notion of employee/employer. What would it take to recognize each other as being equally valuable, to stop seeing each other as being so starkly divided in the workplace?
I suppose the strong memory of my parent’s business persists because I’ve reached a level in my profession where I regularly encounter V.S. Naipaul knock-offs (that is, the writers who after four years of their degree, from Oxford or wherever, can start to write and needed no other profession) and it took me a long time to stop feeling a little dirty around them, as if my need to figure out how to support my entire family and a staff of 10 was somehow shameful. There are brilliant people out there who have never worked at an assembly line and never will, and I admire their talent, even if many of them came with trust-funds or connections.
Running the business wasn’t exactly art, I admit, although it was highly conceptual. The demands of having to become analytical at the expense of my emotions fractured a part of me I didn’t know could be broken until it was. It took nearly every damn minute in between then and now to become whole again, to become a person who could value pure feeling the way artists are supposed to value feeling. But the thing I can’t stand in those who have never had to sacrifice themselves for others is their lack of compassion.
As Paul, surrounded by the foaming waters of the hot tub, spoke about understanding how to relate to a variety of people in order to accomplish a goal, I felt sadness that the country, and the larger world, had become so immune to compassion. We were going to allow a small cabal of oligarchs to divide us because we were too angry to admit that we all needed each other, that each service we provided was valuable in its own way. Superiority in work, like superiority in life, almost always causes more problems than it solves. But the worst sin is insularity; refusing to reach out to others, to not consider someone else’s life as having as much meaning and worth as your own, is ultimately the downfall of every single civilization. In a way, we knew at the end of 2016 that the country had hired someone to be its Hater in Chief. And why? Because a certain segment of the population wanted their jobs back?
I don’t think it’s as much about the literal jobs as it is about the sense of collective purpose. Telling any group of people that they just have to suck it up and abandon their existence is never going to be a hot sell. But appreciating their skills—in this case, the willingness to do hard, manual work, day in and day out—and understanding how to apply those skills to a newly engineered economic model is. We need to invest in new infrastructure in our cities, and there’s no reason why we can’t pay people a living wage to do it. Everyone benefits from this model, and everyone’s skills are used. It’s about remaking America into a collective vision, not a nation of wounded halves.
I mourn this jilted wedding of economy and ecology on a daily basis. Once the world’s biggest company and the center of American manufacturing, General Motors spent the final decades of the 20th century withering away into obsolescence. Their leadership had refused to acknowledge that competing on a global scale required a complete shift in thinking. Instead of manufacturing gas-guzzling behemoths, we should have been producing electric cars to reflect the consumer desire for energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly vehicles. In 2007, this old way of thinking would finally hit the wall when GM and most of the major American financial institutions finally had to declare bankruptcy or go out of business. But like the Sinatras of capitalism, they did it their way, right up until the end.
A decade later California leads the globally-burgeoning electric car business. The state stands against its own national government on the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, while elected officials in cities like Los Angeles attempt to protect the rights of all of their citizens, whether documented or not. California’s ongoing tabula rasa approach to challenges, made literal by the periodic earthquakes that scrape away the unreinforced leavings of history, has made it an important player in a world of constant harmonic shifts and tempo changes. California’s ideas and products tour the world while many elsewhere in this country remain isolated in a shrinking bubble.
Which is why the United States of America must always exist primarily in myth: It was a kind of rough-hewn utopia that never really was as great as it claimed, but never as far-fetched as others accused. Americans felt invincible, powerful, and acted like the leaders of the free world. And then seemingly overnight, our lazy wealth had gone.
- All photos taken by Sydney Santana.
 Michael J. Dunne, “Chinese Electric Vehicle Makers Swarm Into California, Chasing Tesla,” Forbes, 5 May 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeldunne/2016/05/05/inspired-by-teslas-triumphs-chinas-electric-vehicle-makers-swarm-into-california/#f6edfe1b0e03.
Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Dwell, Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books, L.A. Weekly, among other publications.
Copyright: © 2017 Julia Ingalls. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/