Temblors

The temblors became frequent, just as the seismologists had predicted. The ground shook while people slept. It shook during breakfast. It jolted Angelenos out of their office chairs while they worked. It was a prelude to the Big One, experts warned—any day now, worst earthquake in California history, the fault line would erupt, the earth would swallow them whole. But for now, they dealt with swaying chandeliers, jiggling cherry tomato plants on windowsills, and Lucy Nguyen ducking under her desk when the coffee in her Moomin mug shimmied, no longer waiting for her coworkers to yell “QUAAAAAKE!” before she took action.

You k? her brother, Norm, texted from the other side of the world twelve hours after Los Angeles trembled in the night.

Fine, she wrote back. It was a small one.

Mum wants to FaceTime.

Can’t, Lucy texted. At work right now.

U always have an excuse. When u coming back?

Lucy was overdue for phone call with her mother, and even longer overdue for a trip to Sydney. The last time she’d set foot on Australian soil was four years earlier, when her mother’s dementia diagnosis didn’t yet feel real, when the elder Nguyen was, at worst, a forgetful menopausal woman who didn’t have an indoor voice. Norm had warned Lucy that for every year she was away, her mother’s memory of her would diminish until there was only dust.

Not now, Lucy wrote.

Not now because she was at work, on deadline, and still had five inches of a newspaper column to fill. Not now because the last time she FaceTimed her mother, Mrs. Nguyen’s smooth but sun-spotted face was vacant in a way that made Lucy want to drop everything and run—to where, she had no idea. Not now because what did home have to offer, anyway?

Lucy silenced her phone. She ignored the messages from Norm that lit up her screen, sending her notification count up one, two, three, four, five. When she finally glanced, Norm’s words made her acutely aware of the blood thumping in her ears

Fuck u, Lucy, he’d written. This isn’t fair.

***

The day after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake shook a remote region outside of San Bernardino County, killing no one but damaging three liquor stores, the paper’s editors brought in a seismologist from UCLA to walk reporters through doing their jobs when The Big One hit.

They crowded the main conference room one newspaper section at a time: the Metro reporters went first thing in the morning, followed by the National desk, Foreign, Business, Sports, Arts & Entertainment, and Food. It was standing room only when Lucy squeezed in with her fellow business reporters. A woman who looked like she’d memorized the tax code sat at the head of the conference room’s oval desk. She wore red-rimmed glasses connected to a silver chain.

“Your editors have this wishful idea that you’ll want to keep working when the San Andreas fault goes,” she said without first introducing herself.

The reporters chuckled. Many of them had families, young children, needy dogs. They’d missed birthdays, anniversaries, recitals, and Christmases for their jobs, each of them hardwired to run toward chaos—notepads and tape recorders in hand—while others fled in the opposite direction. Lucy wondered whether they would drop everything for this story when it inevitably broke.

“Best case scenario is you’ll survive and won’t have to tend to any personal emergencies, and still care enough to try to put out a newspaper,” the woman continued, her tone unchanged. “So, I guess I will speak to that scenario, since the worst case is, well—”

The woman’s earthquake primer went as such: The San Andreas is the longest fault line in California. Every second of shaking equates to roughly five miles of the fault line rupturing. If 500 miles of the San Andreas were to go, the ground would shake nonstop for two and a half minutes. Fifty seconds after the earthquake starts, all of western North America—not just California—could go dark because of the interconnected power grid shutting down to protect itself. An estimated 1,600 fires will be started by the earthquake, most from electricity, the rest from gas and chemical accidents. It could take up to a week to restore power to Los Angeles. And structures that are “built to code” are designed only to stop a roof from collapsing and killing you.

“If you crawl out alive, the code has succeeded,” the woman said, ignoring the ashen of reporters who were each calculating the likelihood of returning to work if their homes turned to rubble.

“The internet will survive the earthquake,” she said, adding that every router in the newsroom should have uninterrupted backup power. “It was designed to survive a nuclear holocaust. Actually—” she leaned forward, her face lit up for the first time—“the Church of Latter-day Saints—now there’s a role model!”

“Mormons?” said Stevie, one of the paper’s columnists.

“Yes. They’re always planning for the end of the world, so they take this stuff very seriously.”

Half the room made a “you gotta hand it to them” face.

“So, what’s the first thing you do when it starts to shake?” Lucy said.

“I count.”

“Sorry?”

The woman sighed, rested her forearms on the desk. “The moment it starts to shake, I begin counting. One, two, three, four, five. It tells me the size of the earthquake. You should do the same.”

And then what? Lucy thought, but her tongue suddenly felt too thick to form words.

“And if you need to contact anyone, always text,” the woman said. “Calls take too much bandwidth. Don’t even try to send photos or video. And, not to tell you how to live your lives, but—” the woman sat back in her chair, crossed her legs—“don’t waste bandwidth on ‘I love yous’ and ‘I’m sorrys’. Figure that stuff out before your house buries you.”

***

The last time Lucy visited home, her mother was demented to the point of retelling old stories like they were new. In Lucy’s mind, that was just a thing mothers did, but Norm had insisted it was different now, that there had been a shift in their mother’s awareness of what she was saying, that, unlike Lucy, he’d been keeping track. 

“Do you know how your brother avoided cavities his entire life?” Mrs. Nguyen said in Teochew during Lucy’s last visit. The family was seated at a bustling Cabramatta restaurant—the kind where the menu was entirely in Vietnamese and the wait staff never smiled.

Lucy looked at Norm. Both he and his wife Tammy were on their phones, the circles under their eyes dark like smudged make-up.

“I made him drink water after he ate lollies,” Mrs. Nguyen said, tapping a plastic soup spoon against her teacup. “I told him, you drink water, you swish it around in your mouth, and the sugar doesn’t get a chance to kill your teeth. His whole life! Not a single cavity!”

“There’s still time,” Lucy said.

Norm glared.

“Not for you, there isn’t,” Mrs. Nguyen said. “When are you getting married?”

“I’m single.”

“See what I mean?” Mrs. Nguyen said, giving Lucy a firm slap on the back. “It takes time to lock down a husband. You should have started ten years ago!”

“I was literally in school ten years ago.”

“This is why I can’t die yet—” Mrs. Nguyen shook her head, raising her voice so that neighboring tables could hear—“my children don’t know how to fend for themselves! They need me!”

When their orders of phở arrived, Norm and Tammy sprang into action. Norm tucked a napkin into his mother’s shirt collar and layered several in her lap, ignoring her protests to be left alone. Tammy asked the server for a fork.

“I’m not using a fork!” Mrs. Nguyen said. “Are you out of your mind?”

Tammy’s lips pursed.

Mrs. Nguyen wrapped her hands around a pair of chopsticks, but her fingers appeared cramped, like a child lacking fine motor skills. Lucy had never seen a grown Asian person struggle like that. She wanted to rewind to moments earlier and hit pause, to permanently un-see her mother’s hand gnarled around awkwardly angled chopsticks.

“Mum, you’re going to make a mess,” Norm said. “Just use a fork.”

“Don’t talk to me like that,” Mrs. Nguyen said.

“Then at least try this—” Norm reached into Tammy’s handbag, pulled out a packaged pair of training chopsticks. A Hello Kitty clip held together the tops of the sticks, so they resembled long, skinny tongs.

“What the hell is that?”

“Chopsticks,” Tammy said.

“I’m not an idiot,” Mrs. Nguyen said. “I know what chopsticks look like.”

“Do you want me to feed you?” Norm said.

“I’m not an invalid!”

Norm removed the training chopsticks from their plastic sleeve.

“No one said you were. And they’re just modified chopsticks, mum. Look—” he clicked them together.

Lucy wanted her mother to stand her ground, to refuse the infantile cutlery and to regain command of her skinny fingers. She wanted to see some glimmer of the fiery spirit that made her mother the fiercest person in Lucy’s life—the mother who loved through criticism, who criticized because she cared, who was so hardy and robust that Lucy felt like she could leave for the United States and never look back, because what good was she to her mother, anyway? Right now, she needed her mother to be her mother, to quash this newfound role reversal, because Lucy couldn’t stand to watch.

But, instead of fighting like Lucy had so desperately wanted, Mrs. Nguyen loosened her claw-like grip of the restaurant’s chopsticks. Norm gently lifted them from her hand and wrapped her fingers around the training chopsticks. They ate in silence, Lucy swallowing the lump in her throat.

***

Later that afternoon, when Lucy’s brother had tucked in Mrs. Nguyen for her nap and placed her dentures in a glass of fizzling Polident, they got down to business.

“We’ve decided to put your dad’s life insurance payout into a medical fund for your mum,” Tammy said.

The three of them sat around a wooden dining table that still had its original protective plastic covering. As children, Lucy and Norm had asked their parents to remove it because it made weird squeaking noises, because none of their white friends kept the covering on tables or sofas or remote controls, because it made them feel like nothing the family owned actually belonged to them, like they were guests who could never enjoy the feeling of a rubber button on the TV’s remote, or the plush softness of a corduroy sofa, or the smoothness of a polished dining table. When Mrs. Nguyen told them that it was in the interest of the furniture’s longevity, the two of them had thrown their hands in the air and groaned.

“What’s the point of making anything last long if it sucks the whole time?!” a ten-year old Norm had said.

Lucy now played with the air bubbles that had formed under the plastic covering.

“Did you hear me, Luce?” Tammy said.

“Yeah.”

“It’s not a lot of money, but it will probably pay for at least two years in a nursing home when the time comes, and we can figure out the rest after that.”

“Wait, what?”

“At the current rate, we’re going to need help pretty soon,” Tammy said.

“She seems fine to me,” Lucy said, convincing no one.

“Are you kidding me?” said Norm, his eyes wide and forehead creased. For the first time the entire trip, Lucy noticed how exhausted he and Tammy looked. It wasn’t just the bags under their eyes. They seemed deflated, like gravity had done a number on them. “What you saw today barely scratches the surface. I have to lay out her clothes for her every morning and night, otherwise she gets confused. She forgets to flush, and guess who has to keep unclogging the toilet. Her vision is shot. She pretends she can see, but she can’t coordinate for shit.”

Tammy rested a hand on Norm’s forearm.

“Your brother and I are checking in on her every day,” she said. “Norm even learned to cook the meals she likes because she won’t eat my cooking. We both work full-time. It’s a lot, Luce.”

Lucy had never stepped foot in a nursing home, but had been told repeatedly as a child to never put her mother in one.

“My aunty was put in a nursing home,” Mrs. Nguyen had said to an eight-year old Lucy. “She died a week later.”

“Did they do something to her?” young Lucy asked.

“No, the spirit just knows these things,” Mrs. Nguyen said. “My aunty’s spirit knew she was in a nursing home, dirty and crowded, like a tofu box full of shit, so the spirit made her die. Good for her, you know?”

Lucy didn’t know, but she came to associate nursing homes with near-instant death. Mrs. Nguyen then told young Lucy to kill her before even considering putting her in a nursing home.

“But, won’t I go to jail?”

Mrs. Nguyen considered this for a moment.

“I’ll give you some gold to bribe the police,” she said. “Very easy peasy.”

Back at the dining table with Norm and Tammy, Lucy searched for the words to describe how her insides felt wrung out at the thought of her mother in a nursing home, strapped to a soiled bed, forced to watch English language soap operas from a tiny communal television. It would be a betrayal. She would feel too much guilt.

“But,” Lucy said, her hands clammy, “don’t we owe her?”

“We?” Norm said, raising his voice. “Yeah, Luce. We owe her. But it can’t just be me and Tammy doing all the work. We includes you. Where you been, huh?”

Tammy squeezed Norm’s arm to calm him. He shook his head, pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Look, Lucy,” Tammy said, her words careful, her face showing the gears in her head turning as she searched for diplomatic phrasing. “Ideally, we would all chip in to take care of your mum. But, you’re not here. And if you don’t plan on being here, it’s really not fair to your brother and I—”

“But aren’t there drugs to slow the progress of dementia?” Lucy said. “I read about clinical trials for a new treatment, maybe we can get her on that, and it’ll halt—”

“For fuck’s sake!” Norm dropped his hands to the dining table, his boney wrist knocking against the plastic-covered wood. “How fucking selfish can you be? You’ve already spent five years abroad! You got to do whatever you wanted; you’ve had more freedom than anyone else in this family. It’s about damn time you grew up and took some fucking responsibility.”

“Norm—” Tammy began, rubbing his back.

“No, don’t tell me to calm down. Tell her—” he pointed at Lucy, who suddenly felt pressure behind her eyes—“that she’s living in a god damn fantasy if she thinks she can just fuck off overseas and expect things back home to be fine—”

“It’s not my fault she has dementia!”

“No, it’s not,” Norm said, his breathing heavy, “but please let us know when you’re ready to start acting like a member of this family, because we’re fucking tired of waiting, and we’re tired of being disappointed. This isn’t fucking fair.”

Lucy didn’t dare blink; if she did, she knew she’d cry. Instead, she stared at her hands and held her breath—her body’s natural response to confrontation—and counted down to when he and Tammy would lose interest, get up in a huff, and leave her alone.

***

When a 7.1 earthquake struck Ridgecrest weeks after her session with the UCLA seismologist, injuring no one but spooking the entire newsroom, Lucy and her reporter friends replaced one of their monthly book club meetings with an evening of building earthquake survival kits. Marina supplied the cheap champagne, Francine the chips and guac, Lucy a dozen Yum Yum donuts. They piled their online orders in the middle of Francine’s living room: packets of shelf-stable water, vacuum sealed bricks of high calorie cookies, water filters, first-aid kits, flashlights, hand-cranked radios, 3M particle masks, decks of playing cards.

“So, here’s what I don’t get,” said Francine, a thirty-something copy editor who squinted as she read the ingredients on the bricks of food. “Say an earthquake hits, and things are so bad that I actually have to start eating this stuff—” she dropped the food back into the pile, put her hands on her hips—“am I meant to just stay in my house with my emergency supplies and wait for orders to come through the radio? Or am I meant to lug this fifty-pound bag around L.A.? And if I’m meant to lug it around L.A., where do I even go?”

Lucy had never planned that far ahead. Ordering the earthquake kit online had felt enough like an accomplishment. To think about it anymore would be an admission that things could get worse, that she might have to truly fend for herself, that she would have to reconsider her priorities and what mattered to her.

“Well, I think, for people like us, we’re meant to grab that bag and get to work,” said Marina, the only Metro reporter among them, who kept an overnight bag under her desk in case she had to be dispatched at a moment’s notice to a fire or a flood, whose beat occasionally required her to wear a Kevlar vest, who now locked eyes with Francine, an alpha challenging everyone around her. Francine’s eyebrows formed tildes.

“Right,” she said.

Lucy picked up a switchblade, surprised herself when the knife sprang open at the push of a sticky button, tried to figure out how to close it without cutting herself. She silently commiserated with Francine—what the hell was she meant to do when the Big One hit? Did not having a fast answer like Marina mean there was something wrong with her? That, maybe, she lacked the instincts needed to be a good journalist? Sometimes, she didn’t know whether she was in the job because she genuinely liked the work—like Marina did—or because she had too much pride to walk away. Growing up, Lucy had told everyone who would listen that her dream was to be a journalist. She liked the idea of her name on an article, of telling stories for a living. She fantasized about covering Canberra and, later, the White House. She’d imagined being a foreign correspondent in China, Mexico, Indonesia, accepting a Pulitzer. In her ten years as a reporter, she intentionally took on beats she didn’t want with the hope that she would toughen up, develop Marina-like instincts, become, essentially, a different person. But the more she cycled through rough beats, the more she questioned whether she was cut out for it. When her mother had asked years earlier her why she had to move to America when she could get a perfectly fine job in Australia, Lucy had belligerently defended the move as being part of a career plan, part of a dream. Leaving her family behind was a sacrifice worth making. But, now, whenever the ground shook, a growth of doubt crowded her chest.

“Hey, Mar,” Lucy said, handing the switchblade to Francine to see if she could close it.

“Yeah?”

“Do you ever get scared doing Metro stuff?”

Marina stopped fiddling with her N95 masks, which looked industrial compared to the flimsy surgical masks Lucy had gotten at a discount.

“Why would I get scared?”

“Because you run into fires and drive into active shooter zones,” Francine said, switchblade in one hand, the other hand reaching for a champagne flute. “I mean, more power to you, but there’s a good reason I stay on the editing side of things.” She raised her glass to no one in particular.

“I rely on adrenaline,” Marina said, returning to her kit. “Plus, our work matters.”

“And you never have doubts?” Lucy said.

“About what?”

“About, I dunno, whether you should be doing something else?”

Marina studied Lucy.

“Do you have doubts?” she said.

“Well,” Lucy said, her hands now fiddling with a hand cranked radio, “sometimes I wonder what my career would look like in Australia, if I could do all this but be closer to family, or maybe if I decided to do something else entirely—”

“Lucy—” Marina put down her N95 masks—“we work at one of the biggest newspapers in the world. Some people try their whole lives to get here and never manage. It doesn’t get better than this.”

“No, of course not,” Lucy said, her body stiffening, her cheeks warm with the embarrassment of revealing too much.

Francine handed drinks to both of them.

“Here’s to nothing getting better than this!” she said, raising her glass again with a wink.

Lucy pressed the mouth of the champagne flute to her lips, the glass fogging from her breath.

***

On Lucy’s last trip home, her mother had repeated a handful of stories like they were brand new and revelatory. There was the one about Norm’s non-existent cavities. There was another about the time she fled Vietnam in a crowded fisherman’s boat, how motion sick she’d been, how people on board had become so delirious they’d starting drinking vomit like it was water, how pirates had ambushed them for their gold and jewelry and, while they didn’t kidnap or rape anyone, they did use the butts of their rifles to smack people in the face so hard that teeth went flying. Lucy had heard that one before. Only one story was new to her—until it was told so many times it became old. It was about the time her mother volunteered to accompany Lucy’s year two class on a field trip to Featherdale Wildlife Park.

“Your friend was so stupid,” Mrs. Nguyen said in Teochew. “She crawled into the kangaroo’s house! If I wasn’t there, it would have kicked her to death!”

Although her mother was prone to exaggeration, this story checked out. Lucy recalled that her classmate, Jillian Woo, had crawled under the fence into the kangaroo enclosure because she wanted to hug the ‘roo. Wasting no time, Mrs. Nguyen got on her hands and knees, reached under the fence, and grabbed Jillian Woo by the ankle, dragging her back out. The girl emerged in tears, mouth filled with dirt.

“Gió Ơi,” Mrs. Nguyen said on her fourth recounting of the same story. “Your friend was so, so stupid!”

But Mrs. Nguyen had left things out of her version of events, and as Lucy ironed her mother’s clothes while Norm and Tammy were out running errands, her own memory filled in the gaps: The way the teachers on the field trip had reprimanded her mother for being so rough with a student, even though an agitated adult kangaroo could have easily killed an eight-year old, and even though she was the only person to have leapt into action. The way those same teachers had spoken to her mother slowly, and loudly, like she couldn’t understand them, like she was an idiot, even though she could understand them perfectly. The way her mother had held a plastic grocery bag under her chin the entire bus ride to and from the wildlife park because of motion sickness, because her stomach—like so many other parts of her—hadn’t been the same since her escape from Vietnam. The way none of the popular girls wanted to be in Lucy’s field trip group because they thought her mother was weird, because Mrs. Nguyen spoke English with a sing-songy accent, because she smelled like Tiger Balm, because she brought a packet of preserved squid snacks for the bus ride—knowing that they were Lucy’s favorite—without realizing, or perhaps without caring, that to a white person’s nose, they were pungent and foul. The way Lucy had stomped her feet and cried when they got home, accusing her mother of being deliberately embarrassing, of ruining the whole trip and her whole life, for that matter. The way she’d said through sobs that her mother was the worst mother ever, and why couldn’t she just be normal like everyone else, and why did she bother coming to Australia if she wasn’t going to act like an Australian, and why not just stay in Vietnam if she so clearly preferred acting like a Vietnamese? The way her mother’s face didn’t respond in anger. The way her mother swallowed hard, once, twice, three times, like she was suppressing a hurt in her chest that was traveling up her throat. The way she’d silently gone to her room, closed the door, and refused to look at Lucy for the rest of the week.

Lucy cringed at the memories, at the shame they unearthed. While still ironing a pair of slacks, she apologized to her mother for what she’d said all those years ago, with the hope that the apology could stand in for everything else for which she was sorry.

“What are you talking about?” Mrs. Nguyen said, popping pre-peeled boiled peanuts into her mouth.

“I said, I’m sorry for being a brat on that trip, and for all the bad things I said afterwards. Remember? When I yelled at you and told you—”

“What?”

“I said, when we were on the bus, and I told you—”

“What are you going on about? I’m talking about your stupid friend. The girl who went under the kangaroo fence. I still can’t believe it! So, so stupid!”

***

What was unfair, Lucy wanted to tell Norm, was that the universe didn’t put a cap on an individual’s suffering. Like, why did so many people—the rich, the blonde, the blessed—get to live peaceful, easy lives while others ended up as refugees with their teeth knocked out, then had their memories eaten away before they were even done forming them?

What was unfair, Lucy wanted to say, was having to choose between caring about her mum and caring about her career. Because so what if she could have a career from anywhere? And so what if she had doubts about whether this career was even the right one for her? And so what if it was selfish to cling to a dream that increasingly looked like it belong to someone else? Why couldn’t she just see where her own desires and mistakes would take her? Why did she have to make sacrifices and compromises now, or, really, ever? Didn’t her parents already make a bunch of sacrifices so she wouldn’t have to? Wasn’t their very existence in their current shape and form enough of a compromise?

What was unfair—what was really, truly unfair—Lucy wanted to say to Norm, was that the people you love take a piece of you, and they never give it back. Lucy couldn’t bring herself to say how much she resented them for it. The guilt she felt when they were alive. The guilt she’d feel when they were gone.

***

On the hottest day on Los Angeles record, Lucy typed the lead of a story about a company reinventing the business model for memory foam mattresses.

“Basically,” she wrote, “you can buy it online. That’s the ‘new’ business model.”

She grimaced at her own writing, deleted the line, massaged the bridge of her nose as she thought of something better.

Her phone vibrated, a text from her brother: Mum wants to FaceTime.

She held her phone, her thumb massaging its side like she was petting it, like the people on the other end would feel her through wireless signals. The Qantas website sat in a browser on her computer, hidden by writing and editing; it advertised a flight sale—Los Angeles to Sydney, nonstop, starting next month. Lucy had decided that once she was off deadline, she’d buy a ticket. She’d fly back, spend two weeks in Australia, use that time to decide next steps. What she liked about it was that it was action that excused inaction. She was doing something—visiting her mother, checking in with Norm and Tammy, trying on the glove of Australia to see how it fit—but there was no finality, no promises being made. Maybe, on arrival, something about her mother’s face would make Lucy’s decision for her. Maybe she would end up staying, moving back for good. Or, maybe, seeing that her mother was no longer there, she would interpret it as permission to walk away. Sitting at her desk, her lips naturally pulling upwards into the subtlest of smiles, Lucy felt like she was actually open to things going either way. The answer, she’d convinced herself, was at home.

She continued cradling her phone in one hand when a jolt startled her, the coffee in her mug swooshing into the air and onto her keyboard. Instinctively, Lucy ducked under her desk, one hand clutching the table leg, the other around her phone as it, too, vibrated, the caller ID showing a photo of her mother—the proud, smiling face of a much younger Mrs. Nguyen, arms wrapped around a toddler-sized Lucy, posing for the camera cheek-to-cheek. The lights overhead flickered, her desk lamp crashed to the carpeted floor. The light from her phone’s screen continued flashing, buzzing. She heard screams from the other side of the office, the lights going out, filing cabinets colliding, the moving floor dizzying, Lucy, gripping, with both hands, holding on, holding her breath, counting the phone vibrations, counting, just counting, one, two, three, four, five.


First published in The South Carolina Review, April 2021.

Ms. Lee

Mabel and Cheri take issue with Ms. Lee because she is an Asian person who teaches geography to thirteen-year-olds. At first, they thought she was one of those Asians whose great-great-great-grandparents came to Australia during the Gold Rush, so even though they look like Mabel and Cheri, they’re actually white on the inside. But Ms. Lee isn’t third, fourth, or fifth-generation Aussie. Ms. Lee is like them—born in Australia to immigrant parents—just older. The girls are stumped. What sort of Asian person would subject themselves to teaching high school geography?

***

The only other Asian teacher at the school is Mr. Vu, who teaches Vietnamese and Chinese because he is Vietnamese-Chinese. This makes sense to Mabel and Cheri, because someone has to do it. All the students like him because he lets them do whatever they want and gives everyone As. He is very quiet and good at being invisible, just like Mabel and Cheri’s parents, and they think he is smart because he gets paid to basically do nothing. They ask him, Asian-to-Asian, “Sir, what’s the deal with Ms. Lee?” He shrugs, as if to say, “What am I, Dr. Asian?” Then he says, “Her parents are from Malaysia.”

The girls make a list of every Malaysian person they know. After a period, they come up with no one.

“What about Andrew?” Cheri says.

“Nah, his family’s from Laos.”

“Sam?”

“He’s Indonesian.”

“Thu?”

Mabel gives Cheri a look that’s like, “Wow, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” because Thu is clearly a Vietnamese name. Cheri makes a face to admit that she did just say the dumbest thing in the world.

***

The girls know that Ms. Lee is technically none of their business, but they feel that she is absolutely all of their business. They believe that Ms. Lee is one big mystery, and they are the detectives trying to figure her out. In class, they reluctantly answer all of Ms. Lee’s geography questions, because they are nerds, and because they want to intercept smart-aleck responses from the Central European girls, which they know would throw off Ms. Lee and disrupt their study of the teacher in her natural habitat.

***

They are not always successful.

“Miiiisss!” Jelena B. says from the back of the classroom.

Jelena B. once wondered aloud whether Turkey was a country, and when Mabel said, “Country,” Jelena B. said “Thanks” in a way that sounded more like “Suck shit you ugly chink-ass nerd,” which made Mabel lose her voice for what felt like forever.

Ms. Lee is grading papers at the front of the classroom and ignores Jelena B., so she tries again. “Miiiissssss! Do they eat dog in China?”

Ms. Lee looks up, scrunches her face, and says, “Why do you ask that?”

Jelena B. shrugs, because she has a way of taking a dump in the middle of the room and pretending it didn’t happen. “Just heard about it.”

“That’s stupid,” Ms. Lee says.

Mabel and Cheri sink into their seats.

“Why are you calling me stupid?” Jelena B. says. She smirks, and now her friends, who are also named Jelena (popular name) are ganging up on Ms. Lee, a peanut gallery of “Yeahs” and “Is it because she’s a wog, Miss? You being racist?”

Ms. Lee points her pen in Jelena’s direction, emphasizing each of her words about unfair stereotypes with aggressive jabs at the air. Mabel, whose desk is right in front of Ms. Lee’s, worries that the pen will slip and travel like a spear into someone’s eye. And now Ms. Lee’s hands are slapping the table, and it shakes under the force of her gestures as she says, almost spitting, “Don’t you dare pull the race card on me, girls.”

Sometimes, other teachers will walk past the classroom, stick in their heads, and ask, “Everything all right, Amy?” The girls think it’s weird that they call her Amy instead of Ms. Lee, because all the teachers call each other Mr. or Ms. Whatever in front of students. Ms. Lee usually dismisses them by flapping a hand in their direction, and the teachers will smile with only their mouths (dead eyes), and Mabel and Cheri will feel like they saw something they weren’t meant to see.

The Jelenas lob their “Whatevers” at Ms. Lee as her chest and neck grow patchy from frustration. Mabel and Cheri wonder if everyone would be nicer to her if she just wore better shoes.

***

The real reason Ms. Lee bothers Mabel and Cheri is because she sweats too much, even when it’s not hot, and the sweat collects on her upper lip, and Cheri has to make fists with her hands to stop herself from lunging forward and wiping it with her sleeve because she can’t take it anymore.

No, the girls just think it’s wild that she wears socks with orthopedic sandals, and every time she walks into the classroom they want to yell that no one’s allowed to dress like that, that it’s probably against the law, that it’s only a matter of time before someone calls the Triple Zero emergency line to report it.

No, no, the for-real reason is if you went to college and spoke perfect English and could do anything you wanted—if you had a choice to be anywhere but here—why on earth would you choose here?

***

Tessa turns up at recess looking pale, and when Mabel asks if she wants to trade her pork floss roll for her soy sauce sandwich, Tessa straight up says she can have her lunch because she’s lost her appetite. She says she’s just come from geography, where she learned about Ms. Lee’s personal life. The information has shaken her to her core.

“She said she only eats Burger King. She said she buys Burger King Whopper Burgers in bulk, like, thirty at a time, freezes them, then microwaves them for every meal.”

Mabel calls bullshit, says it can’t be true because Ms. Lee isn’t fat and you’d literally die from eating like that. Tessa, who is always in a terrible mood and is very good at looking wounded, shoots Mabel a look that says, “Listen, Mabel, I didn’t make this up, it’s what she told us.” And then she says, “Listen, Mabel, I didn’t make this up, it’s what she told us.”

The girls sit in silence. Then, remembering more, Tessa continues: “She also said she married a guy, divorced him, then married him again, and now they live in separate houses because they don’t like living together.”

Mabel and Cheri are baffled.

“She is for cereal over-sharing,” Cheri says.

“Yes, totally, for cereal,” says Mabel.

Tessa sighs and looks at Mabel and Cheri like they’re idiots.

“You guys, we’re asking the wrong questions!”

Mabel and Cheri look confused because they didn’t think they’d asked a question. They stare at Tessa. Tessa rolls her eyes.

“Only white people get divorced!” Tessa says. “So isn’t it super weird that she got divorced? Duh!”

Mabel and Cheri: “Oh.”

“And isn’t it super weird that she married the same person twice and they don’t even live together? I mean, that’s weird.”

“Oh yes,” Mabel says. “For cereal.”

***

The thing is, when Ms. Lee isn’t burping or choke-laughing or saying things that make them cringe, Mabel and Cheri actually like her because she’s a good teacher.

For example, Ms. Lee is the first geography teacher they’ve ever had who helped them remember the definition of an isobar.

When they had Mr. Wilson in year-seven, everyone kept flubbing the topographic mapping part of the end-of-term exams because they couldn’t explain what any of the “iso” words meant. Even Mabel and Cheri, who were smart for twelve-year-olds, had waffled their way through a response, umming and ah-ing and “You know how the earth has bumps and stuff? An isobar shows how bumpy it is?”

Ms. Lee had no patience for waffling.

“Just remember, isobars and isobaths and any of the iso-words are just lines on a map that connect places of equal value,” she said while seated behind her desk, jabbing her pen at the air so aggressively that Mabel and Cheri got sweaty in the armpits because they were scared she’d stab them in the face. “An isobar is a line on a map showing places of equal barometric pressure. An isobath is a line on a map connecting places of equal depth below sea or lake level. That’s it. Stop umming. Stop ending your sentences like you’re asking a question. It’s a line on a map. That’s all.”

Mabel and Cheri love teachers who make things make sense, like Ms. Bourke, who straight-up told them what Othello was about because they sure as heck weren’t going to get it on their own, or Mr. Curtin, who made the history of Roman Empire relatable by telling them how the Romans used a sponge on a stick to wipe their butts.

So when the Jelenas make fun of Ms. Lee in the hallways between periods, imitating her by pretending to jab pens in the air and saying, “It’s a line on a map this! It’s a line on the map that!” Mabel and Cheri can’t help but roll their eyes as they pass.

“You see that?” says Norma, a white girl whose parents are from a place that neither Cheri nor Mabel can locate on a map. “You see those nerds roll their squinty eyes at us?”

The Jelenas Ooh.

“Hey, don’t keep walking, nerds! I need to check your eyes. Did you roll them? I couldn’t tell for sure. Come on, come let us see your eyes! Open them up for us!”

Norma, who is at least a head taller than Mabel and Cheri and is so meaty she always makes it to regionals at shot-put and discus throwing, follows the girls and beats her chest with her fists like King Kong. And now she starts making gorilla noises at them, a series of deep “HOO-HOO-HOO.”

Cheri stops, turns to death stare Norma, but her eyes suddenly fill with tears and she’s worried that if she blinks, she’ll cry.

“What the hell is your problem?” Cheri says, her voice breaking.

Cheri’s vision is a blur, but she knows what she feels. A viscous blob of Norma’s spit shoots from her rounded mouth and hits Cheri on the chin. Instinctively, Cheri touches it. The Jelenas laugh. Mabel grabs Cheri by the arm and they run down the hall, across the quadrangle, and into the girl’s toilets, where Cheri scrubs and scrubs with the communal bar of soap that they’d normally never touch.

“Don’t worry about it,” Mabel says, her own eyes pools of tears. “They’re just jealous of us. They’re just butt-hurt because they keep getting Cs and we keep getting As. They’re just mean because if they were smart, they’d be nice. But they’re not. They’re dumb, Cheri. They’re the dumbest people ever. Don’t you worry, it’s not worth crying about. Don’t you worry one bit.”

But Mabel convinces no one, and all Cheri can do is worry, quietly, on the inside, as her face contorts to stop herself from crying.

***

At home, Cheri’s parents ask her in Vietnamese why she has eaten so little. Everyone has finished their dinner, but Cheri’s rice bowl is still full. They ask her if she’s sick. She says no. They ask her if she snacked on too many Doritos after school and ruined her appetite. She says no. They ask her what is wrong, and when she only shrugs, they lose their patience. Her mother, who has a tight perm, tattooed eyebrows, and the most callused hands Cheri has ever touched reprimands her for being wasteful. Doesn’t she know how lucky she is to have food? She goes further: Doesn’t she know how lucky she is to have shelter? And further again: Doesn’t she know how lucky she is to have every opportunity her parents didn’t have? Doesn’t she know how different her life will be because of all the privileges and advantages of being born in Australia? Doesn’t she know that one day she will grow up to be rich and powerful, and the world will be in the palm of her hands so long as she works hard and remains grateful, and that being grateful starts with finishing her dinner and licking her rice bowl clean?

Cheri shrugs again. She goes to her bedroom, closes the door. She hears her parents complain about her. She sticks her face into her pillow, curls her hands into tight fists, and fights the urge to unhinge her jaw so she can scream.

***

The seriously-honest-to-god reason that Mabel and Cheri are so fascinated by Ms. Lee is that she wears these rainbow skirts that grown-ups shouldn’t wear. They think she is maybe forty-years old, but it’s hard to tell with Asians. 

And she’s so loud. She is even louder than their mums.

And really, it just doesn’t make sense why someone who is clearly smart, and clearly good at their job, can’t act like a normal person.

The girls tell each other that they are only so interested in Ms. Lee because she’s the biggest weirdo who has ever taught at their school. They tell themselves that anyone who wears that hideous a sock and shoe combo deserves close observation. They tell themselves, Whopper Burgers? Seriously?

What they don’t say, because they haven’t yet figured it out, is that they are worried that they have been lied to—that things don’t get better—that you can be smart, hard-working,  the first in your family to go to college, speak perfect English with a dinky-di Aussie accent, follow all the rules, pursue your passions in a way your parents never could and, still, nothing changes. At the head of the classroom, in a faculty staffroom, in a hallway full of people, anywhere here—you will always see things, hear things, feel things, that make you lose your voice for what feels like forever.

***

But right now, they think it’s the orthopedic shoes.

***

It’s definitely the shoes.

***

At the start of term three, Ms. Lee is gone. The school replaces her with a rotation of substitute teachers who never learn their names, who make them copy definitions out of the textbook.

The girls can’t stop wondering what happened to Ms. Lee. Mr. Vu won’t tell them; he says it’s none of their business. There are whispers, though, rumors that spread with such certainty that kids preface their speculation with “Swear to God, bro, I swear to God.”

They hear that she was transferred, or fired, because she got into an altercation with another teacher. They hear she finally stabbed someone with her pen, on purpose. They hear that the other teachers disrespected her, and she filed a complaint with the labor board. They hear that too many people complained about her fashion, and she was told she had to get a new wardrobe or lose her job. They hear that she was axed for all of the above reasons, that she was going to sue the school, the district, the entire goddamn state, for discrimination. They don’t know whether any of it is true. But if it is, they cross their fingers and hope she wins.


First published in The Pinch, March 2021.

My Country

There were the Christmas beetles, dirty brown, like bulbous baby cockroaches, that clustered around the holes of the school drinking fountains every summer. When we turned the faucets at recess, after playing tag with Tarik and Ahmed and Hussein and Fatima, we’d spray them right into our mouths and scream.

There were the lady beetles, cartoon-like in their colorful bodies, that the white kids said were a sign of good luck. A blondie named Crystal accidentally squashed one with her butt and spent the afternoon crying.

There were the crickets that looked like aliens, that gave me the shivers, but I wasn’t allowed to stomp on those because Mum said they were friendly, that she used to play with them in Saigon. You’d use chopsticks to tickle their antennae, she said, and they’d jump. It sounded like the most boring thing in the world. Didn’t she have Pokémon or Dragon Ball Z on TV? She had TV, she said. But it was to watch the famous singers belt their tunes. To watch the war around her in fuzzy black and white. But mostly to watch the tunes.

There were the Huntsman spiders, which grew to the size of a hand, a face, a toilet seat and were hairy all over. Those were all bark, no bite, some bloke said. Spiders don’t bark, I said. We were taught in kindergarten to cover them with a glass jar, slide cardboard underneath, and take them outside to be set free. I don’t know anyone who has ever done that. Maybe Crystal.

There were the venomous Redback spiders, which we were allowed to kill because it was them or us.

There were the Funnel-Web spiders, which I only ever saw in pictures. I read about them when I was nine, on the Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM. If you ever saw one in the flesh, it was the end of the world. Or something like that.

There were the Daddy-Long-Legs spiders, which were kind of a joke.

There were so many spiders.

There were the moths that ate our clothes, leaving little holes in our skivvies and undies, making us look like we were poor, because we were, but the moths didn’t help. They weren’t scary, but Dad said to be careful about how you kill them, because they might explode into a plume of powder. He never explained how you’re meant to kill them, though. They kept eating our clothes.

There were the mosquitoes that ate me alive, the ones Mum said were after either my sweet blood or my sticky skin.

There were the earthworms that Mum said were good for our veggie patch. There were the gut worms that Mum said made my brother and I too skinny. There was the time Mum asked me whether I had an itchy butt, and I blushed, because didn’t everyone? There was the candle she held to my exposed butt crack to lure out my maybe-worms, because they supposedly liked heat; like moth to a flame, like gut worm to a birthday candle. There was me yelling, “Too hot! Too hot!” There was the giant white tablet that the doctor made me swallow. If I did have worms squirming through me, that would do the trick. There was Mum’s inability to ever admit she was wrong, about the worms, about the candle, about what was best for me. There was my inability to stop apologizing, to stop compensating for her, for her, always for her.

There were the head lice she caught on Bidong Island, the lice that jumped from refugee to refugee, the refugees who bathed in sea water, shat in the sand, and used blocks of rationed tea as pillows. There were the head lice I caught in Year Five, probably from one of the girls who was stickier than me, probably from touching heads when we were playing Twister, probably from rolling on the carpet as we choreographed our Spice Girls dance. There was Mum threatening to shave my head. There was Mum patiently combing my hair for eggs.

There were the Christmas beetles that I found, years later, in my parent’s home. I was ready to kill, to smite the tiny cockroach-looking bugaboos, until I recognized them and remembered how mean we were to Tarik and Hussein and Ahmed and Fatima after the Twin Towers fell, because it was better them than us. As little kids, as adults, it is always better them than us.

There was the sunburnt country full of bugs that followed me, bit me, burrowed deep into my body. There was the urge to belong in a hostile place, where the mozzies guzzled so much of my blood that they must’ve known how I felt, and so must’ve their babies, and their babies, and their babies.

There were the bugs I combed from my blind dog; the blind dog that navigates my parent’s home from memory, because she has never known another home; the blind dog that I held as I cried and I cried, because this was home, yet how could it possibly be home?

There were the bugs that gathered outside my window when I was grown, when I had three gray hairs, the memory of me suspended in their tiny bodies, who shimmied on the other side of the glass as if to pay tribute. We remember you, girlie, they said as they criss-crossed and crawled all over each other. Guess what, guess what—they ascended into the sky carrying fragments of me, collected over time—we’ll remember you.


First published in The Penn Review, Spring 2019

The Things We Hide

When my Grandpa turned 80 he learned to make piñatas. I don’t know who taught him. He lives in Australia. He doesn’t know any Mexicans. He doesn’t know anyone who isn’t Asian.

Sitting at his dining table, he’d lay the SingTao Daily newspaper flat and slowly tear inch-wide strips from its pulpy pages. He’d put a party balloon between his thin lips and blow, pinching its opening between breaths, taking his time so he wouldn’t get dizzy. When the balloon was plump, he’d knot it. Gently, with the pads of his wrinkle-hugged fingers, he’d spread a thin layer of paste onto its rubbery surface. Then he’d press on the newspaper strips.

Layer by layer, a sticky shell of newspaper and homemade glue would hide the balloon.

The layers dried into a chewy exterior. He’d take a safety pin to the exposed cranium of the piñata and pop the balloon, leaving behind a hole.

Through the hole, he filled the piñata with coins. He hid the coins in festive red envelopes. Other people fill their piñatas with candy, but not Grandpa. Grandpa was a practical man. With money, we could buy all the candy we wanted. If he could afford to, he’d probably have given us the one thing better than money: gold.

My grandma hid gold. She hid gold in paper envelopes, which she hid in my mom’s pencil case, which my mom hid in her backpack, in the basket on the front of her bicycle. Mom didn’t know what the gold was for. She only knew that she had to get it from point A to B, no stops in between, and give it to her aunt. She did this again and again, Grandma hiding more and more gold, Mom pedaling and pedaling, never making eye contact with the North Vietnamese soldiers who now filled the streets of her home town. She was never stopped because no one ever suspects the young Chinese girl.

Grandma had been planning. It was 1975. Saigon had fallen. The gold was used to buy seats on a smuggler’s fishing boat. It cost twelve taels of gold to smuggle one person out of Vietnam.

The night hid my mother and her sisters and her uncle. They climbed onto the crowded fishing boat. They climbed on and drifted out because of the promise of a life they had never seen, the promise of a place where, for a dollar, you could eat apples until you were sick of them. They closed their eyes and climbed on because of the promise of hope.

When pirates climbed aboard their boat, Mom hid a gold ring from Grandma in a capsule of Tiger Balm — the Vick’s Vapor Rub of Asia. The pirates couldn’t find anything on her, so they left her alone. She hid her fear in her stomach. Her stomach hid it in the ocean, along with everything else she threw up.

Dad’s family hid diamonds. The night the soldiers from the north came and took their home, his mom gave his sister a bag of diamonds to hide. If the soldiers found it, they may have raped for it, killed for it. His little sister hid it outside, by throwing it out the window. They were kicked out that night. They never saw their home again.

Dad hides gold, in a safety deposit box, in a vault, in a bank, underground, in Sydney, Australia. There’s not a lot of it, and there’s no end game. Mom likes to make fun of him about it, that he’s hiding it in case the government falls, then at least we’ll have the gold to buy us the seats on the boats, the seats his family bought with the gold they also hid.

When Dad turned 60, I asked Mom what I should get him for his birthday, and she said, Nothing, and then she said, Actually…, so I opened a savings account for myself and named it “Gold for Dad.” I saved $150 before my brain said, Really?, and I closed the account.

Mom doesn’t hide gold. She hides her memories in the chewy piñata of her brain. She hides how she felt, climbing onto that boat under the blanket of night when she was a teenager. She hides the fear she carried, a young girl separated from the rest of her family, a foreign language, a place called Oss- straaay-leee-yaa, with cheap apples that she ate until she was sick. She hides how much she misses her mom, who she never saw again, because grandma never made it to Australia — she died on the journey, a refugee. One time I asked her, Mom, do you miss grandma? And she said, Yes. And that was it. She hides it using the lie — or maybe it’s the truth— that she has forgotten everything, because it was so long ago, because maybe she never got to say goodbye to her mom, and maybe she thought they really would see each other again, and maybe she still dreams of ah ma, still perfectly preserved in her late 40s, with big permed hair, the face of a bossy Teochew lady, a Teochew lady who threw the best Chinese New Year parties, still planning, still hiding gold.

My parents hide their hurt. They hide their fear. They hide the versions of themselves that evaporated as they drifted at sea, under the unforgiving sun, so that my brother and I might never find, and never know, what was lost.

But we know. Of course we know. And we want to say, You did great! And we want to say, We’re proud of you! And it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK.

We hide these words because we worry they’ll come out mangled. We hide how we feel because we’re afraid the enormity of our love will swallow us whole.

So we find other ways. We try to be good sports. And when Grandpa hangs his piñata on a clothesline, and Mom and Dad and our aunts and uncles gather around wondering, Who taught him to make that?, we shut up and get in line with our cousins. We hide that we think we’re too old, too cool for this. We grip the plastic cricket bat, we spin in circles, we hear our parents laugh, and we swing for the sky.


First published in the Bat City Review, Spring 2018

Remembering Ian Hale, 1950-2017

Mr. Hale in his former printmaking workshop in Dundas, Australia.

Ian Hale died on Monday, Nov. 13. He was 67. He was my teacher, mentor, and friend.

No one, except maybe my parents, has been a bigger influence in my life than Mr. Hale.

Here’s one example: In twelfth grade, when I was deciding what degree to pursue, for a brief moment I’d put art school as my first choice.

“Don’t do that,” Mr. Hale, who was an artist and an art teacher, said. “You need to get journalism out of your system first.”

I took his advice, applied to UTS, got in as a journalism major, and, hey! As of this writing, I’m a Los Angeles Times reporter. Not bad, Sir.

Mr. Hale and I in his printmaking studio in 2006.

Here’s another: In ninth grade, he took me and one of my peers to a student art exhibition held at Pymble Ladies’ College, or PLC. It was the first time I’d stepped foot into a private school. The place looked like Hogwarts. The exhibition was in their auditorium, but tens of thousands of dollars had clearly been spent on the installation of temporary white walls and lighting. Every artwork had at least three lights on it. They had catered hors d’oeuvres. I walked up to the snack table, picked up a large cube of food that I thought was tofu, and put the whole thing in my mouth. Turns out it wasn’t tofu. It was feta cheese. I’d never had feta before.

At Fairfield, our catering was the forty dollars Mr. Hale gave us to go to Woolworths to buy bread rolls and sliced ham. Our exhibition budget was zero. The lighting was always too dim. We mounted our paintings directly onto the auditorium walls and called it a day.

Standing in PLC, surrounded by incredible art and wealth, Mr. Hale, who had once taught at the school, detailed the resources the students had access to. It seemed like a completely different world from Fairfield. Except, Mr. Hale said, it wasn’t.

“These are the students you’re going to be competing against in the HSC,” he said. “These are the students you’ll have to beat.”

I’d already had an inferiority complex from not getting into a selective high school. Now I had to worry about rich kids, too?

I told Mr. Hale that I felt like I was screwed, and that I resented my family for not being able to afford private schooling.

 “No, no,” he said. I’d missed the point. It wasn’t about getting into a private school. It was about knowing the competition, and figuring out a way to compete on your own terms.

“Play to your own strengths,” he said.

If I had an inferiority complex, I should use it to push myself. If I had nothing to lose, I should take the risk. If I was handed a lemon, I should squeeze the lemon dry.

Mr. Hale cutting into the birthday cake my friends and I had gotten him in 2005.

Mr. Hale wasn’t just a well of wisdom, though. He helped us compete. He built canvas frames for us and stretched the canvases himself. He’d supply us with etching plates and show us how to submerge them in tubs of acid and brush away air bubbles using a feather. He let us hang out in the art studio at recess and lunch just so we had a place to go. He encouraged us to enter art competitions such as the Archibald, Wynne, and Sulman Prizes. It didn’t matter if we didn’t stand a chance against established, adult artists. He liked to quote Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man In The Arena.” I didn’t know who Teddy Roosevelt was, but I liked the quote.

When I entered the Wynne Prize in eighth grade, we didn’t have the budget to ship my painting to the Art Gallery of NSW, so Mr. Hale and I carried the thing to Fairfield Station, rode the hour-long train with it, and delivered the bulky painting from St. James Station to the gallery.

That same year, I told Mr. Hale I didn’t know how to get a foot in the door at Dolly Magazine, which was, at the time, my dream employer. He said, “Why don’t you paint their editor for the Archibald Prize?”

So I wrote a letter to the then- editor, Virginia Knight, asking if she’d sit for me. She said yes. A month later, Mr. Hale accompanied me to ACP where I met Virginia and photographed and sketched her. Two years later, I entered her portrait into the Archibald Prize and got an internship out of it.

Miranda (R) and I with her Archibald entry of Dawn Fraser. My portrait of Virginia Knight is behind me. Mr. Hale built every frame and stretched every canvas for us.

Look, I never won anything in any of the art competitions I entered. I was never even a finalist. I just wasn’t that good a painter. But it was never about the art. At least, not really. It was about ambition, the willingness to give something a go, not doubting yourself, because what did I have to lose?

“Your biggest enemy is self-doubt,” Mr. Hale used to say.

“Never accept mediocrity,” was another thing he used to say.

Oh, and there was also: “He was an idiot when he was alive and he’s an idiot now that he’s dead.” I don’t remember who that was about, but his own dad had said it about someone, and he liked it, so he relayed it to me. I liked it, too.

There were so many things Mr. Hale did for me. There were so many things he did for other students. On days when he wasn’t teaching art, he’d teach kids who had a hard time staying in class how to spar (he was a boxing trainer, too). When a student lacked confidence and said they couldn’t paint, he’d ask them, “Well, can you feel?” When the student inevitable said yes, he’d say, “Then you can paint.” (He got that from a letter John Constable wrote to Rev. John Fisher, in which Constable said, “Painting is but another word for feeling.”)

And that’s not even half of it. He hoisted us up, up, up. We were never too dumb, too poor, unworthy, or hopeless. I felt like the world was mine. Sometimes, I still do.

Mr. Hale and I in 2014.

The last time I saw Mr. Hale, I was back in Australia visiting friends and family. I was just about to start my job at the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Hale had retired. He took me out to dinner in Canley Vale and told me that he was proud of me. And then he told me about how he had just returned from a trip to Cambodia where he was teaching children in villages how to paint so they could sell their art to tourists, because, of course.

Then, like the time we went to PLC, he drove me back to my parents’ house. I thanked him for everything he’d done for me and told him that even though I was no longer his student, he was still my mentor, and I was his friend. He told me he was my friend, too. And then we said goodbye. And then we said see you soon.


First published November 13, 2017

www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-end-of-on-demand-snap-story.html

On-demand business models have put some startups on life support

Last summer, flower delivery start-up BloomThat was in an enviable position.

The 2-year-old San Francisco company had raised more than $5 million in venture capital funding. It had earned a tech world pedigree after graduating from the prestigious incubator Y Combinator. And it had its roots firmly planted in the “on-demand economy” — a business model popularized by Uber that was the hot new category in Silicon Valley.

But to live up to its promise of delivering bouquets within one hour in three markets, BloomThat was hemorrhaging cash. After launching in New York last summer, it was burning through more than $500,000 a month.

“It was not good; we probably had around four to five months of runway left,” said David Bladow, BloomThat’s co-founder and chief executive.

Just in time for Mother’s Day, see how flower delivery services are getting a fresh new twist
Faced with the prospect of going bust, Bladow and his cofounders asked themselves: Do customers really need their service at the press of a button?

It’s a question being asked at a number of startups that promise instant gratification. As the on-demand business model strains companies’ finances and the tech downturn makes investor money harder to come by, companies are realizing that what works for Uber may not work for them.

Some, like BloomThat, have changed course from a model that was, for a time, seen as the easiest way to land funding in Silicon Valley.

“Someone said, ‘grow, grow, grow,’ and someone else parroted it, then everyone else parroted it, and we fell victim to the macro trend,” Bladow said.

Last year alone, venture capital firms invested more than $17 billion across 214 companies that had the on-demand business model, up from $7.3 billion the previous year. These investments represented nearly 13% of all venture funding that year, according to data gathered by CB Insights.

Uber, the pioneer of the on-demand model, also continued to grow, giving the Valley reason to keep throwing money at on-demand businesses.

But offering rides is different from selling flowers.

For Uber to offer on-demand service, all it needs is lots of drivers using their own cars to log onto the app and start driving. For BloomThat to deliver flowers in a one-hour window, it had to set up distribution centers stocked with fresh bouquets that were ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. That takes real estate, supplies and staff — before even getting into the logistics of one-hour delivery.

Zirx, a venture-funded San Francisco startup that offered on-demand valet parking, found its initial business model undermined by similar costs.

The company was paying a premium to lease parking spots in cities that have notoriously few parking spots. The more popular the company got, the more it cost to secure additional spots. Customers, however, weren’t willing to pay the premium.

“Most consumers have a price point in mind for a service,” said Sean Behr, chief executive of Zirx. “The consumer is unwilling to pay for the true nature of on-demand.”

The idea that we’re an on-demand company — that was part of the problem.
— Matt Schwab, BloomThat co-founder and president
And so the first signs of an on-demand exodus have started to show. Some, like Spoonrocket (on-demand meals), Homejoy (on-demand house cleaning), and Shuddle (Uber for kids), have gone out of business because they couldn’t raise enough money. Sidecar, an Uber competitor, sold its assets to General Motors last year. And Zirx has dropped the on-demand component of its business entirely.

“A company needs to look into their own business and ask themselves what they’re best at,” said Eurie Kim, a partner at venture capital firm Forerunner Ventures, which invested in BloomThat and supported the company’s move away from on-demand delivery. “When you do that, you realize there are probably two or three things your customer really loves about your business, and it’s not necessarily the delivery.”

For BloomThat, the company learned that customers thought on-demand delivery was nice, but it wasn’t a deal breaker. People didn’t mind ordering flowers and getting them in a later window, or even the next day. By extending the delivery window by an hour, the company was able to reduce its number of drivers and distribution centers and cut costs by 25%.

The company now offers on-demand delivery only in city centers, and nationwide next-day delivery. The latter accounts for 50% of its orders, and the company became profitable four months ago.

When Behr looked at Zirx’s model, he realized “it would be a very difficult product to make money.” So he, too, changed the company’s course. Earlier this year Zirx changed its business to offer a service where it moves vehicles for other companies, such as rental car services, mechanics, and car dealers. Behr expects Zirx to be profitable by the end of the year.

“The idea that we’re an on-demand company — that was part of the problem,” said Matt Schwab, BloomThat’s co-founder and president. “We’re not an on-demand company. We’re a company that builds products that has on-demand delivery. It seems trivial, but flipping the thinking changed the focus of the company.”

There are some industries where on-demand delivery is critical, said Ooshma Garg, founder of Gobble, a dinner kit company that delivered on-demand meals back in 2012, before changing to a subscription model. But that only applies to two or three industries, not 100.

“We figured out that on-demand didn’t work for us within three months of trying it,” she said.

During its on-demand period, the quality of Gobble’s food and service suffered. Its target market, which was families, lived in the suburbs — meaning it had to have delivery drivers stationed across the Bay Area with trunks full of food. Any meals that weren’t sold went to waste. It wasn’t profitable.

Gobble quickly changed direction to a subscription model. It is now 20 times larger and is no longer losing money.

It’s not just companies that are waking up to the fact being “on-demand” doesn’t guarantee success — the investor tide has also turned.

As the downturn leads to more cautious investment, on-demand businesses are among the hardest-hit; funding for such companies fell in the first quarter of this year to $1.3 billion, down from $7.3 billion six months ago.

“If you look in venture capital markets, the on-demand sector is definitely out of favor,” said Ajay Chopra, a partner at Trinity Ventures who is an investor in both Gobble and Zirx.

It’s not lost on venture capitalists that the collective fear of missing out on investing in the next Uber is what drove many of the investments in on-demand businesses to begin with.

But as with any boom, there is a shake-out. Here, it’s been the realization that on-demand delivery isn’t as new or groundbreaking as previously thought (e-commerce firms Webvan and Kozmo.com offered delivery in less than an hour in the late ’90s before going out of business during the dot-com crash), and it’s not actually crucial to most companies.

“A lot will go out of business, sell, or merge,” Chopra said. “And I expect a lot of companies will pivot to a different model.”

And while a pivot may be an admission that a company didn’t get it right the first time, that’s just part of running a business, Chopra said.

It’s not easy. Gobble, Zirx and BloomThat all went through awkward transition periods. Gobble spent months educating its customers on the new business. Zirx had to cut the consumer-facing part of its business entirely. BloomThat’s growth flatlined for five months while it figured out its new model.

It’s not the straightforward overnight success story that Silicon Valley likes to sell. But it’s far more sustainable and lucrative than the rush to win at on-demand.

“We’ve come out of this fog,” Bladow said. “It allows me to sleep a lot better at night.”

First published June 15, 2016

Custody Battle

Janine wanted full custody of Reggie, but that was absolutely out of the question. I had bought Reggie. I didn’t have the receipt to prove it, because I never asked for one, because I wanted him to feel like a forever-friend, like a member of the family, and not something bought at a store, like a can of baked beans or a tape measure. So when the store didn’t offer me a receipt for Reggie, I didn’t ask. I’d also paid for most of Reggie’s food, although I wasn’t exactly keeping tabs, because food is a basic right and I didn’t want it to feel like I had control over Reggie’s life, you know? I mean, in a way, I did. I absolutely did. I could kill Reggie — not that I would — but as long as I paid a vet to do it, and it was humane, I wouldn’t get into trouble. It’d be perfectly legal. But again, I’d never do that, of course. I love Reggie. Reggie is my best friend. Reggie never judged me, never gave me the stink eye — except that one time when I tripped over him after one too many drinks and he ran under the sofa and looked at me funny for the rest of the night. Reggie deserved all the friendship accolades, whatever those are. So no, I’d never kill Reggie, not unless I absolutely had to, but what are the chances of that, right?

Anyway, if Reggie could speak English, he’d say, without doubt, that I was his human. And if we were going to go off how much money I’d spent on Reggie, I had definitely outspent Janine by something like infinity. But Janine had taken him to the vet one time and when she was paying the bill she put down her name as Reggie’s guardian, and now she had that piece of paper from the vet, and her lawyer was arguing that she had grounds for full custody (the bone I have to pick here is that I was there, too, but I had gone to the loo when all this was happening, and who was I to pick a bone then? I’m not petty or anything). My lawyer said we should negotiate, but I said no, we were wrestling this one right out of her spiteful hands. Reggie was 100% mine. My lawyer said we’d have a better shot at joint custody — maybe me on weekends, her the rest of the time — and I was like, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” And my lawyer was expressionless, and I said, “It’s all of nothing, baby!” And he sighed. In court, I asked to testify, and the judge said, “About what?” And I said, “Against her!” and my lawyer looked horrified and was like, “No, no, actually, Your Honor,” and I said, “She’s not a fit parent for Reggie!” And Janine rolled her eyes at me, and I may have called her a name that made my lawyer throw his hands in the air, and the judge hit his wooden mallet thing and told me in legal terms that I needed to sit down and shut the fuck up or I’d be thrown out. Janine’s lawyer snickered, and I dropped my shoulders and pled to Janine, “Jan-Jan,” and her eyes darted away, and I could see that they were red. Then my lawyer loosened his tie and pat me on the back, as if to say: “OK buddy, we’re done here.”

First published May 11, 2017

In Silicon Valley, even mobile homes are getting too pricey for longtime residents


During the last week of March, Apple reached a record market value of $754 billion, Google tweaked a policy to protect its $22-billion-a-quarter advertising business and Yahoo inched toward closing a $4.83-billion sale. Meanwhile, Judy Pavlick drove around her Sunnyvale, Calif., mobile home park collecting plastic bottles and empty drink cans to save her future.

At a recycling rate of 5 to 10 cents a bottle, the 70-year-old’s attempt to raise $10,000 to campaign for a rent control measure seemed like a long shot. But living in the heart of Silicon Valley — where rents keep soaring, outside interests are encroaching and protections for renters are scant — what else was she going to do?

“People are looking for somebody to save them, and they’re not looking to themselves,” said Pavlick, a retiree who has lived in the Plaza del Rey mobile home park since 1989.

The mobile home park sits on more than 65 acres of some of California’s hottest real estate. Its 800 tidy modular homes are less than two miles from the campuses of Apple, Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn. One of the world’s largest private equity firms, the Carlyle Group, bought the land two years ago for $151.1 million. And in its first year owning the park, it increased space rents (the amount that homeowners pay to lease land) by 7.5% — the largest in Plaza del Rey’s 47-year history.

Pavlick knows how this goes. She’s not going to wait to be priced out. She’s rallying her neighbors: Plastics. Cans. Put ‘em out, now.

:::

To live in the Bay Area is to face skyrocketing rents, threats of displacement and evictions. It’s to hear about techies moving in, to hear about even techies being priced out. It’s to watch glistening tech campuses go up as the gulf between those who make the tech and those who just happen to be here widens.

“When people think Silicon Valley, they think ‘pot of gold,’ ” said Dorothy Niblock, 90, a Plaza del Rey resident who lives alone in the two-bedroom mobile home she designed with her late husband 44 years ago. “That doesn’t really apply to us.”

Most of Sunnyvale’s dozen or so mobile home parks started as retirement communities, and nearly half remain that way. Plaza del Rey is now a family park, but its retirement roots linger: Seniors make up the bulk of its population.

Its monthly newsletter includes a calendar of activities such as Mahjong Tuesdays, Bridge Club Wednesdays and exercise groups four days a week. On Valentine’s Day, there was a spaghetti dinner in the main clubhouse. On St. Patrick’s Day, it was corned beef and cabbage. “Please bring your own plates and utensils,” the flier read. “We will be serving water, but feel free to BYOB!”

Many longtime residents have never thought of themselves as part of the Silicon Valley story. But sometimes, you don’t get to choose.

The most recent tech boom created staggering job growth in the region, with real estate brokers estimating that firms such as Google and Apple now occupy around nine times the amount of land they did in 2005. The expansion of companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Microsoft — along with the tens of thousands of employees they attract — has also significantly increased demand for real estate in the area.

One-bedroom homes in the Sunnyvale area have gone from a median selling price of $205,000 in 2012 to more than $445,000 in 2017. Apartments have over the last four years seen double-digit rent increases. Teachers have been priced out of the school districts where they teach. Even lawyers have left the region in a huff. And as investors still keen to park their money in Silicon Valley look for ways to squeeze value out of what’s already there, no property is getting a free pass — not even mobile home parks.

:::

On her first day driving around the park, Pavlick collected 10 bags of bottles and cans. Total Value: $40.

“Next Thursday, how about 20 donations?” she wrote to Plaza del Rey’s Nextdoor community forum.

It costs only $200 to file the initial paperwork to get a measure on the ballot in Sunnyvale. But getting a ballot measure passed is more expensive and difficult, said Juliet Brodie, an attorney who represented the Mountain View Tenants Coalition in its successful push for rent control last year.

Proponents have to publish a notice of intent in local newspapers, get the ballot measure written, gather signatures of at least 10% of the city’s eligible voters and win a majority of votes. Printing costs alone can push costs into the thousands of dollars.

“You can’t just take a notepad and get signatures,” Brodie said.

When Pavlick bought her home in 1989, she paid $65,000 plus $356 in monthly space rent, which also included water, garbage, sewage and cable. She was a business systems analyst, working for companies such as Memorex and Genentech. The park was close to her job, and its affordability meant that she could get a two-bedroom, allowing her to care for her late mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease.

The original owners kept Plaza del Rey in the family for more than four decades until granddaughter Shereen Caswell sold it to Carlyle in 2015 (Caswell could not be reached for comment).

Today, Pavlick pays $1,004 for space rent, the result of incremental rent increases over nearly 30 years. Residents now cover the cost of all utilities, in addition to personal property taxes and the cost of maintaining their homes, patios and yards. On top of doubling the space rent increase in 2016 from previous years (residents have long paid increases of 3% to 4% a year, comparable to neighboring parks), Carlyle raised the space rents for new residents to $1,600, nearly 40% more than the park average.

Earlier this year the firm offered residents a five-year lease that would cap rent increases at 4% a year, but only if they also agreed to sign a contract that would give Carlyle the right to make the first bid if a homeowner decided to sell. Carlyle declined to comment on the rent increases or its plans for the park after the five-year period is up. As of May, around 70% of residents have signed the lease. Those who have not signed might see rents increase to market value — Carlyle declined to define what this would be.

Mobile home owners face a “double whammy,” according to housing lawyers, because unlike traditional homeowners, they don’t own the land beneath their houses. That means they can’t expect a windfall when they sell. Newer, larger mobile homes can go for as much as $400,000, according to local Realtors, but older homes in the park can sell for as little as $120,000. Recent space rent increases have hurt homeowners looking to sell because Realtors estimate that for every $100 increase in space rent, a home loses $10,000 in value.

And unlike renters, who can easily up and leave, mobile home owners are saddled with a house that is, despite the name, difficult to move. Some homes exceed 1,800 square feet, with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms. Many are brought into the park in pieces and built on site. Taking apart and transporting a mobile home can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Putting one back together can cost even more. And once a home has been uprooted, homeowners have to find a new space for it.

“Just move, just move,” said Pavlick, mimicking those who believe that the solution to her problem is to leave. “Move where?”

:::

Mobile home parks have traditionally been mom-and-pop operations. But as the value of land in Silicon Valley soars, a growing number of institutional investors have been eyeing its undervalued lots.

That includes private equity firms. Private equity investors typically snatch up struggling or undervalued businesses and find ways to increase their value — either by investing resources to beef up the business or cutting costs to improve the bottom line — then reselling them at a profit.

Carlyle spokesman Randall Whitestone told the Los Angeles Times that the publicly traded Washington, D.C., firm, which has $162 billion in assets under management across industries such as healthcare, aerospace, real estate and financial services, has been buying up mobile home parks because they’re “less volatile than many other asset classes.”

“We like to buy in locations where there are good supply-demand fundamentals and economic strength,” Whitestone said.

Because of zoning rules, there is little chance that Plaza del Rey will one day become a tech campus. But there are other ways to raise the value of the park.

Investors can upgrade a park before they sell it. Although Carlyle declined to comment on its long-term plans for the park, Whitestone said it has “made significant capital investments to materially improve the property for residents.”

Another way is to increase the rent.

Plaza del Rey is, to the dismay of many longtime residents, an ideal investment for Carlyle. In a place like Silicon Valley, where tech salaries are among the highest in the country and the housing market is among the most competitive, it won’t be hard to find someone willing to pay $1,600 or more for space rent. And according to private equity experts, it doesn’t matter to Carlyle who that someone might be.

“They won’t care if it’s seniors or young people,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “Their challenge is to turn something they bought for $100 million into something that’s worth $300 million. That’s the end game for a private equity fund.”

This gives Carlyle reason to fear rent control. Any caps to rent increases would not only limit the park’s near-term profitability but also potentially reduce its future resale value, which is where private equity firms make most of their profit.

And that’s why Carlyle sent its managing director of U.S. real restate, Dave Kingery, to a Sunnyvale City Council meeting in January to argue against rent control.

“We do not believe it furthers the objectives of the city, the residents or the owners in the long term,” Kingery said at the meeting.

The firm’s annual earnings reports spelled it out more plainly: Under the “risks” heading, which details all the things that could hurt Carlyle’s business, the tenth bullet point reads “changes in government regulations (such as rent control).”

:::

Depending on who you talk to, rent control either always works or it never works. It’s the answer to the housing affordability crisis. It’s the reason that homes are so expensive. It will deter developers from creating more housing stock. It will keep people in their homes. It has never solved a city’s problems. It’s the answer to residents’ prayers.

Although Silicon Valley communities have either resisted or been slow to develop new housing to accommodate the influx of workers the region has attracted over the years, Sunnyvale has one of the strongest track records in California when it comes to building affordable housing. About 10% of the units in its development pipeline are affordable housing units.

But it’s also one of the few cities in Silicon Valley that doesn’t have rent control, either citywide or specifically for mobile home parks, and its City Council has shown a reluctance to entertain the thorny issue.

“The problem I have is there are a lot of loopholes in rent control, and we’re going to have a lot of lawsuits the moment it goes through,” council member Michael Goldman said in an interview with The Times.

The neighboring city of Mountain View, which passed a voter-approved measure in November, was slapped with a lawsuit from the California Apartment Assn. seeking to block the measure from being enforced immediately after the election. A Santa Clara County judge in April denied the request for an injunction, clearing the way for the city to go ahead with its rent control rollout.

“This is a free country and anybody with a filing fee can file a lawsuit,” said Brodie, the attorney who helped Mountain View get rent control. “If we allow that to prevent us from making good policy, that’s just not reasonable.”

For housing advocates, rent control is good policy. For opponents, it’s a Band-Aid solution. Rents are high, they argue, not just because landlords can charge whatever they want, but because Silicon Valley became a global tech mecca faster than its cities could handle it. How do you solve that?

“There are no bad guys in all this,” Goldman said of Carlyle and Plaza del Rey. “When I see people saying ‘It’s really expensive for me,’ I say if you’re not working in high tech, which requires you to be here, why are you here? If you’re here, you’re making a decision every minute you’re here that the cost of being here is worth it.”

There are tech industry workers who live in Plaza del Rey — employees of Apple, Google, Oracle and local start-ups. They’re increasingly feeling the squeeze too.

Despite making a six-figure salary working in information technology, a traditional home was out of reach for Bay Area native Ron Van Scherpe, 45. Having a young family, he didn’t want to rent anymore. So he and his wife did what they thought was the next best thing: They bought a three-bedroom home in Plaza del Rey.

When they moved in 12 years ago, their combined mortgage and space rent was only $2,150. Today, it’s $2,600, which is still more affordable than the rent on a one-bedroom Sunnyvale apartment. But if the space rent keeps climbing, at some point they’ll be no different from renters.

“The tech industry is displacing the middle class,” said Van Scherpe, who has signed up to help Pavlick in her rent control effort. “We’re going to give it two years with this rent control issue, and if it doesn’t look promising, we’re going to have to relocate by the end of five years.”

He and his wife are considering Austin, Texas. He worries that it will be hard on his kids, though. Their grandparents live here.

:::

On a recent Thursday morning, Pavlick drove around Plaza del Rey with her neighbors Patrick and Karen Garcia picking up heavy glass bottles of Perrier and empty cans of Coca-Cola.

“Someone must have had a party,” Karen Garcia said.

At the recycling facility, they traded the goods for $46.55.

Pavlick frowned. “I thought we’d get more from those heavy bottles,” she said. “But it’s more than last week.”

“Enough to pay for a third of an hour with an attorney!” Garcia joked.

Pavlick did the math in her head. If Plaza del Rey averaged $40 in recycling a week, and the dozen or so mobile home parks in Sunnyvale also got involved and raised $40 a week, they could collectively raise everything they needed in less than six months.

She currently has around 115 people from Plaza del Rey and neighboring parks working with her. In the coming weeks she hopes that more people will put out their recycling, knock on doors and, eventually, campaign for rent control.

It’s a long shot: a few dozen mobile home park residents trying to stop a private equity firm from upending their lives. But Pavlick likes to say aloud: “Carlyle has the money, but we have the people.”

Now she just needs those people to knock on doors, push for rent control and fight for their future — one plastic bottle at a time.

AS VENTURE CAPITAL DRIES UP, TECH START-UPS DISCOVER FRUGALITY



Tech start-up Appthority’s office has plush conference rooms, soundproof phone booths, an enormous kitchen and a view of San Francisco Bay. It has ping-pong and foosball tables, beer on tap and 11 types of tea.

The cybersecurity company owns none of it. And that’s how the company’s president and co-founder, Domingo Guerra, likes it.

“Any time you have flexibility and you don’t have a liability, it looks good on the books,” Guerra said. Although his 30-person company has raised $20.25 million from venture capital firms such as Venrock and U.S. Venture Partners, it operates out of a WeWork co-working space, where amenities such as Wi-Fi and office furnishings are included in the rent.

As investor sentiment in the tech industry cools, start-ups are facing a new reality: Money doesn’t always come easily. The abundant venture capital funding that convinced companies they could stay private longer is now harder to come by — such funding in Silicon Valley fell 19.5% in the first quarter of 2016 compared with the same period in 2015. And Wall Street has grown so skeptical of Silicon Valley that not a single tech firm has dared to go public so far this year.

In this climate, having good-looking books is now top of mind for start-ups that don’t want to go the way of companies such as Foursquare, which halved its valuation in order to raise money earlier this year, or SpoonRocket and Shuddle, which shut down after running out of money.

To that end, small and midsize start-ups are trying to outlast the downturn by cutting back on one of tech’s trademark innovations: outlandish spending.

There was a time, for example, when Appthority was thinking about getting its own office. But after heightened investor scrutiny stretched the company’s latest fundraising process to seven months — more than its previous rounds — Guerra decided a co-working setup was its smartest bet.

“If we had leased our own office, most landlords wanted us to sign a five- to 10-year lease, and they were asking for a seven-month security deposit, which would have been six figures,” Guerra said. “From an investment perspective, it was a lot of liabilities.”

A few blocks away from Appthority in San Francisco’s Financial District, Wonolo — an on-demand staffing start-up that has raised $8.9 million from investors such as Coca-Cola Founders and CrunchFund — has slowed down hiring.

“We’re not rushing to make a hire just because a position has opened up,” said AJ Brustein, Wonolo’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “We’re being smarter about who we hire, and that might mean we’re taking longer than we’d want.”

Waits of up to two months, Brustein said, ensure the company finds the right person and reduces the chances of hiring someone who might be a poor fit, which would ultimately be costly.

The company has also opted for a modest office, choosing to take out a yearlong sublease on a 7,000-square-foot space to accommodate its 27 employees.

The decision came after a fundraising push that started in October dragged into January. By then, “it was very clear every single VC in the Valley was writing about doom and gloom,” Brustein said. “We kept that in consideration when we moved into an office — it’s not necessarily the type of office we would have gotten six months ago, but it was one that we could pay for.”

Commercial real estate firms have noticed the shift. Cushman & Wakefield’s San Francisco market leader J.D. Lumpkin said that tech start-ups are starting to make “scrappier, more responsible real estate decisions” to avoid spending huge amounts of money on a lease.

Subleasing is on the rise — even larger tech companies such as Twitter and Dropbox are renting parts of their offices to start-ups — and a growing number of deals on ambitious office spaces have been put on hold.

“Some start-ups are doing well, like Lyft and Fitbit,” said Robert Sammons, Cushman & Wakefield’s director of research in San Francisco, who noted that those firms are still expanding into bigger offices and snapping up long-term leases. “But for some start-ups, their growth patterns haven’t panned out.”

It’s a reality check, Sammons said. Tech has traditionally spent more on leasing and renovating real estate than other industries.

Payments company Square, for example, built an atrium into its office. Github has a full wet bar.

Numerous start-ups have spent millions making their offices workplace wonderlands. And, Sammons said, “board members are now saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re not even profitable.'”

Real estate is only one of many considerations for start-ups navigating the downturn, said Dale Chang, vice president of portfolio operations at venture capital firm Scale Venture Partners, which has invested in companies such as Box and DocuSign.

“I advise our companies to be smart at all times about growth,” Chang said. “Even in frothy times, I don’t think going out there and spending a lot of money is the right strategy.”

Instead, Chang advises his portfolio companies to focus on the core set of activities that the company was set up to do. Making an app? Hit the ball out of the park with it. Offering software as a service? Make it best in class. Anything that isn’t integral to that — marketing, hiring, office expansions — can be slowed down.

Start-ups that have raised funds in recent months have had to alter their investor presentations to address that too.

Invoca, a 160-person Santa Barbara company that makes analytics tools for marketers, closed a $30-million round in March after a seven-month fundraising process that stretched out like bubble gum.

Its previous rounds took half the time. Going into it, the company’s chief executive, Mark Woodward, said investors were “way, way, way more conservative compared to prior months,” and were no longer just interested in companies with high growth. They wanted to know the quality of Invoca’s technology, the market opportunity, the business model, its competitive position, and how defensible that position was.

“They wanted to know if Facebook or Google decided to enter our market, would they wipe us out tomorrow?” Woodward said.

When the company raised funds two years ago, the money went toward aggressive hiring of sales and marketing teams and research and development. The latest round, Woodward said, will get the company to self-sustainability, at which point it won’t need to raise funds again.

“We’re not increasing spending by a dime on marketing,” Woodward said. “We’re not chasing Uber-sized top-line growth — that’s expensive and risky. Just because we have money in the bank doesn’t mean we’re going to spend it.”

Back in San Francisco, Jeff Burkland, the founder of Burkland Associates, a firm that offers chief financial officer services to start-ups, said that over the years he’s seen companies try different strategies to extend their runway.

Slowing down hiring is one. Finding shorter, more flexible leases is another. In extreme cases, founders might decide to not take a salary, or move some of their work to offshore contractors.

Building a war chest before a downturn hits is also an option; a move that rewards those who take advantage of frothy times by accepting funding well before they need it.

If a company had plans to raise funds within the next two years, Burkland advised them last year to get it over with.

Which is why Segment, a data hub start-up where Burkland is the CFO, raised funds last fall even though the company didn’t need the extra cash yet.

“We felt like the market was too warm to stay that way,” said Peter Reinhardt, Segment’s chief executive. “We had all this investor interest, and we felt like it wasn’t going to be that great in six months.”

The fundraising process — emailing investors, setting up meetings, signing a term sheet — took only 11 days.

Ultimately, Burkland said, it’s about staying nimble and being adaptive. Trimming excess, finding flexibility and, sometimes, being scrappy. You know, like a start-up.

THINK YOU HAVE TOO MANY ROOMMATES? PEOPLE WITH 16 ARE PAYING EXTRA FOR THE PRICILEGE


Jay Standish showed off a three-story house in the leafy neighborhood of Adams Point, pausing at the home’s top-floor kitchen.

“That’s the second kitchen,” he said, motioning toward the refrigerator, stove-top, sink and toaster ovens. “It’s good for when there’s high traffic in the downstairs kitchen, or, you know,” he shrugged, “if you’re not in a mood to be social.”

Standish, 31, lives here with 10 other people. The house, called Euclid Manor, isn’t a college dorm. It’s not a hostel-style “hacker house” either. According to Standish, this isn’t a tech thing, or a hippie thing, or a rent-is-too-expensive-and-I’m-desperate thing.

It’s called co-living, and it’s a lifestyle choice emerging among young people who favor Airbnb over hotels and Lyft rides over car ownership. Rather than seeking out housemates on Craigslist, city-dwellers in high-cost markets such as the Bay Area and New York City are now paying companies — some small and others, like WeWork, backed by millions in venture capital — a premium to live in a building with a curated roster of housemates, stocked kitchens and planned get-togethers.

It’s about building a community, Standish said. And for him, it’s also about building a business.

Standish and Ben Provan, 32, run OpenDoor, which manages Euclid Manor and two other properties: the Canopy, also in Oakland, where 12 people live, and the Farmhouse in Berkeley, which 16 call home.

The pair see themselves as more than landlords. Though they handle house repairs and rent collection, they also vet tenants to make sure that there’s a balanced mix of personality types in the house, maintain the culture of the houses, help run activities and act as mediators when needed.

“Humans are very social beings and pre-Industrial Revolution we lived in large groups,” Standish said while showing off Euclid Manor’s dining room, which has a long, banquet-length table used for house meetings and dinner parties. “I mean, this house is an interesting example of that. It was built in 1910, and back then you’d have these huge estates where there were 20 people living in a house together,” though many were live-in servants. (A “totally different dynamic,” he said).

But Standish thinks that many people, particularly millennials, are eschewing the American dream of owning a house in favor of finding a second family of like-minded people.

Research from real estate site Trulia found that homeownership in the millennial age group is the lowest it has ever been. Around 70% of people age 18-34 in the U.S. rent. Trulia’s chief economist, Ralph McLaughlin, said that is in part because in places such as the Bay Area, New York and Southern California, the median buyer would have to spend upward of 60% to 70% of his or her monthly income to buy a house.

The rise of co-living is a response to both escalating real estate costs and growing demand from people actively seeking such housing and willing to pay for it, McLaughlin said.

Research conducted in 2015 by British life insurance firm Beagle Street found that more adults than ever are waiting to move out of their parents’ house, get married and have children. It’s not just because it’s economically harder, the research showed. Survey respondents also indicated that they don’t value living alone as much as earlier generations.

“The best way to describe the mentality that encapsulates where we’re at is the ‘modern nomad,'” said Benja Juster, 28, an interactive experience designer who lives in the Canopy, whose residents are all in their mid-20s to mid-30s. “It’s a desire to not be locked down to one physical location … to go with the wind and find where life may take you.”

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Ariana Campellone, 24, a nutrition and herbalism practitioner who also lives in the Canopy, said “traditional” adult responsibilities such as family planning aren’t a priority for her right now, and she much prefers to live with others who can help her grow.

“Our values here are creative empowerment and skill-share,” she said.

OpenDoor vets tenants beyond the usual credit history checks. Applicants have to answer questions such as what they could contribute to the house, what kind of environment they’re looking for, and if they were a non-human animal, what kind would they be.

“I said I was a raccoon,” Juster said. “I make do with scraps. I’m very resourceful and nimble.”

OpenDoor is testing a different ownership structure for each of its houses to see what works best. It rents the Farmhouse, its first business venture, and subleases it to tenants. It bought its second house, the Canopy, outright. OpenDoor operates the investor-owned Euclid Manor.

The company’s revenue comes from the rent it collects from tenants, usually $1,000 to $1,200 a month, depending on the room and house. Standish and Provan declined to reveal OpenDoor’s margins, but said the properties are profitable, and co-living provides better returns than traditional housing. For tenants, the rent is more expensive than sharing a home with 10 or so roommates, but comparable to living with fewer housemates in the same neighborhood.

Aside from the food program, which lowers the cost of groceries, Standish and Provan said residents also get access to appliances and facilities uncommon in shared apartments — at Euclid Manor those include West Elm furnishings, a grand piano, a Vitamix and a cafe-grade coffee machine. The Canopy has a soundstage, a woodworking studio, and large living rooms with projectors and musical instruments.

But what tenants are really paying for is the “community,” Standish said. “Living as family, basically.”

In New York City, a co-living business called Common has raised $7.35 million in venture capital funding to open two buildings in Brooklyn, with a third planned for this spring. Founded by serial entrepreneur Brad Hargreaves, the start-up holds master leases on its buildings and also plays a property management role.

Its apartments are fully furnished and stocked with items such as toilet paper and paper towels. Tenants share apartments within the building and have access to common areas. They communicate using the group messaging app Slack, and Common organizes building-wide activities like movie nights, yoga, breakfasts and dinners.

WeWork, the $16-billion start-up that has raised more than $1 billion in venture capital funding and leases co-working spaces in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, is also dipping its toes into co-living. Its building in New York City has 45 units, a mix of studios and one- and two-bedrooms, with communal events such as potluck dinners and fitness classes. It doesn’t own any real estate, opting instead to lease entire buildings.

Despite soaring rents in places where co-living companies have set up shop, these ventures can still be risky, according to real estate experts, especially if they try to expand too fast.

The best-known co-living failure is the venture capital-backed Campus, a San Francisco start-up that launched in 2013. Within two years it had 30 houses on master leases. But the company shut down last August because it was “unable to find a way to make Campus into an economically viable business,” founder Tom Currier said in an email to tenants. Currier could not be reached for comment.

It’s a mistake to think that the speediness that works for tech start-ups will also work for a real estate start-up, said Michael Yarne, a partner at San Francisco development firm Build Inc.

“The venture capital world is obsessed with speed and scale, but the world we’re in goes really damn slow,” Yarne said.

The slow return on real estate properties hasn’t put off investors with cash, though. Venture capital firm Maveron Ventures invested in Common because it believes that companies like Common fill a need.

“What we’re looking for are big industries where consumers, and especially millennial consumers, feel disconnected from the brands that exist,” said Jason Stoffer, a partner at the firm.

Millennials “expect a level of authenticity,” he said, “and the reality is an Avalon Bay apartment building is sterile. It’s not authentic. You don’t know your neighbors. People want a level of responsibility and a brand which has a soul.”

For Standish and Provan, co-living houses are the first step. But why stop there? The pair have a long-term vision of creating sustainable communities in different formats — maybe one for families too.

But first, they’re focusing on the three houses they have. And answering age-old questions of communal living, like who’s going to do the dishes.

“Well, if we can’t figure that one out, how are we going to solve climate change and economic inequality?” Standish laughs. “So let’s start with the dishes.”