Thursday, June 11, 2009

Going out in Style...

Harley Davidson Motorcycle Trike Hearse - Images by Ronan Gray

This was for a Beach & Bay article that I wrote about this unusual hearse (read more below). The guy was over an hour late showing up but that gave me time to set up lights fire a few test shots and vary the composition a bit. It was a really tight space and no option to move the bike. There was horrible background clutter in almost every direction so only option was to shot up in the direction with the least amount of distracting background elements. There's a busy street with a four way stop-sign right behind him too so I had to have him hold a pose while I waited for traffic to move.
Here's the nerd-out for my fellow lighting-nerds: .This was lit with two lights, both lumedyne classic heads. One in a small sb, (high camera right) to light him and the bring the chrome detail up. The second with a 70-deg reflector was positioned just out of frame camera left (and far to the rear of the scene) pointing slightly forward to bring up the whole shebang by a stop or two. Balance was daylight and I was under ambient by about a stop and a half or so. The rear light was one stop hotter than the front one.

Here's a link to the article as it appeared and here's my (unedited) submission. Thanks to Adriane (editor at the BBP) for tidying it up and making it more newspaper-worthy.

Beach & Bay Press, June 11 2009
Ronan Gray
Beach-area dwellers tend to exhibit a distinctly jaded attitude towards the odd, the strange and the weird. With fire-breathing jugglers performing nightly on the beach, armor-plated tornado-chasing vehicles parked in the neighborhood and kite-propelled surfers hurling themselves thirty feet skyward above the surf, its no wonder that a blasé attitude to the unusual pervades. It takes something truly unique to stop a local in their tracks or to hold up traffic in this town but that’s exactly what one local company managed to do for a few days last week. The macabre sight of a black, glass-sided, Victorian-style hearse pulled by a Harley Davidson was apparently enough to roust many from their apathy and attract a bit of attention on the corner of Cass St. and Diamond St. last week.

The Final Ride is a dark, black, custom-built Victorian-style coach complete with gilded carriage-lamps, crushed velvet interior and six-spoke, chrome wheels that is pulled by a black, chrome-detailed Harley-Davidson “trike” with matching six-spoke chrome wheels. “I can tell you anything you want to know about it except the price”, quips funeral director Douglas Trobaugh, driver of the Pacific Beach Chapel’s most unusual hearse. We are standing on the front lawn of the chapel next to the unique vehicle that has been stopping pedestrians and passing cars in their tracks. “I will tell you this though, I could have bought a couple of nice Cadillacs instead,” he adds.

The hearse and the three-wheeled motorcycle were both built by Tombstone Hearses in Bedford, PA where owner Jack Feather says he is working on the twenty-seventh one right now at a cost of roughly eighty thousand dollars. While most of the twenty-six previous ones have been for funeral homes within the US, he tells me that they have sent two to England, one to the Caribbean and one to Australia. With an estimated 10 million bikers in the States, the demand for the unique hearse is steady, especially in the mid-west according to Feather.

There are over 1.3 million registered motor cycle riders in the state of California according to the CHP *. “This one is the only one [of these hearses] in Southern California”, says Trobaugh who has been riding bikes since his father bought him his first one – a Harley Davidson dirt bike – when he was nine years old. Trobaugh has two brothers, Dave and Dwanye who are also bike riders. Their father John is still riding a Harley at age 75.

Demand for the Final Ride has been steady with about thirty services performed since the funeral home purchased it just over two years ago. In mid-April the funeral procession of a local Vietnam-vet created quite a spectacle in as a procession of over two-hundred bikers followed the Final Ride on a trip from the La Mesa Chapel out to Jamul and back for the deceased man’s last ride

However, its not just bikers who choose this unique tribute. “More than twenty-five percent of them have never ridden a bike”, says Feather at the factory in Pennsylvania. “Lots of little old ladies choose it.” Trobaugh says that the very first service he performed in San Diego was for a 94-year old woman whose family picked the coach for the old-fashioned style that harked back to the turn of the last century when she was born. Of the thirty funerals that Trobaugh has directed with the Final Ride, only six were for bikers.

Back on Cass Street a man approaches Trobaugh who is dressed in a black suit and a black leather jacket that, like the black helmet in his hand, bears the same El Camino Memorial logo that adorns the coach and trike. He asks if is it’s ok to photograph it. “I told my wife about it last night”, he adds after Trobaugh tells him to “go right ahead”. The hearse has been drawing the attention of normally nonchalant locals of all ages and generating a range of reactions. Ray Rios, Funeral Arranger at the Pacific Beach Chapel says that he has had to post a sign on the trike asking people not to climb on top of it for photo ops. “I’ve had people asking me if they can climb inside the coach to pose for pictures,” he adds with a hint of incredulity in his voice.

The Final Ride will spend time between Cass Street and the La Mesa office of El Camino Memorial, the owners of Pacific Beach Chapel. Visitors are welcome to stop by, check it out and photograph it. However, Trobaugh requests that people do not climb on board or in the back, no matter how interesting they may find the spectacle.

The Pacific Beach Chapel is located on the corner of Cass and Diamond in Pacific Beach.

copyright Ronan Gray 2009. All rights reserved. No reproduction without prior written permission.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Mission Beach Has No Recycling Pick-Up

Curbside Recycling to be added in Mission Beach - Images by Ronan Gray

I was amazed to discover that Mission Beach (a large beach-side community in San Diego) does not have a curb-side recycling program.  The area is mostly rentals - both long-term  and super-expensive weekly, vacation rentals.  The vast majority of long-term residents are heavily intoxicated twenty-somethings who are still trying to find themselves.  Another large segment is heavily-intoxicated, vacationing forty-somethings trying to find intoxicated twenty somethings of the opposite sex.  It is San Diego's party-central.  I say this with some conviction having lived there for several years while I was a senseless, penniless, illegal immigrant back in the eighties (nowadays I'm a senseless, penniless legal immigrant of course).  There was always something going on and my household alone must have generated several hundred pounds of recycling materials in used alcohol containers per month.  

The fact is that there is so much trash generated down there in a single week that the city has to schedule two regular trash collections per week during the summer months.  If they don't, the alleys begin to look and smell like a Tijuana slum.  Empty pizza boxes and take-out food containers balance precariously on top of bulging trash bags days before the weekly collection is due.   When it does arrive, the trash truck fills up before it gets to the end of the route.  Adding an extra truck doesn't really help because it does nothing to stop the trash piling up days before the weekly collection.  Even if they wanted to, the city couldn't add another truck because it takes a special truck - smaller than the regular ones - to navigate the narrow alleys in Mission Beach and they only have one of those trucks.

Now that the city is rapidly approaching financial ruin, the geniuses at Sander's office decided to cut the extra pick ups to save about $58K a year.  Based on the figures that I got from the manager of the recycling program (see below) I think that the recycling revenue from a single Mission Beach block on a good holiday weekend would cover that.   Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating - it might take a block and a half.

When I say that the weekly rentals are expensive, I mean $1000 to $5000 per week.  The city is supposed to collect a 10.5% "Transient Occupancy Tax" (TOT) on all these vacation rentals.  So again - WTF - there's another massive revenue stream.  There are 1500 residences in the area.  If only ten percent of those were weekly rentals (that's an extremely conservative estimate) the sixteen-week peak vacation season should be generating somewhere between $250K to $1.25M.  How much exactly and aren't those revenues supposed to cover exactly these problems?  The area's city council representative Kevin Faulconer doesn't know and neither does anyone in his office.  I thought that was odd - seems like a significant revenue stream in the district.  They pushed me off to some statistician in the city office who offered to send me a list of the all the residences in San Diego that pay TOT and have me send him back a list of the ones that fall within the Mission Beach address (which shares a zip code with Pacific Beach) so that he could get me a figure.   Probably a few days work there at least which a publication like the BBP does not have the means to support - so what are the city employees for if not to supply the media and the public with that sort of data?  So what the hey, Faulconer's office gets to blow off the questions with out really saying that they did.  They put on their best exasperated voices when I repeatedly asked them why they have no idea what the figure is. It has to be a significant revenue stream from their district, but they just got huffy and kept referring me back to the statistician at the city.

Faulconer threw a press conference to announce that he would use "discretionary funds" to fund the extra trash pickups for this year and part of next year until a new truck and recycling bins are purchased and put in place around July 2010 (see article below for details).  Faulconer to the rescue once again - and adding a much desired recycling program to boot.  Many questions remain in my mind:  Did Sanders make this soft cut in January knowing that Faulconer (the only fellow GOP'er left on the council) would be able to "save" the program and stage yet another seemingly dramatic coup?  Will people actually use the recycling program?  What impact do the homeless collectors have on the volume of recyclable material right now - and if they are already carting away a large portion of it, will adding a recycling pick-up in Mission Beach cure the overflowing trash can problems and eliminate the need for a bi-weekly summer trash pick ups (as everyone is saying it will)?

There was an amazing symbiotic relationship between us (obnoxious, partying twenty somethings) and the areas homeless population when I lived there:  We ran / ranted / fell on the sand / ocean / boardwalk while draining large volumes of alcohol containers in the sun until we were drooling. The homeless then slipped in and took away the empties for recycling to get their "lunch money".  It was a huge recycling program on a scale that didn't exist anywhere else as far as I can tell.  This is long before any official one existed in San Diego or perhaps anywhere else in the world.  The alleys and beaches never had an empty aluminium can on the sand for long - the homeless collectors took care of that and kept the area clean in the process.

Apparently the city offered the community recycling when it first introduced it in the rest of the city but the local council rejected it.  The story is that there was some revenue at stake for the council and the local community centers (particularly the on Santa Clara).  The revenue in question was coming from the recycling material collected in several recycling skips that they have located around the area.  People have to drive to them to drop off their recyclables.  I know how many of my contemporaries would have taken the time to do that - none.  For a start, many of us didn't even own a vehicle and even if we did, I can't imagine what would have motivated any of us to waste important time doing that - what with all the alcohol to be consumed, what was in it for us?

However, it seems like there were enough of a revenue stream from the drop-off sites for the local council to care.  If this new curbside pickup works as the city expects, the revenue from recycling in the area may well set some sort of city, national or global record.   With the alcohol ban in place, most people will be consuming around the house / condo / apartment and fecking the containers straight into the bin before heading outside for a quick run / rant / fall on the sand / skateboard / concrete.  Does this mean the extinction of the homeless recycling dude (& dudette)?  Time will tell I guess, but from the sounds of it (see article below), they are actually looking forward to a significant time savings by virtue of the fact that their source of "lunch money" will now be conveniently located in one clearly marked container.

Here's the article as I wrote it - without my questionable opinions as stated above.  Editor Adriane Tilman at the BBP did a decent job editing it (i.e.  in writer-speak that means "didn't hack up my original masterpiece too much").  You can see the published version here.

Beach & Bay Press - Mission Beach to get Recycling Program
by Ronan Gray

District 2 councilmember Kevin Faulconer announced today that he plans to use $80K of discretionary funds to continue a long-standing program of supplemental trash pick-ups from residents in Mission Beach during the summer months.  The program, which fell to budget cuts early this year had provided two trash pickups per week during the summer to residents in Mission Beach.  The area does not have a curbside recycling program and annually experiences a dramatic population increase between Memorial Day and Labor Day that is accompanied by a corresponding increase in trash.


According to Falconer’s office the supplemental summer trash pickups - which cost the city about $58,500 per year - will be replaced by a recycling program after July 2010 when a specially designed truck will be purchased to navigate the narrow alleyways of Mission Beach.  Chris Gonaver, director of the Environmental Services Department says that the city currently has one such truck know as an “AlleyCat”.  That truck is already completely occupied with trash collections in Mission Beach and parts of Downtown San Diego that also have narrow alleyways.  The new truck, which will be dedicated to the recycling program will cost the city an estimated $500K including blue recycling containers for the areas roughly 3500 residences.  Faulconer’s office estimates that the program will cost roughly $90K annually there after.


Citywide the recycling program cost roughly $9m and generated almost $7m in revenue from the recycled materials in 2008 according to San Diego City Waste Reduction Program Manager, Stephen Grealy.  “Last year we collected eighty thousand tons of commodities” says Grealy referring to the recyclable elements of the trash.  “With the commodities markets the way they are though, we are anticipating only $4.5m in revenue this year” he adds.


Mission Beach residents opted out of the curbside program in 2000.  According to Kip Sturdevan of the Environmental Services Dept., the Mission Beach Town Council requested drop off sites: "I went to one of the meetings where we described the recycling program (we wanted them to be part of it) and they decided against it, asking that we provide more drop off sites instead. The rationale on their part was twofold: first they wanted more money for their community centers (the proceeds from the drop off sites went to their Park and Rec council) and they felt it would be too many containers in their alleys."


Area residents do want recycling now though and attribute much of the additional trash to visitors staying in weekly condo rentals.  Bill Bradshaw of Mission Beach Town Council feels confident that most of these visitors will take the time to separate their recyclables from the trash.  “Some will, other won’t take the trouble,” says the 78-year old long time Mission Beach resident as he unloads recyclables from his truck during his weekly trip to the recycling drop off point on Santa Clara Drive.  “It’s not nearly as cumbersome anymore now that you can put them all into one can instead of separate glass, metal and paper containers.  Most of them are used to doing it at home anyway.”


One natural question is whether the 10.5% Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) charged on all rentals of less than one month duration could be used to supplement the trash collection.  It seems only rationale to many residents since the source of the additional trash seems obvious to them.   “The population of Mission Beach triples during the summer. Of course we have many vacation rentals.  They are everyone who enjoys vacationing at the beach, lots of Arizona people of course,” says Mission Beach Town Council and area resident Bob Craig. Faulconer’s office was unable to provide any data on the estimated TOT revenue from the area, referring us to the city for more information.  However, by many estimates of the number of weekly rentals in the area that charge thousands per week, the TOT revenue should generate several million dollars annually – more than enough to fund the additional trash collection.


As Faulconer and Mayor Jerry Sanders stood before a bank of cameras and reporters in Mission Beach to announce the new plans this morning, a disheveled man with long unkept hair, a scruffy beard and a mouth full of broken teeth stood in the background.  Mike Howell is a homeless man with a less than subtle hint of alcohol on his breath.  He says that he will be fifty in September but he looks younger than that, especially for someone who claims to have been living outside, in and around the parks and beaches of Mission Bay since 2000.  He spends about an hour and a half each day collecting recyclables from the trashcans in the area to generate about $20 a day in “lunch money”.  He complains bitterly about being ticketed for scavenging recyclable metal and plastic containers from the city’s black, wheeled trashcans in the only neighborhood in the city that does not have a curbside recycling program.  “If people are going to put it in the trash and it’s going to go straight to the landfill, how can you be mad at me for picking it up?”


For years, a symbiotic relationship has existed between beach goers and the people like Mike who scour the beach for discarded recyclable aluminum cans, plastic containers and bottles.  The practice helps to keep the beach clean and is so common that the Grealy says that they abandoned a project to place recycling containers on the sand.  “When we got the containers back to the depot, there was nothing of value left in them.”  With the year old alcohol ban in place, people like Mike are having to search through the trashcans in the lanes and alleys of Mission Beach for recyclables.  When asked how the new recycling program will affect him he scoffs and says that he doubts that many visitors will bother to separate their trash.  Even if they do, he says with a wry smile, it will merely make it easier for him to gather his daily quota from the new blue bins.