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Pink Dot Nation

Come With Us Now For an Ambitious and Thoroughly Inconclusive Anthropological Tour of Los Angeles in an Ancient Blue-and-Pepto-Pink VW Bug

May 11, 2003|Andy Meisler | Andy Meisler last wrote for the magazine about the National Championship Air Races in Reno.

It's a midwinter Saturday night and i'm chugging slowly, painfully up twisty Laurel Canyon Boulevard in a 1968 Volkswagen that's one of the few survivors of a once proud fleet. On the passenger side, on the seat and in the floor well, are four plastic bags containing what might loosely be called groceries. I'm a tall, round, middle-aged man hunched over a skinny little steering wheel, illogically making myself as small a target as possible because careening SUVs and luxury sports coupes are pulling out from behind and passing me on blind curves at 60 mph.

In the milliseconds that their halogen high beams bounce off my mirrors--blinding me, of course--these drivers see a strange, bug-shaped object painted royal blue and covered with eccentrically sized circles the color of Pepto-Bismol. On the sluggish Bug's roof is a white plastic duck-billed beanie, itself topped by a windmilling pink-and-white propeller. Attached to the engine cover at my rear is a large pink windup key. Up front, white plastic eyelids surround two dim headlights.

After much squinting--alternately at the Thomas Guide in my lap and through the windshield--several wrong guesses and suicidal U-turns, I park on an obscure side street called McKim Court, a curly, hair-thin line on map page 593.

"Hey! Hi!" shouts a man's voice way up there, on an upper floor of a hillside mini-mansion. He ducks inside and an electric gate slides open. I scale a long driveway and a steep stairway and face a skinny, bearded, barefoot grad-school type in his mid-20s. I place two sacks--each containing a six-pack of Michelob Light--at his feet.

"Free delivery coupon special--$12.98, plus tax," I say, not precisely cheerfully.

Young Michelob Man looks deep into my eyes and, noting my repressed rage, fishes a twenty out of his jeans and hands it to me. "Keep the change," he says, retreating. "Have a nice night, man."

I descend his driveway, climb into my cutesy car, scrabble for another receipt and head for my next stop: an apartment building near the Hollywood Bowl. After two or three bum turns I finally find it, then park in a red zone. I haul out one bag containing some Twix chocolate caramel bars, the other an aluminum dish of ice-cold spaghetti with marinara sauce. The door of Apartment 205 is opened by a man with a scraggly goatee; maybe 5-foot-5 on a good day; unbuttoned Cosmo Kramer shirt; hairless chest; Twix-eating grin.

"Hey, man. Where've ya been? We just called to cancel the order. You're just too late."

The door closes in my face. I trudge out the front door of the building, tired and angry. In the midst of this rejected nourishment, I'm hungry. After several weeks of semi-aimless driving and ligament-stretching heavy lifting--interspersed by a painful and embarrassing stress-related ailment--I'm no closer to answering The Question: Why Pink Dot?

This unique, bizarrely named and logoed Southern California company--which survives by dispatching underpowered autos bearing overpriced groceries, liquor, smokes, prepared meals and sundries--has lasted 15 years in the world capital of personal cars, parking lots and convenient corner mini-malls. How has this venerable institution outlived analogous nationwide companies such as Webvan, Kozmo and HomeGrocer? What is it about Los Angeles that makes it fertile soil for such an enterprise?

Also, what personality quirks of the average Angeleno--sloth? loneliness? a need for instant (well, approximately 30-minute) gratification?--compel him or her to summon a salaried member of the service sector to deliver an item he or she could procure quite easily and much more cheaply themselves? While we're at it, what kind of person works for such a servile company in the world capital of one-upmanship?

All good questions, agreed the editors of this magazine, and no doubt answerable via a short, snappy, George Plimptonesque essay-slash-adventure.

You bet.

"Who are our customers? I think the core group are what we would call young urban professionals," says Dan Frahm, the business-casual-clad CEO of, the parent company of Pink Dot. Frahm is a tall, slim 42-year-old with a thick helmet of iron-gray hair, and we are sitting in the small, spartan back office of Pink Dot's Century City outlet on Santa Monica Boulevard near Beverly Glen. Its exterior is painted white with manhole-sized fluorescent pink dots. On one side of the office's thin wall is a stockroom and walk-in freezer. Just south of the office door, a short Latino woman runs a small takeout deli.

Up front, open to the public, is what looks like a generic convenience mart--except that the phone rings constantly. The store manager, earpiece cradled on his shoulder, writes down orders while pitching his daily specials right back. Several other employees, order slips in hand, pluck items from the shelves, place them in plastic bags, then race out to the parking lot and into their well-worn cars and pickups, each topped by a magnetic plastic Pink Dot sign, and speed away.

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