Photos by Cristina Dunlap
After Americans filed their income taxes earlier this year, a study was published that proved something was missing: About $2 trillion in unreported earnings. From gardeners to mechanics, to dog walkers and construction workers, more and more Americans are working for cash and keeping their earnings secret from Uncle Sam and the Internal Revenue Service.
Lars Perner, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing at the University of Southern California, says California's gray economy is huge compared to elsewhere in the country. As Americans lost their jobs in the recession, they started looking for alternate income streams, marketing themselves for a wide variety of services on Craigslist and through personal connections. "It's a much larger issue here in Los Angeles because you have this urban economy, and you have a lot of people from different ethnic and immigrant groups," he said.
There is a fear that once one starts working in the shadows, it will be harder to get back into the light. Says Perner, "This is something that might start in a downturned economy, but one of the problems is, can you put this on your resume later on?" Other potential issues include security and safety—now and years down the line—not to mention the fear of an IRS audit. One thing is clear: This new American underground is pumping money into the mainstream economy and moving the country towards stability. We hit the streets of LA to see just who's raking in this cash.
Wuilber, 25, ice cream push cart operator, $1,000/month
An undocumented Mexican immigrant who came to America when he was two, Wuilber has been in and out of both trouble and jail, but never convicted. After splitting a disc in his back working out five years ago, he could no longer continue working at the warehouse where he was on payroll with phony papers. Then, after slipping into a meth addiction, he lost his job as an oil lube technician. Now he's out pushing an ice cream cart up to nine hours straight. He makes $50 on a good day.
"I just need money, and this is the way I earn it. Money goes, money comes," he says. "Transportation, food, sunblock… I wear a lot of sunblock. Shoes… This job, the bad thing about it is people get warts under their feet, so I spend every two weeks at least $20 worth of wart killers. Dr. Scholl's for the cushions under the feet, they wear out. Hopefully I'll just stick to this and not do drugs and alcohol. I'll be sober. I'll live sober. Because I do really want a house, a wife, and kids and stuff."
Steven, 23, costumed Batman, $10-$30/day
A couple months ago, Steven moved to Los Angeles from the Bay Area looking to break into film. He lives in Lake View Terrace with his aunt, who works at Warner Brothers. He's got hopes to start acting, writing, directing, and producing. He says he can "do it all."
Having spent just a couple of weeks on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, Steven says "Between me and the other Batmans out here, it's like mine is a Halloween store costume versus their Comic Con-quality costumes. There's no competition… It's really all in the way you approach people."
Ana, 50, Tita, 44, bottle collectors, $20/day
A couple of days a week Ana and Tita collect bottles from the recycling bins that are brought out to the curbs around their neighborhood for city pickup. Respectively Mexican and El Salvadorian immigrants, they say it only takes about an hour and brings in a little extra income.
It's not easy or glamorous though. Says Ana, "There's bacteria and broken bottles that will cut you."
April, 29, club bottle service, $1,000 to $5,000 / night
After moving from Chicago to Las Vegas to work as an architect, April found the office environment too stuffy for her liking and entered the nightlife world after answering an ad to work at the Playboy Club.
"I was making maybe $35,000 to start as an architect," she says. "I made that maybe in three months time in Vegas. What are you going to do? And it was so much fun."
She used to work five nights a week, but is now down to two and spends her days at auditions and acting gigs. About all of her income comes from tips, which the club pays out in cash at the end of each night. Twenty percent is a standard tip, she says, but high rollers tip more, sometimes up to $40,000 in a night. "But at most places you share with your co-workers," she says. "Otherwise it gets catty."
Daisy, 28, marijuana dealer and dispensary clerk, $4,000/month
Aside from the 31 under-the-table hours Daisy puts in at a medical marijuana dispensary sales counter each week, she works to connect the dots between wholesale distributors and other shops around the city. If someone has an extra pound of pot to sell, she'll help broker that deal with another store and take a cut off the top. She also sells to a select few of her close friends from her home.
"It's not something that I'm necessarily proud of," she says. "But I'm not ashamed of it either. This is what I do. I introduce people, just like an agent does. It's the same thing. It's just the fact that this is federally illegal."
Shannon, 42, escort, $5,000/month
The first night Shannon ever "hooked" she was 26 and working as a stripper in San Francisco. A client asked her how much for sex, and she threw out a large, random figure: $20,000. The john obliged and bought her a flight to meet him in Aspen to deliver about seven blowjobs a day as he called out her name.
Since then, her rates have decreased to about $1,000 a night and she works mostly with several select clients with whom she gets very emotional, for better or worse. It's just a part of the outlandish saga she's putting together in a memoir titled Anything but a Wasted Life. She says, "If Larry David were a stripper for 20 years, this could be his memoir."
"Furry" Murray, 53, magician, $120/day
Murray, a former clinical laboratory scientist, following a divorce needed a change and saved up for two years to pursue his dream of becoming a full-time magician. With seven years of practicing magic to his credit, he also does kids and adult parties.
"It's very up and down doing this," he says, as casual observers pass him on the street. "You get a lot of lookie-loos."
Pinky, 26, part-time nanny, $300/week
Pinky also owns her own business selling fashion accessories, and works display and sales at Anthropologie, both of which are taxed incomes. As a nanny, she works for one family about 13 hours a week and is mostly paid in checks.
"I've been nannying 'illegally' since I was 12, so I guess I never really thought of it as being bad," she says. "It's never felt like it's a substantial enough income to worry about paying taxes on it."
Mauricio the "Snake God", 24, street spectacle, $1,200/week
When he moved to Hollywood three years ago, the straight-edge LA-native Mauricio would take his pet snakes out for walks around the neighborhood. When tourists kept asking to have their picture taken with his reptile friends, he started collecting donations.
Now he owns 13 snakes and aside from hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard with the imitation superheros and celebrity impersonators about four days a week, he's regularly hired for photo shoots, music videos, and fashion shows, and "anything people need snakes for."
Malice, 38, stripper, $0-$100/night
Malice's main reason for stripping is simple: "I've never been good at hardly anything else," she says. "I couldn't have a normal job, especially now covered in tattoos. So I get to have freedom, and that's what I love. I get to have personal freedom in my identity."
After more than 10 years in the business, she moonlights in LA as a go-go dancer for live concerts and music videos. "Stripping is so bad in LA" she says. "In Portland we averaged $300 night dancing onstage, but here in LA, I'd be lucky if I make $100 in a night. And some nights it's zero."
Tom, 69, frontyard vinyl salesman, $2,000/month
Selling records from his lawn is part of this former organizational development specialist's retirement plan. Aside from Social Security, this is his only source of income.
"It's the best I can do without working hard," he says. "I decided when I retired that in order to make some money I would only do what I really wanted to do. This isn't the most lucrative work in the world but it keeps me happy."
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