Egee Mabolis considers managing the notoriously screwed-up parking lot at the Trader Joe's in Silver Lake to be his sacred duty. He has dreamt of an old man, all in white, wandering the lot, watching him. It's always noon in the dream, and Mabolis is always standing beneath the blue umbrella at the base of the grassy slope behind the store, where he's stood every weekend and most weekdays for the past six years. The man is God, or maybe his grandfather, Mabolis says, and he's helping him take care of the shoppers, to keep them safe.
The lot is a neighborhood bottleneck whose poor design is amplified by its unfortunate location: It sits on the hilly community's primary northwestern thoroughfare, Hyperion Avenue, just between vital intersections with Griffith Park Boulevard and Rowena Avenue. During rush hour and on weekends, it's not unusual for it to take 15 agonizing minutes to get in and find a space. Budget an extra 10 if you're making a left turn into the lot and aren't first in line.
What jams the flow? The 98 parking spots snake thinly around the building, with hardly any space for waiting cars. Often, those idling at the main entrance are unable to move forward, leaving the trunks of vehicles making left turns into the lot lingering awkwardly in the street. Traffic slows; tempers flare.
Mabolis remains calm. With his gentle, firm manner, he beckons each car just far enough forward to conserve space while avoiding a fender bender.
Shielding his eyes from the sun with his hard white safari hat, a gift from a customer, he conducts a complicated symphony of departures and arrivals, signaling who is next in line and who must wait.
Most drivers trust him because he is tall and his pensive face indicates that he takes his job seriously. Some sneer at his tan AGI security uniform and yell out their windows, cursing and impatient.
One Trader Joe's stock man calls Mabolis, 28, “the hardest-working man in Silver Lake,” and he has certainly become a local hero of sorts since moving here in late 2007 from the Philippines.
Every few minutes during a recent lunch hour at Mezè, the Mediterranean café down the street, someone waves from a car or approaches on foot to say hello, what's up, how's it going. “Nice to see you, brother!” he replies. Mezè's owner brings him free Coke; he also gets discounts at Pizza Hut and Hyperion Cleaners. During the holidays, regular customers bring him cash, crackers and fruit. When he's shopping at Target, they approach with arms outstretched, looking for a hug.
Everyone in Silver Lake has tricks to avoid the Trader Joe's crush. Some will shop only on Tuesdays at 10 a.m., or leave their cars at the small overflow lot half a block away. Others park at the Gelson's across the street, walking a circuitous route to avoid eye contact with the manager, who sometimes lurks outside looking for people with the telltale brown-and-red paper bags to yell at. (Mabolis confides that Gelson's never actually tows their cars.)
Mabolis himself has never owned a car, and doesn't like to drive. He rides his bike everywhere and says there are only 20 automobiles on Dinagat Island, the small island where he grew up in the Southern Philippines. He finds it a little funny that his life's work is so tied up in managing cars.
Of course, he came to the United States for a woman. In 2007, he met his American-born wife while she was vacationing in the Philippines. (He courted her with motorbike rides to the beach.) When she became pregnant, he moved to Los Angeles and started teaching himself English. His job at the security company was the first one he found, and after posting him at a graveyard, an apartment building in Venice and a Whole Foods in Sherman Oaks, the company presented him with a challenge: the Silver Lake Trader Joe's.
It was difficult work, to say the least.
“At first, I told myself, 'I'm gonna quit. I'm gonna quit,'?” he says. “But I always pray to the God, like, 'I can do this. I can do this,' you know. I need to help these people.”
Mabolis says his faith and solicitude are a family legacy. His maternal grandfather, Moises Ecleo, and his grandfather's brother, Ruben Ecleo Sr., were healers who founded a religious organization, the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association, or PBMA, in 1965. Followers believe Ecleo Sr. to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and his entire family to be holy.
Outside of Dinagat Island, however, the PBMA is widely described as a paramilitary cult run by a corrupt family dynasty, which controls the political, religious and economic lives of its 125,000 followers. According to Arturo Garcia, national coordinator for the L.A.-based Justice for Filipino American Veterans, the national government tends to look the other way when it comes to accusations of murder, graft, sexual assault and cannibalism among PBMA leaders, allowing them virtual autonomy in exchange for keeping at bay various jihadist and communist groups in the region.
But when Mabolis talks about his family, he does so with pride. As a young boy, he recalls, a scorpion bit his father's ankle, causing it to swell enormously. His grandfather arrived, dressed all in white and walking an inch off the ground. He blew on the bite and, within minutes, the swelling subsided.
The stakes of Mabolis' stateside mission can be just as high. When he is absent, minor accidents are common, but the only collision that has ever occurred on his watch happened when an older woman stormed out of her car to call him an asshole, forgetting to shift gears. The car rolled away without her, crashing into some parked vehicles.
For three years, he did the Trader Joe's job alone, six days a week. Then, in 2011, he asked for backup, and now two or three guards will work the lot at once. Mabolis has trained nearly 25 other people, three of whom quit after only one day.
His advice to newbies? Don't knock on car windows. Focus on helping old people and the disabled, even if they give you the finger. If people scream, yell and curse, don't respond. Just smile and say thank you.
Because of his family's power and reputation, Mabolis never had to deal with strangers swearing at him back home in the Philippines.
“Anywhere I go on the island, people are so nice,” he says. “When I play basketball, they give me white flowers, because I am an Ecleo.”
Mabolis grew up in a 26-room mansion, shared with members of the extended family and five full-time servants. Construction of that mansion and a few others owned by the Ecleo family was funded by dues and entrance fees from PBMA followers.
Still, Mabolis says he earns much more working at the parking lot than he would have back home. He makes only $10.50 an hour, but it's enough to cover $400 in rent for the garage he shares with a co-worker and to send money home every two weeks. Accumulated over the past few years, his parking-lot wages paid for a new house for his parents and three American-born children, who were sent to Dinagat Island after he and his wife separated a few years ago.
None of his Filipino friends in L.A. knows Mabolis is part of the PBMA, and he rarely goes to church anymore. But he misses his grandmother's kinilaw, the star apples and the pungent durian fruit. He wants his children to grow up in the PBMA, and at the end of April he's headed back to the Philippines, his first trip home since he came to the United States.
Mabolis says he hopes Trader Joe's customers will be cautious when he is gone.
“He was off yesterday for 10 minutes, and he was still helping people,” Trader Joe's employee James Burbank says.
Once, in the parking lot, Mabolis saw two guys rolling on the ground, locked in fisticuffs. He ran over, stopped the scuffle and asked each man to explain his side of the story.
“OK, we don't need to fight,” he told them when they had finished talking. “Calm down. It's only a parking lot.”
Mollified by his presence, the two agreed to leave one another alone.
And then they went shopping.
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