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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The West Side (Rentals) Story

Hillel Aron |
March 23, 2010 | 2:56 p.m. PDT

Senior Editor

If you've lived in Los Angeles long enough, you've probably noticed little red signs peaking out from the green grass outside apartments, advertising for Westside Rentals, L.A.'s largest rental service. And if you've been to enough sporting events, perhaps you've noticed a man in a cape, dancing like maniac during timeouts and halftimes and such.

Perhaps you even know. That's Westside Rental Man. Perhaps you've stood by in bewildered amusement and wondered, what is this that I'm looking at? And why is it there?

I know I have.

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The restaurant at Santa Anita Park looks like an impossibly long airport bar, looming over the track like a control tower. There's less desperation than down below in the stands. Up here it's suits and ties, drinks and laughs.

Mark Verge, the owner of Westside Rentals, walks through the room at a breakneck clip. I practically have to jog to keep up. He chews his gum loud: "click click click." He wears a straw hat with a snakeskin band, a pale blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up hanging off his wiry frame.

He seems to know everyone here.

"Eddy!" he shouts across the room.

"Wendy!" he says to a waitress, stooping down give her a big hug.

"Jimmy the Hat!" Jimmy the Hat is a professional gambler and a legend of sorts.

Verge goes up to the window to place a few bets- a bit superfluous, since one of his horses, Life By RR, is racing in the fourth. The purse is $21,000.

"Wheels!" he shouts, looking past me.

Wheels is Doug O'Neil, Life By RR's trainer, and a friend of Verge's since the sixth grade.

"Wheels, let's go mess with T.J."

They shoot off to the other end of the restaurant, a good city block away, where, sitting with a few other men, is L.A.Times sports columnist T.J. Simers, whom Verge knows through their charity work at Mattel Children's Hospital.

"Don't you feel goofy in that hat?" T.J. asks.
"We need everyone to wear hats," Verge answers. "It should be a requirement here."

Verge and O'Neil head down to the stables to see Life By RR before the race. Even though his odds are 7-2, Life By RR has been racing a lot lately, and O'Neil thinks he might be tired.

"T. Baze!" shouts Verge.

Tyler Baze, the jockey, comes ambling into the stable, a Westside Rentals logo plastered across his fire engine red uniform.

O'Neil tells me that Life By RR is the kind of horse that likes to get out in front early and hopefully stay in the lead. So there isn't much strategy involved. O'Neil gives the jockey a bit of coaching: "Just go, go, go."

Back at the restaurant, we sit down at a table to watch the race on a tiny TV monitor. Life By RR comes out ahead but quickly falls behind.

"Come on T. Baze," says Verge. 

"He's got some left," says O'Neil.

The horses run in a tight pack, Life By RR boxed in the middle. As they round the bend, Tyler shifts to the outside, and the horse begins to gather steam, moving into fifth, then fourth. Verge and O'Neil stand up.

"Come on T. Baze!" shouts Verge.

"Shake em up!" shouts O'Neil, clapping.

"Come on T. Baze!"

"Shake em up!"

"Come on T. Baze!"

"Shake em up!"

And just like that, Life by RR is ahead, way ahead, it's not even close.

"Life By RR!" says the announcer as the horse crosses the finish line.

Verge and O'Neil scream.

"T. Baze!"

"Let's go!"

We follow Verge, who's laughing and shouting to people as they pass by congratulating him.

As we walk down to the winner's circle, we're joined by an assistant trainer, and then another. We gather more and more people: a business partner of Verge's, a family who met Doug at some point, Jimmy the Hat. A few others join the pack until Verge, like some gambling Pied Piper, is leading 18 of us to get our picture taken at the winner's circle, along with little T. Baze, looking glorious astride Life By RR, like a toy soldier in Mark Verge's army.

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The photo from the winner's circle. Doug is far left. I'm third from the left. Mark is fourth, Jimmy the Hat is sixth.


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Like so many in Los Angeles, Philip Parks is an aspiring actor. He sees himself following in the footsteps of Brad Pitt, who danced in a chicken costume for El Pollo Loco before getting discovered. Philip has had an agent, Jack Scagnetti, for more than 10 years.

"He had a good wholesome look, a good physique," Scagnetti remembers.

Scagnetti can't recall a single acting gig Parks has gotten except, of course, his role as Westside Rental Man.

Twelve years ago Parks was hitchhiking in Pasadena, and Mark Verge gave him a ride. Eight years later, Verge saw him again, at a Santa Monica College basketball game. Parks was dancing, for free, like a mascot without a team.

"I thought it was amazing," says Verge. "He's crazy."

Verge thought Parks was hysterical, thought that maybe there was a marketing opportunity to be had. Before long, Rental Man was born. (It wasn't Verge's first oddball marketing gimmick. Before Parks, the Westside Rental hearse was a common citing on the streets of LA.)

For the last three and a half years, Parks has donned a cape and a series of increasingly random hats, and danced in front of Westside Rental offices and sporting events across the city. As evidenced by dozens of you tube clips, he's danced everywhere from the Staples Center to a high school gym in Compton.


Rental Man runs in the 2010 LA Marathon, which he finished in 5:47
(Hillel Aron)

His dancing falls somewhere in between performance art and muscle spasms. When he's outside a Westside Rentals office, he'll go slow, like an underwater hip-hop dance, waving at cars, pleading for a honk or some kind of acknowledgment. At games, his dancing takes on a more desperately frenetic style, summoning the same supernatural energy he's used to run 10 marathons.

His arms move like windmills. He stomps. His fists pump. His eyes have a wild look about them. You'd never guess that he makes $60,000 a year.

He also raps, as shown in this TMZ video, taken from the time when Rental Man joined the WGA strike. When he's talking, he'll often punctuate a thought with a pop culture reference and rhyme.

I asked my Facebook friends for stories of Rental Man sightings.

Tony wrote:

He's annoying to the point where I start feeling bad because he's obviously mentally ill and I start to feel intolerant and judgmental. Last time I saw him he got removed by security and made a big show about it by continuing to dance while they threw him out of the arena.

Lindsay:

I talked to him in line at a Kings game. He is nice, but there is definitely a "mentally ill" vibe about him. I also saw him outside a Padres/Dodgers game (in SD) and he was screaming at everyone to go to his youtube page.

Ethan:

My girlfriend never has an unkind work for anyone, really. However, she speaks of "Westside Rental Man" with a disdain that I previously thought her incapable of. I also find him terribly annoying. He's like a human pop-up ad that

won't go away.

But perhaps the best story of all comes from Verge himself. He'd seen Eric Roth, screenwriter of such films as Munich and Forrest Gump (for which he won an Oscar), at Santa Anita, and wanted to interview him for PerfectBusinness.com (a website Verge started to help entrepreneurs). According to Verge, the conversation went something like this:

"I'm not gonna do this interview," said Roth.

"Eric, what's going on?" said Verge.

"You're the guy in charge of Rental Man."

"Yeah?"

"I gotta tell you something. You can go fuck yourself."

"Eric, you gotta be kidding." 

"No, I'm not kidding Mark. Fuck him, fuck you. And FUCK RENTAL MAN!"

About a week later, Roth apologized for his outburst, saying, "I'm sorry, I was having a bad day, and don't mean to get that mad... but, god, that guy makes me fuckin angry."

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When you get Mark Verge's voice mail greeting, you'll hear his voice saying:

Hey, this is Mark, hope everyone's having an up, up, upbeat day. I will talk to you soon. Leave me a message.

After we get our picture taken at the winner's circle, Verge goes back upstairs to collect his winnings ($500) and pay for his steak (which he barely touched, save for the few bites he had before the race started). Then he goes back to the Times columnist's table. Simers is in a better mood now -- maybe because he won money on Life By RR.

"Let me ask you something," says Simers, "Where do you get your energy from?"

"I got lucky," says Verge. "My dad: His mom begged him to pray that she die. 11 years old. And she died that night, she had cancer. Then he's 14, his dad passes away from cancer. He doesn't know what to do. Tries to join the navy, can't get in. Turns 15, takes his sister to get a prom dress, for SAMO high prom, she gets killed the next day. So like he says, life is good. No matter what happens, life is perfect."

The whole story is told so quickly, so matter-of-factly, that it takes a few minutes just to process it. Verge's father is a positive person. His parents died when he was teenager. And then his sister was killed. But instead of using the losses as an excuse to turn to a life of crime or alcoholism, he became a positive person.

"We were raised positive," Verge says, "Everyone would make fun of [my dad] 'cause [his attitude was] everything's great, everything's great. No matter what happens, life is perfect."

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"Rental Man, you gotta wear clean shirts to the games," Verge tells Parks, in the same tone you might use with a teenager who refuses to walk the dog. "I mean it's going crazy, the Clipper people are calling me up."

Parks looks down, embarrassed.

"Clean, clean shirts," says Verge, as he pats Parks on the back and walks away.

Handling Rental Man is a full time job. Literally. A few years ago, Verge hired Sammy Serious, a lead singer in a glam rock band, to be Parks' manager. Serious and Parks live together, rent-free, in a Westside Rentals owned apartment building.

"I think they're doing that to keep me under control," says Parks. "Sometimes I feel like I'm getting control, but maybe it's just my mind playing tricks on me."

Verge and Parks argue constantly. If it's not clean shirts, or Parks' mercurial mood swings, or cursing, or money, it's tickets. Parks wants good tickets to good games. He threatened to quit if Verge didn't send him to the Super Bowl.

"So quit," Verge told him. Rental Man didn't quit, and Verge finally broke down and sent him to the Super Bowl.

It happens all the time. Parks can be bitter and demanding.  Verge will retaliate by holding auditions to replace Parks. He did hire another Rental Man once, but the new guy only lasted for a few months. Not many people can handle the abuse.

"What do people say to you?" I ask Parks.

"Oh you're that crazy guy dancing. You're that weirdo."

"How does that make you feel?"

"Well I've heard it so many times, it's like, 'That's great, they recognize me.' Any publicity is good publicity. To a certain degree. As long as it doesn't get you in trouble with the law. But I just think, if they're gonna recognize you, that's pretty good. If they recognize you, that means you're doing something right. We all want to shine. Just like the song from Simply Red. I'm just trying to find a better adventure than Bill and Ted."

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Verge started Westside Rentals in 1996 when he was 28, after selling the coin shop he'd bought in college. It was tough going at first.

"It was honestly begging owners," he told the LA Times. "We'd do whatever it took to get that listing."

"We had listings that no one else had," says Kevin Miller, COO of Westside Rentals. "Those little gems - a guest house in Brentwood."

It was hard work. And yard signs. Those little red yard signs popped up everywhere.

Westside Rentals is now the largest rental service in Los Angeles. It has seven offices (from the San Fernando Valley to San Diego), 20,000 listings, and just under 100 employees. 

Customers may bristle at the $60 fee for 60 days of access to the rental database, but many still use it. Landlords get to list their apartments for free, although getting a listing taken down can be a bit tricky. One apartment manager I spoke with said that Westside Rentals leaves some apartments listed long after they're rented, possibly in order to artificially inflate their listings. 

Of all the businesses that Craigslist is destroying, Westside Rentals doesn't appear to be one of them. In fact, according to Mark, Craigslist has helped Westside Rentals by eliminating the competition. Meanwhile, there are enough people who want the security that Westside Rentals provides by running background checks on owners that list properties, watching out for scammers and shady landlords, although some dispute the accuracy of some listings and the liberal use of the word "adjacent." There's also the allegation that Westside Rentals lists apartments on the trial search that disappear once you pay for a membership.

"I get that all the time," says Verge, "I don't know why. It's not true. They're exactly the same."

Verge also co-owns 10 bars and restaurants with Cedd Moses, including Casey's Irish Pub and Cole's, a restaurant that, along with Philippe's, claims to be the originator of the French Dip sandwich.

Verge also owns stakes in 10 horses. And he recently wrote a book, Access to the Boys Club, a marriage-advice manual from a man's perspective, offering such tips as never go out past 11 p.m. without your wife.

Verge has been happily married to Lani, his Santa Monica High girlfriend, for 14 years.

"My wife swears she won't hear another business idea," says Verge. "'Cause I'm always, 'I got this idea! I got this idea! I wanna do a sock store!' And she hates it. So I'm not allowed to bring up business ideas. Ever again."

His latest venture is a radio show, based on his book, on AM830. He gives out marriage advice every Sunday morning from 10 to 11 a.m., along with his co-host, Ronnie Ebanks, aka "The Love Man," an ex-jockey poker player.

"That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard," says Simers, when he hears about the show. "How could you possibly fill up every week?"

Verge laughs.

For Verge, business and pleasure aren't just connected; they're practically the same things. He owns businesses with his friends. He becomes friends with his business partners. When he buys a horse or a bar, it's as much a social activity as anything.

"He's the kind of guy that'll give everyone a chance," says Kevin Miller, COO of Westside Rentals. "Not a lot of people would."

Mark Verge's success isn't due to his brilliant business skills. It's due to his passion, his energy, and the people he surrounds himself with. He worked tirelessly to make Westside Rentals LA's leading rental service. His wife, who has a degree in accounting, helped him with the finances. When he bought Casey's, the downtown Irish pub, he had no idea what he was doing. It wasn't until he brought Cedd Moses in to help that the place became profitable.

Verge has a way of pulling people into his orbit, all sorts of people, from all walks of life. Gamblers, musicians, businessmen, writers, and yes, even Philip Parks.

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The question I had was why Mark Verge would hire someone like high-strung as Philip Parks to be a human billboard, a human billboard that, as far as I can tell, manages to leave people annoyed, if not completely apoplectic.

"He cracks me up," Verge says.

"So it's for your own amusement?" I ask.

Verge smiles. "It's just... Who does that? Who keeps dancing?"

When Verge met Parks, he was impressed by his energy, which seemed, at the time, mostly positive. But Parks has a dark side, one that Verge doesn't quite understand. Rental Man's mood has gotten progressively more and more sour over the year. He's gained weight and lost a couple teeth. He's upset that he hasn't made it big yet. And he's lonely.

"My manager has a girlfriend, but I don't have a girlfriend, so sometimes there's some shock value," he says. "I'm the guy in the limelight, he's behind the scenes, and he has a girlfriend and I don't. It makes me just... freak out sometimes."

But Verge doesn't see this. He sees only two Parks: the happy, dancing, rapping, quoting Philip, the over-caffeinated clown; and the angry, delusional Philip, the disgruntled employee who wears dirty shirts.

"You gotta keep the positive energy," Verge implores Parks. "The only reason we have you... cause life is a comedy, not a drama."

"Laugh, the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone," says Parks.

"Exactly."


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