The Day Rick Saved the Stars and Stripes

Photo by Jim Roark Rick Monday grabbing the Am...
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Ah, October. Autumn arrives and with it the final leaves of a 4860 game baseball season begin to fall as the competition is reduced to twelve teams across six divisions and two leagues.

As a young man, our four-boy family ritual of male bonding included trips to Chavez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Elysian Fields neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was the center of the baseball firmament – the sacred home stadium of the Dodgers. Each season, our “boys in blue” would battle the hated San Francisco Giants and the despised Cincinnati Reds for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and the traffic of sporting events as they equated to a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and filthy public urinals. Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was usually located in a very rough neighborhood.

Despite his misgivings, he understood the need to allow his boys to experience the electric atmosphere of a stadium packed with rabid fans and to witness young men who had so honed their athletic talents that they were afforded the chance to play Major League Baseball.

It was 1976 – America’s Bicentennial year – and it seemed everyone was declaring their independence. I was a surly freshman in high school and could not create enough distance between myself and my father. His existence annoyed me. Every syllable he uttered skidded like fingers on a chalk board. I cringed at the way he ate, talked and even breathed.  It seemed that his principle job description was to control my life.

My mother had already crossed this hostile adolescent desert with my two older brothers and suggested to him that we spend some father-son time at a Dodger Game. On this sunny April Sunday, it would be a chance for my Dad to see his beloved Chicago Cubs and for me to reconnect with a more innocent time of Topps baseball cards, the chance to catch a foul ball and if we were lucky, a nostalgic glimpse of a time when my Dad was viewed as mentor instead of tormentor.

We exited the Pasadena freeway on to Academy Road, winding through a densely populated, graffiti-scarred neighborhood of chain linked front yards. Run down homes built in the 1930’s were perched on steep hillsides with laundry on clotheslines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in the spring breeze. Like clockwork, my Dad told me to keep my eyes peeled. I suddenly remembered why I did not like going to sporting events with my father. The toughest person we actually saw on the street was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.

“Careful, Dad, that grandmother might have a gun”, I said sarcastically.

At 16, I had begun to routinely challenge my father’s conservative peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity. Dad had finally come to recognize when I was baiting him and ignored the provocation, writing it off as the price of being together. He was a creature of habit – robotically driving the exact route, to the same parking area, to the same space– a location furthest from the stadium and closest to the exit.

My father’s greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when Los Angeles’ great social insurrection occurred. He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure was always building. One day, urban rebellion would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest. When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of peasant farmers with pitchforks decided it was time to take back California. It was a thankless time for my Dad. I had spent the last year challenging his views on everything. I complained about the distance we had to walk to enter the stadium. He walked slightly ahead – eager for a coke and the cool shade of the concession area.

I was impressed as we were directed by an usher to field level seats off the first base line. The Dodgers were expected to be decent this year and showed some promise with a line-up that featured Billy Buckner, Ted Sizemore, Ron Cey and Steve Garvey. The meat of the Cub lineup was Rick Monday and Bill Madlock.

As we sat down, I suddenly saw a different side of my father that afternoon as he began to rattle off statistics and insights into his favorite Cub players and the pitching match ups.

“The Cubs will probably lose. They have no damn pitching this year and there’s nobody to support Monday and Madlock. Those cheapskates the Wrigleys are too tight to pay for good players. They are no better than that idiot GM Jim Finks for the Bears who won’t get them a decent quarterback to help Butkis and the defense out. Monday hit .267 with 17 homers last year. He is hitting .365 now and is on fire. Steve Stone was 12-8 last year but his ERA was too high at 3.95. But, the numbskull likes to give up the long ball”

My Dad wasn’t even looking at me. He was like a little kid playing with soldiers, chatting away to invisible friends. He spotted Roger Owens, the famous peanut vendor.

“Michael, remember this guy? He once threw you a bag of peanuts between his legs over ten rows.”

“Hey Roger!”

He held up some money. The popular redheaded peanut vendor smiled and pointed at my father. He was four rows over and six rows up. Owens whirled and shot a bag of peanuts behind his back. Dad snapped them up as they flew above his head. There was a smattering of applause as he handed $4 to a daisy chain of fans who passed the money up to Owens.

The actual game was a nail biter that was likely to be decided by one run. However, the game proved to be a mere sideline to the drama that unfolded in front of 25,000 fans.

Heading into the bottom of the fourth inning, a fan and has 11-year old son leaped on to the grass of the outfield. Initially met by raucous applause, our cheers quickly turned to boos when people realized their intentions. My Dad turned to me and said, “Hey, give me those binoculars!” I heard him swear as he hissed, “that son-of-a-bitch Communist is trying to burn an American flag!” As he said “Flag”, I saw Cub outfielder, Rick Monday, rush past the protestors and grab the flag. The stadium went berserk and cheered even louder as security roughly escorted the agitators from the outfield. I looked up to see an entire small town of Americans standing and cheering.

“Dad, can you believe that?”

I looked over and saw that my father was almost crying. He was clapping his hands so hard that they must have hurt. “Atta Boy, Monday!” Dad was one of the last people to sit down as the game resumed. In his next at bat, Monday received another standing ovation from the grateful crowd.

The scoreboard flashed, “Rick Monday, you made a great play!” Dad stood again applauding the young Cub player who as it turned out, was also an ex-marine. I was about to tell him to calm down and sit but somewhere in the back of my adolescent brain, I knew this was the right thing to do. I stood up beside him and started clapping again. He turned to me and shouted over the din, “That’s what makes this country great. It’s patriotism. It’s goddamn patriotism. Don’t ever forget that!”

I suddenly felt a surge of pride.  It was an awkward feeling to feel pride for being part of something bigger than you when you seemingly had made no contribution.  But, I had witnessed something special. I was proud of Rick Monday, proud of my Dad and proud to be an American.  In the thirty-five years that would follow, I cannot not recall a time when I saw my father so spontaneously happy.  It happened as fast a lit match – – a hero deciding to take action.  I realized action is what heros were all about – normal people, that in an instance, stopped watching and started moving.

The following year, Rick Monday was traded to the Dodgers and helped lead them to two division pennants. He became a permanent family favorite and a role model for a new generation looking for reliable points of reference in a rapidly changing society.

A Guide To The Golden State

California State Route 1 shield
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A Guide To The Golden State

Each August, we pack two shirts, shorts, swimsuits, flip-flops and a few pair of underwear and return like swallows to California to see family, dive into the emerald Pacific and run down our self esteem comparing ourselves to legions of cosmetically altered people who resemble clothing store mannequins.

As native Californians, we often hear friends planning a trip out West. It’s always good to get an insiders perspective. To help you maximize your trip and avoid unnecessary embarrassment, I offer a primer on the Golden State – it’s psychology, its citizenry and its odd etiquette.

First, a lesson in geography. California is a fractured amalgam, comprised of semi- autonomous regions similar to Spain — the country from which we initially stole California.  Its massive GDP makes the state the 9th largest economy in world with a current debt rating just above the Ukraine and Romania.  The regions are defined by geography and a maximum allowed number of Whole Foods stores.  These Baltic bastions include: Southern Cal, Central Cal, Northern Cal and all points north of Napa Valley.

Southern Cal extends from the Mexican border crossings east to Palm Desert and north to Malibu. Orange Counts and San Diegans take exception to this unilateral annexation of their regions but other than beaches, Marines, Fashion Island and a few amusement parks, Orange County and San Diego serve as Southern Cal’s pimped out basement.

LA is an area, not a place. NYC is a place but in La-La Land there is no center. Do not go to downtown LA.  There is nothing there but street urchins, Staples Center and New York restaurants. If you are going to stay in LA, stay in Westwood, Santa Monica or Manhattan Beach.  Beverly Hills is expensive and overrated.  Do not go to the San Fernando Valley – again, nothing there.

Do not go to Malibu thinking you will bump into Matthew McConnahey frolicking with his perfect body in the surf. His beach is private and the size of a postage stamp.  If you must go to Malibu, have dinner at the Saddle Peak Lodge in Malibu Canyon. It is a 1930’s hunting lodge set back in the Santa Monica Mountains. Order the bear or buffalo. Be sure to make your reservation between the annual fire and mudslide seasons.

If you must go to Venice Beach to see the orange, veiny psychotic people who roller skate while juggling chain saws, take one hour, leave the car running and then head south to Newport Beach to walk, lie out and body surf. Go to Balboa Island and the Fun Zone. Order Mexican food – this is where nachos were invented. Attend the Sawdust festival in Laguna Beach and see the Pageant of the Masters .

When you finally visit Southern California beaches, understand there is an implicit beach towel ” no fly zone” equal in length to the heighth of the largest adult in your party.  I am not sure what it is about the Coney Island syndrome where people must connect their towels in some grotesque quilt of humanity.  People from the East Coast and other countries seem to have no problem with family style sunbathing – choosing to lay their blankets within centimeters of another group of strangers.

In addition to enduring your major violation of sunbathing personal space, the offended party gets an unsolicited stereo concert of your family dysfunction as you scold your kids, talk about your sister-in-law and comment ad nauseum about the perfect weather.  This is in addition to witnessing your alabaster folds of manatee skin as you use an entire bottle of SPF 45 on your back.

Central California begins 50 miles north and inland once you descend the desolate stretch of I-5 known as the Grape Vine. The name is a misnomer as there are no grapes here, let alone flora of any kind.  It is appears that 1-5 may have been a US Army testing ground for the defoliant, Agent Orange.  In the spring these same barren hillsides of chaparral are a rolling ocean of tangerine poppies.  Think of The Wizard of Oz and the creepy wicked witch voice,” poppies, poppies..”

Inland Central California, aka the San Joaquin Valley, is the hub for earthquakes, mortgage defaults, agriculture and long, vacant stretches of interstate as uninspired and vacuous as Paris Hilton. The Central California coast between Malibu, up to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and ultimately Big Sur, denies even knowing its inland sibling.  It is embarrassed to admit any affiliation and stands a bit like Barcelona and the Catalans – bold and independent. In 1968, Central Coasters attempted to create their own language but the Santa Barbarians could not unlock their jaws to enunciate the pronoun “dude” and the fleeting dialect died.

Northern Cal really begins at Carmel although geographically, San Francisco marks the center of the state.  Everything about Northern California is unique. It is home to academics, inventors, militant activists, people of every sexual orientation and Nancy Pelosi. Anything one could ever desire is within a two hour drive of San Francisco – which is quite a contrast to LA where a two hour drive gets you about five miles from Westwood to Marina Del Rey on the 405 freeway.

In a 200 miles radius, one can visit Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Pebble Beach, Muir Woods, Sequoia National Park, and Napa as well as the Gold Country and Sutter’s Mill where in 1849, the face of America changed forever with the flash of a nugget in the rippling shallows of the American River. Northern Californians do not like Southern Californians.  So Cal steals their water through a mischievous artery called the California aqueduct.  And then just to spite them, Los Angelinos flush their toilets incessantly and keep the water on while brushing their whitened teeth. Angelinos are also arsonists, ritualistically starting brush fires each October because their homes have negative equity and they want to collect insurance.

San Francisco is ground zero for militant liberalism.  It is the most inclusive city west of Amsterdam and prides itself on sniffing out discrimination wherever its insidious tendrils may be taking root.  Legislation has actually been passed to protect the ugly (who is actually going to claim being hit with the ugly stick?), the overweight and the excessively sweaty.

The City is the home of brotherly love – literally, and it is a sight to behold when the gay pride parade courses through the Castro district.  Men dressed as high school flag girls work complex routines more adroitly than any of the girls that went to my high school. In this wonderfully nutty Eden, or Gomorrah, depending on your religious views, you can call a girl a “dude” and a guy a “chick”. It is a melting pot of ideas, cultures, mores and yes, Nancy Pelosi.

If you cross the Golden Gate, you enter magnificent Marin County home of the pony tailed, Birkenstocked aging hipsters who spike their own trees and grow their own produce.  They are Dead Heads, iconoclasts and counter-culturalists. To visit Marin and hike in the shade of twisted native oaks on Mt Tamalpais is to know serenity. If someone offers to sell you marijuana, do not accept the invitation. He/ she is most likely an undercover cop.  True Marin County residents grow their own “herbs” and give it away like tomatoes and zucchini to neighbors.

Once beyond Marin and through Napa – it gets a bit, how should we say, rustic?

You still have several hours along 1-5 to get to the Oregon border.  This is the true Northern California but most do not acknowledge it as anything other than the home of Sasquatch (Bigfoot), meth labs, pot farms and Mt Shasta.

A few simple tips when visiting the Golden State:

1) Never, ever say ” Callie” when describing the state of California.  “Callie” is the name of a 14-year=old golden retriever with bad hips. She is a horse one step from the glue factory that your children ride at a Bronx petting zoo.  To castrate the Golden state’s name is to defile it and show your provincialism with the excruciating effect of nails across a blackboard. Yes, it is a stupid and parochial reaction to an innocent abbreviation but hey, we cannot help it.

2) Do not, I repeat, ever refer to the City of San Francisco as “Frisco”.  Frisco is the guy Jack Wagner played on the soap opera “General Hospital”. Frisco is the name of a down and out character trying to change his luck on “Fantasy Island.” (The plane! the plane!)To a Northern Californian, when you reference San Francisco – you acknowledge it simply as ” The City”. I know most of you believe there is really only one “City” and it is called The Big Apple. However, there are two – and the other is a jewel by the bay.

To a Southern Californian, you are free to refer to San Francisco as the Bay Area or “that screwed up place where all the liberal nut jobs live and accuse us of stealing water.”

3) Do not get your colon cleansed, your tongue pierced or model for someone who promises to introduce you to Sting if you show a tad more skin. If driving and someone flips you off, just smile and wave.  They have a gun and have probably killed three people that same day.

In the end, do not feel out of place.  Everyone is from somewhere other than California. The difference is they are trying to be someone else. You, on the other hand, don’t care that you are wearing black socks, sneakers, and shorts and possess skin whiter than a harp seal.

Have fun and if you see Sting — give him my regards.

From Russia With Love

Cover of "From Russia with Love (James Bo...
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From Russia With Love

 

In the summer of 1971, I saw the movie, “Dr Strangelove – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”   At 10 years old, I did not totally appreciate the bizarre characters like Brigadier General Jack D Ripper or Dr. Strangelove.  I could not entirely understand why Slim Pickens aka Major TJ  “ King” Kong rode the atomic bomb out of the B52 bomber like a bucking bronco.  However, I clearly understood that the US and Russia were fighting a Cold War.  My fiery imagination was stoked by a father who was constantly criticizing the US for letting down its guard against “commies” and “spies”.  Hollywood was full of “Reds” and while Senator Joseph McCarthy did his best in the 50’s to root out these ideological weeds, communist dogma was invasive and required relentless vigilance to detect and remove political parasites.  The entertainment industry, Congress, all of Europe and even our church had been infiltrated by the vodka swilling, plate breaking, Gulag operating, godless collectivists who were just biding their time waiting for the last capitalist to sell them the rope that they would hang us with.

I had to do my patriotic duty and keep our neighborhood safe for democracy.  This required me to develop a clandestine intelligence organization to inform on any person who might be providing secrets to the enemy.  I was not sure what secrets the Reds could gather from a neighborhood that was more boring than watching paint dry. However, one never knew where a sleeper cell might be cocooned.  Authors like Robert Ludlum described how sleeper agents could lay dormant for a generation.  A Manchurian candidate could be activated with a simple phone call. 

 

“ Is this Mrs. Ruth Turpin of 1828 Windsor Road?”

 

“ Yes, who is this?”

 

” Sasha sells sea shells by the sea shore.”

With this heavily accented, tongue twisting alliteration, my mother, the sleeper agent, would go into a brainwashed trance, drive her station wagon up the winding mountain roads of Mt. Wilson and blow up the radio tower disabling all radio and TV transmissions across the San Gabriel valley, isolating us from the outside world. Just up the street in Pasadena was Cal Tech, a bastion of high IQ engineers, rocket scientists and astrophysicists.  We were indeed a tempting target.  The 64,000 ruble question was which of my neighbors might be actually conspiring to sabotage our town.  Could the confederate turn out to be someone we never suspected like green thumbed Mr. Seidell who upon being “ activated” would fly across the country to Washington DC and attempt to assassinate President Nixon with his trowel?  Spies were clever and not easy to catch.  They were ruthless and not above posing as retirees, gardeners and even parents. 

I recruited my friends to assist me in patrolling our neighborhood.  Of particular interest was Mr. Harmon who lived across the street with his parents and kept odd hours.  We also had some concerns about Mr. Meister who routinely screamed at us to get off his lawn.  Vodka and socialism made people angry and loud.  Perhaps, Mr. Meister missed the snow of Moscow and was annoyed at the constant sun and temperate climate of Southern California.  On a warm summer afternoon, armed with binoculars, a Polaroid camera and walkie-talkies, we embarked on a series of information gathering patrols. 

The next morning, my mother received several angry calls from neighbors who were concerned over a disturbed child peering into windows, crawling through juniper bushes and in one case, taking a photograph.   Although I was not identified in person, the default accusation on our block was to always blame the Turpin boys.  Annoyed, and lacking actionable information, my mother could not deduce the identity of the young peeping Tom.  As all good spies do, I convincingly lied when interrogated. I even provided an alibi. While she could not prove anything, she lectured me about people’s personal privacy.  If she only knew that we had already uncovered some seamy information about some of our “upstanding “neighbors, including the disgusting fact that ultra tan Mr. Brown sunbathed in the nude and mowed his backyard in a Speedo while Mrs. Franke watched him from her adjacent upstairs window.  It seemed moral decline was everywhere.

 

My parents were naïve and did not understand the town was teeming with traitors.I even suspected my brother of selling information to foreign agents.  He was a weak individual with liberal ideas.  I searched his room and discovered a magazine stuffed between his mattresses.   It was called amazingly “ From Russia With Love” and had a beautiful woman in a provocative pose on the cover. It was obviously intended for fans of the 1963 James Bond thriller starring Sean Connery. The magazine was weathered and torn.  I opened it and to my delight and shame, I saw photographs of naked “Russian” women.  None of these women looked sinister like Spectre agent Rosa Klebb, the spy who attempted to kill James Bond with a poison tipped knife that jutted out from the end of her boot.  No, these women seemed, well – – more open to détente.  

 As any dedicated spy would, I immediately disappeared behind the garage for to “study” the magazine to be certain that if I ever saw any of these women in public, I could identify them, even with their clothes on.

 

After committing each page to memory, I carefully tucked the magazine under my pillow and went off to school ready to share what I had learned with my friends in homeroom.  I knew my brother would not report the magazine as missing.  Yet, as I was sitting through Social Studies class, my mother was fatefully making my bed. I rode home in record time, as I was eager to examine the magazine models for other distinguishing features – beauty marks etc.  As I walked in the back door, I immediately knew that something was not right.  I was escorted into the dining room, which was the center for all corrective action.  My mother looked overly concerned and for a moment I thought there had been a death in the family.  “ Honey, is there anything you want to talk to me or your dad about?”  I was stumped and then I saw the magazine on the chair next to her.  “ That’s not mine.” I protested.  “ It’s Tom’s!”  I protested to no avail. She remained convinced of my guilt.  “The neighbors have been complaining about someone peeking in their windows and now I have found this adult magazine in your room. I think you and dad need to have a talk. “

Suddenly, it hit me.  It was all so clever – I had been framed.  I was obviously getting too close to someone or something and “they” wanted me out of the way. Like my Dad always said, those Reds are pretty determined and would go to great lengths to remove any threat.  Later that evening I endured my father’s unimaginative lecture on the birds and the bees.  I had already heard a more graphic and entertaining version from Dennis Higgins in gym class.  It would do me no good to attempt an explanation to my Dad.  I would have to endure this punishment and bide my time. 

One thing was certain.  When I got older, I wanted to join the CIA – especially if it meant interrogating one of those Russian women.  After all, I was probably the only guy who could pick them out of a police line up.

 

The Anxious Dodger

Dodger Stadium
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The Anxious Dodger

A springtime ritual of male bonding in 1970’s Los Angeles meant trips to Chávez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles.  It was the epicenter of our baseball universe – the sacred home stadium where each year our Los Angeles Dodgers would battle for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and traffic of sporting events.  Attending a game with 60,000 fans was a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and public urinals.  Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was located in a very rough neighborhood.

The LA Coliseum in South Central LA hosted the 1932 Olympics, the Rams, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans and the 1968 Watts riots.  The Forum – home of the Lakers and Kings -was like Fort Apache precariously located in Inglewood, an area with more guards, barbed wire and barred windows than Folsom prison.  Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Los Feliz Hills in East Los Angeles.  East LA was often depicted in the media as an area dominated by gangs and drive by shootings. My father’s suburban anxiety manifested itself each time we would attend Dodger game.  His paranoid behavior made our long day’s journey an emotional roller coaster as we rode shotgun scanning alleys and side streets for potential assailants.

While we lived less than thirty minutes drive from the actual ballpark, we would literally leave hours before the game, as my father did not want to ever be stuck in traffic.  To the chagrin of his sons and wife, he was not particularly fond of going out.  After a hard week at work, he subscribed to the FIFO method of socializing – – first in, first out.

We would exit the freeway winding through densely populated, graffiti stained neighborhoods of chain linked front yards where laundry hung on clothes lines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in a mistral wind. Like clockwork, my father would tell us to duck down in our seats and lock the doors. The toughest person I saw on the street before having my head jammed into my collarbone was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.  “ Careful, dad, that baby might put a cap in our rear end”, my older brother said sarcastically.  At 15, he had begun to challenge my father’s peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity.

A magnificent 1970 Chevy Impala low-rider rumbled past – its occupants patrolling their barrio.  The chrome wheels and custom sapphire blue paint job reflected the hazy midday sun. It was the ultimate Chicano cruiser and we were very impressed.  My brother started to roll his window down.  “ He dude, that’s a cool ca…” My father grabbed him and shoved him down in his seat. “Jesus H Christ. You want to get us killed?”  The driver was a handsome tan twenty-something with arm tattoos and wrap around sunglasses.  He dismissed us with a nod and continued rolling down the street.  My brother continued. “ Dad what does H stand for in Jesus’ name? And isn’t his name really pronounced ‘hey-soos?’ Mexican people are still pissed off about us stealing California from them, dad. I hear they carry machetes and if your car breaks down they cut your head off and stick it on their front porch flag pole as a warning to other people who short cut through the barrio.”

“I’m scared,” I whined.  My brother looked at me disgusted, “ I’m just joking, you peon!”

My father had had enough and looked ready to explode from the goading and logistical anxiety of driving four boys to a baseball game on a hot, smoggy Sunday afternoon.  “If you don’t keep quiet, I’ll ‘peon’ you” he snapped.  My brother started laughing immediately and then my other brother realized what my father had said.  I finally appreciated the double entendre and laughed extra loud to convince all that I had known all along that my father was threatening to urinate on my brother.

He would park in the same area, Lot Y – the furthest space from the stadium and closest to the exit of the parking lot.  His greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when LA’s great social insurrection occurred.  He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure would always be building until one day, they would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest.  When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of men with machetes decided it was time to take back the state of California.

Our seats were in the right field pavilion – a word I assumed must certainly be French for outfield bleachers.  The term “pavilion” sounded chic and elite. The fact you were sitting next to a guy wearing a wife beater undershirt and a tattoo that said, “Loco-motive“ did not seem to diminish your sense of prestige.  By the end of the game, you and that maniac were blood brothers.  You might even exchange phone numbers and promise to keep in touch – unified through the strange alchemy of beer, sun, foot long hotdogs and your common obsession with Tommy Davis.

If you were lucky, you would catch a glimpse of Roger Owens, the world famous peanut vendor whose uncanny accuracy with tossing peanuts made him an instant celebrity.  Owens could thread a needle with a bag of nuts across twenty rows – -consistently landing the salty prizes in the hands of his intended targets. He would throw between his legs, behind his back, often peppering three different individuals at the same time with three different bags.  According to the record books, his all-time personal record of most tossed peanut bags in a game was 2,400 bags set in 1976 in Dallas, Texas, at Texas Stadium during a Cowboys game.

About the sixth inning, my father would begin to furtively look at his watch and sniff as if he had a cold.  This was his “tell –tale” twitch indicating that we were minutes from exiting the ballpark. By the seventh inning stretch, we were being hustled from our seats and running across a great desert of burning asphalt and cars. “ Dad, why are we running?”  my brother would yell as we stumbled toward our car.  “ We don’t want to get caught in traffic!” my father would scream back as he raced ahead. Years later, my younger brother realized that eight innings is not extra innings in baseball.  He had never actually seen a game go beyond seven innings before being sequestered out of the stadium.  In fact, he assumed hockey had two periods, football was three quarters and any basketball game was over once a team went up on their opponent by more than 20 points.

We raced toward the freeway on-ramp, heads ducked in the car, on the look out for General Santa Ana and the Mexican army.   It was all very stressful – the ducking, the running, the rapid eating, the running, ducking, and 130-degree car with windows rolled up as tight as a submarine.  About this time someone would declare himself carsick and throw up.  Looking back, it all seemed very normal.

Years later, as I take my children to Yankee games, I find myself parking in lots that will afford me a rapid escape.  It is the seventh inning stretch and I consider the dreaded purgatory of post game traffic.  I turn to my boys and say,” let’s get going, guys.” There is a huge groan of resistance.  Alas, I have become my father. Yet, with each spring, I repeat our ritual pilgrimage to the Bronx. (Wait, isn’t this the same Bronx where the 41st precinct was called “Fort Apache” and where the gang from the movie “The Warriors” fought a rival gang dressed in pinstripes wielding baseball bats?) Yet, like my father, I brush back my demons with a high, hard sigh because I know to a kid nothing is better than a hot dog, Pepsi, peanuts and a homerun. Eternal youth is walking into a stadium on a warm summer day, the air heavy with the smell of cut grass and the sharp contrast of a blue sky against a green manicured diamond.

In the realms of fathers and sons, there is area where age has no boundaries. It is a safe place where moments are shared and words need not be spoken.  In this uncharted geography, you might come across a place of worship. It sometimes takes the shape of a baseball stadium.  As you get closer, you hear the deep crack of a hard maple bat, the roar of a partisan crowd and a boy yelling to his father above the chaotic din,

“Dad, why do we have to leave the game early?”

 

An Affair To Remember

A high-occupancy vehicle lane on Ontario Highw...
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An Affair To Remember

The car as we know it is on the way out. To a large extent, I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine, it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea: freedom. In terms of pollution, noise and human life, the price of that freedom may be high, but perhaps the car, by the very muddle and confusion it causes, may be holding back the remorseless spread of the regimented, electronic society. ~ J. G. Ballard, “The Car, The Future”, Drive, 1971.

In 1960’s Southern California, rapid transit was considered ill conceived, inefficient and in many places, nonexistent.  Public transportation was considered by many Los Angelinos to be a painful, high risk last resort – – the bone marrow transplant of travel.  Unlike the great train and subway societies of the east coast, the new cities of the West had less infrastructure and little inspiration to replicate their past lives.  Voters shuddered at the thought of being one of many “trapped in the belly of a great iron beast” commuter train.    Private transportation meant independence. Self reliance was a value coveted by those who had emigrated west in search of escape from what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.

 

The American West was now a more mature version its former self.  In the 1860’s, the horse was a prized possession. In the latter part of the 20th century, it was the automobile that defined the individual.   The car not only afforded us freedom but it transformed society.  With the advent of the freeway, suburban flight accelerated.  The person who once lived, worked and served as a strong thread in the fabric of an urban area would now labor all day in a metropolis and conveniently flee the chaos and social obligation for the bucolic white fences of a distant commuter town. Suburbia thrived and urban America began its decline.

 

Los Angeles was hardly a destination, it had no real center. It was a sprawling, ever-expanding ocean of houses, apartments and condominiums.  As residential prices soared, people would increasingly travel great distances to find affordable housing, choosing to comute vast distances to jobs in the aerospace and entertainment industries.  Years later, Southern California would spawn a new term, “super commuter” to describe the poor pilgrim who travelled at least two hours each way to work.  This led to millions leading double lives – – content in the bosom of their family each weekend and then reluctantly returning to the clutches of their automobiles each work week. 

 

In age of Aquarius, affluence was a luxury automobile.  One could airbrush their circumstances with the purchase of a Cadillac or full sized sedan.  Fathers drove the “nice” car and would occasionally allow their spouses to drive their vehicle but only under strict supervision.  The matriarch got stuck with a rolling landfill, “ the second car”  that often looked and smelled like a refugee camp.  Like so many of his generation, my father adored his car and maintained it with a pathological zeal.  He scrupulously recorded his mileage and changed the oil more often then he changed his children’s diapers.  He required his sons to clean his rolling palace once a week with a special chamois, “shammy”, cloth made from animal skin no larger than a handkerchief.   Washing the car with the shammy was the equivalent to cleaning the Meadowlands with a toothbrush. He countered that the factory paint job was rubbish and only the soft shammy could preserve the color. Nothing was too good for his four wheeled girlfriend. 

 

Dad preached that how one maintained their car spoke volumes about their self discipline, respect and personal hygiene. An unattended dent or scratch was a sign of moral and financial decline. We did not realize it but we were at the tail end of a golden age of transportation where cheap gasoline and an endless horizon line of superhighways, freeways and expressways beckoned Americans to drive everywhere.  We were a society of open spaces and vast distances.  The long scenic stretches of American interstate such as Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway symbolized the unrealized potential of a nation still growing into itself.  To a Southern Californian there was nothing more satisfying than driving one’s car – – to the store, to work or just down the driveway to get the mail.  Everything was accomplished with one’s motor vehicle. 

 

Our passion for automobiles may have been brought on by excessive exposure to the sun, lack of rain or attending one too many Burt Reynolds’ Smokey and The Bandit movies.  Our need to drive everywhere and often by ourselves, was seen as a birthright and a necessity given the vast distances one needed to travel between planned communities and urban centers.  My theory on our obsession was simple – – half of us may well have been conceived in the back seat of a ‘59 Dodge Lancer.  Whatever the impetus for our relentless preoccupation, we were initiated at an early age to believe that four wheels trumped two legs. At birth, we were handed a pacifier and a Match Box or Hot Wheels racing car.  Those infants that did not choke on the toys, graduated to watching Speed Racer cartoons and riding go-carts.  We had more bootleg copies of Motor Trend than Playboy and spent hours debating the superiority of Mustangs over Cameros. Yet, our amorous obsession eventually became an unhealthy addiction.

 

The energy crises of the 1970’s shocked us and confirmed our deep dependence on our cars and the dark, narcotic sold by exotic sheiks that fueled them.  We drove, drove and drove more.  We jammed our roads so much that we created pollution called “smog“( smoke and fog) which when inhaled made you feel like you had smoked five packs of filterless Camel cigarettes.  We had “smog alerts” at school and were told to stay indoors because of poor air quality. We determined that we must wean ourselves from our transportation habit.  We promised to abandon this destructive affair with cars for the honor of energy conservation and the environment.  We grudgingly got rid of our two ton concubines and launched a generation of economy cars that consumed less gasoline.  We watched as HOV lanes condemned the solo driver to sluggish traffic.  Secretly, we despised these changes longed for our beloved Rubenesque, full figured vehicles who were now transforming into waif-like, Twiggy compacts.  We loathed taking Amtrak and Greyhound. We convulsed under automotive abstinence.  We walked, took the train and carpooled.  It was a dark time in the Force for the motor headed Jedi.

In the 90s and into the new millennium, we quietly rekindled our affair of consumption. As with all serial recidivists, we could not stay away.  We did not want to think about the consequences of fossil fuels.  We ignored the signs of global warming.  We rejected the Kyoto treaty. We tolerated what we felt were egregious pump prices of $ 1.75.  We denied that we were actually undermining ourselves.  We went back to purchasing massive gas guzzlers and rationalized that tougher emission standards and engineering advances had again made the affair possible.   

But suddenly, the jig was up.  The world went sideways and we were caught en flagrante dilecto with big cars and no protection.  Most of us can no longer even fill our car at the gas station as the pump is programmed to cap out at $75.  There’s no avoiding the truth.  We are going to have to leave her for good this time and return to tin cans and public transportation.  We may even lose GM and a few other enablers along the way. For this reformed Californian, it’s still all a little inconvenient.  Yet, I know it’s only a matter of time before there is standing room only on every train and I am cramming my oversized body into an undersized Mini, Prius or hybrid.

It’s finally over but we had some good times, didn’t we?  It was an affair to remember….. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Body Snatchers

The Body Snatchers

I see your hair is burnin’

Hills are filled with fire

If they say I never loved you

You know they are a liar

Drivin’ down your freeways

Midnite alleys roam

Cops in cars, the topless bars

Never saw a woman…

So alone, so alone

So alone, so alone….

LA Woman, The Doors

Each summer, I travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific on an annual pilgrimage to my hometown of Los Angeles, California.  This region of ten million people and four thousand square miles is an uneven potters wheel that creates beautiful and bizarre works of art – – crazed celebrities, brilliant entrepreneurs, dysfunctional artists and a supporting cast of bronzed metro-sexuals.  It is pure entertainment against a backdrop of swaying palms, ubiquitous sunshine and a million unfulfilled dreams.

The City of Angels was my first lens to the world.  It infused me with a comedian’s sarcasm, an appreciation for Latino culture, an aversion to anyone who spells their name phonetically, and an open mind to the metaphysical.  Alas, much of the Los Angeles of my youth has disappeared.  The Garden of Eden has been corrupted by a generation of interloping transplants who look and act like creatures out of a B movie called Invasion of the Frozen Fish Faces.   It is a spiritual and material wasteland in spite of the fact that there is a church for everyone, even those who choose to worship cruciferous vegetables. Waiting tables is still the primary occupation for aspiring actors. A star is no longer “discovered” like Lana Turner at Schwab’s soda fountain in Hollywood.  They are harvested like bacteria from a massive micro-celebrity Petri dish that feeds the cesspool of reality television.   The studios now make millions pushing faux celebrities and washed up sitcom stars seeking a first or last break.  The result is bizarre theatre of the absurd starring the intellectually challenged, the emotionally crippled and cotton candy products of plastic surgery whose exteriors have seen more shop time than a 1970 Jaguar.

The LA health club scene used to be the domain of the veiny, orange skinned body builder.  This was the birthplace of Venice’s Muscle Beach and Gold’s Gym.  In the 80’s, the grittier the health club, the better.  My most recent visit to an LA fitness club was a deep dive into a well lit, mirrored tank filled with tanned, skeleton fish people replete with silicon lungs, faces frozen in bizarre disbelief and collagen lips that could dupe a giant squid into a marriage proposal.  It seems that all the ugly or fat people were on permanent vacation.  I later learned that the LAPD is now enforcing Beautification Ordinance 2008.  The BO Law precludes ugly or overweight people from appearing in public places or on the beach until after 9 PM.  Anyone caught in broad daylight wearing XXL shirts, black socks with shorts or plus sized clothing is given the choice of spending a day in jail or taking a Greyhound to Nevada.

In the gym, I walked past a girl that was showing her friend her new tongue tattoo.  I was uneasy, certain that some perfect person would grab their cell and rat me out to the BO squad. I approached the juice bar and was bombarded with a formulary of smoothies all promising to clean my colon, raise my IQ and add years to the lives of any three people I choose.  With names like ” Gut Buster” and ” The Regular” and ingredients of wheat grass, whey, apple, creatine and Omega 3 fats, these liquid time bombs were guaranteed to produce more methane than Pacific Gas & Electric.  About two AM that morning, I was seriously considering calling my gastroenterologist for fear that I was the next Hindenburg.

Los Angeles traffic was reassuringly horrible.  The 405 freeway between the valley and LAX remained a narrow clotted artery of hybrids and merging lanes. On this trip, I did not witness a single shooting on the asphalt jungle.  It is surprisingly safe. LA drivers still possess assault weapons and higher caliber handguns than the .22 caliber peashooters that were tucked under every driver’s seat when I roamed the roads.  However, the price of gas has left many with less disposable income to purchase bullets. People brandish weapons in anger but they just do not discharge them unless, they are being shot at car or happen across someone with a Clippers jersey walking down the street.

The Lakers and USC Trojans are now the ” it” teams. The Los Angeles Rams are gone.  The Raiders were here just long enough to organize a fan club out of two time felons and those with social disorders.  The Clippers and Bruins are like poor relations that only get invited to Thanksgiving dinner. My beloved Dodgers are mere echoes of their glory days.  Tommy Lasorda has eaten his last calzone and now Joe Torre is calling signals and endorsing local banks from a surfboard. To add insult to injury, Manny Ramirez is now a Dodger. If this is not a final sign of the pending Apocalypse, I am not sure what is.  LA got its first taste of the real Man Ram a few weeks back when he failed to show for the beginning of the 9th inning due to a protracted appointment in the locker room.  Perhaps he consumed a Super Fiber smoothie before the game?

LA psychics are now more common than plastic surgeons as the true LA man employs shamans to clean up his mind, body and Karma.  In a recent poll, one in four Angelinos believed that in a past life, he/she was a magician living in a nice neighborhood in the lost city of Atlantis. As I sat waiting for take out at PF Changs in Manhattan Beach, I overheard a woman on her cell phone.   “So, after all that, I call my ‘Inuit’ and he figured out the problem ten times faster than my OBGYN.”  Inuit healers? Do they use seal fat poultices? Narwhale horn powder?  Later at a dinner with beautiful people, I tried to participate in the dog’s breakfast of subjects ranging from Scientology to the pros and cons of the one legged king pigeon yoga position.  I was on my third Red Bull and feeling no pain. I turned to the kabuki-faced woman of indistinguishable age to my left.    It was impossible to gauge whether she was experiencing pleasure or intense pain. I leaned in and casually asked, “So do you have your own Inuit?” She looked perplexed and then gave a tiny anorexic guffaw, chortling “Intuit! silly boy.  An Intuit is a holistic healer, not an Eskimo!”  Duh! It was like this everywhere.  Body snatchers had invaded Los Angeles.  I was afraid to go to sleep lest a taproot from a nearby potted plant attached itself to my ankle and the next morning I would wake up looking like Melanie Griffith.

My last night in LA was a dinner with a long time friend who is a producer for a major movie studio. As with all entertainment people, he dresses as if he has been wrestling all night with Joseph Abboud.   He loathes superficiality but cannot resist constantly glancing over my shoulder to see who is coming in to our restaurant.   He has a wickedly sinful sense of humor and regularly denounces LA claiming a move to some midwestern town is imminent.  In the end, he remains in Brentwood claiming that there is no Chin Chin chinese chicken salada in the Midwest. “I’m a demented SOB,” he laughs.  “Where else in America will they pay you just to be your sick self.”?

Hours later, my plane landed in JFK.  A fat, gypsy cab driver tried to grab my bag.  A hundred cars were honking a symphony of gridlocked anger as a cop screamed, ” move it” to an eighty year old woman.  Swear words hung like ornaments in the humid summer air.  There was not a frozen face or tan zombie to be found.

Home, sweet, home.

A Fair Weather Fan

A Fair Weather Fan

 

The Coliseum, Los Angeles, November, 1968 – There once was a professional football team called the Los Angles Rams.  Their owner was Carol Rosenbloom, and their head coach was George Allen.  Their defensive front line was known as the “Fearsome Foursome”, anchored by future hall of famers, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen. The D line of Jones, Greier, Lundy and Olsen literally ate quarterback alive.  My favorite player was “The Deacon” who owned the nickname, “Minister of Defense” well before it was attributed to other NFL stars.  The Deacon had perfected a technique known as the head slap, a tactic that would stun offensive lineman while he used his speed to race into the backfield. I regularly utilized this move on my younger brother and friends in pick up football.  The head slap was outlawed both in the NFL, our home and on the local sand lot around 1972.

 

Very few people were true Ram fanatics.  Most were fair weather fans – – fickle and aloof, choosing only to get off the beaches or tennis courts when an LA team was at least several games above .500 or had made the playoffs.  During the season, the LA Coliseum was filled with a harder core working class who faithfully followed their team.  They were the nucleus of the team’s support – – true Ram fanatics.  Once an LA team made the playoffs, the stands would transform from blue collar to thin wristed, tan metro-sexuals with sweaters tied around their shoulders driving BMWs and lugging picnic baskets full of wine spritzers and quiche.

 

It happened later to the Lakers.  For years it was only Jack Nicholson.  Suddenly, we make the playoffs and Dyan Cannon is showing up. This seasonal gentrification was not lost on me.  I resented these imposters.  I knew the players.  I collected the cards.  I calculated the stats.  I begged my father to stay until the end of any game we attended even though it meant being stuck in dreaded LA traffic.  But, in Los Angeles no one ever stayed until the end of a game.  Most Angelinos thought football games were 45 minutes, baseball eight innings and basketball three periods.  We were sunshine patriots and summer soldiers.  We were not really die-hards, we were just people who had tickets to a game.

 

Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin – January ,2008 – We exited the bus and crunched on to frozen ground along South Ridge Avenue.  We were looking for a podiatrist’s parking lot where a close friend and one hundred “cheese heads” would be tailgating prior to the NFC Championship game.  We were looking for Sean, a fellow NY fan who had grabbed a last minute ticket and called us to meet up at the game.  The driver shouted he would meet us in eight hours next to that “tall building over there”.  Being from NY, we saw no tall buildings.  We did see a two story wooden structure that looked like a 1950’s professional services building.  “That one?“,  I yelled. “Yeah, that’s the one, right there, yup, she’s the place, yup”.  I’d fallen into “Fargo”.

 

It was 30 below zero with the wind chill.  The wind slashed at any exposed skin. The guy exiting the bus ahead of me looked like a tortoise retracting his neck into his shell.  He started to curl into a walking pill bug.  We were adrift in an arctic sea of green and yellow.  We were deep in enemy territory – – and wearing the wrong gang colors. There was a tribal electricity in the air as knots of hooded figures huddled by blazing fires, barbeques and television sets.  It could have passed for a Finnish refugee camp. Attendance was projected at over 72,000 and about 1,000 of these fanatics, many dressed in cheese heads and Cabelos hunting gear, were suddenly eying us like a trophy elk. 

 

Green Bay, Wisconsin has a population of 100,000 souls, hardly the critical mass the NFL believes is necessary to support an NFL franchise.  The Packers are the only community run team in American professional sports.  They are non profit with about 100,000 shareholders, many of whom are long time residents of the town. The team was founded in 1919 and has contributed of 21 Hall of Fame busts to Canton, Ohio. It is sacred ground with frigid sidelines and ancient Kentucky blue grass turf.    

Having not been a fanatic for many years, I now realized I was with the faithful.  However, I was still not ready to emotionally commit to the Giants.  They might embarrass or disappoint me. Their quarterback, Eli Manning, looked all season like Beaver Cleaver. “Boy, Wally, you think I am gonna catch it from Coach Coughlin for that interception?” Yet, somehow this team had won nine straight games on the way to today’s showdown with the 13-3 Packers and their Hall of fame QB, Bret Favre,

 

We crunched along ice and snow, finally finding what we thought was our tail gate party.  We crossed into an entire parking lot of people who all turned to stare at us. “We are going to die,” I hissed.  Three men who appeared to have spent their entire lives hurling refrigerators walked up to us. “You boys lost?”  We waited.  I could outrun them although they might hit me at twenty yards with a television. Then another said, “Well, @#%#, Jim, we might as well feed these jokers if we’re going kick their bee-hinds today”.  I was suddenly confronted with a meat packer’s cornucopia – – bratwurst soaking in beer, onions and water, burgers, chili, pulled pork and prime rib.  Two color TVs blared the Pats games as a wind gusts ripped at our jackets.  Cheeseheads surrounded us and thumped our backs proud that we made the sojourn. The heartland had opened up its doors.  These were fanatics, not fans. 

 

We eventually found our friends and remained until we could no longer feel our feet or hands.  We could not find Sean although he was now communicating to us via  blackberry.  Apparently he had been caught up in a similar wave of hospitality and was on his way to his seats – – outside, in 24 below weather.  Throughout the game, we kept getting emails from Sean effusively complaining, “I’m freezing to death…but this is so amazing!”  Sitting in my skybox, I suddenly again felt like the Giant fan but like the guy with the ticket to the game. “The bleachers have ¼”ice on them.”  “The guy next to me is going to rip my head off”.  “Did you see Plaxico’s catch?” “Bradshaw ? Oh my god, did you see his run?“ He would not dream of coming up to the sky box – a place of soft hands, warm food and artificial loyalty.

 

The game was an epic, nail biter in unbelievably frigid conditions.  For those of us that risked the trip into enemy territory, we were rewarded with a Giants overtime win, 23-20.  For the first time, I felt the twinge of what it was like to be a real fanatic.  It wasn’t just the victorious Giants, it was the losing team – – an entire town devastated by the loss.  “You guys were the better team today they said” as people passed us in the stadium.  It would be a long, hard winter for the Packer faithful. 

 

As the Giants were interviewed in the South end zone by Fox Sports, the Giant fans gathered five deep and fifty wide to watch, cheer and high five the celebrating Giant players.  Sean was clearly out there somewhere stretching his arm to try to high five Michael Strahan or Plaxico Burress.  We weathered a freezing walk to the bus only to find that Sean was no where to be found.  We waited, getting no phone or text responses, and reluctantly returned to the hotel.  At midnight we got this email message: “In the Giants locker room! Most amazing experience of my life.  Won’t be on the plane tomorrow. Will call when I get back…”  When we arrived back in NY, we still hadn’t heard from Sean.  Whatever happened, it was clearly a fitting reward for a guy who would not sit in a skybox to see his team play.   

 

Now that, my friends, is a fanatic.