The kid comes out of the Eastern Airlines concourse at Los Angeles International Airport. I hear him before I see him. He is riding a skateboard.
September 6, 1987
He is 17 years old. He is 23. Somewhere in between. He is wearing a pair of those baggy flowered shorts and a pair of aquamarine high-top sneakers and a T-shirt advertising some kind of suntan lotion. Two wires are plugged into his ears so he can hear whatever is playing on his radio. His baggage is a knapsack that hangs from his back.
He rolls through the automatic door and over the sidewalk and off the curb—no problem—and across the street. He stops at the traffic island where I am waiting for a ride. He asks a policeman for directions.
"Where do I get the bus for Santa Monica?" the kid asks, looking around.
"That way," the policeman replies.
The kid jumps onto the board and is gone. He pushes once or twice with his right foot to build a little speed, and he disappears into the distance. Easy as that. He rides the board as if it were propelled by a little motor. The wheels are part of his body. They were on the bottom of his feet when he was born. The airport is crowded, but the kid is past me in a whoosh as he zigs and zags and cuts and turns and does not stop. No steering wheel. No hands needed. All balance.
I watch with the amazement of a man who has seen a 12-foot rabbit spring out of a 1-foot top hat. The temperature is 75° at 11 o'clock at night. I can see at least one palm tree. I can see motorized confusion everywhere in the airport snarl. I cannot see the kid anymore. The kid is gone.
I am an East Coast guy. I am back in Southern California again.
The landscape is different. The people are different. The pace is different. The life is different. No matter how many times I make the coast-to-coast trip, I am still nearly 3,000 miles from home.
I am from Boston and have lived my entire life in New England. Each trip to Southern California somehow seems to be a day off from school. Indoors changes to outdoors. Darkness changes to light. Thought is replaced by action. Old becomes not only new but also new and improved. Button-down becomes hang loose. Books become movies. Fun becomes fun-fun-fun 'til her daddy takes her T-bird away.
"Excuse me," I say. "Am I closer to Universal Studios or the Rose Bowl?"
"Excuse me," I say. "Where does Magic Johnson hang out and is it possible he'll be hanging out there today?"
"Excuse me," I say. "Is that all there is to that bikini?"
I am the perpetual tourist. I visit the place four and five and six times a year to watch sports events, and I still feel as if I am stepping off the overnight plane from Yugoslavia. The commonplace is still different. Look at what these people eat! Listen to the way they talk!
A car is the most important appliance, a basic Southern California fact. I always ride with the Beach Boys and Jim Rockford and Robin Leach, cutting through this endless real-life movie set, marveling at the signs for Sepulveda and Century boulevards, for El Segundo and Torrance and Pasadena. What names! Every block another one! A $5 official "Map of the Stars" is on the seat of the rental car, always sitting next to a sports section from the Los Angeles Times that is folded to the page that contains "The Day in Sports." All the choices. I know where to find the home of the divorced Sonny and Cher Bono. I know what time the Dodgers play the Cardinals, what time the races begin at Hollywood Park and what time the women play tennis at Manhattan Beach.
Where to go first? What to do? I see everything, but at the same time I see nothing. I always am on the move. Surf is up. Packed powder is in the mountains. I am sure all the women are headed for screen tests. I also am sure all the men lift weights and run every day and have second jobs at Chippendales. The only people not outdoors are locked in their rooms with Jane Fonda workout videos, dancing alone until they have the courage to dance in public. The first televised National Football League game of the day begins at 10 o'clock in the morning.
"You know, you're a pretty good guy," a bartender in Los Angeles told me one night during the 1984 Olympics.
"Thank you," I replied.
"You just gotta do something about those clothes," the bartender added.
Southern California is not a banquet, but an outdoor barbecue. I am the one who is not wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
Venice Beach. The vendors have arrived to sell Top Gun baseball hats and three-for-$10 (plus tax) T-shirts and windup toys and skateboards and fashion accessories and fake noses and perfume. The fire-eater and the man who juggles chain saws and the rest of the daily beach carnival will be here momentarily. Ten o'clock in the morning on a Thursday. Not a great beach day, maybe 7 on a scale of 10. Not the worst beach day.
I see what I can see.
"Here he is, ladies and gentlemen," a guy announces on the paddle-tennis courts. "That world-famous athlete, that future Hall of Famer, that all-around good guy...Irwin."
Irwin is 45 years old. Maybe 50. He has traveled to the courts on his three-speed bike, which he brings inside the chain-link fence and locks. He is wearing a camouflage hunter's cap. He also is wearing glasses. He carries his own racket and tennis ball.
I watch Irwin for a while. I watch paddle tennis. Who plays paddle tennis where I live? Paddle tennis?! would not even know where to buy a paddle in Boston. Ten courts, all filled. Early in the morning.
I watch the skaters on Ocean Front Walk. Haven't there been a thousand televised private-eye chases on this strip, the bad guy carrying the stolen goods and escaping on wheels? The skaters have their own lane in the middle of the sidewalk, SKATERS ONLY painted on the ground in block public-works printing. No age limit, no size limit on the skaters. I watch two middle-aged women skate their way toward the supermarket. Or at least they sound as if they are going to the supermarket, talking about bean sprout prices and detergent bargains.
I watch the weightlifting at Muscle Beach, a cement area, the giant weights brought from a concrete bunker, members only, day passes available. Outdoor weightlifting. Is there another park in America that has outdoor weightlifting? I watch two guys hit the heavy bag. Outdoors. I watch three more guys gathered around the speed bag. One middle-aged belter has his hands taped. He makes the speed bag sing a buzzing song. Isn't he too old to be a fighter? What does he do? Is he here every day? Are his hands always taped?
I watch basketball. I watch handball. I watch a father toss a Frisbee with his two daughters. I watch three high school kids play with a Hacky Sack. I watch gymnastics performed on some kind of outdoors iron apparatus. I watch a touch football game. I watch beach volleyball. I watch sailboats on the Pacific Ocean. I watch surfers ride some imperfect waves to the shore. I watch bikes and riders of all sizes and styles. I see a man walk past with an aluminum baseball bat. I see two kids—on bikes—carrying fishing poles. I watch a number of runners, a number of walkers, a number of eaters.
I see what I can see. By noon I see a total of 18 sports without moving-more than 100 steps. Who are these people? Don't any of them work? Don't any of them get tired or old or lazy? Is this their vacation? Doesn't anyone simply bring a book to the beach for vacation, simply sit down with Shogun for 800 pages, then return to work when the book is finished? Is this the way this place is every day? Or is this a one-day show for my eyes only?
"Busy?" I ask the woman at the parks department office.
"You should see the weekends," she replies.
Freeways. Driving. San Diego Freeway. Santa Monica Freeway. Santa Ana Freeway. Following the fat red lines across the nest of black lines. Thinking the great Southern California thoughts. Asking the great Southern California questions.
1) Tom Lasorda? Explain.
2) Why am I the only one who is always reading a road map while driving the car at 60 miles per hour? Does everyone else in these 12 lanes of traffic actually know where he is going?
3) If everyone eats health foods here, then why is there a hamburger franchise at every major intersection?
4) Wilt? Explain.
5) Does Fleetwood Mac sing with the University of Southern California band at every appearance or was that only for one video?
6) How do the women play all of those sports and still have seven-inch, baked-enamel fingernails? Is there a fingernail salon located next to every hamburger franchise?
7) If I went to Gold's Gym, would the proprietors pay me money not to wear one of their T-shirts?
8) How does it feel to pass a billboard festooned in the silver and black of the Los Angeles Raiders every morning? Does it make you better prepared for the business day?
9) Is anything located less than one hour's drive from anything else?
10) Has success gone to Spuds MacKenzie's ugly head?
11) Which one is David Lee Roth and which one is Hulk Hogan? Explain.
12) What's the big deal about the HOLLYWOOD sign?
13) Why does everyone arrive late for the ball games, leave early and refuse to throw himself on a funeral pyre if the home team loses? Is it because yesterday was sunny and today is sunny and tomorrow will be sunny and who cares?
14) Would I be 4 inches taller and 20 pounds lighter if I were born and raised here? Would I be a more radical dude?
15) Dr. Jerry Buss?
16) How do I get on Jeopardy? Do I have to be a friend of Alex Trebek?
17) Why is any 3-year-old racehorse from here always described before the Kentucky Derby as if he were the pampered son of a studio executive?
18) How did the stars divide up the golf tournaments? How did Glen Campbell and Andy Williams and Bob Hope get to stay home? Why does Sammy Davis Jr. have to travel all the way to Hartford? Hartford?
19) True or false: Steve Garvey will be a congressman or governor someday.
20) Will somebody please let us know when the earthquake begins?
21) Are Bruce Willis and Dancing Barry personal friends?
22) Who will sing the national anthem tonight at Dodger Stadium? If Toni Tennille does, will she bring the Captain along?
23) Where do the people from Southern California go on vacation?
24) Is female mudwrestling a sport from the 1984 Olympics that caught the public imagination and stayed?
25) Who is Kareem's barber?
Inglewood, Chavez Ravine, Pasadena and the Rose Bowl. Anaheim. The Los Angeles Coliseum. The L.A. Sports Arena. I make the major athletic stops, or have made them in the past. I go to the Super Bowl and the baseball playoffs and the NBA finals. I go to games in the middle of the regular season.
I am used to the crunch and shove of Fenway Park and Boston Garden, shoehorn stuff, everyone pushed together to surround the action in an old-time setting. I am not used to air-conditioning and theater seats and wearing shorts to an outdoor athletic event in the middle of January. Where's the dirt? I always think I am committing some kind of sin by watching sports through sunshine and ease and cleanliness.
"Three dollars," the parking attendant says in his little booth at Anaheim Stadium.
The parking lot is large enough to land airplanes of any size. Three dollars? I could not park at a parking meter for part of a game—any kind of game—in Boston for $3, much less park in a lot. Three dollars? The cars enter in an orderly parade, everyone following the orange cones and going where he is supposed to go. The stadium sits at the edge of the lot, a concrete circle that has landed on a mission from Mars, the public-address announcer's voice announcing the lineups from inside. Three dollars?
In regard to Dodger Stadium, the one word to use is "perfect." Too perfect? Perhaps, but perfect. I have a perfect seat. The grass is a perfect green. The walls and the sky and the Dodgers uniforms all are different shades of a perfect blue. I eat a perfect hot dog. The dimensions are perfect, the same numbers along the lines and down the power alleys. The crowd behavior is perfect. The voice of Vin Scully, seemingly coming from everywhere, is the perfect baseball voice.
The Rose Bowl is simply the prettiest football stadium in the country. I never know how I find the stadium. I never know how I find my way back home. I never know the name of the mountains in the distance. I only know pretty. The outside fences are surrounded by Rosebushes. The stadium is surrounded by a golf course and fields. Pretty.
The Forum is a theater, air-conditioned and respectable. A place more for popcorn and Milk Duds than for passion. Anaheim is an outdoor Forum, an outdoor theater. The Coliseum and the Sports Arena are next-door neighbors. There always seems to be a lot of local complaining about the Coliseum and the Sports Arena. Wrong neighborhood. Wrong sight lines. Wrong something. I don't see the troubles. Put the arena and the stadium on an airplane and send them with me. They would be modern structures where I live. Even the neighborhood would be modern.
"Can you change a 10?" I ask the parking attendant at Anaheim.
"Have a nice night," he says as he passes the seven dollars through the car window.
He actually says that: "Have a nice night."
Westwood. I find the Los Angeles Tennis Center by accident. It is located on the UCLA campus. Three green hard-surface courts are surrounded by an amphitheater. An amphitheater for tennis on a college campus? I find a seat in the top row. I watch a lesson.
The teacher is a guy from UCLA with a blue hat and blue shirt and blue shorts and some high-powered sneakers. The student is an adolescent boy dressed in white. The teacher has a supermarket shopping cart filled with yellow tennis balls. How many tennis balls fit into a shopping cart? Two hundred? Three hundred? The teacher takes a ball and hits a softy, and the kid returns it. The teacher takes another ball and hits another softy.
"Move to the ball," the teacher shouts. "Don't wait for it...."
I have a fantasy that the lesson continues forever. The teacher hits balls for every minute of every hour of every day of every year. The student returns. Constant repetition. Come at any time of the year and the scene will be the same. Teacher and student. Hit and return.
Couldn't this be true? Never a touch of rain, tennis every day? Isn't this how Southern California sports life really is? Isn't there supposed to be tennis every day for the very best players, for the players with an obvious future?
This is where the athletes are developed better than anywhere else, watered and tended, taken to the state fair as if they were prize pumpkins. This is the ultimate athletic topsoil. Drive anywhere and you see the fields and the courts and the instruction. Baseball is played on Christmas, tennis on New Year's Eve, golf anytime at all. How does anyone who lives where I live have a chance?
Faster. Quicker. Taller. Better. I am sure the waters are churning in Mission Viejo, one kid after another, up and down the pool, never stopping. At Southern Cal the newest tailback is being unveiled, some superhuman who, sometime later, in a banquet hall in New York, will be handed that squat bronze trophy of a football player sticking out an arm. Baseball? No contest. Basketball? Soccer? Track and field? Automobiles? Motorcycles? If sun and the outdoors are involved, champions are being developed here. How can anyone compete? This is the ultimate laboratory.
"Under the ball," the tanned tennis coach says. "Dig."
At the track stadium in back of me, some kind of a cheerleading competition is being held. I can hear the singsong voices of groups of high school girls. Pauley Pavilion is next to the courts, quiet and dark, the floor refinished, the place smelling of shellac and championships. Students walk past on Bruin Walk. A kid is kicking field goals on the football practice field.
The tennis continues. Forever?
Anaheim. I phone home at seven o'clock at night, looking out of my hotel window at the sunlight and action. I talk to people who are in the dark, 10 o'clock, people who are thinking about going to bed.
"How's the trip?" I am asked.
"Awesome," I reply.
I can see all the stuff of California from my room. The California trees. The California swimming pools. The California cars. The California smog. The California hamburger heavens. The California plaster mountain.
The plaster mountain?
"Awesome?" I am asked.
"Totally," I reply.
East Coast guy. I am across the street from Disneyland.
Leigh Montville frequently visits California as a sports columnist for The Boston Globe.