Mr. Old School 

Steve Lopez

Wednesday, Apr 19 2006

Hey, What’s the difference between The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times? Horoscopes. L.A. Times got horoscopes. It also has superstar journalist Steve Lopez.

This Tinseltown columnist is busy as hell these days. In fact, I know of three movie stars and a highly sought after Westside dominatrix who I can get on the phone easier than Lopez. This guy is all business.

A Philly transplant, Lopez is originally from the Bay Area, but he’s done time in New York as well. He’s been representing for the Times since 2001. Before that, Lopez wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Time, Sports Illustrated, Life, and Entertainment Weekly (as editor at large). He has won a Society of Professional Journalists Award, the H.L. Mencken Writing Award, the Ernie Pyle Award for human-interest writing and a National Headliner Award for column writing . . . hello!

Recently, he’s been getting down-and-dirty in downtown L.A., to the tune of a big six-part series on Skid Row. Having filed dispatches from Iraq, Bosnia, Colombia and the Soviet Union, and having covered American presidential campaigns, he’s clearly not afraid to kick up a little dust in the mean streets of Central City.

Lopez is on the reals. He’s tight. He’s been around forever, and he’s styling some straight-ahead, classic newspaper-guy moves here. In fact, Bogart played him in the biopic . . . well, maybe I need to do a little fact-check on that one . . . but you can check him out yourself on the L.A. Times Web site in streaming video. Reporting from the streets in some straight-up, Raymond Chandler gumshoe stuff. It’s like a fuckin’ movie. I’d cast neo-noir film actor Robert Downey Jr. to play Lopez and Oliver Stone to direct. Golden Globes all around!

Lopez was drawn to downtown L.A. when he met a (formerly) homeless cellist/violinist named Nathaniel. “I wish I had an in-law cottage,” he tells me. The bond Lopez and Nathaniel formed was what drove his Times series, which was something of a switch for a prolific serial columnist like Lopez.

“I’ve always been a bit of a moving target,” he says. “It’s always been hit-and-run. I never stuck with a story this long.”

Lopez is writing a book about Nathaniel. It’s his fourth book, but his first stab at nonfiction.

“I’m really excited. It’s a big deal, following this guy on his journey,” Lopez says in his signature semimonotone delivery.

Being a straight-shooting, humanist writer with a bit of a stiffy for the sleaze is not so uniquely meaningful in Los Angeles unless you got a tight gig at the Times and a track record almost as long as the city’s history of turning a blind eye to the disaster downtown. Lopez has both.

Of course, the county supervisors recently announced a “historic” $100 million plan/exploding political football to reduce homelessness downtown. It’s not much of a stretch to think his columns might have had some effect on all that. (Increasingly upscale downtown demos might have played a part, too, no?)

Lopez has written three novels, including Third and Indiana, The Sunday Macaroni Club and In the Clear. Also, a collection of his columns is published in the book Land of Giants: Where No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Where does this guy find time for the wife and kids?

Sure, the sometimes-acerbic Lopez, a scribe who isn’t afraid to use irony, wit and even sarcasm to get a point across, has a few haters . . . but really, fuck ’em. I mean, you know you’ve arrived when some housebound hack in Simi Valley with a pencil and a resentment starts talking shit about you in letters to the editor.

Besides, Lopez is tearing up the Row. Shedding the bright light on a decidedly dark little piece of the puddin’ pie that the Chief has been calling the country’s worst social problem. How ya gonna hate that? C’mon.

Lopez left me with a question that I can’t get out of my head or that thing in the middle of my chest just behind my sternum.

Speaking of the Row, he said: “Can’t we do better ?than this?”

Reach the writer at sam@samslovick.com

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