Traditions: The New Year's Eve Riot You Didn't Hear About

"SO, THIS IS WHAT IT'S LIKE TO PARTY IN L.A.," SAID MY FRIEND JAMES AS the first dollop of shaving cream splatted against the passenger side of my car windows. We spotted a cackling blond boy with a second foam-covered paper plate in his hand, cocked and ready to hurl it like a Frisbee. And he had friends.

"Close the sunroof! Oh, oh, please close the sunroof," said James' girlfriend Julia. Just in time, in fact. Right as the roof cinched shut, my Volvo got nailed with gunk that appeared to be egg yolk and water. At least I hope it was egg yolk and water.

We'd entered the New Year's Eve gauntlet by accident. Following a late dinner with a bunch of friends in Laurel Canyon, we were headed in a two-car convoy to a party thrown by some CalArts kids in Pasadena.

"We'll get there by midnight no problem," I'd said when we started out. "It takes about 30 minutes to get from any one place in L.A. to any other place. It's a rule."

Julia's friend Christine led our caravan. I would describe Christine's driving style as overzealous. Or at least zealous. Perhaps she was overcompensating because she was driving her parents' car, a sparkly green Beemer. Unfortunately, in Christine's excitement to get to the party, she got off the 210 one exit early, letting us off in downtown Pasadena, and providing us a preview of that city's annual display of civic pride. Hip-hip-hooray for the Rose Bowl Parade!

"Wait, don't people start assembling for that thing really early?" I thought. Then, I figured, how bad could it be? At least I'd get the chance to point out downtown Pasadena's fine array of Gap stores, authentic Starbucks cafés, and Jamba Juiceries.

But then . . . Oh, look guys, that stumbling dude sure got an early start on the evening's festivities. How cute! Hey, there's a row of fire trucks blocking off every street leading off of Orange Grove Boulevard. How weird! Hmmm . . . a half-conscious lady being propped up against a street light by her boyfriend and/or assailant, either being raped, resuscitated or sharing an affectionate moment. Hey now, that's not cool. Wow, a row of 20 CHiPs motorcycles lined up in front of a restaurant like Hell's Angels. Very orderly Hell's Angels. How come, amid all the week's media coverage, no one ever talks about how the Rose Parade is preceded by a riot the night before?

Julia answered her cell phone.

"Christine says to follow her and that we'll be through this in a second," she said. The dashboard clock hit 11:35.

Twenty minutes later we had traveled about a mile and were for all intents and purposes parked in the middle of Colorado Boulevard, at best mimicking the parade's leisurely 2.5-mph pace. The single-file line of traffic was surrounded by riot weather: Lots of beige Winnebegos. Hundreds of bored and drunk onlookers camped out in the street and covered in blankets. Smoke from grills and hibachis swirling in the air. Dozens of enthusiastic teenagers with Silly String and a license to use it. The whole scene had a very Beverly-Hillbillies-take-to-the-streets-of-Pasadena-after-a-Guns-N'-Roses-concert kind of feel. Was Banana Republic having a big New Year's sale at 6 a.m.?

"What the fuck!" I said, striking the steering wheel with the heel of my hand.

"I'm really not convinced about partying in L.A.," said James.

"Why are they throwing mini-marshmallows at us?" asked Julia. "They should be eating the marshmallows."

"You know, Volvos have a very low center of gravity," I said. "This thing is totally tip-proof." To our left, at the stroke of midnight, a Toyota Cressida was stopped in the middle of the street, heading in the opposite direction, most assuredly the wrong way. A spectator stood in front of the car with his sweatpants around his upper thighs and his ass cheeks spread. Happy New Year! Oh what a feeling! It doesn't take much to stop a Toyota.

"Tell you what," I said. "If someone tries to get in our way, I'm going to charge the crowd." I revved the car and raced ahead of Christine's Beemer until it was out of sight. Julia began to get agitated.

"Oh, don't do that!" she said in a considering-the-purchase-of-a-sea-green-Lexus tone of voice. I turned toward the back seat.

"I'm joking. I promise not to hit anybody. I'll just scare them."

"Oh no!"

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to freak you out."

"Oh, don't worry," said Julia. Suddenly, her voice was rock steady. "If James were driving, people would already be dead by now." Good show, Julia, I bet the next car you purchase will be painted cherry red.

The riot weather began to clear around 20 past 12. Christine called Julia's cell again. They were on Sierra Madre Boulevard, finally past the madness, less than 100 yards from the 210. I asked Julia to hand me the phone.

"I'm almost there," I said to Christine. "First and 10. Here's one more fucker getting in my way. Oh sweet! I finally nailed one. So much blood," I joked, "but it's better for the car's finish than shaving cream, I bet."

I spotted the green Beemer through the smoke, pulled up next to it, and we rode.

—Alec Hanley Bemis

Legends: Spike Lee's Jackie Robinson Moment

IT WAS A STILL AND CLEAR AND sparkling Sunday at Dodger Stadium, the grass more emerald and the sky more sapphire in the aftermath of a fierce, early winter rain than it could ever hope to be in July. I emerged from the dugout —l the dugout! —l into all this splendor and breathed deep. I barely took three steps before I heard it.

"Cut!"

I froze. The exasperated yell, brief but unmistakably Brooklyn, echoed off the tens of thousands of empty seats. Spike Lee was filming a commercial, and I had stepped into a live frame.

I was here to observe, but thanks to the oversight of a chatty production assistant and my own distracted reminiscing —l I've been a blue-bleeding Dodger fan since the late '70s —l I had become inconveniently conspicuous. "This is gonna cost me 10 bucks," the assistant muttered somewhat cryptically. I was mortified.

But soon I was immersed in watching Lee interview Ralph Branca, one of the very few Brooklyn Dodgers still around who played in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson integrated big-league baseball. That was a famously tough season for Robinson, a season that hit a nadir during a late-summer game in Cincinnati in which the fans, who might have been geographically Midwestern but acted culturally Southern, hurled every epithet imaginable at the second baseman —l before the game started. During the pre-game practice Dodger captain Pee Wee Reese, born and raised in Kentucky just across the Ohio River, stopped the proceedings and walked across the field to where Robinson was warming up. Without saying a word, Reese put his arm around Robinson in full view of the hostile crowd. The stadium went silent. It was a hush heard round the world.

This was the moment that Lee was re-creating for his commercial, one in a series of eight for ESPN called "Without Sports. . ." All the spots have played the issue for laughs, with contemporary fans in mind, except this one. "This was a real watershed moment in history," said the network's marketing director, Spence Kramer. "It was deeply poignant and affecting. It wasn't funny at all."

Lee, a prodigious sports fan with a particular interest in Jackie Robinson, proved a relentless interviewer of Branca, who remains as affable as Lee is intense, though both are direct and economical with words. How did Branca feel about Reese's gesture that day in Cincinnati? "I thought it was a courageous act," Branca said. "Pee Wee did it out of friendship and respect. It said 'Dodgers' on his uniform. That's his teammate. That was Pee Wee saying 'screw you' to everybody."

Down on the field I met Lou Johnson, who played for the Dodgers in the '60s with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and now works in the front office. Johnson is graying but lean and fit, dapper in a black wool baseball jacket and knife-creased slacks. He played a season with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs in 1955 before the integration led by Robinson killed those leagues off for good.

"I didn't play with Jackie, but I certainly profited from his act," said Johnson. "By the '60s the atmosphere in baseball hadn't changed that much." He deplores the decline of baseball as a sport of choice among black youth today; he's part of an organization called RBI —l Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities —l that was instrumental in helping to get a South-Central Little League off the ground some years back. "Kids need to know what we had to endure to get to the top," said Johnson. "Jackie integrated not only baseball, but other sports as well."

Lee, relaxing ever so slightly on a lunch break, concurred. He was wearing a knit cap, a bleary look and light beard stubble. "His contribution is much bigger than baseball," he said in his trademark Brooklynese, talking about Robinson. "He changed the American landscape. You can never underestimate the pressure he was under, of having the weight of the race on you." He paused to think. "The only comparable thing would be Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling, democracy versus the Nazis. Baseball in particular was so American, which is why Negroes weren't allowed to play for so long. That's why the moment in this commercial is so pivotal." ä

Dodger Stadium in December may sound about as forsaken a place as this city can imagine, but it lives in my affections as a dazzling proxy for a thoroughly inhospitable place where sports history was made. It is odd but logical, just as the Dodgers' move from east to west turned out to be. As Johnson drove me off the field in a groundskeeper's cart beneath the bright sun, I silently thanked Robinson for being in some way responsible for this private, pivotal, baseball moment of my own.

—lErin Aubry Kaplan

Neighbors: Down by the River, I Found My Cherry Tomato

MY NEIGHBOR FORREST (FULL NO-joke legal name: Forrest Glen Owen) often drops by my place on one of his many walks 'round our Atwater Village neighborhood, usually accompanied by his inquisitive, impatient 11-year-old daughter, Sylvana Elektra. Forrest is one of those guys who likes to make this cruelly alienated city smaller, more human-scale. He's an urban caretaker, a wandering dot-connector. He advertises himself on his permaculturalist business's answering machine as "your friendly neighborhood tree surgeon"; he introduces neighbors with shared interests; and he keeps all of us informed about our local environment: e.g., there's a good bookshelf left out curbside on Edenhurst; that dude on Dover decided against putting in Korean grass for his new lawn 'cuz it's too expensive; the fruit on the rose apple tree over on Griffith View Drive is now ripe and the owner said it's cool if we take some this weekend.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when early one evening Forrest reached into his knapsack and pulled out a small plastic bag of super-red cherry tomatoes.

"Found 'em down at the river," he said cheerfully. "Want some?"

I washed them off in the kitchen and bit into one. Delicious, better than any I'd had all summer —l and that's counting the ones I'd been buying at the farmers' markets on Sundays in Hollywood.

Curious and still a bit disbelieving —l tomatoes growing in the concrete-bound L.A. River, just three blocks from my house?!? —l I joined Forrest and Sylvana the next day for a dusk-time, fact-finding/vegetable-gathering expedition.

We ventured out on one of the small islands that have built up through the years just a couple of hops beyond the concrete. "Those are raccoon footprints," Forrest said. "And here's a cocklebur —l that's the inspiration for Velcro!" Then, amid the brush and the nettles, the frogs and the cattails and the deadly nightshade, Forrest and Sylvana showed me the cherry tomatoes, growing on quite healthy vines.

Well . . . how did they get there? I wondered, paraphrasing the old Talking Heads line. Slipping into the chilly paranoia/goofy wonder of that song's lyrics, I started to speculate: What was this? A guerrilla gardener at work? A rendezvous point for young vegetarians in love? An answer from a beneficent naiad to a homeless dude's plea for food? (Quite a few people live near the river and the neighboring 5 freeway.)

I asked Forrest what he thought.

Tomato seeds are hearty, he explained. They survive the digestive systems of the animals that eat them, including, of course, humans. It's possible they got there via shit in the river, in other words. And tomato seeds, unlike most other seeds, float, which means they often grow wild in rivers. Lots of vegetables grow in the river. He'd seen pumpkins before, and look, there were a few not-quite-ripe squashes growing right there.

Okay, fine, I said, but how did the seeds get into the river in the first place?

"Oh, probably somebody threw away a half-eaten sandwich," he said, offhand. The topic, plainly, no longer interested him. Sylvana had just spotted what might have been a pair of nesting birds across the water on another island, and Forrest was trying to confirm for himself that they were indeed herons.

"Hey bird!" he yelled. "Show us your neck!"

And —l being good neighbors —l they did.

—lJay Babcock

We Have Our Issues

LOOKING BACK AT 25 YEARS OF L.A.WEEKLY

"There are just two ways to take The Deer Hunter seriously: as a lie or as a dream. As a dream, it is a film full of wonder and questions. As a lie, it is the most insidious movie yet to come out of what highbrows now call 'the Vietnam experience.'

"We'll take the lies first. Not out of ill humor, but because when I walked out of the theater I was so swept away with the excellence of this movie, that it took me a day to start getting angry at how I'd been lied to. Lies this easy to watch are dangerous because they blind us to the reality of the experience."

—lMichael Ventura on The Deer Hunter, December 8, 1978, Volume 1, Number 1