THE NERDS TAKE THE SIDEWALK LIKE THEY OWN IT. NERDS ON BLANKETS and sleeping bags. Nerds playing Scrabble and chess and Cranium. Nerds camped out on butterfly chairs. Tonight is the opening night of Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones, and I'm waiting in line outside the Mann's Village in Westwood for the midnight show, the first public screening. By noon the line wound halfway down the street. By 2 o'clock, it reached the gas station at the end of the block. By 8 o'clock, when six friends and I arrive, it wraps around the opposite side to a sidewalk far, far away. It is at about this point that four of us resolve to spend the rest of the night talking like Yoda.
"Heard from Bernstein yet, have you?"
"Clouded his future is." I met Robert Bernstein years ago in the UCLA graduate student dorms. In the diverse classification of nerds, geeks, dorks, freaks and dweebs, Bernstein is certainly not the most rabid Star Wars fan in our quadrant of the cosmos. One wouldn't, for example, want to pit him against the wookie-ish fellow seated about two feet from the theater entrance, who has been staring intently at the Episode II promo poster and who has, someone whispers, been in line for "a really long time." Certainly Bernstein is not famous, no more so anyway than the lanky Asian guy dressed up as Obi-Wan with the battery-powered light saber. He is, however, the only 30-year-old man I've ever met who sleeps on R2-D2 bed sheets. In everyday life, Bernstein's an ordinary guy, a balding, bespectacled organic chemist working for the Department of Defense. But Robert Bernstein is our Luke Skywalker. And tonight, his star has risen.
Though there are fewer people in costume this time around -- oh, for the days of the Phantom Menace line of '99, rife with orange flight suits and Queen Amidalas -- the tech is light-years ahead. The most happening spot in line seems to be about a third of the way up at the corner, not too close to the front, yet still early enough in the queue to be considered "serious." Here, a gaggle of rumpled boys clutch handfuls of Star Wars Trivial Pursuit cards as a boom box perched atop a newspaper kiosk plays the Darth Vader theme. Their sleeping bags command significant real estate. A few feet away, guys in beanies sit cross-legged in front of two computers networked to three more in a van down the street: A local Internet café is sponsoring a sidewalk LAN party. Yellow power cables snake out from the pizza parlor next door.
"They're playing Counter-Strike," a guy in shorts and sandals explains.
We nod. Miniature explosions erupt onscreen.
"What is Counter-Strike?" I nudge Jeff in the shoulder.
"What is it?" he sighs, looking up at the sky. "Only the most significant computer game of the 21st century. If you look on the Web, at any given time, there are maybe 5,000 people playing Wolfenstein, 2,000 playing Soldier of Fortune, but over 48,000 are playing Counter-Strike." To our right a guy with a laptop scrolls through the engineering diagram for an X-Wing fighter.
I return to my place in line, where the following conversation is occurring between my friends, who, if you were to meet them not on the street not waiting for five hours for a movie about Anakin Skywalker's transit to the Dark Side, might very well pass for normal human beings:
Sharon: "So, relative to everyone else, how big is Yoda?"
Jeff: "That's a rather personal question, isn't it?"
Sal: "Yoda is small because he's stressed out."
Yoh: "Yoda does not get stressed out."
Me: "Stress leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
Tales of Yoda's prowess filter through the line. Yoda is bigger than Dooku, bigger than Padmé, Windu or Palpatine. Yoda, it is decided, will "open a can of whoop-ass" in Episode II that will blow the galaxy wide, wide open.
Two hours to show time.
Finally, at 11 o'clock, Robert Bernstein arrives in a "Boba Fett for Hire" T-shirt. He has flown in from Albuquerque, New Mexico, just for tonight.
"Brethren!" he cries. He's expansive. Giddy.
"Where's the Darth Maul chair?" I ask.
"Didn't bring it," he says, shuffling his feet. "Do you know how long it takes to inflate that thing?"
"Tatooine to Robert! What the hell else did you think we were gonna do for five hours?"
Once, Robert told me about how he can't sleep in the new house he bought in New Mexico, so he put up life-size models of Boba Fett and a storm trooper to keep him company. Every now and then he wakes up in the middle of the night and screams when he sees the shadowy white
figure pointing a blaster rifle at his head. I imagine that his screams are giddy and full of glee, not unlike the grin he's got now as our line finally begins to move.
Road Rules: Instant Karma on the 710
I HAVE LITTLE FAITH IN THE OLD hippie adage that what goes around comes around. In this world at least, evil deeds go unpunished and virtue is unrewarded. So I am all the more thrilled to be able to relay this tale of instantaneous divine retribution in the most unholy of locales.
It was about 5 p.m. last Wednesday, a bad time to drive from Long Beach to Los Angeles, a bad time to drive anywhere. The 405 onramp to the Long Beach Freeway was predictably clogged. It was, in fact, barely moving at all. A dozen or so cars idled between me and my destination, the admittedly unwelcoming stop-and-go asphalt of the freeway. But a narrow slot existed, just a couple of yards wide, between the clot of cars and the rightmost extreme of the pavement.
My car is an extremely small car, some say unnaturally so. Schoolchildren stop on the sidewalk and laugh when I drive by. Teenagers mock me at red lights. Tall friends must be gently creased and folded if they're to fit in the seat beside me. One of the few advantages of such a tiny car -- which almost makes up for the sheer terror of driving it along the truck-heavy 710, like an anchovy among great whites -- is its ability to fit in spaces larger cars cannot.
So I did not feel I was doing any wrong when I pulled out of line and into the narrow alley to the right of the waiting cars, slowly but steadily cruising past the first 10 or so, deliverance in sight. Then, above my music, which was very, very loud, I heard an engine revving and saw something white jutting out in front of me from the left. I slowed. I heard it rev again, and it jutted out some more. It was the front bumper of the car beside me, and though I understood it was attempting to block my path, I couldn't figure out why until I turned to my left. There, I saw a balding 50-something white man behind the wheel of a sports car, a profile that put him at high risk for attacks of coronary thrombosis, erectile dysfunction and chronic road rage. He showed all the symptoms of the latter. His pudgy face had turned a splotchy pink; his hands gestured rabidly; his little mouth flapped about like a guppy's. I couldn't hear a word he was saying, but I understood it to be something like How-dare-you-go-where-I-can't-you-puny-little-shit-I'll-crush-you.
I beheld the scene in wonder, fully awed at the state he'd worked himself into, and looked on with some satisfaction as, overcome by fury, he let up on the brakes and crashed softly but firmly into the Toyota in front of him. The driver of that car, an African-American woman with the air of an elementary school principal who has let one too many spitballs fly by, got out to inspect the damage. (As far as I could tell, there was none.) My friend's rage only grew, his lips still flapping, his index finger stabbing spastically at the air in accusation. It was, after all, my fault. I shrugged sympathetically, watched his face turn from pink to a terrible violet, and drove off at a smooth 20 miles an hour. I waited until I was out of pistol range to let the laughter burst, and gave my blessing to a well-ordered universe.
Wonks vs. the Real World: The Native Brain on Drugs
THURSDAY AFTERNOON NEAR DOWNtown, at the Robert Sundance Family Wellness Center, an intertribal gathering place on Temple Street that provides health and human services for local Native Americans, four men play the drums and quietly sing as 60-plus people take seats on folding chairs to hear John Walters, head of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, a.k.a. President Bush's drug czar. Dave Rambeau, executive director of United American Indian Involvement, Inc., stands at the head of the room, which is usually reserved for adult day care and A.A. meetings. On display are new anti-drug posters featuring kids and elders communing amid amber waves of grain, and copy that reads, "Grandmother, when you talk, I will listen. When you teach, I will learn."
"We're honored to have John Walters here today," Rambeau says. "We will begin the presentation with a prayer song."
Drummer John Funmaker offers a prayer in HoCak (language of the Winnebago tribe). Margo Kerrigan, California
director of Indian Health Service, then talks about the importance of getting the anti-drug message to urban areas.
"There's a tendency to not see Native peoples in urban areas," Kerrigan says, "but we're here, and this is the audience we're trying to reach."
She turns over the podium to Walters, who wears a smart tan suit and an earnest expression.
"It's the first time we've specifically reached out to the Native community," says Walters, reading from a prepared text. "We believe it's important we craft it effectively so that it reaches both youths and adults effectively."
Walters signals a PR person to roll tape: a 30-second ad starring a bare-chested, loin-clothed Native youth running past mesas, fancy-dancing in full regalia, riding a horse and working on an oil-painting of a warrior, while his narration explains over the warble of flute music, "It's about not doing drugs."
"This ad will run tonight on ABC, and also on BET, MTV, Nickelodeon and the Sci-Fi Channel," says Walters, adding that print ads will appear in hundreds of newspapers and magazines on and around reservations. "We worked with the attitudes and beliefs of American Indian adults and youth to develop powerful, effective ads."
Everyone in the room wants to be hopeful -- it's good to see Natives represented in the media -- but the almost laughable irony of this last comment appears to leave many attendees suspect: What Native peoples did Walters work with? And why would Natives trust the federal government to fix the appalling alcoholism and drug-use rates among Natives?
Just this morning Walters was admitting to Juan Williams on NPR that the nation's five-year, $929 million campaign to keep kids from doing illegal drugs -- featuring the Dixie Chicks and other pop figures -- was an utter failure.
"In fact," Walters told Williams, "some of the exposure by younger children [to the ads] may have been negative in encouraging drug use and actual initiation of marijuana."
The new national campaign, Walters explained, employs an old tactic, namely, mixing horror into anti-drug messages, in the style of the '80s classic "This is your brain; this is your brain on drugs." The new hard line: "Drug money helps support terror. Buy drugs and you could be supporting it too."
But this fear factor is missing from Walters' presentation here at the Sundance Center. Why do Indian kids get the flutes-and-feathers soft sell while other American kids get the scared-straight campaign? Whether or not Walters picks up on the change in the room's emotional temperature, he begins what sounds like a broad mea culpa.
"The federal government . . . the best we can do is be supportive," he says. "We can't prevent drug use, but we can support . . ." He stumbles, then says something about prevention being the key and makes a point of thanking "all those people who are sober, who've led the way, who are here today."
A young Acoma Pueblo girl presents Walters with a T-shirt from a recent "Sobriety Run," Rambeau gives him a homemade cake, and the drum starts again as everyone congregates around a table laden with fry bread, beans, meat and brownies. Walters glad-hands for two minutes, and then is out the door for a photo-op with the littlest kids from the center.
Ten feet away, near the curb, stand four Native teenagers. What did they think of the ads? Did they think they'd be effective?
The teens look skittish and knowing, in that way only 13-year-olds can. Finally, a boy with his hair gelled into several dozen spikes says, "Maybe if they had some buildings in the pictures."
What does he mean?
"Well, they say they're trying to get urban kids, right?"
His friend, who sports a Mohawk, says softly, "We could move to the boonies."
So, do they think the ads will make a difference to them?
The teens giggle into their fists and cover their faces. One glances at the kids having their picture taken with Walters and says, "Maybe for the little kids, like under 10. But after that . . ."
He shrugs imperceptibly, and looks down Temple.
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Taking Flight: Critical Security
MY BRIEFCASE SAILED PLACIDLY through the X-ray machine at LAX, and I waited, wondering queasily whether my Boston-bound plane -- American Airlines Flight 12 -- was really Flight 11, tactfully renamed. The briefcase emerged, but before I could lay my hands on it, a uniformed woman deftly scooped it up. With one hand firmly locked onto my elbow and the other gingerly holding the case as if it were a recently awakened rattlesnake, she guided us both to an empty table, behind which stood an unsmiling young man with his arms folded importantly on his chest.
"There's a sword in this briefcase," she said. The man fished around inside my case, brought out a small black velvet bag and asked me to open it. Inside was a letter opener in the shape of a sword, and -- no question about it -- sharp enough for a premeditated attack on a flight crew. I giggled nervously, then explained that I was a film critic; the sword was one of many useless "gifts" sent to me and other critics by movie distributors in the vain hope of moving us to speak well of their product. Especially vain in this instance, given that the movie was The Scorpion King. Instantly, the man dropped his gravitas, broke into a broad smile and launched into an exhaustive analysis of the film: The sword fights were pretty cool and the effects were neat, but the characters were not believable and the script was flawed.
I assured him that on these points we were as one, and, resisting a giddy impulse to knight him with the offending weapon, I grandly donated it to airport security and went on my way -- grateful, for once, that everybody's a critic.