So . . . what are you wearing?
Kevin cradles the cell phone, listening to the girl on the other end of the line.
Wow! he says. With a sword? Cool.
It is the Fourth of July, and my friend Kevin and I are on our way to the AnimeExpo2004 at the Anaheim Convention Center. Were going not for the Ghost in the Shell 2 premiere, nor for the special appearance of J-Pop songstress Yoko Ishida, the industry focus panels, the How To Draw Manga workshops, the gaming tournaments, the karaoke contests, or the Gungrave, Neon Genesis Evangelion or Galaxy Angel Z screenings. Were here because Kevin is in love with a girl.
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Cindy, Kevin says, is not someone he gets to see much in everyday life. She is shy. She is Korean. She is a community organizer for a nonprofit organization. But she also has a thing for cosplay (or costume play), for a subset of anime in particular called Yaoi. Theyve encountered each other in the real world only twice: when they met for the first time through a mutual friend, and briefly at a previous anime convention where she came dressed in a blue kimono with a matching set of folding fans. It doesnt help that they live eight hours apart and only talk via e-mail.
It also doesnt help that Kevin is just about the least expressive person on the planet.
He hasnt yet confessed his love for her, which is what were here today to accomplish.
In theory, anyway.
The convention entrance is like a cocktail party gone insane. I recognize the bloodied prep-school kids from Battle Royale, the gothic Lolita girls of Doll with the intricate Victorian crinolines and black parasols, plus about a hundred different iterations of Pikachu. But most are beyond me a whirling sea of neon hair and strange ears.
How are we going to find her? I ask.
Kevin shrugs. We follow a man carrying a cardboard sign that reads Glomps wanted: Apply now. Across the street, a whippet-thin boy in a black suit hefts a gigantic cross over his shoulder. His left hand steadies the cross. His right holds a silver gun.
Who is he supposed to be? I ask.
His characters name is What Would Jesus Do? Kevin deadpans. I smack him on the arm, and he mimes a gunshot, Die for my sins, motherfucker! A man with a sword crosses our path on his way to a weapons-instruction workshop. Cindys sword is bigger than that, Kevin sighs.
Lust and love blossom around us. Sailor Moons hold hands with Robotech Macross boys, while boys from Harry Potter hold hands with elf girls. Green-haired Lum, in a furry bikini, strolls arm in arm with Peter Pan, while a Japanese schoolgirl (à la murderous Go-Go Yubari) kisses a guy who, inexplicably, has a stuffed rabbit on top of his head.
I pull Kevin over to a booth that specializes in the mysterious Yaoi anime that Cindy likes so much. What is Yaoi? The guy behind the stacks of comic books grins. Yaoi is where the dominant character is a man paired with a submissive character who is . . . also a man, but feminized. The artists take certain set storylines and draw the characters the way they think things should have gone. Say, for example, I like Aladdin. But I think Aladdin should fall in love with Genie, not with Jasmine. Or maybe I like Harry Potter, but I think Harry and Ron should be together. Essentially, he says, theyre romance novels. The opposite side of the booth, which is labeled Hentai, has its own set of books. That side is for boys. It has girls with everybody, girls and aliens, girls and tentacles. This side, he gestures to the Yaoi side, is for girls. It has guys and guys, guys and horses, guys and tentacles . . . actually were sold out of guys and tentacles.
The men who look like women smile up at us benignly from the covers of the romance novels. Their hair is long and flowing. Their eyes, sweetly lowered. Nearby, a girl tugs on a boy with a chain around his neck.
When we find her, Cindy is surrounded by a group of anime friends, all in costume. She is dressed as Cloud, a male character from Final Fantasy 7. Her costume is an assemblage of faux leather and corduroy with an armband that is actually a Home Depot painters kneepad spray-painted black.
Hi, she says, and waggles the fingers of one black-satin-gloved hand. She is cute and boyish. Nervously, Kevin offers her a Ziploc bag of blueberry muffins he baked them for her this morning. Side by side, they walk awkwardly through the maze of booths, amid the elves, the ghosts, the demons and warrior princesses.
Soon they are lost in the crowd. And off in the distance, fireworks explode in the evening air.
As a U.S. Army reservist awaiting his inevitable deployment to Iraq, Im not the kind of guy youd expect to see marking our nations 229th year at an event called the Farce of July, which stands in defiant opposition to a nationwide celebration of independence and calls on its guests to remember the oppressed indigenous and minority groups in our land. But the night before, at an art show at Rock Rose Gallery, Little Joe from Aztlán Underground told me that my cousin Moses Mora would be there. I hadnt seen my cousin Moses in months. So there I was, at East L.A.s Self Help Graphics, watching the speakers and poets, and waiting for the music to start.
Slowrider took the stage, and then, at the end of the set, the lead singer grabbed to the mike once more and asked the crowd for a flag. After someone procured the donation from a neighboring home, he shocked me to the core with his second request. He asked for a lighter.
Tugs of guilt and understanding tore at my sides. Outnumbered, I watched as Old Glory disintegrated onstage and the crowd screamed its joyous approval.
Aztlán Underground appeared next, and as they played, I struggled with the feelings churning inside me. I support our troops and the war in Iraq, but I was also somehow feeling the vibe as A.U. sang the words: We didnt cross the border, the border crossed us.
Then it happened again: At the end of A.U.s set, they prepared to burn another flag this one much larger and newer. The events MC did the honors. He reminded the crowd to learn the true history, teach it to the children, and, as he lit the Stars and Stripes, said, Teach them the traditions!
I looked around, hoping that there was no one with a camera close enough to capture my image next to that burning flag. As the commander of my local American Legion post, an organization that each year lobbies Congress to enact a constitutional amendment protecting the flag, I was sure I was letting someone down.
Then the realization came to me that, as it stands today, no such flag amendment exists. The acts of dissent on that stage were completely legal, and with the simultaneous explosions of quarter sticks of dynamite and skyrockets everywhere, I felt a kind of guilty pride in the end. As a soldier, I understood that the bands onstage and all the people below were doing something that could never be done anywhere else but in the United States. And thats what Im fighting for.
David Richard Bloom
Would You Believe . . .?
We spotted him as soon as we walked into the diner. Hunched over his breakfast, he looked like a cartoon vulture with his great wingspan and prominent beak.
Is that Phil Jackson with Jeanie Buss? I asked my buddy under my breath.
Sure looks like it.
When we were led to the booth right next to them, I felt as if I were getting a seat out of Jack Nicholsons life, or every sports reporters dreams. It was just over a week after the Lakers crash-and-burn at the NBA finals and the almost immediate unceremonious dismissal of Coach Jackson on the orders of his girlfriends father, Dr. Jerry Buss. Like a couple of characters from Get Smart, we sat down awkwardly in our seats and pretended to peruse the newspaper nonchalantly while craning our necks and ears in their direction.
. . . Well, Kupchaks going to have to interview Rambis and Cleamons . . .
Jeezuss, Jackson was right on point. Did we stumble upon some kind of negotiation? Was Jeanie there as girlfriend or envoy? And was Phil really as consumed with the open-ended questions swirling around the Lakers as the rest of us? It seemed a little weird that the so-called Zen master of basketball wouldnt just leave the teams troubles behind and head for the nearest mountain retreat. Weird, but lucky for us. I wondered what nuggets would spill from Phils loose lips like so much Tapatio sauce over my eggs. We tuned in.
Unfortunately, our spying skills were about as good as Maxwell Smarts. We could only make out a few more fragments of conversation.
. . . Shaquille . . .
. . . Kobe . . .
What about Kobe?
. . . Character . . .
For all we knew, the answers to the hopes and dreams of millions of Lakers fans were hidden between those dots. But we just . . . couldnt . . . connect them.
Hey, I said to my friend, who was seated with a view of the couple, Phil Jackson seems like the sort who wouldnt mind jawing sports with a couple of guys over breakfast. Maybe we should just turn around and ask him what the hell is going on?
Yeah, maybe, my friend said, but its too late.
I looked behind me and Jackson was gone, probably for good.
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