HIS EMINENCE IS MOST CERTAINLY IN HIS ELEMENT THIS TUESDAY EVENING: chatting up blue-haired contributors under the glare of chandeliers; cracking jokes with fellow heavyweights as a jazz combo cranks out a finger-poppin' tune; admiring a large, pastel rendering of a proposed edifice, its architect grinning by his side. Heck, even Governor Gray Davis could take lessons from this fellow on how to work a room.
The occasion has nothing at all to do with the $189 million Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral downtown. Rather, Cardinal Roger Mahony has stopped by this soiree at USC's Town and Gown Hall to help kick off the capital campaign for a new Catholic Center. The current one, just a block and a half off campus, is small, cramped and certainly not befitting USC's estimated 10,000 Catholic students.
The goal is a tidy $14 million. That's a drop in the bucket considering the price tag of the dirt-brown, Soviet-style monolith many refer to as the Taj Mahony. On the other hand, it's more than three times the $4.3 million deficit in the archdiocese's budget, which this September prompted severe cuts in seven of its ministries and outreach programs. Some 60 positions were eliminated, affecting programs aiding the imprisoned and the disabled, as well as religious education and the ministries to gay and lesbian Catholics. Ministries on six Cal State campuses were closed. Notably, ministries at USC, as well as UCLA and UCSB, survived.
The archdiocese insists in its official newspaper, The Tidings, that it's all due to "the continuing economic downturn and reduction in investment income." In other words, they lost a bundle on the stock market. Everyone understands a bear market, right?
Alas, not everyone, as five of Mahony's top lieutenants resigned en masse the day before Halloween in a move many have called a protest over the budget cuts. Then there are all the lawsuits pending against the archdiocese from victims of alleged priestly sexual abuse, which will have to be settled one way or another. Throw in the wild-card possibility of criminal proceedings against the cardinal himself should D.A. Steve Cooley so decide, and you're looking at a morass of lawyers' fees that'd make Eli Broad wince.
Maybe it's because USC's campus outreach survived the cardinal's ax that none of these matters are topics of conversation in Town and Gown. Everyone's all smiles, from the well-scrubbed Catholic students encouraged to attend by their beloved, avuncular Father Bill Messenger, USC Catholic Center's pastor and director, to the prospective donors, the Catholic alumni who've been invited to partake of the university's hospitality. Here tuxedoed waiters serve canapés on silver trays. In the back there's a cook serving up quesadillas made to order.
At 6 feet 4 inches, Cardinal Mahony may be the tallest person present. This makes him fairly easy to observe as he moves smoothly from cluster to cluster of alums. But the impulse to walk up to Rog and start firing off questions is tempered by the knowledge that I am a guest of one of the attendees. And before me is a California dream, a tanned blond with a slightly upturned nose and a skirt so short that it surely gives her professors heart palpitations.
"I came because Father Bill asked me," says the freshman, her green eyes quickly flitting down to her pink toenails, visible because she's chosen flip-flops for footwear. "And because of the free food. I think I'll probably hit the Nine-O later. Tuesday night's a big night."
God bless coeds. But before I can find out what time she plans to be at the infamous 901 Club, a string of chortling dignitaries assails the podium. One of the first is university president Steven B. Sample, who rises to introduce tonight's honored guest, the good cardinal. Sample mentions that Mahony is the most recent recipient of USC's honorary doctorate in humane letters: "Therefore, I believe the correct form of address is Dr. Cardinal."
Sample's decision to grant the honorary sheepskin to His Eminence during this past spring's commencement ceremony caused a few arched eyebrows off campus. A fortnight prior, Mahony was sued in L.A. Superior Court under RICO, the federal racketeering law, for allegedly running a criminal enterprise in shielding priests accused of sexual abuse of minors. Four days after the cardinal received his doctorate in all his red finery, Mahony admitted in a fax to his brother priests that he had mishandled the case of Father Michael Stephen Baker. According to the L.A. Times, Baker, who was in active ministry until 2000, says he came clean to Mahony in 1986 that he had molested two boys. But Mahony did not report Baker to the authorities until this year. Numerous counts of alleged child molestation have now been filed, and two other former priests, Carlos Rene Rodriguez and G. Neville Rucker, have been similarly charged. D.A. Cooley says there will be others, and the Ventura County D.A. is also nipping at Mahony's heels.
But on this evening, there is no hand wringing over Mahony's honorary doctorate.
The crowd titters every time someone follows Sample's example and calls him "Dr. Cardinal." Mahony revels in the love fest. When it's his turn to address the room, he pulls off the best joke of the night: "You know, we just finished a little chapel ourselves by the freeway . . ."
A LITTLE AFTER 11 A.M. ON A TUESDAY, a man boarded the westbound 181 on Hollywood Boulevard at Western. He was carrying a radio on his shoulder. The volume was up -- not blasting, but loud enough so the driver could hear.
"No radios on the bus," the driver told the man. "You gotta turn it off."
"Turn it off?" He was an African-American man, dressed in jeans and a pressed green-and-white striped shirt, a knit cap low over his forehead. "What you talking about, 'turn it off'? Turn it off, my ass. Man, you can suck my dick."
The rider proceeded slowly toward the back of the bus, addressing each passenger along the way. "He can suck my dick," he said to one. "Turn it off, my ass," he said to the next. "I'm a man, can't he see that? I ain't no little boy. No one lays down no rules like that for me."
The fine for playing a radio on an MTA bus can run up to $250, but the bus driver did not pursue the issue. He drove calmly on, dutifully announcing each stop. Bronson. Gower. Vine Street.
The radio continued to play, and the man, in no hurry to find a seat, continued to rant and stroll down the aisle.
"Turn the radio off!? I'll shove it up his ass first. I'll shove it up his ass so far he'll have to have it surgically removed."
The man thought this was funny, but most of the passengers did not. As he passed, one by one they looked down and away, careful not to graze the man's radius of eye contact, some clearly worried that he might go off in some violent way, hit somebody or take out a gun. He was demanding, boisterous and more disruptive than any radio. I wondered -- how much is the fine for shouting?
Personally, I find the mutterings of street people sometimes worthwhile -- every once in a while, some nugget drops out about the Trilateral Commission or airline safety or something that you wouldn't have thought up otherwise -- so I tuned in. "I'll shove it up his ass while it's still playing jazz. Ha-ha! It'll still be playing jazz!" And as the man made it back toward where I sat, in one of the three seats that face inward toward the aisle, the dull blur of the music came into focus, and I thought I recognized the alto-sax riff: dah-dah-dah-dum . . .
The man sat down directly across from me. His performance was picking up momentum.
"Mr. Bus Driver!" the man yelled from the back of the bus. "I'll shove this fucking radio up your ass. Ha-ha! You'll have to go to the doctor and get some surgery!"
He looked around for someone to connect with. "He'll have jazz playing up his ass all day long! Man, he'll be sorry he met me, 'cause I don't let nobody run my life for me. I'm a man. Can't he see that? I'm a man. And I ain't doing nothing just 'cause some bus driver says so."
The sax came through louder. Dah-dah-dah-dah dum . . .
It was Kenny G.
"He can suck my dick . . ."
The announcer came on, running down the day's playlist. "Norah Jones. Dave Koz. Michael McDonald."
". . . still playing jazz . . ."
The announcer identified the station.
"This is 94.7, the Wave. Smooth jazz."
Recklessly, I looked up at the man.
He winked at me, and smiled. "Ninety-four-point-seven, the Wave," he said. "Smooth jazz."
I quickly looked toward my feet and tried not to laugh. I turned my head to look out the window. I put my hand over my mouth and pretended to cough.
"I'll shove it up his ass still playing SMOOTH jazz."
A commercial came on, with one of the Wave's sultry female DJs shilling for a new restaurant. The man turned his attention toward an attractive black woman in a business suit sitting next to him. "Hear that voice? Sexy. Seductive. Yeah. That's how the women sound on the Wave."
She stared at him.
"And I ain't turning this thing off."
She looked away.
"He can suck my dick."
"Cahuenga," said the driver.
"That's my stop," said the man, to no one in particular, and he stood up. "Smooth jazz," I heard him say as he descended the steps of the rear exit. "Ninety-four-point-seven, the Wave. Yeah."
"WHEN ARE THEY GOING TO LET US in? We've been here for hours!"
We're on the Sunset Strip, searchlights beaming, outside Hustler of Hollywood, and the mostly male natives are getting restless. They're waiting to see their favorite porn stars, who are appearing in person tonight to autograph their new line of "action" figures.
Is it worth the wait?
"Absolutely!" comes a chorus of men from all ethnic persuasions and ages.
"Because. These girls are stars. They're great."
They're right about the star power. Julie Meadows, of off-color classics like Sinful Rella and Deep Inside Julie Meadows, is inside the store, amid displays of 3-foot-long plush penis pillows, "Dicky Sipper" sports bottles and booby pasta, wearing her white vinyl sex-kitten outfit with little cat ears on her head and a long white tail coming right out of her crack. And there's Jenna Jameson, known to many as the "leading adult-video actress of all time," or as Rolling Stone put it, "the actress who put the star in porn star." Houston, whose wildly popular movie Houston 620 caused Howard Stern to crown her "the new queen of the gangbang," is here, too. So is Nikita Denise, the porn industry's answer to Xena, who was born in the former Czechoslovakia and came to the U.S., according to her press notes, "with one goal: to become a porn star," and redheaded vixen Kylie Ireland, veteran of more than 200 adult videos, tonight dressed like any other upscale working girl in jeans and pullover top.
"These girls are icons, virtually mainstream," insists Dan Harary, PR manager for the Adult Superstars line, designed and manufactured by Plastic Fantasy Inc. "It's a breakthrough moment in the action-toy industry."
But if you're expecting action as in you-know-what, forget it. These dolls are so tame they're practically Toys R Usfriendly. Nikita Denise is in army-fatigue shorts and high-laced boots, holding a giant spear. Houston is in black leather, ready to blast off on an electric guitar. Julie has one leg up on . . . a cat tree house, complete with a kitten cleaning itself.
So what's so great about the action dolls?
"Tits!" says Carlos, a stocky Latino holding Julie Meadows. "See? Look at her curves!"
"Girls got their dolls, how come boys can't have theirs too?" says a man named Lehman, defiantly clutching his figure of Jenna Jameson in patriotic cheerleader attire (Stars-and-Stripes pom-pom outfit, high-top sneakers). "Besides, these figures are high-class -- really accurate. Look, they even got her tattoo!"
That's because the figures aren't sculpted but created with a so-called "xXx-Scan" computer system, which makes a three-dimensional copy of the model, tattoos and all, via laser. "Our paint applications are 150 times more precise than anything else out there in the action-figure world," boasts designer and Plastic Fantasy founder Jerry Macaluso.
Back outside with the line, Larry, a diminutive fellow in a trench coat, has more substantial issues to discuss. "I believe in their cause!" he declares. "That's why I'm here."
"Yeah. They're what America stands for! Freedom! Freedom of speech, freedom of thought . . . Listen, it's a lot better to be standing here than going around killing and maiming people. I e-mail these girls all the time, and we discuss issues like this. Julie e-mailed me back, 'I love your passion.' These are not sluts. They're people, intelligent women. I treat them like that and they really appreciate it."
Farther down the line are two women.
"We're the lesbian contingent!" says Katie in a pronounced British accent. "We watch porn 24/7. We love Nikita, of course. But any of them will do!"
Katie has been in Los Angeles six months with her friend Chloe, a Ph.D. candidate from the University of York who is here doing research in "queer theory."
"Actually," she explains, "my thesis is on the subject of film-fan magazines and representations of gender."
So, could this evening count as research?
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"Why not?" she giggles.
And how do they like Los Angeles?
"We adore it! A night like this would never happen in London. It's too cold!"
--Mary Beth Crain