It was a dark and stormy night. Inside the Virgin Megastore, a man in a hooded sweatshirt staggered through the DVD aisles, his face corpse gray, flecked with bits of blood and gristly black beard.
There was a rustle through the gathered crowd, which moaned with appreciation as a zombie woman in a wheelchair arrived. Severed arms had been affixed to the handles of her motorized wheelchair. More bloody body parts rested on her lap. Dried blood had caked around her mouth. She had striking auburn hair and a curvy, zaftig figure and full Cupids bow lips, which put me in mind of a Pre-Raphaelite painting of a zombie.
It was the first Los Angeles DVD signing for Shaun of the Dead, and clips from the movie played silently on video monitors: Shaun and best friend Ed fighting off a zombie woman in their backyard, mistakenly believing she is drunk; Shaun and Ed pummeling zombies with pool sticks at the Winchester tavern; Shaun and undead Ed playing video games in a shed. A song piped in from the Megastores speakers: "If you leave me now, youll take away the biggest part of me, ooh ooh oooooooooh-no! Baby, please dont go . . ."
My friend Nicole and I fell in line under the stairs with a handful of other zombie lovers. "I was hoping that the DVDs zombie audio commentary would be Mmmmmmbbrrrraains . . . mmmmm," said a fan named Simon. Simon wore a "Chewie Is My Co-pilot" T-shirt. A woman fussed with her little girl, whom she had dressed in a homemade Shaun of the Dead top white baby tee with a red necktie. As far as costumes went, zombies were fairly easy. Basically, they were us, only deader.
"What would you rather be," I asked Simon-the-Chewie-Fan, "a zombie or a vampire?"
"A zombie," he answered briskly.
"Do you like zombies that much?"
"Do they define you?"
"Yes," he said, then paused to reconsider. "Wait. Can I be any vampire? Can I be Spike from Buffy?" Spike was British and sexy in a way no zombie could ever be.
"Of course youd be Spike," said a guy in a black beanie embroidered with the instructional slogan "Aim for the Head."
Simon Pegg (who co-wrote the movie and plays Shaun) and Nick Frost (who plays Ed) arrived. Would there be a Shaun of the Dead 2? Or a Bride of Shaun of the Dead? "No," said Pegg, "we feel that Shauns journey is over." What are his favorite scenes? "I quite like the Bloody Mary scene with the woman in the backyard, the one where Shaun meets his first zombie. Although the scene where I shoot my mother is moving as well. Especially since the woman who plays her really does look a lot like my actual mother."
"Thats your Oscar clip," offered Nicole, quivering faintly beside me.
"Right!" the men laughed heartily. Pegg straightened and smoothed his black "Zombaid" T-shirt.
"I like Ed in the shed," added Frost, who in the film ends up a zombie. Tonight, both he and Pegg were clean-shaven and smelled of cologne not at all maggot-y. The ring of hungry fans that had tightened around us groaned impatiently.
"Would you rather be a zombie or a vampire?" I asked.
"Hmm," said Pegg, pretending to fiddle with his blond goatee. "Hot chicks? Or eat the flesh of the living? Little choice, really. Vampires get to be slick and sexy. They get to wear black all the time. Zombies just decompose."
Fans shuffled forward in line. Posters were signed, DVDs autographed. Love letters and fan art were handed over. "I love them," Nicole whispered, grabbing my arm, "I love them. Did I mention that I love them?"
Pegg signed my copy of the Book of Revelation, which I had brought along on apocalyptic impulse. "To God," he wrote, "I love this shit!" then passed the slim volume to his partner.
"Oh, good. I have things to say to Him. Im not happy with my lot," said Frost, scribbling into the book.
On the other side of the Megastore, a pack of Virgin executives, dressed in dead serious black, looked on. "We are happy with the turnout of zombie lovers in L.A.," said one exec named Bob, surveying the store.
"A shame there are no actual zombies, though," I said absently.
"Oh, there are one or two."
Most of the stranded and near-drowned victims of this weeks diluvia have gotten their 15 seconds or so of celebrity thanks to the orgiastic "team coverage" provided by L.A. television (reporting on rainstorms seems to offer the perfect level of intellectual complexity for our local broadcast-news puppies).
But then there was that poor 30-something guy in a drenched leather jacket Monday out on Sunset near Vine whose plight went almost completely unnoticed.
As I sat idle in a bottleneck, my wipers hopelessly sloshing the water back and forth, I could make him out standing in the middle of the eastbound left-turn lane. His aged Toyota had apparently been rear-ended by the gold Lexus behind him. As the snarled traffic honked away, he was furiously yelling and pounding the drivers window on the Lexus, challenging the driver to get out. A half-minute later, the Lexus door finally opened and a dark-haired woman 10 years his senior and trundled in a brown knit sweater cautiously emerged.
The leather-jacket guys rant only escalated, and he suddenly grabbed at the womans shoulder. Thinking of the Hollywood Division station only a few blocks away, I grabbed my cell phone and punched in 911. But before I could hit the "send" button, the woman shook off his hand, dropped her right arm way low, and then snapped back with a looping Sunday punch right in the guys kisser.
The single, direct hit shut his mouth, buckled his knees and sent him flat out onto the asphalt. As surprised onlookers moved in to sort out the mess and the traffic in front of me once again began to crawl, he lay sprawled, face-up to the indifferent rain.
Ever since Christmas day, the sky has been crying over Los Angeles: two solid weeks of rain that some have described as biblical. On the local news, opinion was divided on whether this rain was the fault of El Niño, global warming or the Omega Block. But what feels like El Niño is just a freakish string of Pacific storms, blown south by a drunken jet stream that is causing bizarro scenes all over Southern California. The Grapevine looked like Grenoble.
Those seeking signs that the end was nigh pointed to the line at Pinks hot dogs, which was reduced to maybe five customers. There was even parking on the street. It felt like the 50s. It was nice.
Some things didnt change, though, and in zero visibility and with 3 inches to 3 feet of water on the highways and byways, the citizens of Los Angeles still drove like idiots. One early morning on the 101 near Melrose, rubberneckers slowed to check out a minivan stuck so high up the embankment it looked like a giant skateboard going for coping. The woman driver was safe, talking to a cop, under an umbrella, at highway level. How fast must she have been going, in the pouring rain, to make it all the way up there? And how did the van not flip and tumble back to the roadway?
That same afternoon, the rain was relentless and the 101 was jammed. On Rossmore, just past the Ravenswood, a torrent of water ripped across the roadway. It was sketchy even in a raised Suburban, but how to feel about the two citizens, up to their knees in water, pushing their drowned Porsche out of the puddle?
And then there was the guy stuck on his car in a flooded river in Santa Fe Springs. Video of his flawed but successful rescue was shown over and over again on CNN, but no one ever asked the question: Why was he driving in a flooded river at the end of two weeks of rain?
Up until last weekend, the rains had done surprisingly little damage in Los Angeles. But on Monday, CNN Headline News gave equal time to new, truly horrifying footage of the tsunami coming up the main street of Banda Aceh, and a similar scene of a mountainslide of mud flooding the streets of idyllic La Conchita in Ventura County. At least three people were killed in La Conchita, though more than a dozen were still missing as of this writing. A house slid in the Hollywood Hills, where a passerby helped rescue the inhabitants. Dozens of drivers were stranded for hours in snow in the San Bernardino Mountains. A woman lost one of her three kids after she drove into a flooded wash near Palmdale. A man was feared dead after he tried to swim across a surging Topanga Creek near Fernwood on a dare.
But the death and destruction in Los Angeles was nothing compared to the truly biblical cataclysm caused by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Our clouds perhaps have silver linings. When the storm lets up for an hour or a day, it leaves behind a Los Angeles as well scrubbed and shiny as a Michael Mann night shot. A biblical deluge can scrub the sky and streets cleaner than an armored regiment of street sweepers and jailbirds. And a raging Malibu Creek left behind a perfect sandbar at First Point that is going to do beautiful things when the weather settles down and the swell comes up.
Rain, former Angels scout Ray Scarborough told The New Yorkers Roger Angell back in 1976, is "the number-one occupational hazard of this profession." Angells story about the toil of the most anonymous men in baseball later became the source material for the Albert Brooks movie The Scout.
Nearly 30 years after Scarborough let The New Yorker into his world, the Angels have gone through two name changes, Angell has pretty much retired from baseball writing, and scouts have been displaced by computer geeks obsessed with arcane statistics. So its fitting that its raining outside the Beverly Hilton this Saturday night, because as 1,000 people fill a chandeliered ballroom at the hotel for the second annual Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation dinner, scouting itself has become a hazardous occupation one with little security and a lot of risk.
As guests filter into the ballroom, we are deluged with requests to "bid generously" for silent-auction items. And there is a lot of memorabilia available for bidding, the proceeds of which will go to support former scouts in need. A Mickey Mantle and Willie Mayssigned collage has received a $1,500 bid; Barry Bonds and Vlad Guerrero baseballs are going for $300.
This may be a baseball-scout charity auction, but there are also mementos from boxing, football, hockey and basketball. With only minutes before the silent auction ends, no one has bid on a Lakers basketball, nor on a Kobe Bryant lithograph, nor on signed jerseys from either Shaq or Kobe. Michael Jordans shirt has received several pledges.
Tommy Lasorda, who guided the Dodgers to two World Series titles as manager and still scouts and evaluates players for the club, is tonights master of ceremonies. He steps to the lectern wearing a red tie that does little to conceal the exSlim Fast pitchmans fabled bulge and launches into his best Don Rickles routine, even hectoring the white-haired gent, who introduced Lasorda, with a Catskills-style joke about the mans sex life.
After dinner, holding his hand up to his face to shield himself from a spotlight, Lasorda says, "Could you cut that light down? It looks like a train coming at me." Then he tells us about tonights special guests.
"You know whos here? That fireballer, Curt Schiller," Lasorda says, referring to Red Sox hero Curt Schilling, who will be honored as player of the year. Reading from a script, Lasorda misreads Bret Boones name, calling the Mariners second baseman "Bobby Boone." Without looking up from the text and without inflecting his voice, he reads, "Im excited to share this with you," then tells us of the $300,000 that has been raised in the past year to support the scouts, who he says face their biggest layoff ever this year.
"This room is rockin tonight. Rockin," beams Lasorda, who mentions that the sale of Grady Little bobble-head dolls netted $35,000 last summer for the organization. Maybe Lasorda will sell some of his bobble-heads. I own one.
The master of ceremonies then calls to the podium Tom Arnold, actor and host of The Best Damn Sports Show Period. "Welcome to Beverly Hills, home of the $5 diet Coca-Cola," says Arnold, and I have to agree with him after forking over $9 for validated parking. What would non-validated parking cost? I wonder.
Pronouncing asterisk as if it ended in ck, Arnold talks about the steroid controversy in baseball and how all of us, not just ballplayers, have made mistakes. He cites his first marriage, "a big asterick," then mentions Arnold Schwarzenegger as a possible savior for the sport, before adding that the Governator "may not be the right guy to handle steroids." When he gets around to the subject at hand, Arnold says that he always wanted to be a scout so he could "have credit taken away by general managers and agents."
Finally, as Arnold leaves the stage, he says, "Lets keep it rolling, Tommy. Were on a roll here."
Lasorda, who was once interim general manager of the Dodgers, looks at his script and remarks, "It says here, Thanks Tommy. "
On the way out, I spot a modest-size, white-haired black man. He is dressed in a beige suit and still looks quite fit, like an old samurai warrior.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"Maury Wills," I say, sticking out my hand. He shakes it a bit reluctantly. "MVP 1962, right?" His eyes crinkle as he smiles. I tell him that my wife, who stands next to me, is a Rickey Henderson fan. "This is the man who taught them all how to steal bases," I say.
Someone must have scouted Wills once, seen that competitiveness, that intelligence. Just as someone must have scouted Shawn Green, seen the litheness of his frame, the effortlessness of his swing, and projected that he would one day be a star.
I head for the parking lot. Its still raining.
Robert David Jaffee