Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
So there was Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten, the popular Brazilian tennis player, gracefully sleepwalking his way through an early-round match against Robby Ginepri last week at the Mercedes-Benz Cup tennis tournament at UCLA. With his rag-doll limbs and mop of curly hair, the three-time French Open champ is something of an anomaly in the men’s game, which is increasingly populated by machine-tooled giants who would not look out of place on a basketball court. Guga isn’t small — he’s 6 feet 3 inches tall and 167 pounds — but there’s nothing remotely bionic about him. He’s tennis’ Inner Child, a sweet-tempered purveyor of silken groundstrokes, the epitome of happy-go-lucky youth. When he walks to his chair during changeovers, he does so with the eccentric, musical gait of a poet. Watching him makes people feel happy.
Guga’s free-flowing, artistic game, which will later draw gasps of admiration from the crowd during a losing effort against Andre Agassi, is all the more striking for the hard-nosed commercialism in which it is embedded. From the Mercedes logos sewn into either side of the net to the orange Earthlink fans handed out to the crowd, the tournament’s backers have colonized almost every available space. “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in Heaven,” said Jesus, in a passage (Matthew 6:1-2) that should be memorized by all corporate sponsors. “Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do . . . Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”
Verily, They do. The clubhouse and all the best seats, for a start, but until the semifinals, they don’t bother to actually drive out to UCLA and sit in them. On a weekday at a minor tournament like this one, the audience is made up mostly of aficionados, and the bleachers are half-empty under a blazing sky. All age groups are represented, from wrinkled retirees in floppy white hats that look like bandages to child prodigies only slightly taller than their tennis rackets. There are a lot of athletes, or would-be, or used-to-be, or someday-will-be, athletes. There are a lot of sporty middle-aged women, usually in pairs, wearing ankle bracelets rather than wedding rings. There are hulking guys, all Ray-Bans and five-o’clock shadow, and strapping gals in slinky summer dresses. It’s a very body-conscious crowd.
After Ginepri extends the first set to a tie-breaker, Kuerten calmly raises his game and wins the second set easily. The next match is between Marat Safin, the 21-year-old Muscovite who demoralized Pete Sampras in last year’s U.S. Open final, and Xavier Malisse, a slick, ponytailed Belgian who looks like trouble and used to date it in the form of Jennifer Capriati. Safin, who’s a symmetrical 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, is reputed to be a wit but plays like a robot that’s been incorrectly programmed. When he’s “on,” as he was against Sampras, he’s untouchable. Today he’s moody and bored, a tennis-court Hamlet: “Balls, balls, balls.” Several times he flings his racket to the ground in disgust, but as Goran Ivanisevic has helpfully suggested, if you’re going to smash a racket, smash it. Safin never does. Even his petulance is ambivalent, and Malisse beats him in straight sets.
Since there are always seats available in the early rounds, you can watch a few games, and then go catch a doubles match or check out the practice court, on which massive power-players fine-tune their 140-mile-per-hour serves. During one session, 18-year-old American Andy Roddick hits a ball so hard it pops through the chainlink fence and almost removes a spectator’s head. Since the spectator in question is yours truly, I repair to the food court for a beer.
On my way I pass a gaggle of kids waiting outside the entrance to the players’ section. They’re collectively willing Guga to come out and sign some autographs, despite having been told by the security guard that Guga’s already left the grounds. The kids wait patiently anyway, clutching pens and giant yellow tennis balls covered in the black scrawl of hastily scribbled player signatures. An hour later, they’re still there, and the guard can’t get rid of them. “Guga left. Guga no here. Guga go home,” he tells them with amused exasperation, trying to wave them off with his arms. “Guga got in a car and Guga go away.”
Reluctantly, two or three kids pick up their stuff and walk off. The rest remain. “Guga! Guga! Guga!” they chant. I almost join in.
Onstage at the David Henry Hwang Theater in Little Tokyo, left to right: transparent Lucite podium (with matching microphone-and-MC ensemble), 8 feet of empty stage, two high-back chairs (red), another 8 feet of stage, four judges of equally mixed and alternating genders (the females wearing tiaras) seated behind name plates at a foldup table.
The 61st Nisei Week Japanese Festival Baby Show contestants have been divided into two social categories: Boys and Girls. Each “Boy” and “Girl” has been assigned to one of three age-specific competition categories: Tiny Tots (ages 12 to 23 months), Romper Stompers (24 months to 3 years, 11 months) and Jet Setters (4 years to 6 years, 1 month).
The auditorium is packed. Contestants have been scrubbed and polished since dawn and now it’s 10 and MC Dirck Morgan invites groups of five Tiny Tots at a time to appear onstage with their parents and . . . do . . . something. Wander around, wave, smile. The parents try to direct the something toward the judges and the audience, hoping that at least the judges will wave and smile back, which will lead to more waving, more smiling and even big wide silly faces. But not every tot feels like waving. Many are content to wander freestyle, or stand in place staring at the audience with terror or indifference. One lifts her dress over her head and runs in place.
After a minute or so, MC Dirck asks the judges if they’ve had enough. Yes. The five Tiny Tots are hauled off and a herd of replacements brought in.
(Repeat.) (Repeat.) (Repeat.)
The judges retire to tabulate in their chambers with the Official Baby Show Tabulators, and raffle prizes are awarded. Gift certificates, passes, Ken®, Barbie®, Barbie®’s friend Kira®, Hello Kitty®, lunch box full of beef jerky. A 20-minute® intermission ensues for the next 45 minutes.
Artificial journalist takes a walk around Little Tokyo; retrieves coffee and near-perfect fruit tart from Yamazaki Bakery, basks in the slow Sunday morning, returns to find Tiny Tot winners — Best Smile, Best Personality, Most Photogenic (chosen prior to the pageantry) and the Tiny Tot Prince and Princess — posing for photographs onstage with MC Dirck and the judges and a larger-than-life Hello Kitty® costume, occupied. And posing, and waving, and smiling into the flashes continues almost as long as the division contest itself. Jesus.
At last, around noon, the Tiny Tots are expunged, MC Dirck and the judges are re-introduced as if no one who’d shown up at 10 could still be in the audience, and the Romper Stomper contestants are invited onstage in groups of five to wander and wave, to kneel before the judges’ table, to hug and cuddle with their parents and generally accomplish very little in the way of differentiating themselves from the Tiny Tots.
DIRCK: Judges? Are you . . .?
(Judges nod, with feeling.)
DIRCK (to audience): Thank you! We’ll take a half-hour break . . .
. . . for at least an hour, during which the judges again retire to tabulate while identical raffle prizes are awarded, this time with extra beef jerky. Artificial journalist takes opportunity to pick up ancient friend Bradford on Vignes Street, drive up to Colima Restaurant for chorizo and eggs and coffee and sangria. Returns to find audience thinned and MC Dirck asking an old baby, one of the Jet Setters, questions to establish a basis for the Best Personality Award:
MC DIRCK: Do you have a brother or sister?
OLD BABY: No.
MC DIRCK: If you did, what would you name him or her?
OLD BABY: Kiki.
MC DIRCK: That’s a nice name. Do you want to say Hi to anybody?
OLD BABY: No.
At 2:20 p.m., the last set of Jet Setters is escorted offstage. Tension in the air is nil as all await the day’s supreme citation: the crowning of the Jet Setter Prince and Princess.
But first, more beef jerky in a lunch box (“valued at $40”), a “$25 gift certificate to Ross Dress for Less, valued at $25,” VIP admission to the Sawdust Festival, more Barbie®s and Hello Kitty® dolls and Hello Kitty® jerky in a lunch box.
At 2:40, the oversize Hello Kitty® Costume reappears, and MC Dirck announces that young Wesley Yoshio Kitagawa will reign as prince and Allie Kei Sugane will reign as princess. The pair will wave and smile from atop the Tengu Beef Co. float — designed just for them — during the Nisei Week Grand Parade on Sunday, August 5, and the rest of us will line the streets, clapping and smiling and waving back, hoping to catch the approving gaze of temporary royalty.
It was a petty heist. A 4-year-old car battery approaching the end of its lead-based lifespan, swiped from my car, parked curbside, in front of my Miracle Mile home. Who would take the trouble, and the risk, of loosening the terminal blocks and straining to lift that dead weight out of a car? Since when is an unlocked, faded 1988 hatchback, without a radio (that was stolen years ago), a target of a person or persons unknown, armed with a 10mm open-end wrench and Sta-Lube waterless hand soap?
Marx’s slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” immediately came to mind. Admittedly, the father of communism was writing about a stateless, utopian society that someday would emerge, but under the rude regimen of capitalism, his words resonate with an analogous meaning: Crime is economically determined. But I quickly discarded this interpretation. It is limned by liberalism, which blinds one to life’s more delicious motivations — motivations I barely suppress within myself. For example: If it ain’t nailed down, take it.
Those were words my grandfather lived by. He was a lifelong communist and ardent redistributionist, with a larcenous streak. He might have called it class revenge, but when he needed a bathtub for a house he was building, he pulled a job-site heist. He enlisted his son (my father) and his nephew to hoist that cast-iron and enamel boat anchor onto the bed of a pickup truck and . . . drive! I have no doubt that there was some crude economic justice in this. But the truth is, he was thumbing his nose at the boss, a dumbass who wouldn’t even notice the tub was missing. My grandfather was proving that he could swipe, right out from under the supposedly vigilant eye of his employer, the biggest, heaviest, most unwieldy object on the building site. I can hear the laughter as those rascals drove off.
I was a victim, I think, of something akin to my grandfather’s reasons for stealing. My car sits unlocked, unwashed, windows wide open, left idle in the same spot, sometimes for a week, until I must move it to avoid being ticketed. It is an open invitation to theft. I am, in effect, the man my grandfather gleefully stole from.
A still more complex motive is at work here. By making it obvious — indeed, by advertising the fact — that my car was practically worthless to me, I conjured one of my own justifications for (more frequently than I care to admit) taking things that really do not belong to me. If something I covet looks discarded, abandoned, unused, even though I know it has an owner and that it is on private property, I will occasionally lift it. Need an extension ladder? There’s one in that house for sale two doors down. Missing an oven rack for the vintage stove? There’s that dilapidated O’Keefe & Merritt tucked in a garage a few blocks over.
My motive, apart from the brief adrenaline rush, is genuinely intellectually dishonest: I tell myself that what I’m taking is destined for the dumpster. I convince myself that I can put it to better use. Hell, the very fact that I will use it at all is reason enough to liberate it.
I have also persuaded myself of my superior aesthetic. An unappreciated object is an object in need of a new home. This justification can occur to me as readily in an alley as inside a museum. I compound this lie by telling myself that the act itself is art, like pickpocketing, and is thus worthy unto itself. The true value in property is its implied use, whether practical or artistic. Therefore, my theft is a social good, even an act of grace.
I have no idea if the thief or thieves who took my battery employed such elaborate mental dodges. Probably not. Someone needed some cold-cranking amps and was in a hurry to get them. The evidence of this base motivation was in plain view the morning I noticed my battery was gone. What caught my attention was the car’s hood, which had been left propped open. Had the hood been closed, I might not have noticed the theft for days. Only when I tried to start the car would I have realized that a rapscallion of my grandfather’s mordant ilk had been there. Instead of a groan, I would have been forced to laugh at the bill to replace my stolen property.