Beverly Hills High School was a pretty cheesy place in the mid-’70s, populated with the sons and daughters of 1950s matinee idols, 1960s caper-film directors and ’70s television writers — Quinn Martin Productions was to the parents of the class of 1977 what Lockheed probably was to the parents at Long Beach Poly. Except, this being Beverly Hills and everything, most of the fathers had already moved on by the time their kids were in high school, leaving their children and first wives rattling around in huge, empty houses in the flats while they styled in the hills with second wives who all looked like Meredith Baxter Birney.
Anyway, even in a place like this, my friend Ricky stood out. He too lived alone with his mom in a home large enough to house the Harlem Globetrotters and their immediate families, and it too was decorated to the hilt of 1964 glam, complete with the wet bar stocked with the makings of a proper Harvey Wallbanger. Ricky was obsessed with Starsky & Hutch. I mean, we were all obsessed with Starsky & Hutch to some degree, with the
chicka-chicka soundtrack and speeding Grand Torino, but most of all with the idea that basically unreconstructed Jewish guys, as almost all of us were, could talk tough and stay out late and pull just unbelievable chicks. But Ricky’s obsession was a little beyond that. He persuaded his mom to get a personalized STARSKY plate for her Jaguar XJ-12, for one thing, and he acquired a library of soul-music 8-tracks that went well beyond what any of us had known — I heard James Brown for the first time in that car, and the O’Jays and the Spinners. He grew his hair out into a Jewfro fairly majestic in its proportions. And he spent most nights cruising around in his mom’s car, picking up girls by saying that he was Starsky or his dad was Starsky or some combination of the two. Although it was hard to believe that a girl existed who was dumb enough to fall for his Starsky line, girls there were — fat girls and thin girls, black girls and white girls, an entire line of Persian girls whose names all seemed to be Fariba, girls who seemed to have nothing in common but an obsessive devotion to a certain ’70s TV show, and also truly enormous breasts.
I’ve thought a lot about Ricky in the week since the Starsky & Hutch movie came out; about whether he ever did lay his hands on one of those Grand Torinos, whether he still rocked the shell-necklace thing and whether he was still able to make his vague resemblance to Paul Michael Glaser work its way with the ladies — if Ricky looks like Ari Fleischer now, I don’t even want to know about it. Because, as hard as I try, I can’t imagine anyone — anyone — hopping into a car with a teenager claiming to be Ben Stiller’s son.
Going To See the Elephants
“You’re getting a little deep here,” the young woman in a black serving outfit warned me. “Catering isn’t rocket science.”
Maybe I had been reaching a bit, asking her to divine the political significance of the minipizzas, mozzarella kebabs and mushroom-stuffed chicken served to 600 Republicans at the Bush-Cheney re-election rally last Wednesday. But corralled behind a tight cordon sanitaire inside the Shrine Auditorium’s hangarlike Expo Center, I had little else to do: Print reporters were barred from circulating among the people who paid up to $2,000 per plate for those kebabs and a glass or two of Mondavi.
Still, I was able to talk to people passing by, and this particular slice of the GOP seemed in a good, almost harmless mood. They were not the gay-crucifying, hyena-breathed Republicans one hears about in the bolshevik media. And I didn’t spot any of the flat-earth activists perennially miffed at having to pay taxes to maintain the roads they drive upon or to hire the firemen who periodically save their sage-shrouded homes. Instead, they were people who worried about the businesses they’d worked years to build and, as one told me, about the national “moral decay.”
Eddie Braun, a sun-burnished veteran stuntman who lives in Manhattan Beach, stopped by the media Gitmo with his young son Declan. A little while earlier, the two had met the president, whom Braun described as “very gracious.” I asked him about the knot of protesters standing outside the Shrine.
“They have a right to voice their views — they’re Americans too,” Braun said. “We specifically took time to see the demonstrators — this is a huge history lesson for Dec, and I don’t want him to get a manicured version of the presidency.”
Just before Bush spoke, a contingent of women wearing white baseball caps bustled into the room and occupied the table in front of me. These were the ebullient Desert Moms from the Coachella Valley who had hired a bus to get here. Their leader, Randi Desnees, told me there were 30 such Moms who had spontaneously organized in Palm Desert to support Bush and Congresswoman Mary Bono. (“The media assumes working moms are all Democrats.”) This was the Moms’ first political event, but they would soon head home because, Desnees said, “we’ve left a hundred children behind.”
Bush in person (or, at least, from 50 feet away) is very much the incarnation of a Saturday Night Live sketch — only the presidential impersonator he brings to mind is not Will Ferrell but Chevy Chase. Approaching 58, Bush is still naughtily boyish with his quick nods and winks, while imparting a certain bit of Map Room gravitas.
Bush poked fun at his presumptive Democratic rival, Senator John Kerry, in a playfully restrained manner that boiled down to a tight, now-ubiquitous sound bite about Kerry being in Washington “long enough to take both sides on just about every issue.” The words “schools” and “child” also came up quite a bit in the president’s folksy, 35-minute talk, as though there exists a parallel, fictionalized Republican Party that cares about children and concedes that even renters have the right to vote.
It was a sanguine and effective speech, delivered in calm, measured rhythms that made pre-emptive war, the tearing up of international treaties, the stripping of environmental protections and the abolition of corporate taxes sound like accomplishments rather than a bill of indictment. Above all, it conveyed firmness — with a perplexed shrug as to why Democrats would even run against a candidate so fair and reasonable. No one in here but us normal folks.
The problem for the Republicans is that Bush isn’t going to be re-elected. Not because Americans are suddenly feeling a twinge of guilt for the damage their government’s appetites have inflicted on the rest of the world, but because Americans are breaking out of their gated planet of porno-tech toys, antidepressants and plastic surgery just enough to realize, however intuitively, that here is a president who regards most of them as Martians, and who is as clueless as Paris Hilton about the daily, flat-tire frustrations of his fellow countrymen.
Still, Bush has the golden aura that even vile presidents exude. Watching him perform, I thought of a long-ago sunny afternoon, when Richard Nixon’s plane landed at the Air Force base where my father served. I pedaled my bicycle onto the flight line and patiently watched as the president greeted a line of admirers, coming closer to me. I’d rehearsed some anti-war slogan — “Get outta Vietnam!” I think — but as Nixon approached, I decided a wiser course would be to simply shake his hand and civilly murmur, “Stop the war.” Nixon, however, didn’t make it to my end of the line, which was probably for the best.
Indeed, outside the Shrine, a hundred angry demonstrators yelled similar slogans, even as their placards denounced a different war and new gripes (“Get Your Bible Out of My Constitution,” read one), while the National Lawyers Guild’s Jim Lafferty coaxed them to disperse after Bush had left the building to attend a $25,000-a-plate GOP money orgy in Bel Air.
Back in the Shrine’s parking-structure elevator, a group of Republicans analyzed Bush’s speech.
“This time he was so great — so powerful and focused,” one woman said. “I wish he would speak like that all the time.”
“He does,” said another.
“No, he doesn’t,” her friend contradicted.
Then, as the elevator stopped and the group was about to separate, talk turned to caravanning.
“I’m driving a 500-S, like everybody else,” one of the men said.
“Great,” groaned the first woman. “How are we supposed to follow?”
It’s been nearly five months since I’ve entered a Vons. I went into a Pavilions once during the supermarket strike as a reporter, and had been startled by the dimmed lights, empty shelves and surreptitious glances from the few replacement workers and fewer shoppers — as though both knew they weren’t really supposed to be there.
Today, three days after the strike’s end, the lights are bright. Chocolate Easter bunnies grin from a central display. But there’s no sign of the Can-I-Help-You guy, the produce stocker so eager to help that I sometimes hid behind stacked cantaloupes to avoid his overzealousness. He was always stuffing a seedless grape into my mouth, pointing out particularly glimmering eggplants, beaming as he indicated half-price strawberries.
Okay, I miss him.
Although, any clerk at this Vons, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Virgil Avenue, was just as likely to ask if you needed help finding something, or if there was anything else they could do for you.
But not today. Something is different.
No one is mean, but there’s a dourness in the air, and I’m thinking: Is it over? Is the union itself broken, not to mention the spirits of the workers, who had to accept health-benefit and wage concessions, even after a long wageless walkout, all in the name of competing with Wal-Mart? Is the Can-I-Help-You guy now a greeter for the heirs of Sam Walton?
Years ago, I was a Hughes Market guy. Then Ralphs bought Hughes, and even though they kept the Hughes name in big letters above the entrance for a while, my Hughes changed into a Ralphs almost immediately.
Then I found Vons. I discovered that if you weren’t too picky about the brand, ‰ Vons almost always had some version of your desired product on sale. And if it wasn’t on sale this week, you could stake out that aisle for two weeks and, sure enough, up would go the sale tags. Also, you could look at your receipt and see how much you’d saved. Ralphs parroted the concept, but Ralphs just wasn’t as committed to putting every kind of product on sale on a regular basis.
Maybe even at Vons it was a crock. But it seemed to work for me. And it allowed me to service my inner bargain hunter without patronizing the likes of anti-union Wal-Mart.
What did I care if the seafood and ground beef at my Vons had to be used within two days or else? And who needs gourmet supermarket sushi?
I feel a surge of the old magic as I toss the 4-ounce container of Benahist (an antihistamine) into my cart: $2.99 — compared to the name-brand Benadryl for $6.79. Score!!!
I also find items I ran out of weeks ago, including this special stain remover that takes out blood and milk. Not even Home Depot has it. And my 6-year-old had three bloody noses over the course of the strike. Then, around the corner, gleaming like the Holy Grail, is Oral-B’s Princess toothpaste, Hannah’s favorite. Over the months, we’ve gone through a cast of cartoon-character and childhood-icon toothpastes — Barbie, Harry Potter, Arthur, Scooby-Doo, Rugrats — trying to find one that met my own princess’ standards. Now, clutching the precious tube, I practically fall to my knees in gratitude.
But every time I start to feel good, strange reminders intrude. The meat selection is thin. A gaping opening in the cereal aisle yawns between the Apple Cinnamon Cheerios and the single box of Crispix. Bottled water is stacked in bins that once spilled over with cucumbers and peppers of all varieties and nationalities. No organic produce at all. Instead of fresh fish, there’s a sign reading, “This service counter is temporarily CLOSED.”
I overhear two checkout clerks talking. They’re speaking of a co-worker who, impatient with a customer, ripped the lady’s Vons card out of her hand and slammed it through the electronic reader.
“So, is everyone back from the strike?” I offer cheerfully.
“They come back tomorrow,” replies my checkout clerk. “This is our last day.”
Ah, there it is. The market is in a purgatory between strike and return. I realize suddenly that these workers, traipsing zombielike through the aisles, are not even wearing nametags — they’re so anonymous, so temporary, so poised to go wherever it is that strikebreakers go. My checkout clerk smiles, friendly-like. She could have been, perhaps, a real Vons worker.
I clutch my receipt. I’ve saved $47.22 — 24 percent.
Under the glow of an early-morning moon, Glenn “Felix” Hackenberg, 53, checked his $2,000 apple-red 16-speed Klein road rocket before joining 15,000 other riders for the 20-plus-mile bicycle portion of Sunday’s Los Angeles Marathon. This would be his third marathon. One fellow bicyclist glided by and smiled. “There you are — the famous one-legged rider,” he said. “I’ve heard about you passing everybody.”
I had never heard of him until I nearly plowed into Hackenberg while driving up a steep Sunset Boulevard incline recently in Pacific Palisades. The sight of him made me stop in astonishment. I waved Hackenberg down to find out how the hell he could crank up that hill with just one leg. He told me he’d begun his ride at Sunset and Vermont before climbing the Hollywood Hills, heading west on Mulholland, and then south down Sepulveda toward the sea. He would continue down the Strand bike path to Torrance and then back home through the heart of the city. By day’s end, Hackenberg would have 60 miles of hard tarmac under his wheels.
He didn’t always pedal his bike. Back in 1987, Hackenberg, riding with his wife on his new Honda 450 motorcycle, slammed into a car. He flew 30 feet through the air. “My head was like a bowling ball bouncing across the pavement, and I was lying in the street and could see that my wife of three months was lying in the gutter.” The gruesome accident cost him his left leg above the knee. “There were a lot of times when I didn’t want to live. It was a nightmare. I lost count of the operations.” After what he calls his “decade of crying,” Hackenberg took up bicycling sans prosthesis in 1999. It was good exercise as well as a way to recreate with his wife, who survived the accident.
Meeting Hackenberg, I felt ashamed. In the past, I’ve skated up to 90 miles a day across SoCal, but I did this with the benefit of two legs. Or, I used to. This last year has been a tough one, and my feet have been gathering dust. After outfoxing death for more than a year, my father died of kidney cancer on November 30. And my drinking was out of hand — alternating between cheap vodka and boxed Franzia wine — and I was often flat-ass drunk by 6 p.m. A month after he died, my father appeared to me in a dream. Kicking back in an Elvis pompadour and a black leather suit, Pops told me that I’d soon join him on the other side if I didn’t kick the booze.
I corked the bottle the next day and haven’t imbibed since. But I still wasn’t skating like the old healthy days. And in comes Hackenberg, this one-legged man, who had gone through hell. After parting that day in the Palisades, I headed to Venice, strapped on my skates and went for a 15-mile jaunt. And again the next day. And the next.
“I’ll be completely candid,” Hackenberg said after I told him what I’d done. “I’m not doing the riding to inspire people. Sure, I guess it does inspire people, I know that, and a lot of them tell me so. But I have to go out and live, live life. That may be the whole message to this. Live your life — you create it.”
Hackenberg eyed me with a gleam as he took off to join the race. He finished with the top 75 riders in a blistering time of one hour, seven minutes.