Friday, April 2, 2004

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There might come a day when I don't think it's cool to tell my buddies, "I'm in L.A. this week." But I doubt it. Just 24 hours into my latest So-Cal sojourn, I've already seen enough to bloat my blog for weeks. (By the way, "Bloat My Blog" is the name of a smoothie bar here.) And for every champagne wish and caviar dream, there's a hearty helping of hopelessness.

I landed yesterday in Ontario, one of roughly 900 airports in the Greater Los Angeles area. After spending all afternoon advancing a quarter mile on the 101, I realized why there's so much tarmac: it's actually quicker to fly from LAX to, say, Burbank than it is to drive.

I eventually reached Camarillo, a working-class burg about 30 miles north of L.A., where I hooked up with my good friend, Todd Bouldin, now the senior minister at Camarillo Church of Christ. He hoodwinked me into speaking to his Wednesday night class on evangelism - probably as an example of how not to do it. Todd strolled in a couple of minutes before 7 in a white, short-sleeve shirt unbuttoned to the navel, khaki slacks, sandals, and sporting a tan that didn't come from a bottle but after shave that did. I told him, "I'd love to see you trot that look into the pulpit at North Boulevard (his home congregation in Murfreesboro, Tennessee)." He flashed that impossibly-toothy grin of his and began rubbing in the fact that he doesn't live in Abilene and I do. ("The Toothy Grin," by the way, is also the name of a smoothie bar in Camarillo.)

After church broke up, we found the nearest sushi bar and talked about life in the mission field, his field being southern California and mine being the Latin world via Continent of Great Cities. Turns out the very reason Max Lucado's congregation took the name "Church of Christ" off their sign in San Antonio is one of the reasons people often wander into Todd's sanctuary. Seems our fellowship hasn't made enough of a dent in these parts to have scared people off. So when they see the words "church" and "Christ" on the same marquee, they step in to take a look. This is a congregation of regular joes with a genuine faith trying to figure out what it means to be Jesus in this sea of humanity. Praise the Lord.

Two days away from setting back the clocks, the sun rose at approximately 2:45 a.m. Thursday, which was fine because I couldn't sleep anyway knowing I was going to play golf at the famed Bel-Air Country Club that morning with my Uncle Pat. He joined Bel-Air in 1957 under the aegis of none other than Bing Crosby, who along with Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Randolph Scott, and later Sean Connery, James Garner, Bob Newhart, et al established Bel-Air as the only place for Hollywood's "in" crowd to hang "out."

It's also a great club to join if you're exploring ways to "outsource" excess cash. Excluding initiation fees and monthly dues (which I can't even afford to type in this column), you could drop several hundy at Bel-Air without even getting out of your car. You can have your car washed, your shoes shined, your swing smoothed, your clubs caddied, your pants pressed, your thirst slaked, and your appetite sated, all while having your keister kissed. (Matter of fact, there's a smoothie bar right off the 10th hole called "Kiss My Keister.")

When one of the assistant pros said a "Mr. Pitt" would be joining us, I thought, "Forget Mr. Pitt, where's the missus, Jennifer Aniston?" Turned out our "Mr. Pitt" wasn't Brad or even "Mr. Pitt," Elaine's boss from Seinfeld. No, our "Mr. Pitt" was the caddy assigned to us. Guy named Joe Pitt, a Bel-Air bagger since '72. Joe's a Vietnam veteran and lifelong Cubs fan. He's not, however, much of a fan of our current President. Said Bush lied about why we went to war in Iraq. I didn't agree with all of his political persuasions, but I figured 8 months in Nam gives him the right to think whatever he wants...and out loud if he so chooses. Joe was one of a couple hundred working stiffs employed by Bel-Air to cater to the pretty people. Princes and paupers pari passu. What a place. And what a shot! I eagled the first hole, a par five, after my second swipe of the day came to rest two feet from the hole. Got around in 76, one of my best rounds in a long time on one of the finest courses on the planet. In the group ahead of me was Al Michaels of ABC. I nearly had a David-and-Goliath moment on the 17th when my approach shot missed his temple by an inch or two as he made his way back up the 18th. I apologized, but afterward thought it might've been better for my career had it firmly embedded in his forehead. Not the way I wanted to ascend to the microphone of Monday Night Football, but you take what you can get. Later in the grillroom, Uncle Pat and I chatted him up for a few minutes. Pat said, "Al, you and Grant are in the same business." I thought to myself, "Sure, Al, you've done a few NFL games in your day, but have you ever done play-by-play for the Canadian Tour's Classic? I thought not."

As we wound our way through Bel-Air's surreal scapes, Pat would point out the homes of various stars and dignitaries belonging to Bel-Air. He remembered a great story from Jack Benny, legendary entertainer and notorious tightwad. Benny found himself "paperless" while sequestered in a restroom stall at the club one day. When he heard another member enter, he asked if there were any extra rolls of toilet tissue on the vanity. The man said no. Benny then asked if there were any paper towels handy. Again the man said no. Desperate but undaunted, Benny asked, "Got two fives for a ten?" Priceless.

Five minutes and one world away from Bel-Air, Hollywood's hookers and homeless wandered aimlessly down Sunset Boulevard where it intersects with La Brea Avenue. I was equally as lost as I searched for a hotel where I could hunker down for a day or so in preparation for producing a video for Continent of Great Cities. You could take an aerial photo of any city block in this section of town and the combined worth of the people in the picture might not match that of a single automobile the Bel-Air member is paying a hundred bucks to have washed at that very moment.

Meanwhile, coming through my rental car stereo speakers was the all-new Air America Radio Network, an election-year attempt by the liberal left to take back some of the ground Rush Limbaugh has gained for the GOP.

They don't have an Abilene affiliate.

My head is swimming from this 24-hour foray into the City of Angels. The hoi polloi and the high-and-mighty. The hackers, the whores, the holy. Many who fall into more than one category. All crammed together into a couple hundred square miles. And somehow Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

I need a smoothie.

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