LOS ANGELES -- When I moved here, everybody told me that the time-zone swing would be most apparent during football season. But I wasn't worried about it. Seriously, it's three hours. What's the big deal?
Well, yesterday I missed the first "Monday Night Football" kickoff because I was stuck behind a school bus. That's the big deal.
Troubled and truant at 4:15 in the afternoon, I was nonetheless sitting on a stool at the Venice Beach Whaler, frosty mug in hand, for the sunny side of the Monday "Night" doubleheader.
The plan was to meet up there with my friend Ben and the rest of his Minnesota crew for the Vikings-Redskins game, then see where our feet took us for the San Diego-Oakland nightcap.
I was anxious to soak up football fandom in Los Angeles. This would be my first taste of an NFL season since I began calling this city home, and I didn't know what to expect. Of course, like everyone else not named Tagliabue, I think it's pretty bizarre that the second-largest metropolis in the country hasn't had an NFL franchise since losing the Rams and the Raiders 11 years ago. What a waste of a monster mega-consuming market!
I wondered, who does Hollywood root for now? Can anyone in Southern California really commit to a team in Missouri? Would USC disciples be snatching up those tough-to-come-by Cardinals-Saints tickets? Do Los Angelenos bone up and embrace the Nation by the Bay, or does LBC pride bleed down the San Diego Freeway in support of the Bolts?
Monday's Raiders-Chargers matchup would serve as the perfect litmus test for the great gridiron quagmire that is Los Angeles. And, as a bonus, I could warm up to the football climate here with Vikes vs. Skins.
Perfect. There we were, eating a late lunch and ready for "Monday Night Football."
Minnesota was up 6-3 with 1:49 left in the first quarter when I glanced at my watch. It was 4:45 p.m. PT. The three boys from the Gopher State had been taking full advantage of the domestic draft specials and were already singing the "Skol, Vikings" song. I would have been embarrassed if there had been more than four people in the bar besides us but there weren't. I thought the first Monday night game of the season would draw a little better -- in fact, I thought any Monday night game that happened to conveniently coincide with happy hour drink specials and cheap chicken fingers would pack the house. But since we were still in the bowels of business hours, I let it ride.
In the meantime, we got friendly with the few other folks in the bar. We chatted with the bartender, Ceci, who grew up in Hawaii but moved to L.A. a few years ago. When we asked her who her football team was, she told us she was a hockey fan -- it doesn't matter if it's high school, college or the NHL, all she cares about is hockey. (Yes, I said Hawaiian, not Canadian. At this point, what's the difference?)
A round later, the 5 p.m. whistle blew and little Ceci was replaced in a bartender line change by Mo, a blond broad with an unmistakable Boston accent who grew up in Norwood, Mass., and of course is a big Pats fan. This was overheard by Joe at the end of the bar, who chimed in to say he grew up in Brockton (about 15 minutes from Norwood) and moved here a few weeks ago after spending several years in Lake Tahoe. He, too, was and always will be a rabid New England fan.
At this point I excused myself from the Brady/Belichick lovefest that was about to ensue, and wandered over to sit with what looked to be a native Californian. He was a beachy blond named Kevin, who I'd noticed sitting at a table all by himself when I first walked into the bar. I was about to introduce myself when he turned to me and said, "Yeah, I hear you and your Minnesota fans. I'm a Redskins fan. I'm from Maryland, all right, what do you want?"
At that very moment my girl Quinnie walked into the bar wearing shorts and Eagles socks -- Quinnie is from a farm town outside of Philly. She sat down with the Minnesotans. They exchanged some hellos and then shared in a chorus of, "God, I hate the Redskins," which Kevin and I could hear from a few tables away. I looked at him, shrugged and said, "Yeah, those are my friends."
To which Kevin replied, "You know, I can understand why people would hate the Cowboys or the Giants, but the Redskins?"
Kevin's pitcher was empty and his patience for our crowd seemed to have bottomed out --- he told me he was leaving to check out the bar across the street. As I was heading back over to my buddies, I noticed there was a decent stream of people trickling into The Whaler now. But some of our crew was still absent.
"Where the heck is Annie tonight?" I asked.
"She's at work," they told me.
"Geez," I said, disgusted.
"Yeah, but I mean, it's only like 6 o'clock," said a Vikes fan from behind his mug.
Oh yeah, right.
So there we were -- me from Rochester, N.Y., not knowing what to make of the Massholes talking AFC East; the chick from Philadelphia hating on Washington; three guys from the Twin Cities singing a Norwegian fight song; and a dejected Skins fan from Waldorf, Md., walking away from a Monday afternoon of football in Los Angeles.
With the first game in the books and our Viking friends happily liquored up on seemingly 10,000 lakes, we headed across the street to Hinano -- our favorite dive, featuring sawdust on the floor and the official beer of Tahiti.
This place always has a motley local crowd, and I was sure we'd find some folks amped up for the big San Diego-Oakland matchup. There were still children hanging around on the street and the sun still hadn't quite been snuffed out, but we were all pretty lit up at this point and ready for some football, California style.
I'm not exactly sure what happened next. I know I checked on Kevin after the Skins' tough loss. He was visibly depressed but could commiserate when my brother-in-law (a Skins season ticket holder) called me, furious, on his way out of FedEx Field.
The night forged on. We all started playing pool and watching the evening's second game. Annie finally got out of work. Brad, our fly-fishing friend from Missoula, Mont., strolled in with Vanessa, who landed in Santa Monica after a stint in Kentucky. Then came Bridget from Rye, N.Y. -- a Princeton alum and Giants fan (double eye roll).
I was nearly frantic at this point, staring at my nomadic friends with their respective hometown allegiances, and I started to wonder what the heck I was going to write about if I didn't find a freakin' Raiders fan soon. I sought solace in a bottle -- and surprisingly I found comfort in the bartender, who was wearing a Raiders hat and shirt. He was busy running around flipping caps off bottles and waiting on foamy Guinness pints to settle, but I had to talk to him. I wondered where he was from and the deep reason behind his Raiders affiliation.
"Hey bud, you're a big Raiders fan, huh?"
"Yeah, I love the Raiders!" he replied.
"Why the Raiders? They're not even in L.A. anymore; where are you from?"
This is it! -- I thought to myself -- The answer to the great NFL affiliation in Los Angeles mystery.
"I'm from Mexico," said Juan the bartender. "I love the Raiders but I love all of our teams!"
I was crushed and confused. "But you have the hat and the shirt!" I stammered. "What other teams?"
"The Chargers and the Raiders and the Cardinals -- I like them all," Juan explained matter-of-factly. "And I have all the hats."
Great. That didn't help me. Cuervo, Patron, 1800, gimme them all. I slunk away from the bar, took a look around (read: I had the spins), and gloriously spotted a black and silver cap. Immediately I made my move on Ed -- a slender, silver senior who I clocked in at about 55-60 years old. Ed is actually a big Raiders fan -- born in Chicago, living in Phoenix, with a boat docked a few minutes away in Marina Del Rey. (Ah hell, at this point, what's the difference?). Ed is an old-timer who told me he hates the Bears, has always hated the Bears, and loves the Raiders because "in the '60s and '70s, the Raiders were wild and crazy just like me."
OK. Ed told me there are lots of Raiders fans in Chicago. But Matt, a kid in a green White Sox T-shirt a few stools away, begged to differ: "I'm from Chicago and I like the Bears. Maybe it was different then, but most people who grew up in Chicago like the Bears."
Makes sense. I mean, Ditka is Gad in Chicago.
But back to California and the state of the NFL franchise-less City of Angels right on cue, I saw my money shot. And his name was Kurt.
Kurt was a big guy with a long goatee wearing a black Raiders jersey with arms covered in tats. And he wore a bandanna under his backwards Raiders hat. He didn't take off his sunglasses all night, but I didn't want to see his eyes. I wanted a closer look at the tattoo on his ear. Guessing from the large red, white and blue "Venice" on Kurt's thigh visible under his black shorts, I said to him, "So you're a real Venice local, huh?"
"Born and raised!" said Kurt in a hearty but friendly pack-a-day grizzle."I got this tattoo five years ago today, actually. I got it on September 12th, 2001. The morning after all that stuff, I got it right away. I wanted where I'm from in red, white and blue. It's probably my favorite one."
I asked him how many tattoos he has and I threw out a number: "Fifty sittings?" He laughed, then said, "No way. Way more than 50."
Kurt and his friend James bought us a pitcher, and we chatted for a while. Kurt told stories about his life and his beloved Raiders and Al Davis and Pete Rozelle and the Black Hole and the Coliseum and Kenny The Snake and punk rock and living in Venice and how it all just fit -- he and the Raiders and Venice Beach and punk and tattoos and growing up.
And that's really the point of all this, isn't it?
The loyalty of NFL fans. Who you were rooting for when you were growing up. The inability to shake the team that grew with you and moves with you. The old T-shirt that makes it across all the miles.
There's a reason that stuff sticks with you. And after thinking about it, I realized that Los Angeles is lucky not to have a pro team.
Kevin the Skins fan, and Quinnie the Eagles fan, and Joe the Pats fan, and Paul the Vikings fan, and Matt the Bears fan, and every single one of us who up and left with dreams of sunshine and success out West should count our blessings. Sure, theoretically we all want a pro football team to call our own, and a stadium where we can go watch them in person but would we really sit in traffic to heartlessly cheer on the Los Angeles Colts or the So Cal Saints? Or worse, imagine losing the comprehensive array of games we get on TV in Los Angeles all because some random Hollywood Hawks expansion team's games would be pumped into our bars on Sundays?
Sure, it's bizarre that the L.A. mega-market is without pro football. But upon further review, we've got to change our minds about this. Think about it, Los Angeles. Think long and hard.
It's high time we decline the penalty of an NFL franchise and realize the lucrative field position we have here, without a "team of our own" (wink).
Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist and can be reached at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.