Friday, May 11, 2012

Los Angeles, 1984

Photo courtesy of Suzette Valle

“Faster, Higher, Stronger” (Olympic motto from the Latin:  “Citius, Altius, Fortius”)

So it was in that hot summer of 1984 that the Olympics came to town.  The Games of the XXIII Olympiad.  These were already flawed games.  Because of the 1980 United States boycott of the Olympics in Moscow, most Eastern bloc countries like the Soviet Union and East Germany, and even Cuba from our own neighborhood retaliated by not attending the L.A. Games.  Peter Ueberroth, head of the Olympic Committee, was undeterred in his mission to pull off the event.  The Games would go forward.

We were warned about hellacious traffic and gridlock.  We worried about crime with all the potential victims arriving from faraway countries.  We were told to stagger our work shifts, or stay home altogether.  Would Los Angeles be a dangerous and disappointing city in the eyes of the world?

The answer was an emphatic no.  In the final analysis, everything was good.  Traffic was astonishingly light.  Things flowed smoothly.  Although the organizers fretted, the spaceship landed on cue at the Closing Ceremonies wowing the crowd in the Coliseum.  The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles were the most successful of the modern era, and they revitalized the tradition of the Games themselves.  L.A. was the benchmark by which all future host cities would measure their own performance.

The U.S. won 83 gold medals, 61 silver, and 30 bronze:  174 total.  No one really missed the Soviets, Germans, Libyans, Iranians or Cubans.  When the last dollar was counted and all the bills paid, Ueberroth announced a 223 million dollar profit, enough to endow several foundations, grants, and charities for years to come.  That summer, Los Angeles was rolling in green and good will.

I had just been laid off from my warehouse job at an aerospace firm in June, and therefore my entire financial support system for my college education was shot to hell.  Strangely, as is the case when you are young, I was not too worried.  I’d find a way to stay in school and keep my head above water.  I spent those months going from place to place dropping off applications.  It would not be until October that I found steady work hoisting sacks of manure in the Lawn and Garden Department at Target.  I was intent on being a musician then, and when I was not handing out my work history on a flimsy sheet of paper to anyone who would take it, I was schlepping my Rhodes Electric Piano and speaker from gig to gig in my 1978 Chevy Chevette, a car much too small and underpowered to carry such a load or have a racing stripe painted on the side.  My total take for all the music that summer was probably 30 bucks.  I could not afford to attend the Games, or even a single event.  But I was young and believed the future held all the promises in the world.

One evening shortly before the Opening Ceremonies, I was driving in the city up Sepulveda Boulevard, the longest street in L.A. at 43 miles.  My father used to tell me that Sepulveda stretched, in one form or another, clear across the country.  I’ve since learned that is not exactly true, but it sounds good.  So there I was, at a stoplight, waiting for my life to catch up with me, mentally counting my pennies to make it to September and beyond, not really thinking about games or athletes or anything other than survival.  The light turned green, but nobody moved.  A brightly lit and flashing caravan of law enforcement personnel in cars and on motorcycles rounded the corner and swarmed the intersection.  Sirens wailed and everything became intensively illuminated.  Like many other motorists, I got out to see what was happening.  A large group of runners—25, 50, 100?—came down the street followed by a line of black vehicles.  Leading the procession was a tongue of fire, the Olympic Torch.  Spontaneously, the drivers, passengers, bystanders, the entire crowd began clapping.  The applause became thunderous, echoing off the buildings lining the street.  The torch-bearer lifted the flame higher in response to the crowd, and people began yelling and cheering.

A hot summer night in Los Angeles.  My life wasn’t moving in a direction I recognized, but time would reveal that peculiar synchronicity of fate and destiny only observed in hindsight.  I would have to be patient, a lesson I had to relearn many times over the years.  I am still learning it.  I drove off into the night, thinking of that fire traveling all the way from Greece, across the centuries from antiquity, to come to the street where I live here in Los Angeles, 1984.  In that moment on the boulevard, I was certain that anything was possible.  I was not a runner or an archer, but I had my own Olympian dreams.  If I believed, if I never stopped striving, if I waited patiently, they would come.

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