2002: Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times
3/29/2002
ASNE Staff
Award for Community/Column writing
Friday, March 29, 2002
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Commentary/Column writing


Steve Lopez

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Points West

Playing Footsie With a Dragon’s Basic Instinct

June 13, 2001

All I have to say is this:

If my wife were to tell me that as a special Father’s Day gift, she was going to put me into a cage with a 7-foot lizard, I would start sleeping with one eye open.

I might check in with the life insurance agent, too, and see if there were any recent changes in the policy.

You know the story.

San Francisco newspaper editor Phil Bronstein came to Los Angeles with his wife, actress Sharon Stone, and special arrangements were made for him to have some private time with the Komodo dragon at the L.A. Zoo.

Bronstein, as I understand it, was instructed by the zookeeper to remove his white sneakers before entering the dragon’s domain, so the beast would not mistake his feet for rats.

Now look. I have worked for seven newspapers and a lot of editors, and none of them came within eight yards of normal.

But if you had scraped them off a barroom floor at 2 a.m. and asked if they’d enter a cage with an animal that might mistake their feet for rats, they would have had the sense to stand clear. They don’t even like contact with readers, let alone exotic animals.

Have you seen pictures of this Komodo dragon, by the way? Its head looks like a boulder with eyeballs. The dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” looked friendlier, and they were eating SUVs.

Bronstein apparently likes these things, though. Or at least Stone managed to convince him that he would.

“No, really honey. Just scratch him behind the ears and he’ll roll over on his back.”

So he goes in with the lizard while Stone watches from outside the cage. The same Sharon Stone who got rich and famous playing a woman suspected of whacking her lovers with an ice pick.

Not to read into this. But Stone and Bronstein hadn’t been married 10 minutes when, out of the blue, he develops a heart problem. And then, with a rebuilt ticker and no note from his cardiologist, she sends him into the cage with a dragon.

Basic Instinct II: Return of the Dragon Lady.

“Of course I loved my husband, detective. Why do you ask?”

And what does this dragon do upon realizing that a member of the media has dropped by unannounced?

It goes for the newspaper editor like a shark after chum. It chomps down on his big toe with the jaws of life and won’t let go.

Maybe the dragon has read the Chronicle.

Maybe it knew that Bronstein and Stone hadn’t paid admission to the zoo or made a donation, either, as others in the privileged and pampered set have done before getting the royal treatment.

Bronstein, having married into show business, makes like Crocodile Dundee. He manages to free himself from the Komodo dragon and escape through a trapdoor, and they run him to the hospital for foot surgery.

Happy Father’s Day.

All things considered, it could have been worse than a big toe. Joe Brown, a Chronicle spokesman, said Bronstein was in stable condition and was doing some work Tuesday from his hospital bed.

My guess is that across the country, newsroom reporters are taking up collections to send their own editors to the L.A. Zoo.

It’s a shame that when he visited L.A. to tell us we could take our energy problem and drop dead, no one arranged for President Bush to get a special tour.

The dragon, by the way, is doing fine, not that anyone asked. Lora LaMarca, zoo spokeswoman, described a dragon that seemed to be quite pleased with itself.

Maybe this is a north-south thing with the lizard. LaMarca confirmed the dragon never bit anyone from L.A. Next time the San Francisco Giants come down to play the Dodgers, someone ought to arrange for Barry Bonds to stop by the zoo.

LaMarca says the dragon that ate Phil Bronstein is now unavailable for private viewings, but that’s a big mistake, if you ask me. This thing is world famous now, and it could be worth a fortune.

I’d bet the mortgage that people would pay for a chance to tempt fate. If you have faith and your heart is pure, He’ll protect you in that cage, won’t He?

Bronstein must not be a believer. Or maybe there’s a cosmic force for universal justice, and it says that if you’re going to win Sharon Stone as your wife, at some point you’re going to be attacked by a 7-foot reptile.

From one hack to another, Phil, if she starts hinting at something special for Christmas, run for the hills.


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Points West

A Few Coors Lights Might Blur the Truth

June 29, 2001

It was about 8:45 Thursday morning when I walked into the Hermosa Beach Police Department with two dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a 12-pack of Coors Light.

In college, that was a typical breakfast. But in this case, I was conducting a scientific experiment to determine how many beers a man has to drink before he’s legally hammered.

Roger Clinton, the ex-president’s half brother, went on “Larry King Live” last week to talk about his legal problems, which include but are not limited to a DUI arrest in Hermosa.

Clinton, who lives in Torrance and plays in a band, denied selling presidential pardons to friends. He also denied he was driving under the influence in Hermosa on Feb. 21 even though he flunked three blood-alcohol tests after being stopped for driving erratically.

“I had had about two beers,” he told Larry King. “Two Coors Lights.”

My first thought when anybody in trouble appears on Larry King is that they are guilty as sin, because no matter what you’ve been accused of, you know Larry will keep it cordial.

Had Mussolini been a guest, King would have asked a question or two about the fascista thing, Mussolini’s attorney would have cut him off, and after a commercial break and a call from Idaho, King would have asked Mussolini if the balsamic craze was just a fad.

Sgt. Paul Wolcott greeted me at the station house in Hermosa. At precisely 9 a.m., as Wolcott and Sgt. Tom Thompson looked on, I cracked open my first beer and bit into a glazed doughnut.

It felt kind of like a hillbilly picnic, but that was apropos. The Clinton clan did not grow up in Paris.

By a lucky coincidence, Roger Clinton and I each go about 205 pounds, so our alcohol tolerance might well be about the same. Our taste in refreshment is not, however. I’d have had him locked up for his choice of beer alone.

Around 9:45, I’d slugged back my second can, and it was time for my test.

At exactly 10 a.m., I blew into the same device Roger Clinton had used. You’re under the influence if you blow a 0.08%, Wolcott says, and Clinton ran up a 0.10 on his first try.

Mine came up 0.01.

Geez, this Roger Clinton is no Billy Carter. Two wimpy Coors Lights and he’s in the tank, with 10 times the damage those same 24 ounces did to me. Unless, of course, he didn’t tell Larry King the truth.

“Keep drinking,” Sgt. Thompson said.

I had my third beer by 10:15, my fourth by 10:30. And a couple more doughnuts too. They gave me my own desk to drink at, and Wolcott did some paperwork in the corner under a movie poster of John Wayne in “The Sands of Iwo Jima.”

At one point, they took me outside for the field sobriety test that Roger Clinton flunked, calling it a “Jane Fonda” workout on Larry King. Touch your nose, walk a line. That kind of thing.

I passed like a champ.

“How do you feel?” Wolcott asked.

“Great,” I said. “I just can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.”

While sipping my beer, I perused The Times and noticed that Roger Clinton was on Page 1 again. Reporter Richard Serrano’s story said congressional investigators have evidence suggesting Clinton might have pocketed $50,000 for trying to arrange clemency for a convicted heroin dealer from New Jersey.

The dealer is related to the Gambino crime family, so let me state publicly that nothing personal is meant by this little beer-and-doughnut social.

Investigators also claim to have found “a couple hundred grand” in travelers checks cashed by Clinton, which can only mean that his band is doing really, really well.

Mark Geragos, Clinton’s attorney, assured me there was no truth to any of the pardon-peddling allegations. As for the DUI, he claims without explanation that the blood-alcohol tests were inaccurate, and that Hermosa police had no probable cause to arrest Clinton. They did so, he says, as a matter of “political profiling.”

You might say it was a strain of political profiling that led to pardons for 47 people, including Roger Clinton, as one of President Clinton’s last acts in office. Roger had a 1985 conviction for cocaine distribution wiped from his slate.

While I chugged beer, Wolcott reviewed the police report, and it seems that although Roger told a national television audience he’d had only two beers, he told Hermosa cops he’d had four or five.

“Go ahead and have five and we’ll test you again,” Wolcott told me.

The fifth went down like water. I took a deep breath and blew a 0.04.

Five Coors Lights and I’m only halfway to jail.

When they brought Clinton into the station, they gave him two more tests on a more reliable machine.

He blew a 0.08 the first time, a 0.09 the second.

Kind of ironic that in 1998, President Clinton campaigned for lowering the legal limit to 0.08 in all 50 states, saying:

“To people who disregard the lethal threat they pose . . . lowering the legal limit will send a strong message that our nation will not tolerate irresponsible acts that endanger our children and our nation.”

I can’t remember the last time I drank before lunch, but in Hermosa, I dusted a six-pack by 11:15 and they hooked me up to the same machine where Clinton blew his 0.08 and 0.09.

My first shot was 0.05, the second was 0.06.

Reality TV is all the rage, and I think we’ve got a concept here.

Roger and me, a keg and a Breathalyzer.

Have your people talk to mine, Larry.


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The Victims

Amid the Ruins, a Separate Peace

September 15, 2001

NEW YORK — Midnight came and went, and Manhattan couldn’t sleep.

“Look at this. Just look at this,” Vincent Bury said as he aimed his yellow cab toward the smoke. “That used to be a beautiful view of the towers, but I’m going to tell you something. You see all these people out here? Everybody helping out in whatever way they can? They tried to break us up, but this city’s never been more unified.”

Vincent Bury drove slower than any cabby has ever driven in New York, loving his wounded city. The heavens thundered with an advancing storm, and flashes of lightning illuminated American flags that hung from fire escapes.

A few poor souls wandered the streets like ghosts, photos of missing loved ones taped to shirts or strung around their necks. They were consoled by people they did not know and would never see again.

“Look at this,” Vincent Bury said again, his heart full.

He turned a corner at 15th Street and 11th Avenue to find a group of teenagers cheering. “Thank you Thank you Thank you,” said the signs they held. They were spending the night at the intersection to greet rescue workers who came up for air after digging with their hands for hours. Digging for miracles. Ambulances lined the streets, waiting for a call.

On a normal night, Vincent Bury would have been driven off the road by angry motorists leaning on horns. But they passed politely, letting him mourn in his own time. He calls himself the last white native New York cabby, and he is different in another way too. Instead of ramming fenders and bumpers, like you’re supposed to do to let off steam, he meditates.

“The inner self never dies,” he said, and he was sure something good was going to come of this tragedy.

“Where to now?” he asked.

“A Hundredth and Riverside. The fireman’s memorial.”

Bury parked on Riverside and got out of the car with a camera. He said that in his 49 years, he had never seen the fireman’s memorial and its twin statues of Courage and Duty. He wanted to take the memory home to Brooklyn with him.

A little earlier in the evening, an advertising man named John Avery had left his Upper West Side apartment to walk his poodle Gracie. Avery had been in a state of shock over the attack on New York, but the shock was becoming sadness and anger. A co-worker lost her husband in one of the towers, and it was hitting Avery in a way it hadn’t until then.

He was thinking, too, about the estimated 300 firefighters believed to have died under the rubble of what used to be an American symbol.

Three hundred.

Avery walked two blocks to the memorial that has stood since 1913. Firefighters never hesitate, he was thinking as Gracie tugged on the leash. They take chances with their own lives to save others, and there is a striking gallantry about them. The bravery, the bond, the cut of the uniform.

On this night, candles had been left at the memorial, and they flickered in the breeze of the coming storm. Bouquets were laid about, and some well-wishers had written anonymous notes of thanks and sympathy.

“The whole world is a very narrow bridge,” said one. “Words can not express our sorrow,” said another.

Avery’s eyes filled, and anger floated just beneath the sadness. President Bush and the rest of America have to have the guts to root out terrorists wherever they are, he said, his voice deepening.

“We must go after the terrorists and anyone who harbors or finances them. It’s not about revenge; it’s about protection. If we don’t do it, this can happen again. But if it’s about revenge, we’ve sunk to the morality of the terrorists.”

The storm had moved across the Hudson, bringing with it a drenching rain that sent John Avery and Gracie the poodle home.

Vincent Bury took a picture of the memorial, which has the following inscription:

“To the men of the fire department of the city of New York, who died at the call of duty. Soldiers in a war that never ends.”

Vincent Bury drove away at funeral speed, in touch with both the living and the dead. It rained like everyone was crying all at once, and it seemed to me that New York had never been more beautiful.


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Points West

When Love Stands Bravely Against Unbearable Grief

October 24, 2001

The visits began two days after her husband was killed aboard American Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center.

Prasanna Kalahasthi, a 25-year-old dental school student at USC, would stop by the campus office of Nadadur S. Kumar, a stranger who would become a friend. She would sit in the same chair every time, the one by the big picture window, and speak dreamily of a love that had come to her like a sweet surprise.

Kumar, like Prasanna, was from southern India. He, like Prasanna, had an arranged marriage.

“She was deeply in love,” says Kumar, associate director of the Office of International Services. In the weeks that followed her referral to his office, Kumar would come to admire this beautiful, wounded young woman. She was small in stature but filled with strength, and with a grace known only in love and in grief.

Such plans they had had, Prasanna and her husband, Pendyala Vamsikrishna, a 30-year-old technician for a Silicon Valley company.

They wanted to get Prasanna through the demanding two-year graduate program she had begun only a few months earlier, and establish her career somewhere in the United States. He would go with her wherever that might be. Then they were going to start a family.

Vamsikrishna traveled frequently in his job—far too much for his liking. They had missed each other so much, Prasanna had gone to visit him in Boston a week before he was killed.

“I should be spending more time with you,” he told her as he had many times, according to Kumar.

Kumar says Vamsikrishna was to leave Boston on Sept. 10, but hadn’t finished his job, and rescheduled for the following day on American Airlines Flight 11.

“He boarded the plane and left her a message,” says Kumar. He told her he would be home by lunch, and would surprise her with a meal he was going to prepare.

Prasanna would wake to his message, and to the televised image of Flight 11 crashing into the tower.

That can’t be him, she thought. It looks like a small plane, not a jet.

That can’t be him. They had such plans.

“Her father flew to Los Angeles and said, ‘I’m going to take you home,’ “ says Kumar.

But Prasanna told him L.A. was her home now. A brother was moving into the apartment she and her husband had shared near the USC campus, and she also had a new, extended family that included Kumar and her classmates.

“She said the best way for her to remember her husband was to stay in the program and complete it,” says Kumar, who remembers her saying these words:

“His memory is only going to strengthen my resolve.”

In their regular chats, Kumar reminded Prasanna that therapists were available to help her. But he knew she wouldn’t go for it.

“In India, from a cultural point of view, going for that kind of counseling is treated like a stigma, like admitting that something is wrong,” says Kumar, 48.

The customary way to deal with such a tragedy is to lean on family, and particularly elders. So Kumar took Prasanna home with him the very first day they met and introduced her to his wife and mother-in-law.

In dozens of almost-daily telephone calls and visits, Prasanna seemed to be progressing, says Kumar. As a Hindu, she believed in an afterlife, and she believed she would be reunited with her husband one day.

Just once did she mention the terrorists who had killed her husband and more than 5,000 others on Sept. 11. “She said whatever differences people have, this is no way to resolve them,” says Kumar.

Only in retrospect was her call of last Thursday somewhat unusual. She called Kumar about 3:30 p.m. to chat about nothing in particular, which was something of a departure. She called friends and relatives that day, too.

But no one had any idea what was to come.

Her brother, the one who had moved in with her, was out of town. A receipt suggests Prasanna had gone to the Home Depot in Tustin a few days earlier and bought some nylon rope.

On Friday afternoon, Kumar got an urgent call from USC colleagues. Los Angeles police were at Prasanna’s apartment and he was asked to go there immediately.

At the door, an officer asked him if he thought he could handle the task of identifying the body of the young woman inside.

“Yes, of course,” he said, holding onto a slim hope.

She had said more than once that her husband would have wanted her to finish school. This couldn’t be Prasanna, the woman whose strength had been an inspiration.

What he saw in the apartment, he instantly knew, would be with him always.

Prasanna had strung the rope over the Nautilus equipment her husband worked out on. Without warning or explanation, she had taken her life, too much grief to carry through a world gone cold.

As Kumar left the apartment, he was asked by police to sign a form, but he couldn’t.

“My hands were trembling.”

He did not sleep that night, haunted by the image. Asked if he’s OK now, he says: “I don’t know.”

It’s as if the Prasanna he knew was the ghost of a woman who died on Sept. 11, crushed by grief.

Kumar’s wife tells him he is absent even when he’s in the room. He finds mesmerizing beauty in the subtlest gesture of his 7-year-old daughter. He marvels at the complexities of the mind and the mysteries of the heart.

“I keep wondering if I missed something,” says Kumar, his face full of shadows. “Maybe I should have dropped everything when she called on Thursday.”

He missed nothing. Prasanna revealed only what she chose to, then followed after her husband, taking a love without limit to a world without end.


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Points West

Love and Prejudice at Work and Home in City of Immigrants

November 12, 2001

Mohammed Meah fell in love with a girl in Bangladesh, but couldn’t have her as his wife. Her family, which had money, wouldn’t allow it because Meah’s family was poor.

Meah, who was raised Muslim, took his broken heart and traveled as far away as he could. He joined the foreign ministry and was assigned to a post in Seoul, where one day the phone rang in his apartment.

It was a South Korean woman named Young Moon. She had dialed the wrong number. Meah, who had learned some Korean by then, tried it out on her. When they couldn’t understand each other, they tried English.

A few months later, she called back and they talked some more, and several months later they decided to meet. They liked each other instantly and became good friends, and over the course of a few years, the friendship became a romance.

“I don’t know how or why she fell in love with me, or why I fell in love with her,” says Mohammed.

But fall in love they did, and once again, Mohammed’s heart would be broken. Moon’s parents were deceased, so she went to her brothers for their approval, and they forbade her to marry Mohammed.

As a modest, uneducated man from one of the world’s poorest nations, and a mere messenger at the Bangladeshi ministry in Seoul, Mohammed was not good enough for her.

“They told her that if she married me, they would never speak to her again,” says Mohammed, whose eyes glisten when he tells the story.

Marriage to a South Korean was also prohibited by the Bangladeshi ministry, so Mohammed quit his job and moved to Los Angeles in 1990 to look for work. The plan was to get settled, then send for Young, who would defy her brothers and come marry Mohammed in America.

The job he found was at a 7-Eleven on 6th Street, where he worked 10 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, for four years. That’s how long it took before he had saved enough money to send for his future wife and start a home with her.

Finally, in 1994, Young Moon came to Los Angeles and married Mohammed. A year later, they had a son they named Steven, who would be raised to know Islam as a religion of peace.

The apartment was too small for comfort, and so was Mohammed’s paycheck. But they scrimped and saved, and he quit 7-Eleven and bought a little grocery store for $14,000 in 1997. Ben’s Market is on 6th Street, just west of MacArthur Park.

“You see this?” Mohammed asks, pointing out the paneling, the lighting, the clean white walls. “I remodeled it myself, little by little. I have very many bills,” he says, reaching under the counter for a 4-inch stack of them. “But it’s OK now, thank God. We are doing very well.”

A good many people might not think of this Westlake neighborhood as paradise. But given his journey, it’s close enough by Mohammed’s measure.

He’s with the woman he loves. He takes his handsome son to an Islamic school in the morning on his way to work. He bought “the ugliest house” on a nearby block, nurtured it with sweat and hard-earned money, and now, he says, “it is the top one on the street.” He was even sending a few dollars to his mother in Bangladesh.

But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Mohammed’s heart was broken a third time.

It was easy enough to write off the first customer who mocked his name and cursed him. But it happened again, and again, and again.

Go back home, he was told. Go back to the Middle East. Go back to Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden and the other terrorists.

They were mostly Latinos, he says. Immigrants themselves in an international city built and rebuilt by simple desire, a city re-imagined a million times over. If America could be theirs, how could it not be his?

Mohammed informed some of them that Bangladesh and Afghanistan are nowhere near each other, but he wasn’t confrontational. That was partly because he’s a man of peace, and partly out of fear.

Arab Americans and Sikhs were being attacked in America—killed, even—by ignorant thugs retaliating for Sept. 11. If someone harmed Mohammed, who would take care of his wife and son?

“I can say only that they did not have good qualifications,” Mohammed says in his gracious way, though he is hurt that some of his tormentors were regular customers. “They were not having very good education. Some just see my skin color, or they know my name is Mohammed, and that’s why they do this.”

Then, when he hoped it had ended, in walked a man with a knife. He stood at the door, flashing steel and calling Mohammed a terrorist.

“Come on over here,” he said. “Come on over here, so I can slit your throat.”

Mohammed, terrified, didn’t move an inch. If the man came closer, the security camera would pick him up, giving the police something to go on.

Maybe Mohammed’s would-be assailant was aware of that. For whatever reason, the knife-wielding man left as suddenly as he had appeared, never to be seen again.

Mohammed closed his shop and went home in tears, and his eyes fill again as he tells the story. “I was never afraid in my life until this,” he says.

He closes earlier in the evening now, because his wife trembles until he gets home safely. At home, he tells his son, Steven, that theirs is an Islam of peace, and that with a life of hard work, honesty and good will, Steven will make his parents proud.

Truth be told, Mohammed says, the news hasn’t been all bad since Sept. 11. For every insult he received, he also got a promise from a loyal customer vowing to watch out for him. He’s still wary in the store, given these uncertain times, but the support of his customers has been a source of pride.

As if to offer further proof of his standing as a productive citizen, Mohammed insists on closing the shop for a while to show a visitor the fixer-upper he bought a year and a half ago.

The woman who waited four years to be with him waits now on the porch of their two-story clapboard house. It’s a lovely house, and she is lovely, too.

“It was in very bad shape,” Mohammed says of their home. “Little by little, we are fixing it.”

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