Following Villaraigosa's Trail
The Secret City on

Antonio Villaraigosa is hoarse. Out on the trail, the mayoral candidate who boasts endorsements from a Republican mayor and Democratic Governor has joked about the throat polyp he has, the one that makes him sound like Ruth Buzzi...

ELECTION NIGHT, TUESDAY, JUNE 5, 2001-- Antonio Villaraigosa is hoarse. Out on the trail, the mayoral candidate who boasts endorsements from a Republican mayor and Democratic Governor has joked about the throat polyp he has, the one that makes him sound like Ruth Buzzi or Harvey Fierstein, the one that will require surgery following the election. Villaraigosa has called the illness a bipartisan one--the polyp of PeteWilson and the acid reflux of Bill Clinton.

     The polling places closedabout four hours ago. By now Villaraigosa knows, almost certainly, he won't be the next mayor of Los Angeles. He stands on stage, supporters before him, family beside, band behind. He rasps. He says he's been on 39 campaign stops in the past 48 hours. He says this with vigor. A moment earlier, he was dancing.

     Five miles away, a million miles away, I am at home, lounging on a sofa and eating ice cream. I'm watching Villaraigosa on television, thinking about how he's been at this race for months, years. Same for Hahn, who comes on the cathodes and gives a hip-hop half-hug to a prominent supporter; he also pumps his arms and sings--or maybe lip syncs--words from an early-'80s pop/rock tune.

     Watching these men, I'm impressed. How do they get such energy? Maybe it's the adrenaline, the competition, the finish line finally crossed. Maybe it's the drumbeats of support, the handclaps, clasps and shakes of an entire city. I wonder to myself, what's it like to follow one of their campaign trails? But to do it all alone, without a driver, without aides, without adulation. Just to see all of the different parts of Los Angeles and try to put policies and people and promises together. It must be exhausting. It must be near impossible. It must be fun. I decide to find out.

     6:45a.m., PHILIPPE'S THE ORIGINAL, DOWNTOWN--Today is Monday, June11. The election was held last week and Hahn won. Most residents are probably trying to escape politics right now. I've chosen the opposite path. I've set out to follow the public schedule Villaraigosa followed one week ago today, the penultimate day of his race for mayor. His public
relations person e-mails me several days of itineraries and I've chosen one. The spokesperson also says that whenever there were holes in the schedule, the candidate was out fund-raising or meeting with supporters.

     She notes that most mornings, Villaraigosa exercised at 5:30 a.m. and most nights, he slept for four hours. In honor of that, I’ve slept only a little, awakened early, done a thousand sit-ups--OK, five--and, in the process, managed to miss the first two stops on my schedule.

     When I arrive at Philippe’s, I walk past the sign pointing to the Museum of Railroading.. I order eggs, potatoes and biscuits. Only one or two people occupy most of the eatery’s long communal tables. A woman behind the counter tells me when Villaraigosa was here, he didn't order any food. Another mistake for me. Another worker says Villaraigosa was traveling light; he arrived with three people, one of whom held
a sign.

     7:35 a.m., THE ORIGINAL PANTRY, DOWNTOWN--I'm five minutes late arriving here. I took a wrong turn near the toy district, then got delayed behind some double-parked trucks unloading watermelons in the Produce district. The garrulous, crew-cut employee who works the right side of the counter and appears born for his gig says that Villaraigosa had steak and eggs here. The guy sitting to my right reading the Wall Street Journal and talking about Las Vegas, keno and the point spread of Lakers playoff games declares he wasn't impressed with the candidate. The Pantry, of course, is owned by outgoing Mayor Riordan, who became a Villaraigosa supporter after his first choice lost in the primary.

     8:30 a.m.,SEVENTH/METRO CENTER/JULIAN DIXON METRO RAIL STATION DOWNTOWN--Two minutes after I've arrived, I'm kicked out of the station by a pair of LAPD officers. They approach me while I'm standing on the safe side of a sign that says you must have a ticket to go beyond this point. I'm keeping to myself, jotting down a few notes. I don't have a camera or a tape recorder. I haven't said a word to anybody. The officer who does all of the talking is as deft a rhetorician as any politician. He kicks me out without saying precisely that he's kicking out. As I depart, I try and remember which candidate the police union members endorsed. I also figure Villaraigosa, former president of the Southern California ACLU, would know what my rights are.

     10:15a.m., VALLEY SENIOR SERVICE RESOURCE CENTER, RESEDA--I'm a half-hour ahead of schedule. Outside, I walk past six men, three with canes, sitting on benches in front of an empty shuffleboard court. All are speaking Farsi. Inside, I walk past the arts and crafts room and the "travel" room and a receptionist directs me to the pool hall, where
Villaraigosa shot a bit. The man handling the sign-in book says he shook Villaraigosa's hand, but didn't play with him. I shake the man's hand, too. That man, who ticks off the half-dozen languages he can speak, then points out the table where the candidate played. It's the one closest to the door and it's covered by a brown tarp.

     Noon, PRECISION DYNAMICS CORP., SAN FERNANDO--If any edifice ever looked like that of a top-secret high-tech operation, this one does. Situated, menacingly, like a gangster with his back to a wall at a restaurant, at the end of an easy-to-miss cul-de-sac, this bunker of a building has concrete walls and black-mirrored windows and metal bars. I took the 405 and the 118 to get out here. By the end of the day, I'll also have traversed the 1, 2, 5, 10, 42, 99, 101, 110 and 170.

     12:30 p.m., SPORTS CENTER BOWL, STUDIO CITY--I'm fudging a little. Villaraigosa didn't have bowling on his schedule for the day I'm following, but because his next stop is next door, and he did bowl here a few days earlier, I decide to kill a spare hour and roll a game. An alley employee says that people cheered when Villaraigosa bowled a strike. As for me, I'm bowling alone on a weekday wearing beige-and-red felt saddle shoes. Not surprisingly, I'm assigned lane 29, far, far away from the only other bowlers here, and a few feet from a television tuned, loudly, to a fitness infomercial.

     To succeed at bowling and at politics, you don't really want to play it straight down the middle. Both a bowler and a candidate needs to know how to spin. Generally, they need to start out far to the right or left, stray perilously close to the gutter, and then, down the home stretch, spin to the center. I try to extend my metaphor. In the second frame, I tell myself that the ball is Villaraigosa, the pins are Hahn. I roll a strike. Really. And it gets weirder.

     In later frames, I suppose the pins are Xavier Becerra, Steve Soboroff and Joel Wachs, with mediocre results. By the ninth frame, I try the Hahn stunt again. Another strike! The first roll of the 10th frame, strike. Second roll, strike. Final roll, maybe to turn what was to be a horrible showing into a winning one. My ball knocks eight pins over immediately; two remain standing. The one a little to the right of center stands firm. The one just to the left wobbles. That pin falls down. Villaraigosa. The other stays up. Hahn. I've rolled my second-best game ever. Too bad nobody remembers a second-best showing.

     1:30 p.m., JERRY'S FAMOUS DELI, STUDIO CITY--I'm back on schedule now, eating half a corned beef sandwich next-door to the bowling alley. The waiters I chat with can't even confirm where Villaraigosa sat or what he ate, or if he even came in here at all. One tells me that Hahn was here with a film crew in tow.

     2:45 p.m., BOYLE HEIGHTS, CESAR E. CHAVEZ BOULEVARD and SOTO STREET--If ever a Candidate needs a baby to kiss, this is the strip to visit. There are more strollers here than along the Champs C9lysE9es, more carriages than along Central Park South. This is Villaraigosa's home neighborhood, so it's no surprise to see some of his campaign signs still posted. Yet before crossing the bridge back into downtown, the last billboard I see is for Hahn.

     4 p.m., WESTMINSTER ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, VENICE--I want to participate in all aspects of the candidate's day, so before heading west I drive for a quick meeting with one of my supporters--my housemate. He says hello and I tell him I can be home tomorrow to meet the cable guy. Then I get the mail, and just like what goes on at Villaraigosa campaign headquarters, I have received a check. That means I cancel a previously planned fund-raising trip to the ATM. Eventually, I arrive at the school, where I see American and California flags flying. I know I'm in the right place. Politicians can't resist flags.

     5:30 p.m., WESTCHESTER RECREATION CENTER--About 150 people showed up for a rally at this city park with a view of the nearby LAX air traffic control tower. A staffer at the center says Villaraigosa's team got the proper permits for sound amplification and construction. They built a little stage and provided staff for crowd control. She left at 5:55 p.m., and it turns out the candidate arrived five minutes later. Tonight, about 20 kids play or wait their turn to play basketball, and the tennis courts are full.

     7 p.m., INTERNATIONAL LONGSHORE AND WAREHOUSE UNION LOCAL 13, WILMINGTON--At this moment, I'm committing a serious gaffe. My schedule calls for a trip to Wilmington. I think Wilmington is a city in Delaware. In fact, it is a heavily industrial area down by the Port of Los Angeles, not far from San Pedro. Once the knowledge settles in, I make it to the red brick Union hall named for Harry Bridges (1901-1990), ILWU founder. The hall is closed now, a sliding metal security gate locks over the front windows and door. Other nearby buildings are protected by barbed wire fences. Trucks rumble and squeal by, braking for stop signs on the side streets. A few blocks away, enormous loading cranes wait for ships to arrive and a freight train rumbles by. Inside the hall, a man mops the lobby floor, but there's no one else in sight. So close to the Pacific...not a bad place to fish for votes.

     7:45 p.m., 110 NORTH, NEAR THE L.A. COLISEUM--Here in the still light of summer, 10 days short of the longest day of the year, I am stuck in traffic. The 110 bottlenecks here, near its merger with the 10. I figure at least the new mayor will have experienced major gridlock and maybe feel the urge to help fix traffic problems. I look out to my right. Off in the distance, I see the top portion of City Hall. If I were a candidate and I knew time was running out on my bid to make that building my office for the next four years, I'd stare at that white tower. I'd think how far I'd come, how long I'd traveled. If I were a candidate, I most certainly wouldn't be heading home. I'd do what Villaraigosa's schedule calls for, visiting a series of late-night diners, working the grill at Pink's Hot Dog stand.

     But, I'm not a candidate. I've added 172 miles to my odometer already. I've made 11 stops. With barely a glance over at City Hall, I turn the radio up nice and loud and wait for the traffic to clear. Hey, there's always 2005.