I was invited to attend a ceremony activating a traffic signal in Westlake Village. I had never been to a Traffic Signal Activation Ceremony before and wondered what it was they did to celebrate the event. Balloons? Clowns? Street dancing? Booze? None of the above.
They simply turn it on.
The invitation came from City Manager James Emmons, who did not attend. Mayor Irwin Shane did attend but was gone by the time I arrived. When I drove up, there were three people hanging around the light pole.
"Is this the new traffic signal?" I asked, examining the animated walking figure as though I were really interested.
"This is it," a young lady in an official red jacket said.
All three ceremony participants studied me as though I might be preparing to steal something. They are not used to strangers in Westlake Village. I quickly informed them I was with the Los Angeles Times.
"Darn!" the young lady said angrily.
I dropped into a defensive pose, thinking she might have recognized me.
"The mayor just left, but I can get him back for the picture."
"That's all right," I said, relaxing. "I'm not a photographer."
A heavyset man with her said, "You can get a shot of the relay box and one of the electricians."
"I'm not a photographer," I said again, louder.
"How about a picture of our city traffic engineer?" the woman asked, indicating the third member of their group.
Something was happening here. My lips were moving and my words were sounding in my own head but somehow they were not reaching the people.
"Sure," I said with a sigh. "I'll take his picture."
The city traffic engineer is a tall, amiable man named Tom Brohard. I explained to him that I was not a photographer, I was a columnist. I enunciate that word very clearly. When my daughter was young she told a teacher I was a Communist.
I learned from Brohard that this was the third Traffic Signal Ceremony in Westlake's history.
"What were the other two ceremonies like?" I asked.
Brohard shrugged. "Like this one."
"All right, then, what was this one like?"
He thought about that for a moment, then said, "The mayor turned on the switch."
"It went from flashing red to a traffic-responsive condition."
"They turned it on?"
"They turned it on."
I have attended perhaps 5,000 civic ceremonies in my career as a journalist. Ribbon-cuttings, cornerstone-layings, ground-breakings, swearings-in and even one where we buried Raincoat Jones, Oakland's official bookie.
They always started late and dragged on interminably. Everyone spoke. Everyone had his picture taken. Everyone drank. Sometimes there were fistfights, and in 1971 a city councilman fell in the hole that had been dug for a new garage.
"Did the mayor speak?" I asked Brohard as we stood on the corner of Thousand Oaks Boulevard and Via Colinas.
"No," he said.
"Then why did they have the ceremony?"
He shrugged and smiled. "I don't know."
The traffic signal cost $85,000. This is the third signal on that portion of Thousand Oaks Boulevard that is in the City of Westlake Village. The poles are painted bronze. Brohard was especially proud of that.
"Most cities don't paint their poles," he said.
"Hey," I said, attempting to sound enthusiastic.
He stared at me. I didn't know why at first and then I realized he was waiting for me to write that down in the yellow legal pad I carry for big stories. "Brnz pls," I wrote. That seemed to satisfy him, though he probably would have preferred that I spell it out.
The most elaborate civic ceremony I ever attended involved the joining of a freeway system in San Francisco. The mayor and all the members of the Board of Supervisors were there. The governor was there. Hundreds had gathered.
The idea was for this giant crane to lay a giant piece of steel into place across the Bayshore Freeway. A band played, the mayor spoke, the crane moved.
And the piece of steel was too short.
As I recall, they shot the chief engineer on the spot, the politicians pretended they had never been there at all and the press had a field day. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
There was no such activity in Westlake Village. They flicked a switch and the signal went from flashing red to, as Brohard pointed out, a traffic-responsive condition. Walk, don't walk, walk, don't walk, walk. . . .
I talked to Mayor Shane the next day.
"The ceremony's just a tradition," he said, sounding surprised that I had even asked.
A friend suggested it was a way to bring people together. We live in a world of small isolations. Disembodied voices over a telephone. Ideas exchanged on computer screens. Faces flashing by on the freeways.
"Well," I said to Brohard and the other two, "I have everything I need."
"Good," the heavyset man said. "Did you get the picture?"
I got the picture.