It's wake-up time along 5th Street on a chilly L.A. morning during Super Bowl week. A city sanitation worker tosses a bottle, basketball style, toward his trash can. It's an airball, shattering on the pavement. Another throw, another exploding airball.
"Oh (bleep)," the worker says, summing up the feeling on the street, "today's not my day."
Over the front of the Golden Gate Cafe, an automatic sprinkler system is watering down the sidewalk. It's the Skid Row version of a snooze alarm for the local campers.
This has been a lousy winter for camping out on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
Even if you have the finest in sidewalk camping equipment, like a cardboard box for a sleeping bag, or a pair of socks, the cold weather has taken a lot of the fun out of the whole experience.
If you're lucky enough to avoid getting mugged or drugged, beaten up, robbed or stabbed, you might wake up frozen to death, as four L.A. transients did just last week.
The Arctic air mass howling across America has even reached down to Los Angeles, creating a funny situation. Our town, greater Los Angeles, is hosting the Super Bowl this week. Judging from the festivities leading up to the game, this might be the most lavish, grandiose and decadent sporting event in history. It's one big chocolate-mousse-off.
Meanwhile, down on Skid Row, in the dirty old heart of the city, this might be the most miserable winter ever.
The contrast, the irony, seems lost on most of the campers and other regulars on Skid Row. The flash flood of big-game money and glamour may have bypassed this particular area, but make no mistake about it--Super Bowl XXI is coming to Vth Street, too.
"Giants, all the way," says one man on the street, when the subject of Super Bowl is brought up. "I'm a New Yorker. Lawrence Taylor's gonna mash 'em all up."
The debate is on among a half-dozen men gathered around a trash-can fire on the corner of 5th and Maple. They're offering better info than you got this week from Bill Parcells or Dan Reeves.
"They got circumvention on their side," a Denver fan says. He draws looks. He expounds. "Deceit. They use ruse . They're clever. They disguise their formations."
Another man shouts him down.
"They ain't gonna be able to overpower the Giants," he says. "The first time Lawrence Taylor hits Mr. Elway, he's gone ."
"It'll be close," says a man wearing a Chicago Bears cap. "I ain't gonna give 'em (the Broncos) the nine points."
One might expect some grumbling about the Super Bowl along Skid Row, a lot of "who-cares?" sentiment. But what I find is mostly enthusiasm. Almost everyone seems to be planning to watch the game, somehow, and almost everyone seems well informed. I get the impression that in a bizarre way, the Super Bowl is Skid Row's Christmas. The real Christmas doesn't hold a lot of appeal when you're sleeping on a cold sidewalk and your Christmas cheer comes in a paper sack. But the biggest football game of the year, now there's something that can stir up a little excitement, give you something to look forward to.
Pete Rozelle has said of the Super Bowl: "If the American public didn't have an entertaining emotional outlet, we'd have trouble. We'd be a sick society."
This is an astounding statement, something like claiming Band-Aids cure cancer. But I have to admit, Rozelle's carnival apparently does cheer up some dreary souls, if for a moment.
"Sunday, you won't see many people on the street," says one man, hanging his heavy clothing on a fence to air out as the morning warms up slightly.
Where will Skid Row's fans watch the game?
"We'll have a six-foot screen," says Tony, owner of the Weldon Hotel ("Newly decorated, clean, quiet, $2 and up"). "It will be for the people in the hotel, and for the guys here (some friends on a street corner). It will be packed."
"I might go to the Carnival," one man says, pointing to a bar down the street. "Only thing is, if you're not a patron, you can't watch. If you can get a dollar for a pitcher of beer, two people can buy the pitcher and you can watch. Or I might go to Torchy's (a 5th Street TV and radio store), watch in the window."
Rodger, the genial bartender at Carnival, says: "I don't know if we'll have it on. Channel 2 is broken on our TV."
"Hey, you put the game on, you'll clean up," a customer says.
Rodger gestures to the long bar, filled to capacity at 9 o'clock in the morning.
"We clean up anyway," he says, laughing. "But I'll get another TV. We'll have the game on."
For those without the price of a pitcher, there's always the Misery House, a block off 5th Street, a popular TV spot. The official name of the big hall is the St. Vincent de Paul Society Men's Center, but it's nicknamed in honor of the common bond. Here you can get a day bed, a sack lunch, a shower, and such hard-to-find Skid Row luxuries as a clean restroom and a drink of water.