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VERY FIRST PERSON

Pit Bulls in Paradise

A Playwright Stages a Dogfight and Discovers a City

November 01, 1998|MARK LEE | Mark Lee's latest play, "Century City," premiered at New York's WPA Theatre in January. His novel, "The Lost Tribe," was published last summer by Picador USA. He still lives in Los Angeles

"And you'll find the dogs?"

February 1984. I was sitting on the terrace of Lamont Johnson's home in Pacific Palisades. Lamont was a film director who also had an extensive background in theater. I had recently written my first play, "California Dog Fight," and we had decided to put on a workshop production at the Victory Theatre in Burbank. The cast included the actor Charles Durning, but so far no one had found the two pit bulls that were going to confront each other in the play.

"You'll find the dogs?" Lamont asked again. He had a deep actor's voice that turned simple requests into dramatic events. "I don't know anything about pit bulls."

"Sure," I mumbled. "I'll take care of that." But as I drove down the hill to Sunset Boulevard, I found myself tapping my fingers nervously on the steering wheel. My wife, Therese, and I had just moved to Southern California and we often got lost on the freeway. I still hadn't created a mental map of the city: that personal collection of streets and stores and favorite places that guides each of us on our daily journeys. I needed to find two pit bulls and my own vision of Los Angeles.

My family had moved to Santa Barbara when I was 13, but I never thought of myself as a Southern Californian. Raking the leaves off the gravel roof of our tract home, I'd fantasized about the dark little streets of Kafka's Prague or the tropical lagoons of Conrad's "Lord Jim." Like many teenagers, I'd firmly believed that true happiness could only be found in the magical land of Someplace Else.

I went to college on the East Coast, then moved to Europe. For a while, I lived on the top floor of Shakespeare & Co., the Paris bookstore described in Hemingway's memoir, "A Moveable Feast." As rats scurried beneath my bed at night, I realized that Hemingway had been dead for years and the expatriate life he described had either vanished or it had never existed. Sitting in a laundromat on the Left Bank, I heard Radio Luxembourg playing the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" and realized that it was a beautiful song. I hadn't appreciated the surf music when I was growing up, hadn't understood the edgy nervousness of the Santa Ana winds or the soft gray beauty of the coastal fog drifting across the beach on a December morning. While my jeans tumbled in the dryer, I briefly considered moving back to California. Since I didn't know what I wanted out of life, it seemed like a defeat to return home.

I drifted around Europe for a few more years, then ended up working as a foreign correspondent in Africa. After covering the civil war in Uganda during the early 1980s, I quit journalism, married and moved to Los Angeles. I tried to write a novel about my experiences in Africa, but the memories were still too fresh and powerful.

After months of frustration, I abandoned my novel and started writing a play about dog-fighting, a world I had explored years earlier in an article for the North American Review. All the tension and fear I had experienced covering the war in Uganda could only be expressed in a fictional world with a California setting. The play was written in daylight, but it gained its power from my nightly dreams of body dumps and burning villages.

Now Therese was eight months pregnant and we were living in a tiny apartment on Hollywood Boulevard. All things seemed possible. The play would open a golden door to fame and movie deals--if I could find two pit bulls that could act. After checking the local animal shelters--no pit bulls there--I got in my battered Accord hatchback and started visiting dog breeders. The most common cliche about Los Angeles is that it isn't a real city, but a collection of different communities held together by municipal water districts. Driving from Watts to North Hollywood, I realized that there were thousands of communities in the Southland bonded not by water pipes but by private obsessions. Without realizing it, we are living within invisible cities of antique tool collectors, Tibetan Buddhists and people who organize dogfights.

Dogfighting is illegal, and many pit bull owners suspected that I was a spy from the ASPCA. After several people told me to get the hell off their property, I found that I got a better reception if I brought my wife along. My showing up with a pregnant woman so surprised a fierce-looking biker in Pacoima that he offered her a lawn chair and refreshments while his brindle-colored pit bull sniffed at our shoes.

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