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STYLE & CULTURE | Al Martinez

Respite from our serious world

October 18, 2002|Al Martinez

For a reason I couldn't understand at first, I have been caught up in the fortunes of the Anaheim Angels, displaying an enthusiasm that is quite unlike me.

I watched just about every one of the playoff games and even sat up straight on the couch when something, like a clutch hit or a great catch, excited me. For me, that's the emotional equivalent of jumping up and down and waving my rally monkey.

This abrupt departure from form puzzled me. I haven't been to a sporting event in years. I don't own a Dodger hat and I don't fly a pennant from the antenna of my car when the Lakers win. In short, I'm not a fan of the people who hit, run, jump, catch or otherwise display physical agility.

But there I was nonetheless excited about the abilities of guys like Adam Kennedy and the kid, Francisco Rodriguez, and hip-hooraying them with surprising ardor. Then, on the day following their final victory over Minnesota, it struck me.

The epiphany occurred at a Mark Taper Forum play called "Nickel and Dimed," by Joan Holden. It's based on the book by Barbara Ehrenreich, who spent three months living on minimum wages in order to write about how the working poor survive.

The play is no "Grapes of Wrath," that's for sure, but it did have the effect of turning me away from baseball and into the world of 32.9 million Americans who exist at the poverty level. And it made me realize that my sudden interest in the fortunes of the Angels was, conversely, pulling me away from a world in turmoil.


A reminder of hard times

I guess that's what sports are all about, diverting us from more worrisome concerns. You don't dwell so much on the fate of humanity when you're concerned about Troy Percival's pitching arm. It worked for me for awhile, until I saw "Nickel and Dimed." The play brought back hard times.

I can remember as a kid during the Depression being so poor we had nothing to eat, and as a married adult living on the edge of an economic abyss. Poverty challenges the very nature of one's being, lowering the threshold of civility to just above that of a dog.

As a 10-year-old, I stole, rummaged for edible food in garbage cans and sold pulp magazines from door to door. At one time I worked pitting apricots for pennies, and another time hauled back-breaking tins of cookies in the unbearably hot basement of a cracker factory.

But we got by in those terrible years because we had goals, and because there were so many of us in the same fix. Today, it's different for those at the poverty level, and for the 6.4 million who are the working poor. We live in an age of possessions in this country, in an age of million-dollar salaries. The gap between those who have and those who have not is a chasm, too wide and deep for the dispossessed to cross. And it's bound to get worse.


Escape, for a night

I didn't really mean to go off on all this. I was going to write a baseball column, one of those airy efforts that would take me to a place I rarely visit, which is to say sports. Not that I was ever going to paint my face red or stand in line all night for a World Series ticket, but I did put aside a biography on Charles Bukowski to watch the Angels power-play their way to a win.

It wasn't until I saw "Nickel and Dimed" that I began to analyze my interest in the playoffs. I sat up long after Cinelli had gone to bed and gazed out toward a vista of oak trees illuminated by the pale light of a crescent moon. Incoming fog diffused the light, creating the kind of faint glow that brightens fantasies. It's my thinking view.

I decided that even though the play wasn't what it could have been, it achieved a purpose for me anyhow. It's what art can do, alerting the senses to cultural conditions. It reminded those of us in the audience of the desperation that lies not too far from the Music Center, just beyond the streetlights.

It brought back all those memories and turned my attention once more to the plight of the poor, especially the working poor, who are struggling to achieve something that is beyond their reach. I guess they're never too far from my consciousness. Experience clings to memory like underlying pain.

Baseball did its job by diverting me if only momentarily from the ache that never goes away. And art did its job by bringing me back to the realities. But I'll still try to escape for a few days starting tomorrow as the World Series commences. We all need to pause occasionally. I might even get me one of them jumping monkeys.


Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at

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