'I Want You to Go Home'

Surviving the mean streets of Newport Ridge Estates

Nowhere does it say you've got to work a fabulous job, rake in big money, or spend it on the right car to qualify for the choice seats, preferred parking and scraping attention of the densely staffed Diamond Section at Edison International Field. Well, not unless you count the little corner of each ticket where it says 50 DOLLARS! But that's just clever marketing wordplay. The $50-per-game price tag, the shape of the baseball infield, and the jewel of a person who would pay that much to watch a ball game combine to provide the reason it's called the Diamond Section. Like the overwhelming cost of everything Disney, however, the idea isn't to keep us out. It's supposed to inspire us to get in.That's how I ended up arriving at an Angels game in a late-model minivan, rolling past a parking-lot traffic jam in a special lane for season-ticket holders, strolling a few stretch-my-muscles steps to the stadium, sashaying down to front-row seats directly behind home plate, and feasting on gourmet ballpark cuisine ordered from waiters who expedite my every gastronomic desire via cellular walkie-talkies. Yes, that was class, my friend. But, more accurately, that was my friend's class.See, those Diamond Section tickets work the same for whoever's holding them, no matter who's shelling out for them-broke-ass me, or an old high school buddy who has made himself into a very successful Irvine attorney with a wife, two daughters, and a multistory house behind the automated security gates of Newport Ridge Estates.The best part: nobody could tell the difference! I was gilded by association.It was a stunning metamorphosis. Where I come from-wherever I've come from during the past four years, since I staggered back onto my financial feet, jumped off the bus and hopped into my own car-I drive a 1988 Volkswagen Fox. It's deep-blue and lightly scribbled with scratches. There's a pretty good dent on the driver's door. I didn't notice those flaws on the rainy night I bought it from a woman who spent my entire 'round-the-block test drive emphasizing how desperately she needed $3,000 because of a drunken-driving rap she was facing in court the next day. That $3,000 is the most I've ever paid for a car. It's turned out to be the best car I've owned.In April, I drove that VW Fox on my first visit to the Angels' re-christened and remodeled stadium. My dad, who drove a milk truck for a living, invited me to take advantage of group-promotion discount seats on Dairy Night. We sat in the right-field bleachers, so far away from home plate that hitters were reaching first base before we heard the cracks of their bats. We stared into the setting sun for the first half of the game. Later, we ducked dive-bombing moths, which the powerful stadium lights had pumped up to the size of sparrows. Eventually, the evening evolved into a debate over whether the list of Three Strikes offenses ought to be expanded to include tossing beach balls and flinging tortillas. The Angels won the game, I think. Afterward, we let the traffic thin out while we walked about a mile to an off-site lot where we had left my car to avoid paying for parking. Getting home from the Diamond Section schmoozefest was a lot more challenging. For one, parking that minivan in the spaces closest to the stadium meant parking it farthest from the exits. That meant traffic. For another, I had to ride all the way back to Newport Ridge Estates, a remote housing tract way the hell above Fashion Island and hacked into what's left of unincorporated Orange County scrub brush. That was where I'd left my car so we could socialize on the way to the game. Finally, after we exchanged huggy-kissy see-ya-soons on the front lawn, as my friends' front door closed and I started my VW Fox, there was that bright flush of spotlight from an approaching cop car. That was when I knew that my membership in the Diamond Section had expired, that there were no residual benefits, and that I really hadn't fooled anybody. I was a strange guy in a bad car in a nice neighborhood. I was in trouble. In other words: hey, I was me!Unable to see a thing, uncertain what to do, unwilling to kiss ass-at least until specifically instructed to-I shrugged my shoulders and drove away toward the gates. The cop car whipped around and began a slow-speed pursuit, still emitting white light like a Close Encounters of the Third Kind spaceship but offering me no clue what to do. When I reached the gates, I pulled over on my own, stuck my face and hands out the window, and awaited my closeup."You got a problem?" came an angry voice from inside the cop car."I don't know. Do I?" I responded, pleasantly surprised to hear myself sound so snappy but not too smart-ass. "Please, if you would, tell me.""That's it!" shouted the voice. "Don't move!"Suddenly, I had three thoughts: 1) maybe I did sound a little too smart-ass; 2) this head-and-face-out-the-window position sure is uncomfortable; 3) I wonder if there's a gun pointed at me. Uhhh, make that four thoughts: 4) don't move."I need to see your license, registration and proof of insurance," snapped the officer-the deputy, it turned out, as I recognized the Orange County Sheriff's Department uniform-when he arrived at my window. I relaxed a little. His gun was holstered. I slowly collected my paperwork. "I pulled you over because you have a taillight out. Now sit tight."He meant "sit tight-ly," of course, and I did, spasming between anger and amusement as I waited for him to check for warrants and who knows what else. It dawned on me that the deputy couldn't have seen my taillights as he approached from the front. I realized, gratefully, that I hadn't had anything to drink at the ball game. I comprehended, sadly, that I ought to be relieved I am white. I sat tightly for at least 15 minutes-I, for one, am all for spending whatever's necessary to upgrade the department's computer system-and when the deputy came back to my car to inform me of my clean bill of criminal health, it still wasn't over."Where've you been tonight?""The Angels game. I went with my friends. They live right over-''"Who won?""The Angels. They got out to a big early lead, then had to fight off a comeback before-''"Have you ever been in any trouble?""With the law, you mean? Well, not really, besides traffic-''"You are aware that you're very far from home?""Well, I don't know, this is Southern California, and with all the freeways, it's only about a half-hour or-''"No, I'm telling you: you are a long way from home."At that moment, I felt a long way from my friend's home, which I could see glowing in the porch light less than 40 yards away."Uh, yeah, you're right. I guess I am.""Now," the deputy said, handing me my license and documents, "I want you to go home.""Yes, sir," I said. "Before I do, though, do you mind if I get out of the car and check my taillights so I can see which one I need to get replaced?""Sure," said the deputy. "Go right ahead."I walked slowly to the rear of the car. The deputy walked next to me. Together we checked those taillights-and every light was on. I looked at him quizzically. He looked right back, hard and unflinching. Well, at least we understood what this was really about. Still, I couldn't quite let it go at that."Excuse me, but was all of this because I don't drive a nice enough car?" I asked him.For the first time, the deputy's manner softened."No, no. I don't want you to think that," he said, almost consolingly. "That's not it at all.""When you shone that light in my face, I didn't know what to do," I explained. "I couldn't see you. I didn't know if you were just checking me out or if you wanted me to stop. You didn't say anything, so I moved on. I still don't know what I should have done.""That's okay. You did the right thing," he said. "Look, thanks for your cooperation, and have a nice evening. Drive safely on your way home."I got back in my car, started the engine, and drove slowly toward the exit of Newport Ridge Estates, waiting tensely as the gates automatically opened. And as I proceeded through, and as the security system locked me out in the unprotected world, I did begin to feel a little safer.

 
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