Dr. David Rizzo's love affair with Los Angeles was rock solid for decades. The first sign of trouble came last year, when the house-call foot doctor finally grew tired of logging so many hours in his car and decided to break off the relationship.
Rizzo, 62, thought he was ready for semi-retirement, and he loves infernal heat. So he moved to Phoenix.
"The sky at night is a celestial event," Rizzo said of his new metropolitan mistress.
But the sun kept coming up, shining brightly on a man who cast a long, lonely shadow in the Arizona desert.
"It's paradise," Rizzo said of Phoenix. "But I wasn't ready to die."
And so on Jan. 9, he motored west on the highway that's the best, moving back home for a second-chance romance.
"I missed the energy of Los Angeles. Here, you feel like you're alive," Rizzo said as he made his foot-mending rounds Monday in a Mercury the size of the Queen Mary. "You think of L.A. as barren, but au contraire. It's a garden of Eden. I didn't realize how many trees we have until I left the state."
And Rizzo has been embraced by grateful patients, all of them senior citizens and many of them in hospice care.
"I like old people," he said. "I learn from them. They have interesting stories to tell."
Rizzo cures bunions in Burbank.
In-growns in Irvine.
Fungus in Fullerton.
"It's not glamorous work," Rizzo acknowledged, and I can offer a first-person confirmation.
I saw toenails flying in Redondo Beach, Woodland Hills, Baldwin Park, Covina and Lakewood, as Rizzo wielded a tool that looked like a cable cutter, following up with an electric grinder that looked like a drill.
"I bought it at Home Depot," he said.
Who knew there was such a demand for toenail service?
Rizzo said that as people age, their nails become long and discolored and too thick to trim, harboring fungus and courting infection. He knocks on doors with an old-fashioned black leather medical bag and charges just $45 per visit.
"I'm not trying to get rich."
He does not accept credit cards or insurance, and doesn't have medical insurance himself. Rizzo thinks we'd all be better off with a national healthcare program modeled after Kaiser.
He began making house calls when he was newly out of med school in 1976 and later briefly tried working in an office, but it wasn't his style. He felt like he was in prison.
So he hit the road with his clippers and cotton balls and never looked back, driving so much that his traffic advice became almost as sought after as his medical services. Rizzo, who has often held other jobs while doctoring — he's currently a technical writer four days a week — once worked as a traffic reporter on the radio, wrote a commuter column for several newspapers, and became known as Dr. Roadmap.
He is the author of "Freeway Alternates" and "Survive the Drive! How to Beat Freeway Traffic in Southern California."
And how exactly do you beat it?
Travel off-peak if you can, Rizzo advises. If congestion is no worse than normal, stay on the highway. If it's caused by an accident, use an alternate.
In other words, you can't really beat it, it beats you. And Rizzo sees only one real solution.
"Carpooling," he said, not that it can work for people like him. But if more people were to buddy up, everyone would move faster and save lots of money on gas.
Rizzo confesses, though, that he likes driving and inherited not just his father's Mercury, but his Depression-era frugality. He shoots for 300,000 miles on the odometer before cutting ties with a vehicle.
"I do some of my own wrenching," he said.
There will come a day, if it hasn't already arrived, when only one driver will still be using a Thomas Guide, and it will be Dr. Roadmap.
"The trouble with GPS is that people are losing their navigational skills," said Rizzo, who uses a retro flip phone and says he could not suffer an electronic smart phone voice telling him when to turn. For him, a map is a work of art, a schematic of the region's anatomy and a story of our relationships to each other.
Speaking of which, nothing pleases Rizzo more than a chat with his patients. Before I even met him, he'd emailed me about how much he enjoyed the 99-year-old former circus aerialist and acrobat in Palos Verdes and the Placentia soldier who fought in the Battle of the Bulge — for the Germans.
Rizzo has learned how to talk about corns and bunions in Chinese, Spanish, Romanian and Arabic. He's made friends with so many Filipino home-care workers that he learned some Tagalog and visited the Philippines.
"Right now I've got Korean cued up on the tapes," he said; he's learning yet another language as he drives.
The houses we visited are the museums of the people who live in them. Mr. Castaneda, confined to a bed in Baldwin Park, is up and dancing at a wedding in the photos on his wall. Mr. Searles suffered a stroke and is hooked up to oxygen, but it's in a den he built with his own hands in Lakewood, and he was eager to talk about the fish he caught when he could get around better and about his teenage days as a bicycling Western Union telegram messenger in Long Beach.
Rizzo brings his smile and a gentle touch to every home on his route. When he's finished, he graciously bids patients goodbye and moves on to the next job, Thomas Guide at his side in the city he couldn't live without.