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No Cheering on the Sidelines for Columnists

Sometimes writing a column isn’t as easy as it must seem to readers. Perhaps the worst bugaboo a columnist faces is the column he wishes he hadn’t written, but is too late to recall.

I have often written columns I wished I hadn’t written. Many times I was able to retrieve and kill them before they could get into print and do the damage I was sure they would do. Sometimes the process had already gone too far, and I sat back in fear and trembling for the repercussions. As often as not, in these cases, no one said a word. My anxieties were wasted.

Sunday was one of those critical days. Late Saturday night I decided that a column I had written for today was one I really didn’t want to see in print. It wasn’t libelous; it wasn’t mean; it wasn’t even inaccurate. I simply felt that, in telling one part of a story, I was not fair to the part I left out. That is a common fault with my columns, by the way.

The View copy desk is not staffed on Saturday. I had to wait until Sunday morning to reach an editor. At 9 o’clock, I called. No one answered. I called The Times operator and asked if she could rouse someone on the copy desk. No answer.

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At 9:30 a.m., I decided I would have to drive downtown to the paper. I got in my car and took the Pasadena Freeway to the Sunset Boulevard turnoff and looped back on to Figueroa Street. I turned south, only to encounter a Road Closed sign. I couldn’t believe it. That road had never been closed before.

Then I saw the reason for it. Streams of people--both men and women, evidently--were loping west on Sunset Boulevard in their underwear. It took me two seconds to realize that I had run into the Los Angeles Marathon.

I am content to suffer this annual madness as long as it does not interfere with my life. Only last year, as I remember, we had been trapped in the inner city by the encircling marathon when we went to a children’s play produced by the Assistance League. I thought we’d never get out, and I’m afraid I said some rather mean things about the marathon.

If 18,000 people want to get out on a nice March morning and gallop for more than two hours over hot asphalt streets, that is their business. But the cost to those of us who are caught inside their course or on its periphery can be frustrating in the extreme.

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It was different when the Greeks started the modern marathon at Athens in 1896. Athens was not a teeming metropolis with millions of cars that could easily be gridlocked by a few hundred amateur athletes trotting about its monuments over a 26-mile course.

I can explain the Los Angeles Marathon only as one aspect of the current Los Angeles return to the Greek ideals of physical fitness. I’m not against physical fitness, but there were other Greek ideals that I wish we were more eager to return to.

Following two other cars that had also encountered the roadblock, I made an illegal U-turn on Figueroa and turned east on Alpine, hoping to bypass the marathon and double back to The Times. I cursed when I saw, a few blocks ahead of me, the silhouettes of runners streaking across an intersection several blocks ahead.

I knew now why no one had answered the phones on the copy desk. No one had been able to get to work. I gave up. I turned north on Hill Street and got back on the Pasadena Freeway and drove home.

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By then it was after 10 o’clock. I phoned again and got the head of the copy desk. I told him my problem. “‘Is it possible,” I asked, “to kill my Monday column?”

He said, “If you can write a sub in 10 minutes or so.”

I told him I’d try. The column you are now reading, if you are still reading it, is the column I wrote as a substitute for today’s original column. Its only virtue is that it was written in less time than it took those marathoners to finish their race.

I think I deserve a laurel wreath.

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