HOW DO YOU know a new year is beginning? You get a calendar. A new one. Preferably free and, for many years among L.A. residents of a certain age and outlook, preferably from Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.
The calendars would lay by the register in a stack -- single sheets of thick paper about a foot wide and about 4 feet long, decorated with airbrush-style images of the year's latest rock god or goddess. You'd grab one and roll it up while paying for the singles, albums and eight-tracks you bought as last-minute Christmas gifts.
Or, if you weren't the Tower Records type, your new calendar might be found at the register of a local restaurant. If you lived in the Valley, the New Year just wasn't a New Year without a calendar from Art's Deli, with a photo of a hot pastrami sandwich, dripping with mustard. On the Eastside, it had to be from Juanito's Tamales, and, as the year went by, if you saw a Juanito's calendar hanging on the wall of a colleague or business associate, you could feel part of a secret fraternity of the knowing. And part of Los Angeles.
But restaurant calendars are getting rare, and as for Tower -- well, the calendars stopped coming long ago and the store closed for good this year.
Into the void steps Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge. For four years now, LaBonge calendars have been popping up all over the city. First just in City Hall, which stands to reason. But then at reporters' desks. In doctors' offices. At the dry cleaners. In the library. One has been spotted behind a bank teller. And now even in the state Capitol in Sacramento.
If you're in L.A., and in any way connected with politics or government or civic life, it seems you've got to get a LaBonge calendar, decorated with snapshots of Los Angeles that the councilman took himself.
Because they are great photos? Well, no. They're not great. Nor are they instantly evocative of the city. The 2007 version, hot off the presses, features the requisite shot of the Hollywood sign. But without the captions, few people (other than perhaps LaBonge himself) would recognize the shot of Pan Pacific Park, or the one of a North Hollywood street. Still, the calendar is increasingly a must-have for Angelenos, especially those who have crossed paths with the councilman and listened to his infectious celebratory speeches about the city. "Let's get you to enjoy and love Los Angeles," LaBonge says -- and that's just his voicemail greeting. You see his images hanging on the wall and immediately rekindle your affection for L.A.
The councilman sends the calendar out to his inner circle (which numbers about 30,000 but is getting larger). His staff says it fields hundreds of calls from people this time of year calling up and demanding to know where their calendar is.
It's the new civic New Year's ritual. Forget Tower. Forget the tamales and the sandwiches. The year doesn't start until Tom LaBonge's photos are by your desk.
Big deal, you say. Your senator sends out calendars with images of Washington. But did your senator take the photos herself? Does your congressman appear on the front page, waving one hand and holding up a camera with the other?
This is not your taxpayer dollar at work, but LaBonge is, after all, a politician. Last year's calendar was paid for by his "officeholder account," which is funded by donors. This year's is courtesy of the Re-Elect Councilman LaBonge Committee. The mailing list is kept by his campaign consultant.
It's brilliant. Celebrating L.A. and working for reelection -- and reminding people what day it is -- at the same time. It must be working because no one filed to run against him this year. L.A. is too big for a small-town mayor, but we have LaBonge. And his calendars.
Better get one.