It was in the early 1980s, shortly after I'd come to the L.A. Times. I was sitting in my office, minding my own business, a newly named sports editor from Milwaukee, who was hoping nobody would figure out that I was in over my head. Way over.
The phone rang. It was Otis Chandler. Not Otis Chandler's secretary or his administrative assistant or a clerk making phone calls for Otis Chandler. It was the man himself.
"Big fight tonight, huh?" he said.
I was thrilled. This was something I couldn't screw up.
"Yup, Jerry Cooney and Larry Holmes," I replied, showing my considerable conversational depth. "Could be a good one."
"I hear the only place you can see it is at one of those closed-circuit TV places," Otis continued. "You know where any of those are? I assume you are going."
Well, that's why he was Otis Chandler. He knew his sports editor would not miss something like that, and he was right.
"Yup, they have a big showing at Century City," I said, thrilled to have gone this far in the conversation without swallowing my tongue.
"Got room in the car for me?" he asked.
Well, folks, there was only one answer there.
"Sure," I stammered.
And so, Otis told me how he was going home early that day, but his house in Hancock Park was right on the way and gave me his address.
I hung up, took a deep breath and started to shake and quiver.
I got over that in about an hour, but then I started all over again when I realized that, not only was I going to pick up Otis Chandler, but I was going to do so in my six-year-old Ford Pinto, the one with the eight-track that always skipped the second cut on the tape, the one that wouldn't have made the trip from Milwaukee to California on its own, so it got to ride in the moving van. The image still resonates. Otis Chandler in a Pinto with a defective eight track.
I was too young and too paralyzed to know what else to do, so I got in the Pinto and went to Hancock Park, where I pulled in the driveway, turned it off and went to the door to get Otis. I remember thinking that, if they had a house like this in Milwaukee, they would have called it an arena.
He was great. Dressed casually, ready to go see a fight with the guys. Out we went, into the Pinto, ignition switch turned on. Nothing. Pinto dead. Its owner close behind.
It never fazed Otis. He said something about the grinding noise sounding like the starter was okay and asked me to open the hood. There I was, Otis Chandler routing around in cable lines on my battery, yelling at me to "try it again."
God, who was from Milwaukee and always found me amusing and helpless, smiled down at that moment and sent a spark that made the Pinto start. Otis, looking quite satisfied, climbed back in, grease on his hands, big smile on his face.
"No problem," he said. I think I was supposed to feel better. What I felt was suicidal.
We arrived at the Century City Theatre, handed the car over to a valet attendant, who looked offended that I would ask him to sit in it, and went in to see the fight. We watched, socialized, had a couple of beers and generally had fun.
I was almost starting to think that everything was going to be all right until we went out to get the car and the valet kid pulled it around and turned it off, handing me the keys as he awaited his tip. I remember thinking that if this car did not start again, this would be one murder that would be justified, that the jury would find for the helpless sports editor kid over the useless Holllywood-actor-wannabe-valet kid.
I got in the car, turned the key and was greeted by silence. I looked at Otis, just like one would look at the priest who has come to give you the last rites, and he was already out the door.
"We got it going before, we'll do it again," he said.
And so, for the second time in less than four hours, one of the most important people in the country, maybe the world, was under the hood of my Pinto, yelling for me to try it again. Pump it harder. Hold the key down.
And again, the Pinto started and away we went.
We talked about the fight all the way back to Hancock Park. I pondered my upcoming legacy as The Times' Pinto Man. What incredible cocktail party conversation. A great yarn at the Jonathan Club.
We arrived, pulled up in the driveway, and he shook my hand, thanked me for taking him, said we'd do it again and added, quickly, "I'll just get out. No need to turn it off."
I remember, as I drove home, wondering of they'd take me back in Milwaukee.
The Great Pinto Adventure was never broached again. We saw each other, sometimes several times a week in The Times' gym or just around the bulding, for years to come. But the "P" word never came up. Never.
I finally realized that it wasn't a big deal to him; that, most likely, he kind of enjoyed getting to tinker with a car.
Even a Pinto.