By Diane K. Shah, from her new book, “A Farewell to Arms, Legs & Jockstraps: A Sportswriter’s Memoir”
I doubted Art Buchwald knew who I was. Why would he? He was the best-known humor columnist in the country—his column, written for the Washington Post, was carried in hundreds of newspapers. But late one December, as the Rams were getting ready to play the Redskins in DC, I thought, who better to give some perspective to my L.A. readers? Because it was easy to reach people back then—no voice recordings prompting you to push this button or that—and because phone numbers were listed and breathing human beings answered calls, I dialed the Post and asked for Buchwald.
I was immediately put through.
“Yeah?” came a gravelly voice.
I introduced myself and told him what I needed. That is, in anticipation of the important Rams-Redskins divisional playoff game, what were fans saying?
Buchwald cleared his throat. “There doesn’t seem to be any hate for the L.A. Rams,” he replied. “Nobody ever heard of the L.A. Rams,” Buchwald continued between loud yawns.
Obviously, this was a geography problem. As I pointed out in my column, DC was quite provincial, being located somewhere in the Far East, but sort of heading to the South. One of its closest neighbors was Dallas, which explained the great rivalry between those two rather obscure locales. Buchwald confirmed this. “The reason you don’t find people are up for this game is that we used up all our frenzy during the Dallas game,” he admitted.
Then continued, “We’re very confused in Washington. The Raiders are from Oakland, or were, and the Rams are an Anaheim team. We’re not too clear about who we’re playing. But we’re definitely convinced we’re not playing an L.A. team.”
I asked if he would give me a rundown of the Redskins. At the time, Buchwald was taking a breather from promoting his new book of collected columns, While Reagan Slept. Apparently, the title was catching, for as I was speaking to him, suddenly, all I could hear were more yawns, followed by a noise that sounded suspiciously snoozy.
“Yeah. If we can stop Dickerson, we can win,” he said drowsily, speaking of Eric Dickerson, the Rams’ terrific running back.
“Sure. We have a fairly good line, you know. We did stop Dorsett.”
Tony Dorsett, the Cowboys’ running back. Well, so did the Rams, less than a week ago, but it takes time for news to travel this far east. “Who are the guys the Rams need to look out for?” I asked.
“We’re really a team with no stars to speak of,” Buchwald said.
“So how does it look to you, Art? How will the Rams fare?”
“They’ll get a good opportunity to see Washington,” Buchwald said. “And since they live so close to Disneyland, they’ll get a chance to compare the two.”
“What’s the difference?”
Said Buchwald, “Not much.”
I thanked him and said maybe I’d see him at the game.
“You kidding? In that cold? I’m going to watch on TV,” Buchwald grunted.
One more phone call remained before my editor stopped walking by and snapping his fingers. It seemed a matter of national importance to get a fix on whom President Ronald Reagan, the California resident who lived in the White House, would be rooting for.
A man named Robin Gray answered the phone in the press secretary’s office. The urgent question was posed. After what sounded like, yes, another yawn, Mr. Gray reported the following: “The president expressed no preference.”
What? None at all? This isn’t yams or sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving we’re talking about; this is football.
“The president, being neutral, sees himself as being the president of all the people,” Mr. Gray declared unwaveringly.
I hung up wondering if the president would have said the same thing had the Redskins been playing the Cowboys.
The game was not memorable; the Redskins thrashed the Rams 51–7. What was memorable was the night before, New Year’s Eve. That day, I had flown to DC with four of my Her-Ex colleagues. Realizing that it would be New Year’s Eve, I had packed a dress with the intention of going out somewhere to celebrate. Although I had been an Angeleno for 2½ years, I clearly hadn’t acclimated very well.
As I boarded the plane, I passed our young photographer, who was wearing a yellow windbreaker. I asked if he had brought a warmer jacket. He asked why. I said, “It’s seventeen degrees there.”
He said, “Oh.”
At the hotel, we went upstairs to check out the press room. No one else was there. “I guess they’ll have some food later, so we can eat here,” one of my colleagues said.
And I said, “Uh-uh, guys. You don’t mess with a girl with a dress. We’re going out!”
But where? I remembered Duke Zeibert’s legendary restaurant, where even presidents ate, and I called. They had two seatings, but only the later one was available. I told the guys we had a 9:30 reservation and that we should meet in the lobby at 9:15.
When we were assembled, I saw that only one man was wearing a jacket and tie. The others wore pullover sweaters. I wondered if jackets and ties would be required and if so, what then? As we were about to enter the restaurant, a couple emerged, she in a long mink coat. Uh-oh, I thought. But to my surprise, we were warmly welcomed and shown to our table. It turned out to be a delightful evening.
The clash of our cultures ended in a draw.