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The Watchman

Today is the day he takes matters into his own hands. He fires up yet another in his series of old clunkers, this one a weathered Army transport van. He drives east on Hollywood Boulevard, past the motley array of check-cashing joints, dusty unleased storefronts, palm readers, and sidewalks imprinted with the names of yesterday’s movie stars. The summer smog is thick as the L.A. morning commute, an hour that usually finds him fast asleep. He works nights, though few would consider what he does work, but today, to earn a living, he’s changed his routine and struggled out of bed a little after dawn. He’s in a black phase, except for the hair, dyed platinum to alter his appearance. Baggy black Levi’s, black Reeboks, a black bowling shirt from Melrose Street, and one diamond stud in his left ear. His face and body are narrow and angular, his nose long. But it’s the eyes. They light up at the most unpredictable times.

He’s thinking about the second cup of coffee he would have liked with his Pop-Tart when the music stops. “Today is the day!”  booms radio personality Rick Dees. “This is song number one, ‘Escapade,’ by Janet Jackson. If it is followed by ‘Love Shack,’ by the B-52s and ‘Kiss,’ by Prince, you could be caller number one-o-two and win a brand-new fifty-thousand-dollar Porsche!”

The greatest radio giveaway in the history of Los Angeles is spinning to a climax. It’s Friday, June 1, 1990, the last day of the fabulous contest. Once a week for seven weeks running, KIIS-FM 102 has handed out Southern California’s fantasy of steel, leather, and status. You can’t live or work in Los Angeles without being caught up in the frenzy.  The gleaming, candy red convertibles are plastered on nearly every billboard and bus in town. The station is ubiquitous, playing in cars, malls, businesses, restaurants, and homes. Office workers, housewives, clerks, students, struggling actors, and contest freaks jam the call-in lines with cellulars, auto dialers, even ordinary phones. It’s so American, the craze, the combo of phones and fast cars. We may not be created equal, we may not all enjoy the same privileges, but we all have an equal opportunity to win. It’s so simple, even a child can do it. Just be the 102nd caller the moment Prince stops singing, and drive home a brand-new Porsche 944 S2 Cabriolet.

Five Minutes. That’s all he’s got, he figures, as he zips through the lights down the broad, crowded boulevard. The sequence of songs should last longer than five minutes, but if his partner’s late, as usual, it will be close. He hangs a hard right at Cahuenga at the famous International Newstand, dashes across the street to the unmarked door next to Casanova’s Adult World, and trots up the red wooden stairs…

Little Brown & Company, 1997. Original LA Times Magazine piece optioned by Paramount Pictures; published in 5 languages.

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