September 1, 2012
In search of something transformational in these troubled times, we're headed down to a food fight at Irvine Lake, something legitimate, fully sanctioned, with rows of port-o-potties lined up like sentries at a royal garden. Have you noticed that, of all the people at the Los Angeles Times, I get the most assignments involving port-o-potties?
The royal garden in this case features heaping mounds of tomatoes, ringed by chain-link fencing. The setting is Edenesque, though it stinks a little too, and we haven't even started stomping the stupid things or — on occasion — vomiting.
Let me set the scene: Here near Irvine (the Greek word for mini-malls), we have this harvest of squishy Roma tomatoes.
We also have almost 3,000 young people, if you include me. I've brought a couple of my interns, Bob and Craig. They're both older than I am but are interested in pursing serious journalism, and I've agreed to take them under my wing. One's an attorney. The other's a banker/rum-runner. Naturally, journalism seemed the next logical step.
"If I don't win a Pulitzer for this, they may as well just quit giving them," I tell some young participants from Texas, who actually giggle.
I'm not sure whether they know what a Pulitzer is, but for Texans they seem pleasant enough. And, frankly, I'll talk to anyone who laughs at my jokes — till the sparkle inevitably goes out of their eyes and they politely excuse themselves to go find a friend or a port-o-potty.
You may have seen a tomato fight before, but probably not. Most famously, a festival known as La Tomatina is held in Spain each summer, and the photos always seem to squeeze their way into the foreign section of the newspaper, black and white and red all over.
As with many things Spanish — galleons, moss, wild-eyed actresses — tomato battles have now found their way into America. There's one in the Bay Area later this month, and Seattle, San Diego and Portland, Ore., have already held them.
Here near Irvine, we have a splendid day for a tomato fight, mid-'80s, dry as a preacher's laugh. There's a lake nearby, but that doesn't seem to factor in to this event. We pre-party on the lawn, with rap music and a beer-fueled costume contest, dignity everywhere.
Emcee: "Next up, we have a ... guy ... in ... a ... weird ... vest?"
But mostly, people show up as themselves, a bunch of mutant blobs like me and the interns looking for a little lightheaded lawlessness on a Saturday afternoon. Really, this has all the makings of a minor bar brawl.
It's a friendly crowd, but of some concern are the intellectual elite with tattoos across their backs, in gangy, Old English fonts.
Then the gates open and the crowd pours in, scooping up the rancid, overripe tomatoes. (Organizers say they are so past prime that "it would be unethical to sell or give these tomatoes away as food.")
Zaaaap, splaaaaat. "Hey, where's my shoes?"
The juices run downhill till they pond up against some hay bales at the far end of the parking lot.
This creates what the Army Corps of Engineers would call a holding basin. Or the world's biggest Bloody Mary. Just to be safe, one young lady is carrying a squirt gun filled with vodka.
For more than an hour, the air fills with tomatoes and snorty laughter. Sarah Verga of Hawaii plants herself in this sluice of juice and starts wildly splashing those around her, who mob up to splash her back. Give it up for Sarah, a Navy SEAL of slime.
As is frequently the case at the junction of mayhem and confusion, there are also some beautiful moments — divine, spiritual, almost rabbinical in their clarity. "Humiliation is the beginning of sanctification," explained John Donne, and I'm pretty sure he was speaking about tomato fights.
Sarah's mermaid moment represents this, as do the actions of participants who have thrown themselves into puddles to make snow angels in the slush.
Fortunately, the battle is only occasionally brutal. A few of the intellectual elite are zinging line drives, but everyone else seems content with just tossing the tomatoes in big, punty arcs.
Still, I get pegged once in the eye and retreat, passing our photographer, Gary, who is chanting, "I'M GETTING HURT! I'M GETTING HURT!" as he wades further into the red zone. If he were bleeding, how would you even know?
As I told him, "without pain there are no Pulitzers."
And that was the last we ever saw of Gary.
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