He was bent with age, a tan hat of the type favored by graybeards, on his head. His golf swing was wildly unconventional. He started with his club-head a foot behind the ball; at the top of his back-swing, he stepped forward and launched himself, almost like a pitcher stepping off the rubber, at his target.
You can see all kinds of eccentric golf swings at the Rancho Park 3-par course. It's a haven for senior citizen golfers, a verdant retreat for recession-and urban-weary Angelenos and a sometime-playground for noisy, punk kids with no etiquette and no game.
But it wasn't just the old man's golf swing that stood out. It was the tilt of his head, as if he were a punch-weary boxer looking up warily, through hooded eyes, at a world that had always given him a tough fight. A feather tickled my memory. Something about him looked familiar.
The old guy and his partner consistently played ahead of my son, Jack, and me. But at the tee box at number 7, we caught up with them. Suddenly I remembered. I called out to the old man as he grabbed the handle of his battered golf cart and was about to pull out.
He looked back. There was that old prizefighter's tilt of the head.
"You're the wild guy from City Hall. I remember you," I said.
"Leonard," he said, bringing his head up, a thin smile crossing his face. There was the red flush in his cheeks, the tough-guy voice. At the podium at Los Angeles City Council meetings, this guy, a miniature Mussolini of energy, with sweeping gestures and flaming rhetoric, had savaged City Hall as a Babylon of incompetence, self-dealing and waste.
After a pause, he gave up the rest of his name. "Shapiro." I wondered - was he testing me?
"John Schwada," I said. We shook hands.
"Yes, I remember," Shapiro said. "You did a little hell-raising yourself at City Hall. Heh. Heh. You got a pretty good write-up in The Times last week."
His partner pulled up short to listen.
"You're playing golf with a legend at City Hall," I said to the other guy. "Leonard, here, used to drive everybody nuts attacking city government. He was one of the original gadflies." Turning back to Shapiro, I said: "You had your own newspaper. The Observer, right?"
"No, it was actually the L.A. Observer. I gave it all up about ten years ago. But when I was going strong, I gave them hell. More often than not they often deserved it." Wasn't that a line from Harry Truman?
"So - how are you?"
"I'm 93 years old and still kicking," he growled. "It's been years since I've been to City Hall. It's not the same without (Councilman Ernani) Bernardi and (Councilman Joel) Wachs. They were a big help. They followed up on my stories and what I said in public comment. They were very sympathetic. It's not the same now."
I agreed. It's a different City Hall, that seems to matter less, a humorless fraternity of politically fearful champions of safe ideas. Shapiro grunted. Was he agreeing or just being agreeable? I couldn't tell.
Whatever. And with that, Shapiro turned away, to catch up with his companion, slowly walking to the green.
At the 8th hole, Jack and I were at the tee-box as Shapiro was hitting. His tee-shot banged into tree, plopped back onto the fairway and finally dribbled down a narrow, concrete-lined drainage ditch. "Leonard, you're in the gutter," I said. "But you've been there before - with the city council." Hah. Hah.
"Sometimes I had to get in the gutter with them to find out what they were doing." Then. "I'm taking another ball." Course rules don't allow for mulligans, but he took one anyway. This time he knocked a beauty, the ball landing pin high next to the green.
Two days later, I had breakfast at John O'Groats on Pico, just down the street from Rancho Park, with Joel, who's been around LA's local political scene for decades. "Guess who I saw," I said. "Leonard Shapiro."
"You're kidding. I thought he was dead."
"Maybe so. But if he is, then I was playing golf with his ghost. He was at Rancho. You should see his swing. Bizarre. But effective."
"Really? You know, he used to be a fixture at the county and then he just disappeared." Joel did a very passable imitation of one of Shapiro's podium-rants against "golden parachute" pensions for bureaucrats.
Then, I told Joel the rest of my Shapiro story:
When Jack and I finished our game and got to the parking lot at Rancho, I noticed Shapiro was still stowing his golf bag in the trunk of a car. I waved, and he motioned for me to join him. I did, and he was holding this miserable, sun-bleached, dog-eared newspaper.
"They called me the loudest man at City Hall," he said proudly, shoving the paper at me. "Look at this! Remember The Reader? I'm on the front-page!" Sure enough, on the cover of this tabloid, out of business since 1996, was a full-page photo of Shapiro's scowling mug. The headline says: "The Loudest Man at City Hall."
"Unbelieveable," I later told Joel. "Leonard must've had that old newspaper squirreled away in his car for years. It was faded. Falling apart. It looked like it was dug up from King Tut's tomb."
"Sic transit gloria," Joel said, shaking his head and taking another sip of coffee.
Then I remembered what Shapiro said after he hit his second tee-shot on the 8th hole, his mulligan. As he shoved his club into his bag, he gave me a fierce, challenging look and said: "When you're 93, you'll be lucky to hit a ball that good!"
And that's how I really want to remember Leonard Shapiro: A tough old nut, his fists up, ready to challenge all-comers. On the golf course. Or at City Hall.