At 2:30 in the morning, the cops were sitting in their squad cars at the intersection of Emerson and Westchester Parkway, eating sunflower seeds and pretending it was no big deal.
They were wrong. The emergence of the shuttle Endeavour this morning from its LAX hangar onto public thoroughfares for its two-day commute to the California Science Center south of downtown was an eerie spectacle with almost religious overtones.
With a soundtrack of jet engine noise emanating from the airport, we shuttle gawkers lined Westchester Parkway, our fingers fiddling with camera settings, our necks craned west into the inky night. The shuttle had crossed into a narrow field from Lincoln Boulevard and stopped at the parkway for a 40-minute route adjustment. Endeavour's transporter had to zig then zag her around some trees and light standards before setting her due east along the street.
"Just another aircraft delay," hollered a voice from the crowd.
A geeky guy was showing pictures on his phone that he had taken earlier in the week at Randy's donuts, which Endeavour was scheduled to pass later on Friday and where a yellow-and-black "Shuttle Xing" sign had been posted in the window. Unfortunately for the cop contingent, Randy's will be closed during Endeavour's drive-by, but geeky guy said when he was there crews were constructing bleachers in the parking lot for Toyota executives to witness the Manchester Boulevard bridge crossover. It would be powered by a Toyota Tundra truck because CalTrans considered the transporter's weight excessive. Toyota, of course, is filming its role in Earth-bound space flight.
More cops on motorcycles meandered hither and yon, pretending to have a role; a champagne-colored Dodge with blue, red and white lights flashing from the rear window cruised around with its headlights off. A cop standing near the yellow tape that defined our limits drank from a quart bottle of soda.
Then trucks from Valley Crest Tree Care Services passed in front of the crowd, and Endeavour began to crawl toward us. The crowd began to murmur as the shuttle's black nose came fully into view. For a vehicle whose orbital velocity was 17,500 mph, 2 miles an hour was ... spooky.
Some people applauded, but it was quick and deferential, like clapping for the cantor. You wanted, somehow, to acknowledge the enormity of the occasion, the unique experience of being in the company of something that had flown in outer space and was now within reach, its wings nearly brushing your head as it edged along a suburban street wholly at the mercy of its minders and a humble internal combustion engine powered by $5 a gallon fuel. Aloft, Endeavour carried a million-and-a-half pounds of fuel, and you do not want to know how much they cost.
Endeavour barely cleared the stoplight at Emerson, but this is a proud bird who will never look anything other than regal. She is banged up, her black belly tiles scarred, her white complexion pocked with mileage. She is magnificent. She makes patriots out of anarchists. She is America and she lives in L.A.
Photos by Ellen Alperstein from Westchester this morning.