Heading back to East Coast a long, strange trip for columnist


September 09, 2004|By David Steele

YOU'RE NEVER coming back from there.

That's what everyone told me nine years ago. Family, friends, colleagues, they all presumed what everyone presumes when one moves from the cold, dirty, crusty East Coast to the sun-drenched, easygoing, mild-mannered West Coast.

"San Francisco?" I was told. "Yeah, right. You'll miss the snow in the winter. You'll miss the humidity in the summer. You'll see the Golden Gate Bridge, and it'll make you nostalgic for the Harbor Tunnel. You'll hate the Pacific Coast Highway because it can't hold a candle to I-95 on a holiday weekend. Man, you're out there to stay. You're never coming back."

I have to admit, it was a convincing argument. I left in the summer of 1995 to write for the San Francisco Chronicle, and, at the time, the idea that I would ever come back to this time zone - much less to The Sun, within snarling distance of where I grew up in D.C. - seemed preposterous.

At the last get-together with my friends (most of them classmates at Maryland back in the days of Lefty and Boomer) nine years ago, the idea got more preposterous as the night went on. The sense that my move was permanent was growing with every emptied bottle, glass and plate of Buffalo wings.

"Let's see, you're going to see the 49ers every week," one friend pointed out. "You'll be watching Young and Rice and Deion, going 14-2, playing until January, 70-degree playoff games at Candlestick Park. But all the while, you'll be dying to come back and check out the Redskins. Guess you'll just get tired of covering Super Bowl parades, huh?"

"Uh-huh," another chimed in. "We'll see a Super Bowl parade in Baltimore before we see you out here again." That brought roars of laughter.

"Yeah, the big rally in the brand-new, state-of-the-art downtown stadium."

"'Cause, you know, teams are running over each other trying to move there. The NFL can't wait ... " He couldn't even finish; he was almost choking.

"But you might luck out," someone else blurted out. "By then, there might be a ticket available for an Orioles game."

"Yeah, a ticket. For the last-place Orioles. Sometime in the 21st century, one single ticket available at Camden Yards. Let us know a year in advance so we can get it for you."

More loud guffaws. Heads at other tables began turning our way. The restaurant manager shot us a dirty look.

"How 'bout this?" another friend said, ignoring the dirty look. "Steele comes back to town just in time for us all to go see Maryland in the Orange Bowl." The whole table hollered. My sides were actually starting to hurt.

"That's right. ACC football champion Maryland Terrapins."

"Ahead of Florida State."

"Top-10 team."

"OK, OK, OK." Another friend was trying to keep a straight face. "Then, then, we go - then we go see - the basketball championship trophy."

I briefly lost consciousness on that one.

"Yeah, we'll all go to Cole Field House - "

"Oh no, they'll be too big for Cole Field House by then. We'll have to go to the huge, sparkling new, on-campus arena ... "

"Right next to the big expanded football stadium ... "

"And we can see the picture of Gary Williams with the net around his neck, holding the trophy ... "

"With that famous smile on his face ... "

Nobody could even speak for the next couple of minutes. The manager shushed us loudly. It didn't work.

Finally, we caught our collective breath and turned silent and contemplative. Time to get serious and look forward to the life that lay ahead for me.

"You're going to miss the Bullets finally getting it together," someone said, breaking the silence.

"Yeah, but he's going to see Golden State every night. Maybe they'll send you back here for reaction when Joe Smith wins the MVP."

"Or when the Warriors win a championship. They're on their way now with Joe and Sprewell and Hardaway and Mullin. They lucked out winning the lottery and getting a chance at him."

"The Bulls can't win it every year. Michael Jordan will be done in a couple of years. And done for good. No more comebacks."

"Warriors and Bullets in the finals. Joe Smith against Chris Webber and Juwan Howard. It's just a matter of time, just a matter of them maturing."

"Don't forget Rasheed. Bullets are set up front for the rest of the century."

"Rematch of '75. You'd get to go back to Cap Centre."

"Or," said one friend, barely sputtering it out, "to the new arena in downtown D.C."

That was when the manager finally threw us out. No one could blame him.

In the parking lot, everyone said their goodbyes. "Nope, you're staying out there for good," one friend said.

He was wrong.

"And if you do get back here," added another, "by that time, you won't even recognize this place."

He was right.

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