Monday, September 18, 2006

Manny and Me

From: Los Angeles Daily News

It's 5:41 a.m., and Manny Covarrubias' cell phone is already buzzing.

"Good morning, Hilda," he says to an assistant to LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer calling with a schedule change.

Manny swings into the alley behind the superintendent's beachfront Venice apartment. He opens the mailbox - "No mail" - grabs Romer's newspaper and climbs the stairs to the second floor, slipping a key into the lock and letting himself in to the residence of one of Los Angeles' most powerful public officials.

And so begins the first day of a new school year with the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Manny's official title is sergeant at arms - a fancy moniker for chauffeur to the CEO of the nation's second-largest school district. In reality, he is the glue that holds the superintendent's office together.

"It is probably the most important relationship I've got," Romer says. "He is just the guy who helps me function, who helps me keep things together."

The two have become quite close. Romer considers Manny one of his best friends; Manny thinks of Romer as a doting father.

But Romer is on his way out of the district, out of California, back to his Colorado ranch and the state where he served as governor from 1986-98.

And Manny doesn't know if the next superintendent will keep him or revert to the past system of having a rotation of armed police escorts, which would return Manny to the bus-driving schedule he kept before Romer arrived in 2000.

But Manny, too, is entering a new chapter. This summer, he finished the required courses to transfer from East Los Angeles College to California State University, Los Angeles, where he will start classes Thursday.

"It is going to be intense," he said. "I know I am up to the challenge and I know I am going to pass."

Exhausting would be an understatement.

Chauffeuring the superintendent is a dawn-to-dark duty. It's dodging L.A. traffic jams. It's midday catnaps to push through 16-hour shifts. It's dropping off the boss at 1 a.m., driving 31 miles to his wife and teenage son sleeping in their two-bedroom house in Whittier and being back in Venice at 6 or 7 a.m. to repeat the routine.

Long days are something Romer brought to the office, said his secretary, Raquel De Leon, who has worked with seven superintendents in 20 years. But none of it seems to bother Manny.

"Working with them is like being in the Army: It's not a job, it's an adventure," he said.

Manny is 42, lean and muscular, with dark skin, salt-and-pepper hair in a buzz cut and a scruffy moustache. He has never called in sick - not during his nine years as a bus driver, not in the six years since Romer arrived.

He works 50 to 60 hours most weeks - less when Romer is out of town - and last year pulled in about $65,000.

Team members said he makes himself available to assist with any task.

"He was just a spark plug in the whole team," said Stephanie Brady, who served as press deputy until this past June and considers Manny a friend. "He did everything possible to make things run smoothly for the superintendent, who has so much to juggle."

Romer arrived on the heels of an eminent domain campaign for new schools that embittered some in the district's path.

"The situation was very hostile," said school police Sgt. George Sandoval, who was the detail for Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines in early 2000. "Since I can remember, there has been a police officer attached to the superintendent."

Romer didn't want an armed guard, but an assistant on whom he could count for more than security and transportation.

"A lot of people around here, you'll ask them to get something done and you don't know if it will," Romer said. "But you can always count on Manny to come through with anything you ask him."

The superintendent's office, at district headquarters on Third Street just west of the Harbor Freeway, is on the north side of the 24th floor. It is the size of a large living room, with a long conference table and a breathtaking view of the Hollywood sign, Mount Baldy and downtown.

A large red chair and a small desk that resembles a TV tray sit outside the door. Here Manny studies for his classes, or naps when Romer is in a meeting.

Manny's office is some 200 feet below, in the third floor of the parking garage. It crisscrosses L.A. at a rate of 60 to 200 miles a day.

The silver Crown Victoria is a mobile workstation, a down-sized motorhome. The trunk is filled with office supplies, gym bags, a book bag, a pillow and a change of clothes.

Romer is constantly at work in the back seat, reviewing documents, talking on his cell phone and, occasionally, resting.

"I couldn't do the job without a driver because I couldn't get to all the places and do all the work I need to do," Romer said. "I literally work out of the back seat of the car, and it just extends my day by two or three hours to have a driver."

When Manny's not transporting Romer, he's picking up office supplies, taking colleagues to LAX and visiting Romer's dry cleaner and cobbler. The varied schedule afforded Manny the intervals to scurry to class, and he developed a passion for reading.

The Crown Victoria merges onto the Santa Monica Freeway, heading east toward Crenshaw Avenue. It's 6:12 a.m. and traffic is light. Manny weaves in and out of lanes, passing other commuters as he shaves seconds off the 25-minute drive to Wilshire Park Elementary School.

L.A.'s vast system of schools and its labyrinth network of highways and byways demand an ace automobiler.

Manny's reputation is somewhat mythical in the office. How, during rush hour, does he get Romer from downtown to the West Valley in 30 minutes?

"Artful driving," said former spokeswoman Brady, who regularly rode shotgun.

Brady called Manny "the most frightening driver ever," but said it was comforting to know that no matter how much Romer overloaded his schedule, Manny would find a way to deliver him on time.

The car is quiet except for the sound of Romer flipping through the newspaper, catching up on what happened while he was in Virginia over Labor Day weekend.

The sedan exits and heads north on Crenshaw, turns right on Olympic Boulevard and then left on Wilton Place.

"Are we near?" Romer asks.

"We're here, governor. Are you ready?"

"I'm still doing my homework," Romer says.

Manny parks and goes to help out the 77-year-old superintendent, who has a bad ankle and often uses a cane. Manny's phone rings.

"Manny, it's Hilda. Where are you? How far away are you?"

"I'm looking at you," he responds, not sounding the least irritated.

Manny walks with Romer to Hilda Ramirez. KNBC (Channel 4) is waiting for an interview, and the news conference touting the seven new schools opening their doors for the first time today is set to begin.

During the next two hours, while reporters sling queries about the Legislature's passage of the mayor's school takeover plan and district chiefs give a tour of the new Koreatown campus, Manny stands patiently on the curb, holding Romer's briefcase and answering his cell phone to resolve a logistical crisis.

At 6:41 a.m., it's district spokeswoman Shannon Murphy, who is trying to find her way from West L.A. Manny puts her on hold, clicks over to Ramirez, who is calling because Romer needs something out of his briefcase, then clicks back to Murphy.

"Shannon did you exit Crenshaw? No, no, keep going east to Crenshaw," Manny says.

"I've got to write this down," Murphy says. "Hang on while I grab a pen."

"Be careful," Manny says.

He hangs up and flashes a smile, and then his cell rings again. It's Lucy Okumu, the director of external affairs. She's lost, too.

"God, Manny is a lifesaver," Okumu says later.

The 10-member Covarrubias family immigrated to California in shifts.

Patriarch Miguel Covarrubias was a migrant worker who picked whatever fruit was in season and returned to Tijuana in between. Manny joined his mother, younger brother and three of his six sisters in L.A. during the summer of 1979.

At age 14, he didn't know a word of English and planned to return to Tijuana to continue his studies and become a teacher. But he decided to stay in L.A. and eventually graduated from Garfield High School.

He took a year after high school to clear his head before enrolling in an electronics course at L.A. City College. He quickly dropped out and began wandering the workforce - embroidery machinist, dye factory worker, custodian, bus driver.

He long outstayed his passport and became an undocumented resident. In 1986, he and 2.7 million other illegal immigrants received amnesty. And on Jan. 5, 2000, Manuel (no middle name) Covarrubias became a U.S. citizen.

"Nothing ever came free for Manuel," said his wife, Gloria. "He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way."

Manny joined LAUSD in 1991 and bounced around coverage areas for five years. He spent another five years as a cover driver - the utility infielder of transportation workers - before Romer arrived in July 2000.

Manny was given the temporary task of driving him. He was told to dress formally but wasn't sure what that meant. Tuxedo? Black cap? He fished out of the closet a black tie, his only white-collared shirt and his sole pair of black slacks - dress pants he hadn't warn since he stopped attending church years before.

"His pants were really tight and he looked like a chef," Gloria Covarrubias said. "He was embarrassed, but Manuel carries himself very well. He knows how to play things off."

That laid-back spirit won Romer's favor. After about two weeks, the new superintendent asked Manny to be his regular driver. But some of the other district drivers weren't happy that a coveted transportation gig had been given away without their invitation to apply.

"Manny, you know, I think they want to take your job," Romer told him after the union inquired. "What can I do to keep you?"

"Excuse my French, governor," Manny responded, "but this is a bunch of B.S. What you say, governor, goes."

And it did. But then Romer laid the challenge back to Manny.

"He said, `Don't get me wrong, you're a good driver, but you're smart. Why didn't you go to college?"' Manny recalled. "I said, `Governor, I'm a good driver, but I'm not smart."'

But at the urging of the boss, Manny entered East Los Angeles College, first taking not-for-credit remedial English and math courses.

"I had to start climbing the hill. It was English 21 and then English 61 and then English 65, then English 101 and English 103."

Taking four to nine units each semester and summer for the following 3 and 1/2 years, Manny received his associate's degree - what his wife called one of his proudest moments.

He'll begin his university studies with an elective course about inequalities based on class, race, ethnicity and gender. If all goes according to plan, he will complete his bachelor's in 2010 with a major in kinesiology, and then might spend the following year getting credentialed and searching for a job teaching physical education.

"Manuel is like, `You can do it if you just set your mind to it,"' Gloria Covarrubias said. "Sometimes, I rub my head next to him so I can get some of his brain."

The news crews finish their tour of Wilshire Park and step onto what must be the cleanest yellow bus in the district's fleet. Romer is going along for the ride, and before he steps on, Manny hands over the briefcase. Manny will follow the bus to each of the schools it visits between now and noon.

Walking to his sedan, he sees a distressed TV reporter whose car has been partially blocked by a double-parked pickup. Without her asking, Manny goes searching for its owner. The reporter maneuvers around, and Manny walks back to find her pulling out - with her SUV's hatch open.

He closes it and sets out for the district office. His phone just rang, and they need him to deliver some documents to Romer before the closed session of the school board meeting at 2 p.m. The route around MacArthur Park takes Manny through his old neighborhood and past the bus stops where he used to wait because he didn't get his driver's license until he was 19.

He continues from the office to Abram Friedman Occupational Center on Olive Street. Manny parks in front of the touring school bus and chats with its driver, Louis Gholar, whom he's known for 12 years and with whom he regularly lifts weights.

"What's going to happen when he leaves?" Gholar asks about Manny's role with the district.

"I don't know yet," Manny says.

Reporters board the bus, and Manny leaves, following it to the next school and then another before the tour winds up at 450 N. Grand Ave., the former district headquarters on which a new high school is being built. When the show's over at 12:19 p.m., Romer slides into the back seat.

"Manny, am I free to stop and eat and read all this crap?" Romer asks, referring to the closed-session materials Manny brought to him.

"Yeah, you're free until 1:30," Manny says.

He drops the boss off at the Marriott Hotel, takes Murphy to the district office and swings into the East Side Market to scarf a roast beef and turkey sandwich before going back to the Marriott and then back to the district office. He's already worked eight hours.

From Third and Beaudry avenues, Manny drives to South Los Angeles to help his goddaughter, who got in trouble at school. He refuels at the district pumps, stops at the Downtown Car Wash and at 3:13 p.m. heads back to Venice to drop seven of Romer's shirts at the dry cleaner.

He kills a little time strolling the boardwalk before making the short trip to LAX; Romer's wife, Bea, is flying in from Denver, as she does about every two weeks. Then it's back downtown so the Romers can eat dinner at the Water Grill.

The Crown Victoria pulls back into the alley behind Romer's apartment at 10:06 p.m. and unloads its passengers. There is no traffic left on the freeways, so it will only take Manny about 30 minutes to get home.

He'll be back in Venice in nine hours.