A foursome was tramping the fairway toward the seventh hole at Hillcrest Country Club last Saturday when two coyotes appeared from out of the shrubs. The golfers were close enough to see that one animal was female and the other clearly male. That's how close they were.
Every creature froze: the men gripping their seven irons; the coyotes watching, waiting for someone to do something stupid.
The thing about this encounter is that Hillcrest is about as urban as courses get. The wildlife corridor of the Santa Monica Mountains comes to a screeching halt at Sunset, five miles and who knows how many stoplights, intersections, animal control officers and speeding cars north. To the south are more homes, Interstate 10, more sprawl.
Hillcrest is a mid-city oasis. Acres of grass and trees and lawn sprinklers, with all the squirrels a wild dog could eat and the occasional Arnold Palmer left out on the patio to sip from. But I couldn't imagine how any wild animal without wings could get there.
It turns out that in 2004 there were 1,100 coyote sightings in metropolitan Los Angeles and 955 for the Valley. There were 12 sightings in Beverly Hills -- up from four the year before -- and several on the UCLA campus. Amazing how much ground a creature can cover when it's not stuck in Westside traffic.
There are a lot of places you can go --metaphorically -- with these coyotes.
"The Sopranos" on HBO has developed a leitmotif out of wild things coming in and out of mob boss Tony's life: a bear on the back lawn, waterfowl in the pool, a talking sea bass on his boat. Animals bring out the humanity in Tony, like for when he beat a guy senseless for sitting on a poodle.
You could also remark on how fitting it is that among the movers and shakers at Hillcrest, there are not a few who would meet their match in this animal.
"It's not enough to be clever," a wealthy and successful friend of mine tells me. "You also have to be lucky."
Mark Twain called coyotes, "the most friendless of God's creatures," but clever and lucky works just as well.
And that's the metaphor I'm sticking with here, on the eve of the New Year.
We learned four years ago, on Sept. 11, that the world is not a safe place. But evidently one lesson was not enough for it to sink in. If Sept. 11 showed that life can change in an instant, this entire year demonstrated that life's very essence is unpredictable, ever-changing, unknowable.
Hurricanes, floods, terror attacks, terror threats -- all around us we witnessed the ever-present danger and uncertainty that for most people, through most of human history, has defined human existence. Here today, wiped out tomorrow.
It took awhile, but the realization seems to have taken hold.
"I suppose after Sept. 11 some were a little Pollyanna-ish," Fifth District Councilman Jack Weiss told me. "That is, some seemed to believe we could deal with this problem and it would go away. Some also believed that it couldn't happen here again."
If the raw fear has ebbed, the feeling of invincibility, of safety, has never fully returned.
Every year since Sept. 11, the High Holidays have brought heightened security concerns and more elaborate precautions, but this year even more so. An LAPD closed-door security briefing for synagogues at ths Simon Wiesenthal Center organized by Weiss' office was better attended than in past years, and the questions were more direct, more palpably fearful.
Never in history have Jews been as economically, culturally and politically free and powerful. Yet our places of worship feel more vulnerable as ever. We have the freedom of prayer -- behind security cameras and armed guards.
And just when we believe we have the hatches battened against man-made terror, here come the natural disasters to remind us that man plans and God laughs.
"Who shall live and who shall die?" we read in the High Holiday liturgy. "Who by fire? Who by water?"
We needn't be resigned to our fates -- or the fates others might wish upon us -- but we may want to step back and acknowledge, for once, just how much of life is not ours to control. We can only do our best to protect ourselves and fulfill our promise, knowing all the while the hour is late, the future is uncertain and the coyote is at the door.
Happy New Year.