LOS ANGELES, SEPT. 15 -- Tony Stevens groped his way out of bed at 4 this morning and piled his three excited sons into his gray Nissan for the 65-mile trip north to see Pope John Paul II.

The motorcade in downtown Los Angeles would not begin for 6 1/2 hours, but he was about to navigate some of the most congested freeways in southern California, and lots of other people might be getting an early start.

Instead, the Dana Point high school teacher found a Californian's dream -- a nearly empty freeway, as open and inviting as the pontiff's smile. Not since the 1984 Olympics scattered the driving public had the freeways been so naked.

Reclining streetside on his folding chair hours later, his eyes widened at the memory.

"It only took us . . . well . . . . " He noted the several police officers nearby. " . . . Well, let's just say we flew."

Jesus Veloz lives only two miles from the viewing spot he shared with the Stevenses near the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Alvarado Street, but he was equally careful. Veloz, a copy machine maintenance technician, drove down to check the site at 6 a.m., gathered his wife, Dolores, their sons -- Alan, 4, and Daniel, three months -- and his mother, Engracia, for what he called "the chance of a lifetime."

They set out the folding stools they use on Sunday visits to the park, tucked Daniel into his baby carriage and waited.

Less than three miles from downtown and about halfway along the pope's 7.2-mile route, their vantage point on the rough boundary between the Latino neighborhoods just southwest of downtown and Koreatown farther west seemed to summarize modern Los Angeles.

The parishioners of predominantly black Holy Name of Jesus Church in south-central Los Angeles rode in eight vans to find places at the same spot, joining the St. Agnes Korean parish and St. Joachim's from Costa Mesa. At the intersection sat the Pollo Rico luncheonette, the Double Eagle Drive-In (Tacos-Pastrami-Hot Dogs), McDonald's and a Mobil station owned by a Korean American.

By 10 a.m., those assembled here realized the view would be excellent. The sidewalk crowd was no more than two or three rows thick. The dozens of police lining the street chatted with spectators. Several small children took more interest in Officer Ed Elliott's dark brown quarterhorse, Gotruckle, than they would later in the white-robed pontiff.

Business at James Lewis' temporary T-shirt stand ("Pope John Paul II -- America," "The Sweetest Name I Know -- Jesus") was, he noted cheerfully, "lousy." But he expected as much, he said, and it was all part of his ministry.

"You try to tell a man about religion and he gets all upset," he said, "but you sell him a T-shirt, that's all right." As a Protestant, a member of a local AME congregation, he took a friendly but detached interest in the pope: "God doesn't worship men," he said.

But John Stevens, 16, made no pretense of detachment, growing more excited as the time neared. He had coaxed his father into this predawn excursion. They had great seats, and the newspapers said the popemobile would pass at a leisurely 9 mph.

Suddenly, cheers and applause rose in the west. Long lines of police motorcycles and limousines swept by. The yellow and white balloons distributed earlier along the route flew upward.

And there he was, smiling and waving from his square glass box atop a Mercedes truck, with Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahoney standing tall and lanky behind him like a black-robed Ichabod Crane.

The popemobile seemed to be going at least 20 mph, followed immediately by 100 helmeted riot police in three open trams who dampened somewhat the mood of peace and love.

Still, everyone had seen him. The infant Daniel Veloz, quiet and content the whole long morning, smiled at his happy parents. His grandmother cried.

John Stevens folded his chair and shook his head. He had gotten his look, but it was not quite enough.

"I couldn't believe how fast he went," he said.