Steve Wu braced himself as the Q-Tip touched his face. For a moment, nothing happened.
Then he winced. "I'm starting to feel some minor burning," he reported, closing his eyes hard. Tears began to trickle down his face. He struggled to open his eyelids and said, "It burns right away."
Other students in the class on "Mace Self-Defense" watched Wu closely, some looking pained, others taking notes.
The lesson: Even a tiny amount of tear gas can cause stinging, burning and tears--more than enough discomfort to foil a would-be attacker.
Amid fast-growing demand attributed in part to fallout from the recent riots, the Los Angeles Harbor College extension program in Wilmington has increased the number of classes it offers in the use of tear gas, or Mace.
The college began with one nine-student tear gas class in the spring of 1991, expanding to three classes this spring and two this summer. In all, 125 students have taken the class.
"The popularity really spread," said the course's instructor, Police Officer Mario A. Casas.
Asked to explain the interest, school officials and students cite reasons including unease caused by the riots, press reports of gang violence and public concern that street crime is worsening.
Under state law, California residents can carry tear gas spray for self-defense only if they complete a state-certified class, pass a test and receive a state certificate.
In the Harbor College program, students pay $46 for the single-evening, three-hour course plus another $6 for state certification. They hear a lecture, watch a video and take a multiple choice test.
The course is especially popular among women. Twelve women and four men showed up last Wednesday, representing a mix of age and ethnic groups.
Glenda Gingras, 58, said she wanted to learn to use tear gas because she walks to and from work daily.
Debbie Colman, 25, said she is worried about how to defend herself.
"More and more, you hear on the news (about) people getting attacked," she said. "You hear about it so much that I finally said, 'Hey, being a single woman, you've got to do what you can.' "
For some, the cause for concern is more immediate than media reports.
Someone broke into Wu's car recently, stealing loose change and a CB radio. In response, he installed a car alarm and signed up for the tear gas class, bringing along his sister and his fiancee.
"It brought it up close and personal," said Wu, 30.
Casas said several of his students have been victims of street robberies, purse snatching and pickpockets, but adds that post-riot jitters have also prompted residents to enroll.
"They realize now that the police can only do so much," he said.
Adell Shay, director of the extension program, said enrollment was swelling even before the riots. "My guess is that it's the gang warfare that has created a feeling of wanting Mace," she said.
After the class Wu, armed with his new certificate, planned to go shopping for his own tear gas canister.
"By the time we become victims," he said, "it may be too late."