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ON THE TOWN

VIEWING PLEASURES : When Night Descends on L.A., Good Things Come to Those Who Watch

August 20, 1995|Wanda Coleman

"Come here, honey." Huz takes my hand and leads me down the quiet hallway at the Chateau Marmont. We're on a getaway, standing in the vestibule and looking down on Sunset Boulevard, out across the extravagant light-strewn vista. Directly below, the boulevard is noisy with rock-club doings. Limos, luxury cars and taxis pull curbside to the bomp-bomp-bomp of disco house, empty out passengers, then zip away. "It's like a Max Beckmann," I say with a sigh. "More like a George Grosz," he whispers. Starstruck but exhausted, we call it a night, then:

"Honey, wake up! It's the Big One!" he shouts. "We've got to get out of here!" The building shakes, sways, shimmies. It's seconds before I realize we aren't at home. I find some matches and, in the fits and starts of flame, we dress. The manager arrives with a flashlight. We grab our things and follow him downstairs, avoiding fallen plaster. Frightened residents, still in pajamas, gather in the lobby. We run to the garage, get our car and venture onto the dark boulevard. It's unconfirmed, but one radio station reports the epicenter may be Northridge.

The only lights are from the headlamps of early-morning traffic. No sounds except the sirens of emergency vehicles. East along Sunset, hundreds of people line the streets. Traffic signals are out, so we drive cautiously. Then we get home and step out of the car. Startled, I look up. Huz does likewise.

"Lookathat! There are stars up there!"

*

It's August 1994 and Comet Swift-Tuttle is news again, making its splash near the constellation Perseus. The meteors can be seen without telescopes, say news reports, and prime viewing time is between 1 and 3 a.m. It'll be family fun, we think, but our teen-ager opts out and goes to bed early. Last year's sighting was a big fizzle. Nothing above but the usual ho-hum twinkles.

Nevertheless, we map out the comet's path, get our field glasses and climb to the roof, eager to enjoy a skyful of shooting stars. Alas, the city's glow mutes all. Undaunted, we jump in the car, hit the 170 north, then exit west into North Hollywood. Two hours later, the radio reports two Unidentified Comet Gazers oohing and aahing at the intersection of Rhodes and Cantara.

*

This year, July Fourth falls on a Tuesday, but it's only the weekend and bursts of fireworks dot the summer twilight as we exit the 101 east at Manchester. We're on our way to Mama's to check things out. This is Florence-Graham, the South-Central L.A. neighborhood where I grew up. Rife with A-frames, bungalows and stucco havens, it's now Crip territory. As we ride, I remember days when these streets echoed with the whistle from the Helms Bakery van and the tinkle-jingle from the Good Humor ice cream truck. There were still a few white families left.

Every time we pull into the driveway, my eyes are drawn to the hole left by the bullet that pierced the north wall beneath Mama's dining room. Then I look to the house on the right and am silently grateful for the Latino family who gentrified the old crackhead safehouse, replaced bars, sandblasted graffiti, planted flowers and shrubbery. Briefly, I recall the 5-year-old up the street, killed in a post-riot drive-by. Mama called last night to tell us the police had knocked, once more, on her door. Her neighbor across the street was beaten to death by gangsters while trying to protect her grandson. Had Mama seen anything? No, she hadn't.

Just now, all's quiet, except for youngsters shooting off fireworks a few houses down. As we park, we notice how eerily luminescent the eastern sky has become. It's filled with scores of large white orbs moving swiftly toward earth. I remember the brouhaha over property values when LAX was planned.

"Lookathat!" Huz points. Yes, those lights from airships descending. Do they ever look like stars.

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