I wind back to Adams. At the corner of Western, where looms the Golden State Mutual Life insurance company (an early monument to African-American business ingenuity and tenacity in Los Angeles), two men set fire to a wooden bus bench. The first flames are weak. They egg it on with words first, look around for something to stoke it — paper, wood, maybe a piece of their own clothing. I watch transfixed for too long as the fire leaps, changes in colour. I remain because I know that tomorrow I will not recognize this corner. I want to preserve what I see now. Over radio static, I hear City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas on the radio composing his thoughts carefully: '... we haven't recovered from Watts yet ... ' I conjure a picture of familiar city driving, down Martin Luther King, Arlington, Jefferson, other wide central-city 'business' corridors, looking at row upon row of rundown nothing. Dilapidated façades with decaying or neglected interiors. Never been rebuilt, no plans to even begin. My foot trembles as I lift it from the brake, to place it on the accelerator, heading east, heading home. It tremors, I realize, not with fear but with rage, and I'm relieved that I finally feel something. Problem is, as always, I don't know what to do with it, or who will hear.
Go home, stay home. Lock your doors.
KFWB 980 AM, Thursday, April 30
I've already seen the look.
Driving through the Silver Lake hills to avoid Sunset Boulevard's panicked snarl, I climb along the incline. People are out jogging and walking their dogs, even though fires have moved closer, are no longer a distant TV hell. The higher I climb, the more I see residents take note of my car's make and colour; they mentally record the licence number, but most importantly, my unfamiliar deep-brown face, any distinguishing marks. They look at me as if they will at any moment join together to form a human barricade if I make a wrong or abrupt move. Later, across town, a blond man in the next lane looks over LA pickup casual, then quickly lifts his smoked-glass window.
The same video feeds that have inspired their terror have fuelled my own curiosity, augmented my pain. For hours I've been transfixed, watching childhood landmarks swallowed up in the surprisingly liquid aspects of billowing smoke and flames — stores, streets, memories, futures. I'm watching my old neighbourhood blister, turn to embers, rendered entirely foreign. I hear fear in the voices of my relatives and friends who've been trying to track the course of the flames, guess the trajectory of anger.
'If you've got your ass out here you might get shot', one seen-it-all onlooker tells me. We're standing near the corner of Walton and Jefferson looking at the remains of a corner Mom & Pop still smouldering, a single red flicker looking like some eerie twist on an eternal flame. 'Brothers getting busy'; he backs it up recounting the staggering list of firearms he's seen the past week, from shotguns to .357 Magnums to Uzis. 'They shut everything down early last night. I went down on Arlington, everybody started hitting the pawnshops. It was kids, old women, not just like criminals, like they've been sayin' on TV. It's like a free-for-all. Get it while you can. Let's roll and see what's poppin' ', says my newly self-appointed guide.
'The message was there, but the method was wrong', offers one of the playground prophets chillin' at Denker Recreation Center. 'We've inconvenienced ourselves now', he says, looking into the sulphur-tinted sky. Fires loom around us, sirens scream, puddles of water left by pump trucks look more like polluted lakes. 'Folks are gonna start getting real hungry down here, RTD shut down, people don't have cars.'
'It's sad to me 'cause I grew up here and now they're burning it down', says the office manager from a Century City law firm. He has his hair cut into a neat, close fade and is still wearing his pink shirt and paisley tie with a square knot; a pager is clipped to his belt. 'I had to drive over and check on my relatives', he explains. 'I don't agree with the looting but I understand the frustration.' 'I'll put it in two words,' a woman strolling by, looking at my notebook, tells me, '... UP.' She wants to make sure that I've underlined the words, that they stand out somehow from all the rest on the page. 'Two words, "... up". We hurt our folks the most. We deal with that. People scared to open up their shops today. Scared to walk out on the street.'