What I mostly remember about the riots is the smell of an urban fire – not the consoling, woody scent that wafts from a campfire, but the melting-telephone smell of a city’s guts ablaze. There was also the smoke, thick as tule fog – and the not-knowing, when you drove into it, if you’d come out on the other side.
There was something else about that week – a feeling that the world had been jolted a bit off its axis and nothing would ever be the same again, the way you feel after a breakup or car accident. The worst of it came on April 30. I had gone to a film screening in Santa Monica, and took my friend Kent to cheer him up from losing his job repairing pay phones. I was reviewing the movie for the L.A. Weekly, where I worked as an editor. Later that afternoon, on the drive back home to Echo Park, the eastbound Santa Monica Freeway became a kind of monorail track through the Apocalypse: From its elevated vantage point, drivers could see columns of smoke rising on both sides of the road – the burning Pep Boys on Washington and Hoover was so close to the highway you could almost feel the heat.
Once off the Hollywood Freeway we picked up a case of beer before the last of the stores shut down and drove around to see what was going on. My friend grabbed his .44 Magnum, an ancient single-action piece of crap whose real value lay in scaring people away. “This is a day without law!” I yelled as we popped our beers and tore off.
Most of what we saw was a continuous loop of people breaking into stores like Solo Shoes near Sears on Santa Monica Boulevard, or of dazed neighbors walking through the charred hulks of familiar places like La Barata near MacArthur Park. Everyone we saw appeared to be still or moving in slow motion: The firemen, who sat like children in the streets as they trained their hoses on burning stores and apartment buildings; the Simon’s Camera sign falling into its burning store on Vermont – even the people emerging with typewriters from World Savings on Alvarado.
We stopped by some painter friends’ studios near LACC. I hadn’t known they owned guns, but there lay a shotgun on a dinette table, next to an ammo clip for a pistol, as the TV news broadcast the pillaging that was taking place just around the corner. My friend and I, then, saw only one view of the riots – people who, like the Korean store owners along Olympic Boulevard, were cradling rifles; or the others who were taking advantage of the situation to break into stores.
When curfew approached we headed back to my place and called people up to see what they were doing. Later, we stepped onto my tiny balcony and yelled down to a corner shop on Sunset that was being stripped – some gunshots punched through the dark and we ducked. When Kent went home and took the Magnum with him I turned out the lights and kept thinking about my apartment’s French windows and how easily they could be kicked in. Eventually I drifted off to sleep but awoke in the morning to the jeering applause of automatic gunfire that couldn’t have been more than a block away.
I had never wanted to own a gun but that next morning I was kicking myself for not having something bigger than a hammer to keep people out of my apartment. A couple of weeks later, though, I’d forgotten all about buying a gun. I would forget about many things: a balcony party at a friend’s, where we watched the city burn below; the film critic’s wedding I’d attended in Santa Monica, and how everyone had gotten spooked as sundown neared; how the Pioneer Market I shopped at had been ringed by National Guardsmen.
All these things were told to me years later by friends, though I had no recollection of them. You wouldn’t be wrong in describing me as alienated and detached from my surroundings back then, although perhaps I wasn’t that different from a city that forgets its past. Yet I wouldn’t say L.A. didn’t learn anything from the riots, because the city is, somehow, a more reasonable and humane place than it was 20 years ago. But something’s still missing, something that got lost in the smoke and debris. I only hope we don’t find out what it was the way we did in 1992.