THE MORNING AIR still smelled of smoke. Wood ash mainly but there was also the acrid stench of burnt plastic and paint. And even though I knew it couldnt be true, I thought I caught a whiff of putrid flesh from under the rubble across the street. The hardware store and Bernards Stationery Store were both completely gutted. The Gonzalez Market had been looted but only a part of its roof had been scorched. The corner building, however, Lucky Dime Liquors, had been burned to the ground. Manny Massman was down in the rubble with his two sons, kicking the metal fixtures. At one point the middle-aged store owner lowered his head and cried. His sons put their hands on his shoulders.
I understood how he felt. He had everything in that liquor store. His whole life. And now, after a five-day eruption of rage that had been simmering for centuries, he was penniless and destitute.
In his mind he hadnt done a thing wrong to anyone down in Watts. He had never even thought about calling someone a nigger or boy. But the men and women down around Central and Eighty-sixth Place took everything of Mannys that they could carry, then smashed and burned the rest.
Four young black men passed in front of the liquor lot. One of them shouted something at the white men.
Manny barked back.
The youths stopped.
The Massman sons stepped forward with their chests out and their mouths full of angry sounds.
Its starting all over again, I thought. Maybe well be rioting a whole year. Maybe it wont ever end.
The black men crossed the threshold of the Lucky Dimes property line.
Stephen Massman bent down to pick up a piece of metal that had once been attached to their counter.
One of the angry youths shoved Martin.
I held my breath.
"Halt!" a man shouted through a megaphone.
A dozen or more soldiers appeared out of nowhere. A black soldier wearing a helmet and camouflage khakis talked to the black men while four white soldiers stood in an arc in front of the store owners. The rest of the troop stood across the property line cutting off the ravaged lot from the street.
Most of the National Guardsmen brandished rifles. A crowd was gathering. My hands clenched into fists so tight that my right forearm went into a spasm.
While I massaged out the knot of pain, the black soldier, a sergeant, calmed the four youths. I could hear his voice but my fourth-story window was too far away for me to make out the words.
I turned away from the scene and fell into the plush blue chair that sat at my desk. For the next hour I just sat there, hearing the sounds of people in the street but not daring to look down.
It had been like that for the past five days: me holding myself in check while South Los Angeles went up in the flames of a race riot; while stores were looted and snipers fired and while men, women, and children cried "Burn, baby, burn!" and "Get whitey!" on every corner familiar to me.
I stayed shut up in my home, in peaceful West L.A., not drinking and not going out with a trunk full of Molotov cocktails.
WHEN I FINALLY roused myself the street down below was full of black people, some venturing out of their homes for the first time since the first night of rioting. Most of them looked stunned.
I went to my office door and out into the hall.
There was the smell of smoke in the building too, but not much. Steinmans Shoe Repair was the only store that had been torched. That was on the first night, when the fire trucks still braved the hails of sniper bullets. The flames were put out before they could spread.
I went to the far stairwell from my office and down the three flights to Steinmans side entrance. There was a burnt timber blocking the way. I would have turned around if it werent for the voices.
Copyright (c) Little, Brown & Co, 2004. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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