By: Tanya Ward Goodman
On the day the riots broke out in Los Angeles, I was eating lunch at a Thai restaurant on Larchmont Boulevard just down the street from the television production company where I worked. We didn’t usually all eat together. Mindful of my tiny paycheck, I usually scrounged left over bagels in the company kitchen or grabbed a handful of Cheez-Its from the big box my boss kept in his office, but this day was different. We’d gathered together because we’d heard that following the verdict in the Rodney King case, there had been sporadic violence. The air was filled with sirens and helicopters. We thought we’d have lunch and then see what happened. We weren’t sure if we should go home or stay at work. It was the streaks of smoke in the air that made up our minds. From the patio of the Thai restaurant, we could see the smudgy proof of the news reports. Fires were burning. Big fires.
The drive from the office to my new single apartment in Silver Lake took, on average, twenty minutes. On this day the drive took two hours. I was afraid, but saw nothing that justified this fear, only other people, like me, trying to get home.
From my window, I could see clouds of smoke downtown, helicopters hovering above it all like the lazy flies in my apartment lobby. I listened to the radio and then, overwhelmed by what I was hearing, turned on some music and set to the project of tiling my kitchen floor. I laid down black and white tile in a checkerboard pattern over the stained linoleum. It was comforting to create a clean, orderly space.
Just before dark, my downstairs neighbor knocked on my door. He wondered if I wanted to watch his television. He wanted to make sure I was okay. I remember going down into his apartment where his big, orange cat rubbed against my legs and the screen of his television was bright with the color of flames.
The next morning, I talked to my dad and stepmother. They said I could leave Los Angeles if I needed to. They would buy me a plane ticket if I wanted one. But I told them I felt safe. They promised to wire money so that I could buy a television of my own.
When their money arrived, I picked out a tiny TV at The Good Guys on La Cienega Boulevard because by that time, the Circuit City in my own neighborhood had been looted. The salesman jokingly told me I was the only person actually paying for a television.
I joined the line in front of the ATM and withdrew as much money as I was allowed in one day. I waited in another line to fill my tank with gas. I stocked up on food from nearly empty shelves at the grocery store. I ate English muffins slathered in butter and drank a few bottles of beer. Except for one strange night when I ignored the curfew to date a cute boy on the west side, I stayed inside my apartment for the rest of the week. I finished tiling my floor and played with an angry kitten I’d adopted from the community of neighborhood strays. I watched the news of the riots on my new television and I talked to my parents every day.
On one of these phone calls, my stepmother said, “you are living history.”
I thought of that comment this morning when my son looked at the newspaper and asked, “What’s a riot?” I started to explain what happened here in this city twenty years ago. I told him about the fires and the curfews and the anger and the sorrow. I tried to do a good job telling him, but he was about to leave for school and he was only kind of listening. Like anything that is complicated or sad or “grown-up,” we will talk about this again and again. We will take it layer by layer. It is strange to him that news once came from the radio and the television. I didn’t have an iPhone, I couldn’t update my status on Facebook, or get minute by minute coverage of the violence on my computer. There was no Internet and few cell phones. Most of my news came from looking up at the sky, listening out my window. Smoke and sirens and the deep growl of fire engines.
The newspaper on my breakfast table tells me that my son lives in a more peaceful city than I did twenty years ago. I hope so. I hope that this history does not bear repeating.