The Riot Hours
"Goddammit! Goddammit! Goddammit!" My uncle Richard pounded the steering wheel and floored the Volvo station wagon down the 405 through columns of orange smoke streaming past our car on both sides.
We were flying through a deserted elevated freeway at midnight - not a soul in sight - not even a cop car, but we could hear the catcalling sirens wavering up and down in the air as we sped past infernos below that used to be neighborhoods with palm trees and bottlebrush bushes all bending now pumping the heat wind, the fires sending up so much smoke up the sides of the freeway that you couldn't even see ten feet ahead of you. My uncle gunned the Volvo.
Twice we had to dodge cars, set on fire and burning in the middle of the road. We would come rolling around a bend in the freeway and my uncle would have to suddenly veer off to avoid smacking them head on.
The radio crackled with spits, squawks and stutters, terse male voices would babble, shut up and then talk over each other on the emergency radio band. The riots had begun earlier that afternoon when news of the Rodney King verdict turned the Black community out into the streets hungry for revenge as four white cops were set free for nearly beating a man to death because his skin wore the wrong color. There were going to be a lot more mistakes like that in the next 72 hours.
We were on our way to the hospice, where my aunt Cecylia was entering the final moments of her life thrashing around with cancer gripping her throat, an inoperable tumor the size of a grapefruit growing out of her neck and squeezing whatever air she tried to let in. While we dodged the fires and the wrecks, she was laying in a bed in a nondescript building tucked behind a grocery store on the L.A. county line.
"Uncle Richard, we're going the wrong way," I tried to say as calmy yet loudly as I could. "Uncle Richard, we're going the wrong way."
My Uncle Richard, a guy who as an 11-year-old kid had survived in a concetration camp by taking up the job of shoveling the ashes of the dead from the ovens, hunched over the wheel, scanning the horizon, and ignoring me.
"Richard, Uncle Richard, listen to me," I grabbed his arm and shouted as we roared down the freeway. "You are a white guy. You're wearing a Rolex watch, and we're in a Volvo. We're going right into South Central. We're gonna get cooked."
He mechanically turned and looked at me. Then he let his foot clamp down on the brakes. Quiet recognition began to creep across his face. He was fighting back tears as he brought the car to a stop.
"Oh Johhny, Johnny, I can't drive anymore - you drive."
He stopped the car on a shoulder near the airport. As we switched places, I could hear the buzz of many helicopters, and suddenly a spotlight swept over our car. I heard a voice come over the PA systems but I couldn't understand what it had to say. I got in, drove down the nearest exit ramp the wrong way and then took two left turns and got back on the freeway. We headed for the county line.
We were moving in the right direction, south, away from the city. The orange smoke was wisping lighter so that you could now make out some of the the gas stations and the strip malls on the sides of the highway. A few times as I looked into the houses and the other streets, I could see figures running between the trees. Not many houses had their lights on. When we finally got to the hospice, about thirty minutes later, an army truck rushed past us, full of national guardsmen, faceless, in black riot gear squatting in rows in the back under the canvas.
I pulled right up on the sidewalk in front of the main entrance. The security guard, recognizing my uncle's car, came running out and grabbed my uncle's arm and guided us inside. Just as we entered the building, the security guard, an aging latino man, began furiously trying to lock the door.
"Jesus bobo christ," he muttered, fitting the keys into the deadbolts.
"Thanks Manny," I said, feeling numb.
"Mr. Borowski, You guys are so fucking lucky. They just looted the Food King up the street and now the guardsmen are here and they're kicking everbody's ass. They almost got you. Good thing they didn't stop you. If you on the street, they just shoot you, man, no questions asked."
Suddenly, as I looked through the glass doors, I saw two black kids go racing across the front lawn, one had a boom box in his hands that he suddenly dropped. Our eyes met for a second and I saw he was bleeding from his chest and his arm, but he didn't stop. About ten seconds later, four blackclad soldiers came running after them, bayonets fixed to their guns. I turned to my uncle but he was already gone.
"Whatever you do, stay inside," Manny said gravely.
I didn't have to say it, but no shit.
Manny went down one of the hallways, leaving me alone in the lobby.
I sat down in one of the cracked plastic chairs. Someone had stacked two little tv sets on top of the big, ancient square set. All three were set on different channels but the scene appeared eerily the same - fires pouring out of buildings. They weren't the same fires, but only by looking closely could you tell. On one of the channels, a voice-over said there were more than 300 fires burning in the South Central neighborhoods. Then one of the other tv's began showing what had happened that afternoon at the intersection of Normandie and Florence, flashpoint of the riots. A group of teenage black kids were shown pulling Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, out of his rig and beating him with a brick. One of the kids bent over, pulled the man's wallet out and began doing a hula-like victory dance next to Denny's crumpled body. I got up and went down the maze of halls to my aunt's room.
I found her room and stood in the doorway. My aunt, emaciated and whispering thinly was moving her mouth. My uncle was kneeling down next to her and holding her hand. Betty was in the room, dressed in her cop uniform. Betty was my aunt's best friend, and shortly after my aunt's death would marry my uncle. She was a short, round, blonde woman with a tart mouth. They had been screwing upstairs in his house for almost five years, ever since the cancer put my aunt down and she never got back up from the hospital bed parked in the living room. What Betty was doing here when she obviously could be more useful elsewhere out on the streets was beyond me.
In the meantime, my aunt, hoarse, was muttering about the end of the world.
"I hear messages," she said, eyes closed, just barely moving her head from side to side. "Transoceanic messages. The continents are crashing."
My uncle looked up and Cecylia's eyes opened, pupils big as basketballs, probably from the morphine in the IV. Her arms were so thin I couldn't see where there was room for a needle to go in, let alone an IV. She looked older than my Babci died at 93. Cecylia was 52 years old.
She clenched my uncle's hands. "Crashing, continents crashing."
Betty stood wordless. My uncle shook his head. A nurse brushed past me and attended my aunt.
We stayed there all night. I slept out in the lobby, the tv sets putting me to sleep. At about six in the morning, my Uncle put his hand on my shoulder and woke me up.
"John, it's time we go home."
I stretched myself out and opened my eyes. "Aunt Cecylia?"
"She's still hanging on."
"What was that business about crashing continents?"
"Johnny, that was the painkiller talking."
He shook his head and I could tell he hadn't slept all night.
I stood up and went to the counter and rang the service bell. Manny appeared from behind an inner door. He, too, looked like he had not slept.
Silently, the three of us went to the front door. As Manny unlocked the door, I could see the sun filtering through the trees. It was going to be a sunny April day. But you could still smell the heaviness of smoke lingering in the air.
My uncle and I walked to his car, parked absurdly half on the sidewalk and half on the grass right next to the main door of the hospice.
As we drove off, I turned on the radio, and the stations were all back on, nervous, but on. I switched to K-Earth and the radio jock started talking about surfing conditions being most excellent near the Huntington Beach pier. It was going to be a beautiful day for more riots.