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 couldn't be true, I thought I caught a whiff of
putrid flesh from under the rubble across the street. The hardware
store and Bernard's 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 hadn't 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 Manny's 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.
It's starting all over again, I thought. Maybe we'll be rioting a
whole year. Maybe it won't ever end.
The black men crossed the threshold of the Lucky Dime's property
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
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
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
I went to my office door and out into the hall.
There was the smell of smoke in the building too, but not much.
Steinman's 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
I went to the far stairwell from my office and down the three
flights to Steinman's side entrance. There was a burnt timber
blocking the way. I would have turned around if it weren't for the
"What the hell you mean you don't have my shoes, white man?"
"Everything is burned up," a frail voice replied in a mild German
"That's not my fault, man," the angry voice said. "I give you my
shoes, I expect to get them back."
"They are all burned."
"And do you think if this was my store that I could tell you I
didn't have nuthin' for ya?" the customer said. "Do you think a
black man could just say his store done burned down so he don't
have to make good on his responsibilities?"
"I don't have your shoes."
I shoved the timber out of the way, smudging the palms of my hands
with sooty charcoal. When I came into the burned-out room, both
occupants turned to look at me.
Theodore was a short, powerfully built white man with little hair
and big hands. The irate customer was much larger, with a wide
chest and a big face that would have been beautiful on a
"Hey, Theodore," I said.
"Wait your turn, man," the Negro customer warned. "I got business
to take care of first."
He swiveled his head back to the cobbler and said, "Those shoes
costed me thirty-six dollars and if you can't give 'em up right now
I want to see some money across this here hand."
I took a quick breath and then another. There was an electric
tingle over my right cheekbone and for a moment the room was tinged
"Brother," I said. "You got to go."
"Are you talkin' to me, niggah?"
"You heard me," I said in a tone that you can't make up. "I been in
the house for some time now, trying not to break out and start
doin' wrong. I've been patient and treadin' softly. But if you say
one more word to my friend here I will break you like a matchstick
and throw you out in the street."
"I want my shoes," the big beautiful man said with tears in his
voice. "He owe it to me. It don't matter what they did."
I heard his cracked tone. I knew that he was just as crazy as I was
at that moment. We were both black men filled with a passionate
rage that was too big to be held in. I didn't want to fight but I
knew that once I started, the only thing that would stop me would
be his lifeless throat crushed by my hand.
"Here you are, sir," Theodore said.
He was handing over a ten-dollar bill.
"Your shoes were old, you know," the shoemaker said. "And they both
needed soles. It was a good make and I would have bought them for
seven dollars. So here's ten."
The burly man stared at the note a moment. Then he looked up at
"Forget it," he said.
He turned around so quickly that he lost his balance for a moment
and had to reach out for a broken, charred timber for
"Ow!" he shouted, probably because of a splinter, but I can't say
for sure because he blundered out, tearing the front door off of
its last hinge as he went.
There was a sleek antique riding saddle on the floor, under a
shattered wooden chair. I moved away the kindling and picked up the
saddle. Theodore had received it from his uncle who was a riding
master in Munich before World War I. I'd always admired the
Setting the riding gear on a fairly stable part of his ruined
worktable, I said, "You didn't have to pay him, Mr.
"He was hurting," the small man replied. "He wanted justice."
"That's not your job."
"It is all of our job," he said, staring at me with blue eyes. "You
cannot forget that."
It was a question asked in a voice filled with authority. It was a
white man's voice. Putting those bits of information together, I
knew that I was being addressed by the police.