On Wednesday, April 29, 1992, I left Emerson Junior High School in West L.A. and took the RTD bus — colloquially, the Rough, Tough, and Dangerous — to Fairfax and Wilshire. I walked the two blocks north to the barracks-style community Park La Brea where I lived with my single mother, and, once inside the gates of what I’d begun calling the White Man’s Projects, plopped down on the couch and turned on the TV.
Angelenos are used to the odd car chase, mudslide, earthquake, or fire disrupting regularly scheduled broadcasting, so it was with something like ennui that I flipped through the live footage of urban infernos on every channel — fire, fire, DuckTales, fire, guh. I stared at the helicopter shots in a trance until something slipped the bolt of my attention and I realized I was looking down on the roof my apartment.
I jumped up off the couch shouting with pride, and then with confusion. How disorienting to see the city, the neighborhood I knew down to a molecular level, from this new vantage point. That landscape I’d prowled so often that I would have noticed a new cigarette butt, a different blob of gum, a new tag or sticker, was here somehow changed, shrunken in scale but magnified in importance through the looking glass of the tube.
For the next five hours I watched the stores, malls, and streets where I’d grown up burn to the ground — and with them the protective walls around my adolescent idyll: the corners where we’d joined Hands Across America were now homicide crime scenes; the area of Koreatown where my mom worked now looked, in the aerial shots from news choppers, like the neighborhoods in Baghdad we’d gotten to know so well the year before. But none of this footage felt far off, abstract, as the Gulf War had. It was personal, the topographic map of my own memories. It was also right around the corner, and the fear came knocking.
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