Anyone who lives and drives in LA knows those days when a common mood affects driving behavior: an automotive Zeitgeist. Maybe it's just a bit too spaced out, or more aggressive than usual, or just plain frantic. Raymond Chandler may have best captured this phenomenon in his excruciating descriptions of what happens when the hot Santa Ana Winds blow: how those winds "curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch," and then "meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' neck."
The day LA rose in anger against the Rodney King verdicts was just one of those days, but it needed no Santa Ana wind. Silver Lake Residents scurried to the grocery stores to stock up on food, and traffic had that strange vibe of being on the edge. Drivers were both aggressive and confused. I saw people run red lights, then act like they didn't know which lane they wanted to be in, unsure where to turn.
I felt all that emotion. I was furious at the injustice, furious at Daryl Gates and his LAPD that patrolled the city as an occupying army. To him and his minions, you were either on his side of the thin blue line, or you were the enemy and their liberal sympathizers. I, too, wanted to destroy something, yet I feared the destruction that was already underway. That's when I realized I had to get into something like Nature, some place where I might find calm and sanity, so I headed to Griffith Park for a long hike. That's where I went when I needed solace, when I needed to just get far above it all.
It was a beautiful clear and warm spring day. As I climbed towards the peak high above Griffith Observatory, I saw clouds of black smoke rising from fires far to the south. I knew then this would be an unforgettable day, and would be very, very bad. I called my mother in Colorado and told her to turn on the TV and watch as Los Angeles burned. New plumes of smoke and flames sprouted northwards, along Vermont and Western, then farther west up La Brea.
This looked like the approach of an invading army, slashing and burning its way through the city. But it wasn't Daryl Gates and his LAPD force. This was "the insurrection," "the collective action," "the uprising." Call it anything but a "riot" and the implication that it was all just "black people behaving badly."
A heavy pall of black smoke hung over the city. The scene had an almost surreal Hollywood feel, like a matte-painted backdrop of the sprawling metropolis, with fresh columns of fire composited in live action. I heard multiple sirens wailing continuously in the streets below.
With my binoculars, I could see my favorite camera store, Simon's Camera on Vermont, burst into flames, and I knew there was one small business that would be devastated. I watched throngs running about the streets, as the fires grew closer. Fire engines and police cars roared about, yet they didn't seem to be actually doing anything. The flames crossed Santa Monica, then Sunset, and finally spread westward along Hollywood Boulevard. As far south as I could see, the grid of the city was delineated by clusters of immense fires in long rows.
Near the summit, I stopped at the verdant oasis that had been created over many years by park lover Dante Orgolini. It is one of the few respites for hikers in the park, and it offers cool shade, with places to sit and enjoy views of the city far below. Sprinklers splashed to keep the vegetation lush as birds chirped in the bushes.
A large sign high over the entrance, suspended by two posts, welcomed the visitor with the words: DANTE'S VIEW. Framed between those tall columns, I could see the city in flames far below. I photographed the bizarre scene — a proscenium into a conflagration.
Dante's View, indeed. My city had become hell.