I’m driving in South Central Los Angeles in my rented Ford, which is calculated, with its icing-sugar bodywork and sappy sprig of an aerial, to lose itself in the fitful lines of flaking write-off and deckled insurance jobs. My chrome is see-your-face; theirs is in-your-face. It’s a loweringly humid afternoon on which four white men are standing trial in a city courthouse accused of depriving a black man of his civil rights, especially the right not to be batoned following traffic violations. The sheriff’s car with which I have been making tender eye-contact in the rear-view mirror seems to have turned off, somewhere on Compton or Alondra. I’m now the only white man for blocks. I know this because the people of South Central LA are on the streets – black teenagers wheeling buggies to the 99-cent thrift shop, moustachioed Hispanics waiting in line for a bus near the Solid Rock Church. When people tell you that nobody walks in LA, they mean nobody except people of colour: the euphemism preferred by the hand-wringing classes, all of whom consider the idea of going to the ghetto – you mean actually going – one of the worst they’ve ever heard. The man at the hire-pound had been uncommonly sanguine, perhaps because he had learnt his roadcraft on the streets of Lagos.
On the whole, I’m feeling pretty chipper, basically up, considering the black station I am tuned to is playing ‘Fight the Power’ by the Isley Brothers, a band I have hitherto always unwound to, and considering the narrow squeak I enjoyed the last time I was behind the wheel of my Ford. Having taken a sceptical view of the highway shootings reportedly notched by vexed gridlockees, I had scoffingly negotiated the Long Beach Freeway at rush hour only to turn on Channel 2 Action News and learn that two motorists had been shot by a fellow commuter after they had laid into him with a baseball bat on the stretch of road I’d used half an hour before them.
Now I’m driving past three black men sitting in the back of a stationary pick-up truck. Its tailgate is down, and it’s stacked with a crop of plantains. The palm-trees look scorched, withered, unlike the glossy ones a few miles north of South Central in Inglewood. A red van looms stockily in the rear view as I’m passing brakeshops and tyreshops and a place where they recycle aluminium cans. There are two figures in the van I can’t make out any more because the early afternoon glare has penetrated the smoggy corona suspended over the city and is catching the windshield of the van, which slips into my blindspot and draws alongside me. We’re passing the burnt-out shell of a filling station. I look across at the van and am relieved to see there’s a woman on the bench seat nearest me, they’re a couple. I make a left at lights beside a railway track and I’m on Florence, approaching the neighbourhood worst affected by the riots almost a year ago. South Central is the only area of Los Angeles in which I’ve seen bare advertisement hoardings, their posters stripped or weathered away and not replaced. The only commercial still standing that I note features a bouffant-haired attorney offering help with legal problems. It’s written in Spanish.