MY FRIEND DAN called Thursday morning from Boston and asked if I knew that his son was at USC for the summer. “Worse comes to worst I’ll go get him,” I said, saying what I thought Dan wanted to hear but not thinking about the consequences.
From the little pocket of hills where I live nothing seemed different this Thursday morning, but a short drive up to Mulholland would clue anyone in to the fact that Los Angeles was on fire and there was no putting it out. The Rodney King verdict had been announced on Wednesday around 4:00 P.M. Two black men that I work with had gone ballistic with a silence that was deafening. Right then I knew that we were gonna get into something but even now I’m not sure what it was.
We held our breath and went back to work, but Monte and Keith began to disappear behind a kind of grief that can only be experienced by someone who knows what it’s like to be on the other end of the word “nigger.” I looked at them across generations of sociological disorder but was refused entry into their dilemma, my passport being no good for their territory. They were at war. Some people say that the riots were caused by a lack of justice in the trial. That’s like saying an avalanche is caused by an explosion of dynamite or gunfire nearby. It’s gotta snow first. And the snow has to pile up as high as the mountains. So when “not guilty” exploded into the hearts and minds of Los Angeles it started an avalanche that had been waiting since Watts. And Watts had been waiting since Jonestown. It’s been snowing all along, especially in L.A. So when my friend Dan called back and said, “You’re on,” I thought, “Shit,” and said, “Okay. I’m on my way.” Coming down the freeway toward downtown I see it’s a parking lot for fearful commuters and at Normandie and Melrose I get off and drive into the thick of it. Reginald Denny, the truck driver who was pulled from his truck and beaten, was on Normandie when it happened. He was about three miles from where I jumped off the freeway, down where helicopter surveillance was as familiar as smog alerts in August. But even through the smog, the magic of television brought us King’s beating as often as if it were a beer commercial during a football game. The age of infotainment has made tragedy the cause of instant addiction in television viewers. Over and over we sat and watched a man pulled from a truck and beaten just as we did in the Rodney King tapes. Saturation to prove a point. It’s as if tragedy has become the Agent Orange of our generation, only now the war is at home. And we are our own enemy debilitating ourselves with visions of suffering shown in rapid succession. No wonder people think Buddhism is nihilistic, so much else appears to be, if TV news is any indication of what makes opinions in America.
I’m heading toward Hoover Street. Crips territory. I’m wearing a hat with a blue peace sign etched in the front. I’m holding to the truth. I’m gonna do something. I must be out of my fucking mind. Coming down Normandie toward Wilshire I see my first fire. Black smoke rolling from a building three blocks east of me. Fire trucks struggling against heat and exposure. Latinos on corners in shorts, frozen with amazement that their neighborhood is burning. Everyone is walking real slow and I am silently chanting, “No Maku San Man Da Bo Ta Nan Ban—Being one with all buddhas and turning the waterwheel of compassion. Turn the waterwheel of compassion.” Over and over. “Turn the waterwheel of compassion!” Coming down to Wilshire there are four young Hispanic men tearing the gate off the Thrifty drugstore whose manager had closed up for the day. They were laughing at the Korean family crossing the street and looking over their shoulders at the father who’s thinking, “Oh no . . . They’ve seen me. My wife, my mother, my daughter. How can I defend them?” And as I pass them they are inside the drugstore “shopping” at will. Stealing their own disgust and hopelessness and leaving it at the corner to take on a pawn shop in search of borrowed rings and empty weapons. “No Maku San Man Da Bo Ta Nan Ban. Turn the waterwheel of compassion,” I say and am gone, down Wilshire toward Hoover, and to get Dan’s son out. Had we really thought about it we would have realized nothing needed to be done. USC suffered some but survived intact. This was the panic of a parent whose subscriptions to cable TV had worked on him like Riddick Bowe worked on Evander Holyfield. He was drunk on possibility and just talking to him got me high. I was on a mission to get Dan’s son. I was probably gonna get fucked up and didn’t even know why. On the corner of Hoover and Wilshire there was a sporting goods store that had piles of boxes out front and an alarm system that was pumping full blast into the ears of a deaf mob all moving to a deep slow rhythm that only they could feel. Their smiles were mixed with downcast eyes so they could thread the needle between rage and neglect. Leaving them in a hurry to steal something they didn’t need, I went right onto Hoover feeling close to home and glad I could see all of it. Glad I could mix my impressions with something other than a white middle-class media image of black and brown men and women suffering. I saw plenty of white faces looting and laughing and falling down under the weight of Stairmasters and ergometers. I would remember these images later when it all seemed to be blacks and Latinos rioting on ABC. I was face to face with the avalanche man. Let me tell you, I loved it. Heading south on Hoover, I wasn’t prepared to meet you but there you were. In case you’re wondering I wrote this for you. I thought I was bulletproof with compassion until you tried to run me off the road. You forced me across the double yellow line once before I saw your face. It was the saddest beauty I had ever seen. I saw your justification. I saw your rage. You wore it like an old pair of glasses, but behind them and the wheel of your beat-up Impala I saw someone you never knew was there. I saw his hand resting on your shoulder and his lips by your ear whispering, “He deserves it baby and so do you!” And when I saw him talking you into your grief, I knew that I loved you and that you would never know—and if you did you wouldn’t care. He was keeping you secret from yourself and separate from me. “No Maku San Man Da Bo Ta Nan Ban. Turn the waterwheel of compassion,” I thought. And as I did, you forced me off the road onto the sidewalk and were gone.
I GOT BACK ON HOOVER and made it to Dan’s son at USC and drove him and three other white middle-class kids to the airport so their folks could fly them home. Dan’s parents sent me a gift pack from Marshall Fields with a note: “Thank you for bringing our grandson to safety.” Dan’s wife assured me that I would achieve bodhisattvahood in this lifetime. Everybody made a lot out of it the next few days. I certainly did. I told my family and friends about my day, just casually dropping it into conversations to see their reactions, teasing them with my daring exploits. Hardly the actions of a bodhisattva. More like teenagers talking about losing their virginity. I have a great deal to learn about compassion and the actions of bodhisattvas. I can’t imagine when it will happen, though. But now that some time has passed and I’ve had a chance to look at it, I still don’t know what happened during those four or five days of civil unrest. I don’t think I ever will. I just wanted to do something and so I did. I don’t like getting my impressions from the TV. They’ve been paying my bills for the last few years. I know what they are capable of doing to the truth of the matter.
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