As instructed, we barred our doors, obeyed the curfew and peered through our TV screens into the hostile night.
What’s black, what’s white when everything turns to ash?
L.A. is burning. Still burning. Has been since Wednesday. Ever since the all-white jury brought down its shock verdict, giving a free pass to the four white LAPD officers caught on video the previous year dragging Rodney King from his van and beating him to a pulp. And while the baton-wielding quartet were smashing more than fifty savage blows into the body of the black man, seventeen of their fellow officers looked on.
And yet, the four walked.
It was too much injustice to bear.
Black rage ignited the angry mob. Hell was unleashed, and three days after the verdict, down at South Central, buildings were still being torched, shops still being looted, and the mob still venting its rage with fire bombs and bullets. And this time it wasn’t a Rodney King under the boot. This time it was a white man being dragged out and savagely beaten by black men wielding tire irons and bricks.
It felt surreal sitting in a rented 1967 blue Ford Mustang, roof down, driving along Wilshire towards the Miramar Hotel on Ocean Drive, realising you’d landed in the belly of the beast.
‘Turn it up a little, Connie, would you, please.’ The station was repeating Rodney King’s plea, made at a press conference earlier in the afternoon. Helicopters and sirens were going off in the background. She leant over to the front, better to hear the broadcast.
‘People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?’
‘He sounds so nervous,’ said Connie from the front seat. ‘He probably—’
‘Shush.’ She put a finger up to her mouth. King had just mentioned that a security guard had been shot and killed.
‘We can get along here,’ King said. ‘We’ve just got to. Just got to.’
‘By the way, Cyn,’ Connie called over her shoulder. ‘How do you reckon your meeting went this morning?’
Useless to try and hear what King was saying.
The Mustang turned in through the big iron gates of the Fairmont Miramar and up the manicured driveway to the porte-cochere. From the radio came news of violence now devastating wider Los Angeles. The juggernaut was rolling north.
‘Any interest?’ the woman persisted.
‘Hey, Con?’ said David, indicating the boutique shopping bags at his wife’s feet. ‘Looks like you cut a decent swathe through Rodeo Drive this afternoon.’ He turned around to Cynthia, an eyebrow raised. ‘Have a good time, you girls?’
David would know full well what a ‘good time’ she had trailing Connie all afternoon. The shopping had gone on and on and on until, had the woman suggested one more fucking boutique, she would have lost the will to live.
‘Really, Cyn. How did it go, love?’
She sighed. Shrugged. ‘Not with a bang, I guess.’
‘What have I been telling you? You needed to spice it up a bit for Hollywood.’
‘Spice it up, you reckon?’
‘Yeah, babe. Give it a bit more . . . y’know . . . a bit more oomph.’
‘You know what, Con? You and that studio prick are on the same page. He pretty much said that, too. Whadda y’know?’
Thank God this day would soon end. It was going to take a little nip or two of the Glenfiddich in her carry-on bag upstairs to smooth the way to a tolerable evening.
They had hardly hit the foyer when the man came up to them, all apologies on behalf of management. It was the last thing she expected, to be told she would have to share her room with two Mexican housemaids tonight. Two camp beds had been set up in her room. Two strangers would be bunking down with her tonight. It was weird, but then things weren’t ordinary out there on the streets of L.A. Hence the curfew. This afternoon, due to the escalating tensions, Mayor Bradley had extended it city-wide. Dusk-to-dawn.
‘Guests need to remain within the hotel precinct,’ said their messenger. ‘I apologise for the accommodation arrangements, Ms Smart.’
‘No problem with housemaids.’ She swung a glance at Connie. ‘God knows, we’ve all done it, haven’t we? In our student days.’
This, however, was Santa Monica. The swanky Fairmont Miramar Hotel. She probably had a right to be taken aback by the forced arrangements. The Miramar was pricey, but she was happy to pay. Knew she had to cough up for the hefty tariff. A smart address in L.A. was mandatory. When you did deals in this town, if you expected to have your calls returned then your address was everything.
She checked him out, the Miramar’s man. Rudolph Valentino. Slick-backed Brylcreemed hair, black as jet, a la the pharmacy bottle no doubt, and a pencil-thin moustache highlighting sensual lips. A studied throwback to the Hollywood Golden Age. Good for you, Rudy, she figured. Everyone needs a persona. But she could see the flustered matinee idol was feeling challenged by events that were beyond his control. It was obvious he was uncomfortable having to deliver these messages to the Miramar’s swell guests.
‘The maids? What time should I expect them?’
‘I’m sorry, Ms Smart. I don’t have that information. I will check and get back to you. They’re our domestic staff. Even without the curfew, they’d have no way of getting home tonight, not with the streets the way they are and our public transport systems shut down.’ The slight accent detectable behind the Californian drawl only added to the Sheik of Araby mystique.
So, they would all be confined inside this place until the sun came up tomorrow. Guests and staff. Really? The gorgeous Miramar, with all its gorgeous people, glamorous guests and professional staff brought in from Central Casting? Here in this stunning setting?
She looked around—at the polished marble floors, at the majestic columns holding up the elaborate featured ceiling, at the gold trimmings everywhere, the ritzy lounges scattered about the huge reception area, the profusion of rainforest palms and the waterfall out by the courtyard café and pool. She took note of the stiletto-heeled starlets sashaying back and forth from the women’s room to their seats at the bar. Doing it for the benefit of the Hollywood types huddled deep in their leather lounges negotiating deals over martinis and lashings of bullshit. And for the cool jocks at the bar, no doubt.
All this Hollywood palaver, while for the past three days the flames had been rising higher and higher, and the violence spreading out further and further across the besieged city. Not far from where she stood now, Korean shop owners were trying to save what was left of their premises. Mothers were shielding their young from flying bullets, and mobs of angry black men were dragging white drivers from their vehicles and beating them senseless. L.A. had gone berserk, so who was she to quibble about unusual bedding details?
She really did feel sorry for Rudy. Sorry for his hotel. Sorry for the whole of Los Angeles. For the whole of the United States of America for that matter. It wasn’t pretty what had happened since the verdict was brought down, and to quote Yeats—as she often did, Yeats or any of the poets writing before modernism sounded the death knell—a terrible beauty had been born. Not just in L.A. either, but all around the country. And now the Miramar was going into lock-down. The LAPD, the county sheriff’s men, the fire fighters and the National Guard; none of those summoned to put down the riots could cope. The avenging mob had slashed and burned its way through South Central and now it was coming for the ritzier precincts, the rage and rampaging arriving on their doorstep. This was no longer simply about black, brown and brindle incinerating their communities and killing each other. Now it was party time all round.
And this would account for why Bush the Republican finally extracted his digit today and responded positively to Mayor Bradley’s pleas for more troops. Finally the guy was acting like a president of a nation in a world of pain, sending in his military big guns. Heavily armed riot squads in their Humvees would be patrolling the streets of places like Westwood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica by sundown tonight.
And stymieing her mission.
She had put out big time to get here. Worked hard to swing the trip. A chance to pitch her project to Hollywood’s major players. Now they’d stolen Christmas from her, told her to go to her room and stay there.
‘Again, management does apologise,’ said Rudy V., as if he had read her thoughts.
‘No sweat, my friend,’ she said with a shrug. ‘We’re living in interesting times. L.A.’s a shit storm.’
With a polite bow, he turned his attention to David and Connie. ‘Mr Labelle. Mrs Labelle, the emergency sleeping arrangements, of course, do not apply to married couples and families.’
Only to the rest of us, the singles. We the unattached. We the losers, she thought as she studied him, watched him put both hands together and bow his head. A formal gesture from the hotel’s man, and yet, something deep down in her had, quite ridiculously, hoped for more.
But then, from beneath a canopy of black lashes, young Rudy looked directly up into her eyes—a penetrating gaze that she read as desire. And shame on him, he let it linger just that fraction of a second longer than was professionally necessary, enough that she felt a pleasant jab to her uterus, felt the frisson light up the sex in her.
‘Let me say that I do hope we can make it up to you.’ He held her with his eyes. ‘Somehow,’ he added in a softer, lower register.
‘No, no, don’t worry. It’s fine,’ said Connie, interrupting the Rudy-wants-Cynthia, Cynthia-wants-Rudy moment. Connie reached out to lay an assuring hand on the man’s arm, only belatedly turning to Cynthia. ‘You’re cool with all this, aren’t you, love?’
‘Of course.’ Palms up with a shrug. ‘Why wouldn’t I be? It’s a war zone out there.’
‘Thank you. Now you all have a good day,’ said the concierge as he turned and made to leave.
‘You too,’ she whispered to his back, forcing herself to lift her gaze from the tight buns the man presented. She had been too long on a dry paddock, aware how long it had been since she swung her leg over a man.
‘By the way—’ said Rudy, doubling back, remembering there was more uncomfortable news to impart, ‘—meals are on the house. All meals. We’re issuing tickets. They’re waiting for you at reception. Guests will need to come downstairs and present their tickets in the restaurants.’ He aimed a crease of a smile at Connie. ‘All guests, that is, Mrs Labelle.’
Good on him. Young Rudy had caught the drift. She liked his style.
With studied dignity, he bestowed a gracious smile on the three of them and walked away. It was over; the possibility of pleasures to come. She’d held out for a further sign, a promise from the spunky hotel man, but apparently the stolen glance was all she would get from the Miramar’s Sheik of Araby. Pity. Exotic lovers are hard to come by.
She observed him as he stood a little way off, looking around the foyer, looking concerned, no doubt realising he had much work still ahead of him before this day was out. At the last moment, however, just as she moved off a little way from Connie and David, he turned his head and flashed her a knowing smile.
And there it was; the universal hunger.
She wondered which of them would make the next move.
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.
It’s 1992. Advertising executive and screenwriter Cynthia Smart is in Los Angeles to pitch her film. Instead, she finds herself caught up in dusk-to-dawn curfews and riots. L.A. is burning.
She’s already miserable enough and sets out to drown her sorrows.
It’s only when her best friend Connie’s wilful sixteen-year-old daughter—her adored goddaughter Sapphire—goes missing during a hotel fire evacuation that she sobers up, defies the National Guard and hits the streets to find the girl.
The drama is the catalyst for not only mending bridges with Connie, but in letting Cynthia see a brighter way forward.