Delivered by Angels
FORTIFIED BY TWO LARGE CANDY BARS and the blind certainty that journalists are immune to tragedy because they cover it, I rushed to Martin Luther King Boulevard at about 4 P.M. The mood was tense but not violent. Only after interviewing a dozen people and filing from a pay phone did I hear about the trouble. I remember being slightly annoyed with myself for being so far away from the action. I also remember ignoring a feeling in my gut that said, "You've done enough for one day—go home."
As I gunned my car down Normandie Avenue, I was struck by the relative calm. I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Then at 53rd Street, traffic slowed—apparently for a light. A few people were in the streets, including a young black man about 20 yards ahead of my car. We made eye contact. I'd have trouble picking him out of a police lineup today, but I'll never forget the look on his face: shock giving way to unbridled joy.
The young man whistled to his friends, and seconds later I heard the sickening crunch of my windshield imploding. There was shouting. Another window broke. The car rocked. Someone yanked open the door and clawed at my seat belt.
"Get out of the car," a voice said.
"I'm a reporter," I replied, realizing at once how absurd that sounded.
"I don't care what you are," the attacker insisted. "Get the f— out of the car!"
I was paralyzed with fear. If I complied, my assailants would almost certainly do to me what they were doing to my Plymouth Colt. On the other hand, staying put wasn't particularly appealing either. For the first time I realized I might die. I fell bewildered and sad. I'd turned 30 the week before. It seemed such a pointless and surreal way for my life to end—at the hands of people I essentially agreed with, at least in terms of the King verdict.
I shook my head: "No." I wasn't getting out of the car. That touched off a frenzy of violence. Someone reached inside, groping for the seat belt, while somebody else started punching me in the face and head. One blow slammed me into the steering wheel. In that position, my ample belly effectively blocked the seat-belt buckle. Instinctively I played dead. I was smacked around a few more times before I heard several loud bangs and felt a stinging in my legs. Something warm ran down my left calf. It look me a moment to register that I'd been shot.
I continued playing possum for a minute, maybe two, with my head and chest slumped forward and my left leg dangling out of the car. I couldn't see what was going on, but the mob seemed to have scattered. Gradually, I noticed a vibration; the engine was still running. I wriggled my left foot to see if I could use the clutch. I could. I waited another moment, look a deep breath, slammed the door shut and rammed the car into gear. I made a U-turn and a quick right down a side street. There were shouts and more shots from behind me, then the impact of a bullet slamming into my back. I did a quick damage assessment: I could still breathe and drive. But I remember a bizarre thought flashing through my mind: "I'm going to get a great story out of this if I can just live."
After a block or two the car started slowing down. The tires felt like they had been shot out. I turned down another side street where I saw four children—none of them older than 10—playing on the lawn. If children were safe here, maybe I would be too.
"Can you please get your parents," I shouted. "I've been shot."
The kids didn't move. They just stood there, frozen in place. Fortunately, one of the neighbors, Cynthia Brown, 24, heard my pleas. She ran into her house and, I learned later, told her mother, Marie Edwards, that "a white man had been shot." While Edwards tried to reach 911, her son Keenan Guidroz, a cemetery grounds keeper, rushed out to my car. Then Edwards showed up with a blanket and some long Johns to use as compresses. She hadn't been able to get through on 911, but that hadn't slopped her. As a custodian in the L.A. County health building, she'd managed to reach a paramedic who told her what to do until an ambulance arrived.
It never did. Guidroz held a compress on my shoulder for 40 minutes, an act that went well beyond basic first aid or good samaritanism. I was a white man in a black neighborhood during a riot. I was placing Guidroz and his entire family at considerable risk—and we all knew it. At least a dozen cars, some moving with menacing slowness, cruised by. One actually stopped, hacked up and looked us over before driving off. But Edwards had been clever. She had had her son lower my seat back to get me out of sight. Whenever a car came by, she covered my head with the blanket. If anything, it looked as if Edwards and Guidroz were looting my car.
As it became obvious that paramedics weren't being allowed into the area, I struggled to control my fear. Finally, a neighbor, Lemicher Wallace, rushed out in her dressing gown and decided I had waited long enough. She brought out a big sedan and drove it onto the sidewalk next to my Colt. Guidroz helped me out of my car and into hers. They laid me in the backseat and covered me with a blanket. As we drove, Wallace and Guidroz described, with disbelief, the riot that was going on around us. Then they spotted several police officers who waved down a paramedic van, and I was taken to the California Medical Center.
I hobbled out of the hospital two days later. My left leg—with six bullet holes—miraculously escaped damage to bones, joints and arteries. The doctors say my shoulder will heal, but the .38 slug that shattered it will stay right where it is, a millimeter from my chest wall. Removing it, they said, would cause more trouble than it's worth. So far my injuries seem to be only physical. I have had a couple of mini nightmares. I relive the attack, but this time I fight back. Just your basic Schwarzenegger stuff.
Last week I was reunited with my rescuers and was able to thank them in person for the first time. It was slightly awkward. I kept stumbling for the right words to tell these near strangers how much they meant—and how much they would always mean—to me. Edwards was far more articulate. "We didn't care what race you were," she told me. "You were in trouble, and we rushed out to help."
Edwards told me later that if I had driven down the next block instead of hers, I might not be alive. That block is filled with gang members. "There are a lot of bad kids on that street," she said.
But if this experience has shown me anything, there's a lot of good in South Central too. As much as getting shot may have rocked my faith in humanity, my rescuers restored it—and then some. As we stared at my battered and bloody car, Edwards's mother, Rena Guidroz, shook her head and said, "Angels sent him here." I can't argue with that.