‘How I wrote the story': Coming of age in the riots

Ten years later, Daren Briscoe finds big truths in small tales

Sometimes the best stories are about the smallest details. We brainwash ourselves into asking big questions about big events and forget that normal life is lived in the drama of quick choices and missed opportunities-dozens of them, hundreds of them, sometimes never added up or analyzed.

'How I wrote the story': Coming of age in the riots

'How I wrote the story': Coming of age in the riots

In assigning a series of stories about the 10th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots (April 29), I decided to junk the big picture. I was sick of the big picture. For one thing, we’d had enough talking heads in the years immediately after the riots to produce a hundred competing big-picture realities. The L.A. riots were actually at least three riots–(1) the immediate protest against the acquittal of the white cops who beat Rodney King, followed by (2) massive looting by a wide swath of poor or greedy people, accompanied by (3) hundreds of attacks on Korean businesses. That final riot grew out of resentment by African Americans against Korean merchants–a consequence of two cultures, so different from each other, fighting over the same impoverished economy in South-Central Los Angeles and further torn by the killing of a black teenager by a Korean merchant. And that’s just my idiosyncratic interpretation of what happened in ’92. Like I said, there are a hundred others, and everybody thinks their truth is the only one. Having been through these arguments in ’92, I didn’t want to subject myself or the readers to it. (We’d replayed a lot of this extensively in a 1997 series, anyway.)

So in 2002 we did a bunch of minimalist stories that emphasized the legacy–the now of L.A.–instead of fighting over what caused the riots. Pete King told the legacy through a walk down one long tarnished street, Vermont Avenue, in the Sunday Magazine. Stephanie Chavez caught up with a black man who saved white trucker Reginald Denny from death in the first hours of the riot. Lee Romney wrote about the fragmented economic recovery in South-Central through portraits of four intersections. John Mitchell wrote about life on the block adjacent to Florence and Normandie, the intersection where the first rioting broke out. Connie Kang and Lisa Richardson wrote about still-edgy black-Korean relations. And Daren Briscoe, whose story I’d like to share with you this week, wrote about the smallest change of all: Three young people who came of age during the riots, and how–in small but profound ways–the experience changed them.

Daren, who is 32, lived through the riots in South Los Angeles as a young man. When I asked him to try to write about people’s lives being changed by it, I had something more dramatic in mind–looters, victims, big fat change. The story that resulted was better. Here’s the top.

For starters, watch how clean and quick the introduction is. The story recognizes that this is one of those times when the audience comes to the story with a powerful context:


YOUNG LIVES TOOK UNEXPECTED TURNS
By Daren Briscoe
May 1, 2002

Oscar night was an odd time to remember the riots of 1992, but the thought struck Calota Odom Morris anyway.

Halle Berry had just accepted an Academy Award for best actress, the first for an African American, when the question flashed in Morris’ head:

If I had stayed, would that have been me walking across the stage?

A passing thought is a strange yardstick by which to measure a disaster’s effects. But riots do more than kill and burn. They set people on different tracks, sometimes in the subtlest of ways.

A high achiever opts to go to college out of state and is lulled into complacency. An aspiring child psychologist finds her calling in a less prestigious but broader mission. A young man develops a lasting bond with neighbors he barely knew.

These are the stories of three people who were high school seniors in Los Angeles in April 1992.

Each of the three stories was introduced with a subhead:

Choosing a Life Far From the City

Part of growing up is forgetting, and the demands of work, marriage and parenting are enough to keep Calota Odom Morris’ head firmly in the present most days.

Juggling responsibility is nothing new for Morris, who found time during her four years at Dorsey High School for modeling, basketball and student government.

“She was a very well-rounded young woman,” said her mother, Alfreda Odom, who had her youngest daughter pegged as a future lawyer.

People told Morris her face was meant to be in front of a camera, but she chose basketball over modeling. By her senior year, she was an all-city selection, the team’s captain and most valuable player. She was also the senior class vice president.

“My coach told me he could get me into UCLA,” Morris said from her home in Houston.

But it had been a tough school year. In October, Banning High School, a perennial rival, chose to forfeit a game rather than play at Dorsey after several incidents of campus violence. In March, a close friend and classmate fatally shot himself playing Russian roulette on the team bus after a baseball game. In April, the school’s popular baseball coach was arrested on drug charges; other sports programs were threatened by budget cuts.

Then came the Rodney King verdicts, and the riots. “It was all just too much,” Morris said. “It was too overwhelming.”

When the time came to choose a college, she picked Southern University in Louisiana, mostly because it was far away.

She relished the difference. Her ears were spared the constant wail of sirens and whir of helicopters; she went to parties without feeling the need to watch her back.

At first, just being from L.A. made Morris a minor celebrity, bonding with other kids in the “California Club,” captivating her history class with first-hand accounts of the riots.

Other adjustments were more difficult. Spying on practices of the school’s women’s team, Morris sized up its players and concluded “they weren’t that good.” But she found muggy Louisiana “was too hot” to play basketball. Her interest in student government flagged.

“It’s all about who you know,” she said. “It would have been hard for an outsider.”

Back home, Morris’ mother busied herself filling out law school applications for her daughter, and flew to Baton Rouge for graduation in May 1996, expecting Morris to return home with her.

But Morris wasn’t ready for life in L.A. again. She’d grown accustomed to the Southern pace of life and had met someone, she told her mother. She would apply to a school in Louisiana.

“Come October, she still hadn’t gotten into school,” Odom said. “I knew then that someone had talked her out of her dream. I was devastated.”

Morris doesn’t regret the decision, one she says she made for herself. She married in 1997 and bore a child later that year. She didn’t return to school, but has a good job managing a rental car branch office, and no desire to live in Los Angeles.

Life is good–different, but then, so is Morris.

She talks about a Southern attitude she considers “more submissive,” then notes a creeping, almost imperceptible change.

“I was always involved,” she said. “I always had an opinion, a voice. But you get content with the Southern lifestyle. Things are slower, the cost of living is low. You lose that drive.”

She counts her blessings: a beautiful son, a wonderful husband. She visits her mother often.

It is only in the odd moments, watching an Academy Awards show or a WNBA game, that she ponders what might have been if she had stayed in Los Angeles.

“But life takes you places that you never dream of,” she said. “I’m here. I’m healthy.”

Let’s pause for Daren’s take

Ask anyone who was in L.A. in 1992, and we all have a stock riot story.

They’re our substitute for war stories, personal dispatches from the edge that we imagine lend us a vague cool or credibility, but they’re mostly boring and predictable: Here’s where I was when I heard/learned about the verdicts…Here’s what I did/where I went next, and you won’t believe what I saw/I couldn’t believe what I was seeing next…Blah blah blah.

I hate those stories, because they all focus on public details that anyone in the U.S., maybe the world, with a television, could tell just as well. You saw it, you were there, right?

My initial assignment was to write about people who “came of age” during the riots, and I had a million ideas. I wanted to find someone who lost a family member, someone who was a rookie cop at the time, someone who got caught up in events and committed a crime. My thoughts were all over the map, but after nearly a month, I hadn’t found anyone who moved me. I wanted something different, a story that hadn’t gotten tired with the telling.

Focus is everything in writing, and mine came from a great idea. My editor and a veteran reporter, John Mitchell, suggested trying to find people who finished high school in ’92: people who were teenagers on the brink of adulthood, people who would have been getting ready for prom when the riots broke out, people who were paying attention because the game was just about over and real life was at the door.

I found the first subject easily. The reunion manager for Dorsey High School [in South Los Angeles] told me about a friend who had moved out of town shortly after the riots.

Perfect, I thought. Someone who moved. I called Calota Morris, asked her how the riots had affected her. Right off, she said, “Well, I gave up the chance to play college basketball.”

“So you played basketball?”

“Yeah, well, I did a lot of things in high school, I modeled for a while, I was the senior class vice president, too.”

Her story just kept getting better. She wasn’t just a basketball player, she’d been an all-city selection; she wasn’t just an aspiring model, she’d worked with John Robert Powers, a big-time agency. Now she was branch manager at a rental car agency in Houston.

There she was and here she is. I wanted to know how the hell she got from there to here without coming right out and asking it, so I decided to back up. “Did you play basketball in junior high?” “Where did you live?”

The more we talked, the more I realized I’d been thinking about half of a story. Questioning people about what had happened to them during or after riots didn’t necessarily involve explaining who they’d been before; it reduced them, made them passive and dull. I wanted to follow the inner journey, to document not just people’s choices, but their reasons for making them.

The approach I hit upon in interviewing Morris was more intuitive than mapped out. First, I tried to construct a rough, very abbreviated narrative of her life, starting with where she was born and raised, whether she had siblings, where she went to elementary and junior high.

I slowed down some at the high school years by asking more questions: “Did you like school?” “Did you get good grades?” “Were you thinking about college?”

I didn’t linger over the physical details of the riots, because I wanted to hear about them in a different context. I could guess what she had seen, I wanted to know what she thought, what she felt.

When the narrative got past the riots, I slowed down even more. “What classes did you take in college?” “Were you popular?” “Did you play basketball?” “Why not?” I wanted details, not because I would need a pile to sift through for the story, but to get her thinking and remembering. We continued this guided tour until we reached the present, and then I returned to the riots, asking her to explain what effect they had on the life she had just described.

As she talked, I kept asking questions, but by this time they were more informed, pointed, questions to flesh out things I already knew. I would eventually use this approach for all of the people in the story.

One question leads to another and another. Before you know it, you have enough, you know enough. You can tell a story that doesn’t sound like one you’ve heard before because it isn’t one you’ve heard before. For example, I know Tony Jones, the last character in the story, sometimes idled on his porch because I asked where went when he did go outside. I learned what his neighbors cooked because I wanted to know if he had a favorite dish. These details have nothing to do with the riots, but they keep a reader from thinking she knows what’s coming next.

Now let’s finish the story, beginning with the final two paragraphs about the life of our first character:

It is only in the odd moments, watching an Academy Awards show or a WNBA game, that she ponders what might have been if she had stayed in Los Angeles.

“But life takes you places that you never dream of,” she said. “I’m here. I’m healthy.”

Coping With Problems Close to Home

Watch how, as in the case of the first character, the opening paragraph in the second segment is able to hint at the change without giving it away altogether. Watch also how selective Daren is about using quotes. The story moves well because he paraphrases wherever possible in describing the progression of each life:

It’s a safe bet that none of the meticulous tallies of all that was lost in the riots mention the fact that Gloria Serrano found herself.

An honors student at Crenshaw High that year–already admitted to UC Santa Cruz and UCLA, waitlisted at Brown University–Serrano wasn’t lost in the wayward sense.

One of seven children raised in a part of the city known more for its street gangs than its scholars, near Central and Slauson, Serrano stayed out of trouble and loved school.

Her ambition, though, was tinged with a certain aimlessness. Serrano remembers her Crenshaw years mostly as a pleasant blur of “general high school stuff,” football games, high school dances, doing whatever other kids did.

“I just knew I wanted to go to college,” she said.

She chose Santa Cruz over Brown and UCLA because her best friend was going there, not sure about a major, maybe law, maybe journalism.

Her memories of the riots are of feelings more than sensations because her parents kept the family indoors. She remembers fear of the haphazard violence, restlessness from being stuck in the house, frustration with people destroying their own communities.

But the firestorm passed, and before long Serrano was off to Santa Cruz and college. Trees and grass instead of telephone poles and concrete. Fresh air. No graffiti. The people were different too, and not just because they were mostly white. There were raging liberals. Staunch conservatives. “Hippie types.” Lots of middle and upper-class kids, clad in a semi-standard outfit of wrinkled jeans and Birkenstock sandals.

She made friends and got decent grades, but the draw of home and family was strong. By her second year, Serrano decided to return home, applying to USC as a transfer student. She settled on child psychology as her major, fascinated and curious about the human mind and why people acted the way they did.

At USC, Serrano started doing volunteer work. Nothing serious at first: an hour a week tutoring junior high kids to fulfill a class requirement. Before long she was doing more, helping out at a campus center for Latino students.

After graduating in 1997, Serrano took a job at the county Department of Consumer Affairs, wanting to get “some real-life experience” before pursuing a graduate degree in child psychology. She volunteered at a social services agency in East Los Angeles, and it was there that a truth began to dawn.

It was the sheer neediness of L.A. Everywhere, social programs were filled to capacity and starved for resources–youth activities, gang diversion, health clinics. It reminded her of friends, hardened early and lost to gangs, and the neighborhoods they came from, crumbling from neglect, so different from the carefree kids from Santa Cruz, nestled in cocoons of affluence.

She thought of the riots and the rage and the need that fueled them. “I started thinking about the whole idea of person and environment. Not just on the level of the individual, but on the macro level.”

Serrano befriended some social workers and learned about their concern with the immediate needs that shape children. It felt more urgent, closer to the people she knew, than psychology. She got a job with the county Department of Children and Family Services. She enrolled in a graduate program in social work at Cal State Long Beach.

Now in her final year of the program, Serrano works with abused children, raising a 1-year-old son and living with her husband in southeastern L.A. County.

She believes she would have made many of the same decisions in life even if the riots had not happened. Yet the riots serve as a constant reminder to her that individuals are molded by their families, schools and neighborhoods–a reminder that we neglect them, any of them, at our own peril.

“All along, I’ve felt like, ‘Why would you destroy your own community?'” she said. “I still feel that way. But now I understand a little more.”

Seeing Surroundings in a New Light

Tony Jones sees the world differently from the way he did 10 years ago because the power went out.

On the second night of the riots, he was glued to the television with his mother and sister, mesmerized by the sight of a whole city seething. As the cameras zoomed in on a familiar corner for what seemed like the thousandth time, Jones leaned forward and–click.

No television, no lights.

Jones stared at the mute screen, eyes and ears thirsty for more of the bizarre live show.

It didn’t occur to him at first to go outside.

“I was the kind of person, that if I was at home, I was in the house,” he said.

It wasn’t a bad place, second house from the corner on 59th and Budlong, three bedrooms, green with white trim. Jones’ father, a construction worker, had completely redone the inside before he passed, and every so often Jones idled on one of the porch chairs out front.

But he was busy. For a member of the Crenshaw High Elite Choir, classes were just the beginning. Choir practice every day after school, twice a day if they were getting ready to tour. Jones had been to Nice, France; Montego Bay, Jamaica; and Disney World in Florida.

The time he spent on his own block wasn’t much; Jones had only vague notions of who his neighbors were. A Mexican family in the corner house next door, an older couple a few doors down, a family across the street with what seemed like a houseful of kids. He’d seen them all a hundred times, the way you see neighbors: “Hi” and “Bye.”

So when the power stayed out and Jones went outside to see the black pillars of smoke holding up the sky, he stood with the only people he really knew on the block, his own mother and sister. But the outage had affected the whole neighborhood, and soon others began trickling outside. People who had been neighbors for years shook hands and introduced themselves.

Jones met the Heweys from across the street, the Martinez family next door. He met Momma and Poppa Daniels from farther down, and their grandson Leroy, who looked vaguely familiar.

“It turned out he went to Crenshaw too; he graduated the year I came,” Jones said.

One family at a time they gathered, roughly in front of the Danielses’ house.

Conversation was easy, with Rodney King and the verdicts and the riots on everyone’s minds and lips. Jones remembers his mother mentioning at some point that she cooked a mean cobbler.

That Sunday, while the Joneses had some people from church over to visit, Momma Daniels showed up at the door, holding a freshly baked lemon meringue pie. A few days later, it was Jones’ mother carrying one of her cobblers over to the Danielses.

“I guess it started like that,” Jones said. “The neighbors would see someone carrying something and say, ‘Where are you taking that pie to?'”

No one planned it, but it became a sort of roving potluck, one family chipping in macaroni and cheese, another collard greens, someone else bringing spaghetti. At least once a month, sometimes twice. There was always a reason, a birthday, a new job, a sunny day.

People got to know each other; Poppa Daniels told war stories–real ones–from his military service during World War II; Mr. Johnson, the high school coach, talked football; Jones and Dewayne Carter, the musician from across the street, shared their love of music. They played cards, board games, shot the breeze.

It reminded Jones of how people treated each other in the Texas towns where he visited relatives every other Christmas, people in Marshall and Longview who would speak even if they didn’t know you.

“For some reason in California we don’t have that,” Jones said. “But I learned how to open up, that you don’t have to be scared of people.”

The Daniels family moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1996, and the Jones family moved the next year to a bigger house a few miles from the neighborhood. The get-togethers continued, someone always calling when the next one was happening.

Poppa Daniels died a couple of years ago, and the last families left on the old block, the Jacksons and Heweys, are talking of moving. Schedules have gotten busier, and the last get-together was in February.

Jones, a school bus driver whose passengers these days are high-school kids the same age as he was in 1992, remembers the riots for what they taught him about his neighbors and himself.

He’s still busy, serving as minister of music at the Hope of Glory Christian Center at 107th and Vermont. He chats with a neighbor or two when he has a spare minute, but hasn’t met them all yet.

“God,” he said with a laugh. “I hope it doesn’t take another riot.”