You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I was in Notting Hill last night, having a late dinner with my friend TenKey, and his friend, Jen, when the proprietor of the cafe suddenly hustled the sidewalk diners into the restaurant; shut the lights; closed the door.

The unmistakable smell of smoke filled the air.

What’s happening?

The rioters; they’re moving this way.

TenKey, a professional blogger on holiday and fresh in from Amsterdam, found this to be fascinating.  Jen, a resident of Notting Hill, found it less so.  And I was perhaps least entertained of all.  I’d lived just outside of Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots, and had witnessed that weird fear and uncertainty radiating from the epicenter; that guilty and unsettled feeling that had at once settled in like smog over the Valley.  One could practically hear the smashing glass and sirens all the way to the suburbs.

Los Angeles, like London, has a strange sprawl to it.  The unwieldiness of LA made for a potential avalanche effect then, when those riots got underway.  I knew back in the early 1990s, from the expression on everyone’s faces, that there was real possibility of snowballing in the desert.

And later, as an adult, in the decade they called the Aughts, I had travelled to China just before the Olympics, when people were raw and sore.  I’d been in Western China at the nexus of Myanmar and Tibet when the national guard was still occupying large parts of the towns there; had had to travel over land and with a guide (and, for a time, my then-husband) because we couldn’t fly into the airport — the city had just reopened for “tourism,” but the air crackled electric with tension.  When we’d finally taken off for Shanghai, there were shots fired on the runway.

If the rioters come here, mused TenKey, breaking my reflection on the places I’d seen disturbed, They’ll come right through that plate glass window!

Yes, I thought.

We could see the light of fire down the road; there was something ablaze.  We began to hear shouting voices.  Jen’s flat was in that direction, so as the cafe shuttered, we had no choice but to head that way.  If the riots were indeed headed towards us, it was probably less dangerous to head there than to the tube station.

Jen tried to call me a taxi on the way, but it was to no avail.  So we went inside to wait.  Outside, a moped and a Lamborghini were both on fire; the blazes raging.  Luxury cars were being moved off the streets; their drivers being chased.  Teenagers, mostly, were screaming in the road with the hoods of their godforsaken hoodies pulled tight over their heads (See?! See what I mean about hoodies?!).  Sirens wailed; in the distance, there was breaking glass.

As I followed the reports on Twitter, people said that just down the road, there were shops being looted.  A cafe a block from where we had been dining had been held up as patrons sat.  I pulled up the map of where the riots were and were moving, and the intersection of our location was glowing.

I have learned over the years that unrest — civil or otherwise — is never simply about what it appears.  Tensions boil close to the surface and then — BOOM! — things explode in ways that cannot be controlled; flow out in directions no one expects — like lava or an avalanche. 

But I am merely the blonde in the bleachers — the one who has observed these sorts of things from afar, on three different continents over three separate decades.  I cannot profess to know the real reasons for this difficulty, or understand the underlying politics, or even fully grasp the timing.

The only common thread I can find is this: people are wounded by the world in unique ways.  And like tears in the earth that belch molten ash until the flames quiet for millennia; or gashes in the snow that roll and build deadly momentum until they melt into silence, perhaps people, too, for right or wrong, must relieve their worldwounds in this violent way.

Having reached my own breaking points; having begged for mercy; having wanted things I knew I could not have — seeing people in the streets breaking and wanting; demanding and erupting is a very, very sad, strange, and scary thing to witness.

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