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19 October 2016

Caught in the LA riots, holding a brand-new VCR, my wife tried to call a cab

“Lady,” they said, laughing incredulously, “ain’t no cab gonna come around here.”

By Alexei Sayle

A few weeks after the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which began in South Central and then spread into many other areas, I moved to the city to work on an ill-fated sitcom. The producers booked me and my wife, Linda, into a smart hotel on one of those Hollywood boulevards that stretch endlessly towards the shimmering sun.

The hotel was part of the French-owned Sofitel group. “Bonjour. Welcome to Ma Maison Sofitel,” the staff would greet you in their lilting Californian accent; when you were checking out, they would offer you a baguette to take on your onward journey. This being California, the loaf was much larger than its French counterpart, and each time I saw a confused Korean businessman wandering around Los Angeles Airport clutching a gigantic mutant baguette, I knew that he’d been staying at Ma Maison.

The Tour de France, which we always watched on TV, was about to begin and it was being shown on the ESPN sports network – but at a time when I would be out at work. The hotel wanted to charge $40 a day to rent us a video recorder, but Linda noticed in the newspaper that there was a branch of the electronics chain Circuit City further down our boulevard that was selling identical machines for $90.

Not being able to drive, she set off on the bus one day to buy a VCR. At first, it slowly went past smart restaurants and boutiques but suddenly, as if the vehicle had crossed into a poorer country that was in the midst of civil war, burnt-out buildings guarded by troops appeared.

Eventually, the bus reached the branch of Circuit City and Linda got off. She purchased a video recorder, and then asked the staff to call her a taxi. “Lady,” they said, laughing incredulously, “ain’t no cab gonna come around here.”

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My wife was forced to go back out to the street and wait for a bus heading in the direction of Hollywood. So, here was a very white-looking lady standing at a bus stop in South Central LA, the stamping ground of NWA, Snoop Doggy Dogg and the Crips and Bloods street gangs, carrying a large cardboard box with a helpful photograph and “VCR” written in big letters on it.

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A bus finally appeared a quarter of a mile away on the brow of a hill, but then it expired and moved no further. As she always did at bus stops, Linda began chatting to one of the other people waiting, a black woman accompanied by her young daughter. After a few minutes of Linda going, “Oh, my gosh, isn’t it hot here?” the little girl, who had been staring at her with a frown, solemnly and slowly spoke. “Lady,” she asked, “how do you say ‘hello’ in your language?”

A functioning bus pulled up and Linda got back to the hotel without incident. When my US agent heard that Linda had been on a bus, she burst into tears at the thought of it. 

This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge