We were hanging around our cramped one bedroom apartment in Santa Monica with a couple of friends. Mrs. C. and I hadn’t been married long. We were short on money and looking for cheap entertainment. Mel, formerly my dorm roommate, said, “Why don’t we go check out the Watts Towers?”
“The what?” I asked. I’d transferred to UCLA for my final year of college and still wasn’t familiar with the area.
“I hear it’s really cool,” Mrs. C. piped in.
Mel added, “An Italian guy started creating these giant towers of junk in the 1920’s and worked on them for over thirty years. He disappeared after finishing them.”
I stroked my chin. “But Watts…isn’t that a bad part of town?”
Aaroni perked up. Her off-beat parents had wanted a boy to name after Aaron Burr. We’d met working in our dorm’s kitchen my senior year. She was wearing a peasant blouse and skirt made of men’s dress ties, worn like a hula skirt. I don’t recall her taking any classes.
“There was racial rioting in the mid sixties,” she said. “A bunch of people were killed, but that was a long time ago. I’m sure it’s safe now.”
I was the only one with wheels. We checked under the cushions for coins to fill the gas tank, climbed into my faded blue Beetle and hit the highway in search of the Watts Towers. As fate would have it, we never found them.
The day was bright but the sky had skimmed over with thin clouds. Late afternoon traffic was building along with the heat. The Beetle’s air-conditioning, erratic at best, wheezed and died. I rolled down my window, and that was when I saw a UFO spinning in the air, glinting in the dirty light. My eyes followed its trajectory—an unfortunate distraction drawing my attention away from the cars braking in front of me. The sound of colliding vehicles prompted me to look directly ahead. I saw red lights and pounded my brakes, but it was too late. I wasn’t the only one distracted by the UFO, which turned out to be a hood that had flown from its car. I plowed into the vehicle in front of me, becoming the last in a nine car pile-up.
Fortunately, no one was hurt. The police arrived and we all gave statements and exchanged insurance information. Then Mrs. C. and I, along with our companions, piled back into the Beetle and limped to the nearest off ramp, which landed us in downtown Watts. The front right fender was smashed over the wheel and the slow-moving Beetle lurched like a wino. I pulled to the curb and studied the street, not liking what I saw.
Most of the houses were boarded up. A gas station on the corner was surrounded by a gated chain link fence topped with razor wire and barricaded with plywood so you couldn’t see inside. I doubted the station was still operational but I figured it was my responsibility to get us out of this situation since I’d done such a poor job driving. I left Mel to guard the womenfolk, walked over to the gate and pushed it open. What I encountered made my heart freeze.
In a courtyard, a dozen black men in tank tops and tattoos were throwing knives at pennies in the dirt. Several of them looked up at me. Crowbars materialized in their hands. A giant fellow stood and sauntered up to me. “What’re you doing here?” he asked, towering over me.
I felt whiter than the Pillsbury Doughboy and anticipated a game of Whack-the-Mole, with me being the mole. I’d like to brag, claim my voice didn’t crack, but I’d be lying. “My friends and I were on our way to see the Watts Towers,” I squeaked. “We had an accident. Is there a mechanic here I could pay to help us?” I’d momentarily forgotten that all of our money had gone into the gas tank.
“We’re all mechanics here,” he said. “Let’s see this car of yours.”
These so-called mechanics followed me to the street. I tried to ignore the crowbars several of them had insisted on bringing along. There was no need to point out my car; it was the only one on the street with tires and not jacked up on cinderblocks. They surrounded the Beetle. I held my breath and tried to look brave for my wife and friends, none of whom exited the car to stand beside me.
My heart was jackhammering in my chest when the crowbars suddenly came into play; they pried the crumpled fender off the wheel so it could turn properly. When they were done, one of them grunted, “Where you headed?”
“Santa Monica,” I answered.
Another dude said, “Go down two blocks and take a left. You got a twisted frame and a few other problems, so stay off the freeway. This Bug ain’t up to speed in its present condition.”
They were friendly and cooperative, and I felt guilty having misjudged them. We were halfway home when I realized they hadn’t bothered asking for money. They treated me far better than my insurance company, which later dropped me when the other motorists claimed I caused the pile-up by pushing all of the braking cars together.
I learned a valuable lesson about human nature that day in Watts. Over the years I’ve had several auto accidents and I’ve learned not to judge people by their appearance. Character is important, not background or skin color. If it were possible to look into a person’s soul it would be apparent that all humans are pretty much the same—everyone is willing to lie to the police and point a finger of blame at the person on the tail end of a pile-up. Trust me on this.
To date, I’ve never seen the Watts Towers.
* If you aren’t aware of the Watts Towers I hope you’ll Google them. It’s amazing what an untrained artist managed to accomplish by himself.