Being half-awake to my L.A.

I heard the gunshots because a catfight woke me up. Just outside my open window, two neighborhood felines were having a falling out.

The first shot sounded like a rifle round. Growing up in rural Wyoming and Indiana, I shot all kinds of weapons and I know their distinctive sounds. So when the first shot cracked sharply, I waited as the report echoed between the stuccoed walls of my Los Angeles neighborhood.

The second and third shots came in rapid succession - this time they were the distinctive "pop, pop" of a small-caliber handgun.

The night fell quiet for a moment, and curiously, my only thought was whether or not I could fall back asleep. Strangely enough, I felt numb as I lay there. Whether it was the time of night, or because I knew I wasn't the intended target, I don't know. Living with millions of people in this city, we learn to take the exceptional for granted. Bombarded by information, harsh news, and exaggerated drama, we are gradually beaten down to a somewhat primitive level of existence. Work, eat, sleep. Anything outside of that just blends into the night.

As I lay there, the sound of a racing engine began to build as a vehicle rapidly made its way up my street. The car was foreign, as evidenced by the high-pitched, laboring engine. If I had to guess, I would say it was a lowered, Honda vehicle of some sort. You know the ones, just a simple Accord or Civic in which some young kid has plugged all his money and time. Painted lime green, or purple, lowered to just above scraping on the asphalt and covered with stickers bearing catchy slogans like, "Powered by Honda" (even though we all know it is only a four-cylinder), or "turbo custom exhaust," which would surely turn this tame commuter vehicle into something that would make any NASCAR fan proud. Extra gauges, custom wheels, and brightly colored disc brakes are also common on this type of car.

If questioned, my testimony would have to be, "Yes officer, that is what I heard and did not actually see."

In my mind, I searched for someone stereotypical to blame for this violent intrusion into my night. "Those Hispanic or African-American gang members and all their guns," would have been easy to say and think. But not only is this racist, it also may or may not accurately describe people who would drive "turbo Hondas," or use handguns on a city street for that matter.

In fact, I think I have seen more white than minority kids driving these. The subset - upper-middle-class, white, suburban youths who emulate lower-middle-class, black urban youths - love these "savage Hondas."

Maybe they just love stickers. And, for that matter, what if I was wrong and it was not a lowered Honda after all, but a lowered minipickup? The minipickup opened up a new set of options. It could have been a woman's softball team angry at a rival for going 3 for 4 with an RBI double.

Our neighborhood is a model of United Nations acceptance, a total blend of race and religion. It could have been anyone.

Anyway, whoever it was raced past and was clearly getting away.

Several minutes passed, and another vehicle came racing down my street from the opposite direction. Lower in pitch, the engine noise carried a residue of horsepower and cubic inches. The only group that came to mind was the LAPD.

Along with the throaty roar of this car came the steady chop of rotor wash from a mighty police helicopter.

What astounded me was the speed with which this bird made the scene, almost as if it had been hovering somewhere nearby, waiting for such a crime to take place.

Low, fast, and loud, it made its presence known. The thick darkness of night was cut with the white-hot light from the chopper's spotlight as it methodically searched below for anything or anyone out of place.

My room was, from moment to moment, illuminated by brief, invasive flashes of light ... dark … light … dark … light. With each flash, came a roar and vibration as the Police Loach, a bird used as a recon ship in Vietnam, hovered alarmingly close overhead. I listened to the clock tick and began equating the noise with more lost sleep and how that would affect my coming workday.

After the frantic search, the results of which I don't know, silence gradually overcame the noise and our community waited for the red rim of dawn.

The following day, sitting in the garden with the upstairs neighbors, I asked if they, too, had picked up on all this.

"Really, gunshots?" they asked. "Yep, we might have heard something, but we are really heavy sleepers."

What to me had been a deeply detailed, multisense experience had barely scratched the surface of their sleep. How could this be?

It really makes me wonder. As this simmering city of 10 million shapes my daily routine, what am I missing because I've learned to be immune?

Daniel R. Milnor is a photojournalist living in Los Angeles.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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