Eighteen years ago tonight, I was at the National Theater, feasting my baby blues on "Carousel." At intermission, the news spread through the throng like a wave: Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis.
It's six long blocks from the National to The Washington Post. I can remember sprinting through the streets, my change jangling in my pocket, answering the call of A Big Story the way volunteer firemen drop everything as soon as they hear the siren. It was awful and it was exhilarating, all at once.
I will probably never know how "Carousel" turns out. But I will never forget how Washington, D.C., turned out over the next four days and nights. I covered the civil disturbances nonstop, without sleep. Every April 4, I think about them. Here's some of what I remember.
The kid: I was standing in the 1200 block of Seventh Street NW, in a sea of smoke and fire engines. Today that block is almost bare. It's being dug up for a subway tunnel. In 1968, it was a strip of apartments and storefronts, all of them on fire.
It was not a time or place you'd expect to see a young boy. But as I stood there, jotting notes, a boy who looked about 8 years old came ambling past -- unhurried, unbothered. He walked right up to me and said hello.
I said hello back. Then he sized me up with his eyes and asked if I liked music.
"Sure," I said, wondering what in the world this kid was driving at.
"Well," he said, "would you like this?" He produced a Nat King Cole album from under his shirt and held it toward me. "Twenty-five cents," he said.
"Where did you get this?" I asked.
"I stole it," he replied, cool as could be.
"I don't buy stolen stuff," I said.
"Okay, then," he said. And he walked away as unhurriedly as he had come. It was as if he had offered to sell me a box of Girl Scout cookies. The unusual was the usual on April 4, 1968.
The police station: Reporters like news, but they also like to live to ripe old ages. I figured my best chance of doing that was to take occasional breaks from the looting and burning by visiting a police precinct house. How wrong I was.
It was late afternoon on April 5. I was standing on the front steps of the 2nd Precinct, at Sixth Street and New York Avenue NW. For the previous six hours, I had been watching firefighters battle blazes as far north as Florida Avenue. My eyes stung. My legs ached. My lungs burned.
I wasn't thinking about much of anything when a young man walked up and asked what was hanging around my neck. "My press credentials," I said.
He asked if I was a reporter. I said I was. Whereupon he launched into a raging, incoherent speech about how much he hated the press.
I immediately chalked him up as a fruitcake, and began to walk away. But he grabbed my arm and spun me around. When I faced him again, I noticed a knife in his hand.
"This is a police station," I said. "If you use that on me, you're going to be a lot sorrier than I will."
It was the baldest lie I've ever told. But it worked. Mumbling under his breath, the man walked away. I went right back to the blazes of Seventh Street. Safer there.
The looters: I was parked in an unmarked Washington Post car outside a Safeway store on Eighth Street NE. Through the front windows, I could see dozens of people looting the shelves. I told the city desk about it by two-way radio. The editors informed the police. Within minutes, several officers arrived and chased the looters out.
I decided to sit there and see if they returned. Sure enough, first by ones, then by twos, then in clumps, the looters crept back. Within 20 minutes, they had once again filled the aisles, and were helping themselves.
The mother: I stopped by the 13th Precinct station, at 1620 V St. NW. The precinct contained the 14th Street corridor -- the hardest hit part of town. In the 48 hours since King's murder, most of the damage and most of the deaths had occurred within 12 blocks of the sergeant's desk where I was standing.
Suddenly a woman burst into the station. TV crews put down their coffees and let her pass. She marched up to the weary desk officer and asked if her son was there.
The officer checked his arrest book, and the ticker from headquarters. No, sorry, lady, he hadn't been locked up, and he hadn't been hospitalized or killed. Beyond that, the officer said, he had no information.
I will never forget the crestfallen look in the woman's eyes. "He's probably out there burning with all the others," I recall her saying. "I didn't raise him to do that. Martin Luther King wouldn't want him to do that."
The only consolation from these memories is that they are memories. But whenever April 4 comes around, they pop back up again, to remind me of pain and destruction on a scale I hope I never see again.