Well the universe is shaped exactly like the earth
if you go straight long enough you end up where you were
and that's how the world began
and that's how the world will end
--Modest Mouse, Third Planet
Drove home, doused everything in
the house, torched it.
Parked across the street laughing,
watching it burn, all Halloween
orange and chimney red.
Frank put on a top forty station,
got on the Hollywood Freeway headed North.
Never could stand that dog.
--Tom Waits, Frank's Wild Years
Should we talk about the weather?
--REM, Pop Song 89
As Southern California endures its regular bi-decadal holocaust, the Pacific Northwest lolls beneath a blue sky as glorious as it is placid. An unseen airplane overhead slices this frail sea; the sky bleeds water in a contrail, a fine point trailing a widening breach, as if a giant knife tip is cutting open the sky from the other side, revealing it to be stuffed with cotton. From here I can see the jumbled saw teeth of the Cascades on one side and the more remote, aesthetically as well as geographically, Olympics across the Puget Sound on the other. To the south Mt. Rainer looms out of the residual haze, a fifteen-thousand foot volcano (one of the more likely to erupt in our lifetimes) rising from the flats, in majestic isolation from the Cascades that crowd one another to form the state's broad, spiny back. Rainer looms over her surroundings like a vain, hooded god refusing to reveal just when she will reclaim the land. The city and its women are flaunting their charms brazenly in the sunshine. Work is all but impossible under these conditions.
The high pressure zone that normally resides a thousand miles down the coast occasionally slides up along the edge of the continent and settles in here. This fixture, when in its normal position, is the reason Southern California is so sunny; it boxes out the moisture coming out of the warm waters of the South Pacific, routing it north, where it cools and comes apart, spending itself in rain and some of the deepest mountain snow levels in the world. The periodic uncharacteristically wet winters Southern California experiences every seven years or so are a result of this reversal. The Santa Ana winds are caused by a similar inversion, of high pressure air between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. The air is forced down the mountain slopes into the L.A. basin, heated by pressure and speed as it races for the cool Pacific.
Almost exactly fourteen years ago, in October 1993, these same Santa Ana winds fanned fires all about sleepy San Juan Capistrano. From near our house we could spy two of them, a distant one that looked as if it was coming down Ortega Highway from somewhere near Lake Elsinore. The faintest snowfall of ash preceded it. A nearer one was at the moment an ominous glow on the horizon; it would soon sweep through nearby Laguna Beach like an invading army trying to drive the city into the sea.
Days before the desert's bellows had kicked in; uncompromising Santa Anas had been blowing hard across the brown hills like a blast from a great oven out there somewhere, evaporating what little moisture was left in the ground after a long hot summer.
We headed north on Interstate 5 counting the fires, all safely distant but some so large they appeared to be but a few miles up the road; looking north the freeway seemed to end in one of these. Another appeared like a hellish borealis on the other side of the hills.
Little more than a year before I had taken a similar drive, skirting Los Angeles coming south on the 405, counting the lines of smoke here and there along the way, as South Central's blacks rebelled against white law and order by sacking Korean groceries, chasing down Mexican immigrants,** and beating trapped white motorists and delivery drivers, gleefully assaulting, sometimes killing, young, old and frail alike. Columns of National Guard trucks passed in the other direction. I felt like a refugee fleeing a war zone. I was working an assignment in El Segundo, just south of LAX, just safely outside the rioter's playground. By that point it had progressed from isolated racial assaults to a festival of widespread looting.
That day too there was a dry wind blowing the lung irritating residue of the fires out to sea; the landscape was tethered to the sky by scattered chords of smoke. Strangers went about the mundane with a tender, dazed deference for one another, as the catastrophe played itself out as a farcical romantic pairing of resentment and condescension in the media.
The year of the Laguna fire had been the most trying I'd ever known, and the fires came as its crescendo; if something wouldn't give within the world would give without. I confess to a grim moment's welcoming thought for the cruel beauty of it: go ahead and burn. I've spent most of my life out here the West's far edge; nearly every breath I've taken has been drawn from its dry, empty air. So intimate am I with it that I've come to confuse the tumult in the atmosphere outside my body with that within. I think I understand now why people go home to die. Somehow this makes it all the more cruel that this indifferent land will take no notice of my passing, its subterranean conveyor separating out the paltry base parts of my frail body, reduced until indistinguishable from the mass. All this history and pain, strife and love, this life, vapor.
*As in to honor, not as in burnt; warning: any of you red state resentmentarians out there bearing that moldy Christmas fruitcake of an observation about immoral California burning like Sodom will be immediately banished. Toast, in other words. And count yourself lucky you didn't catch one in the eye. Aye.
**Now that former minority/current majority in many of the same neighborhoods that were flash-points of the "rebellion" are returning the favor, ethnically cleansing their streets of the despised "mayates", whom they consider a congenitally lazy and criminal class. Of course the vitriolic, paranoid bigotry that still infuses the culture of black Los Angeles has long been intensified by the very real economic displacement of native-born blacks by Asians and Hispanics.
I myself have heard some amusing conspiracy theory explanations explaining Asian success in the years before the riots--from co-workers in an industry that used to provide thousands of quality blue-collar jobs for Southern Californian blacks and has now all but abandoned the region, aerospace manufacturing.
I can't imagine it's gotten any better--unless the process of displacement has proceeded to the point that the streets have solidified into separate racial cantons, a la Baghdad. Kumbaya.
***This view of the '93 fire is from Newport's Balboa Pier, looking east as the fire approached. Photo lifted from here.