Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I Fell Into a Burning...

High of 92 today, for the second day in a row. Driving home from school, I noticed a giant plume of grey smoke coming from the hills, behind the observatory. Grey smoke is good, it means that it is just a brush fire. When the smoke from a forest fire turns black, you know that homes are starting to burn. I remember seeing that happen, during the Oakland fire of 1991. That Sunday morning, when I was eleven, the smoke coming from the north was grey, but by mid-afternoon it had turned a thick, oily black, as asphalt, shingles, and gasoline went up in flames.

It reminds me of my first fall in Los Angeles, three and a half years ago. I had purposefully found an apartment on the #2 MTA bus line, which went straight to the music building at school. By October, I had grown accustomed to the bus, even my morning waits for a late bus in the brutal sunshine. But one day, the buses suddenly stopped coming. The mechanics had gone on strike, and the drivers struck in sympathy. I luckily heard the night before, but the next day there were crowds of people at the stops, waiting futilely for their buses. Even today, I still breath a small sigh of relief when I see a bus go by, even if it is in the wrong direction. At least the buses are running.

Then, at about the same time, the workers at most of the area grocery stores also went on strike. Ralphs and Vons stayed open with scabs, but as a loyal member of UAW Local 2865, I wasn't about to cross a picket line. But I was, meanwhile, out of both a means of transportation and food. Then, at the end of a long dry summer, the city slowly started to catch on fire. There was a fire in Pasadena, a fire in Malibu, a fire in the valley, another one to the south. We joked that soon we wouldn't be able to leave the city except by plane or boat. Over Thanksgiving, I did just that, flying off to London to visit Mary. As the plane took off from LAX, I could see the smoke rising from all directions. Los Angeles was hemmed in by a literal ring of fire.

It gets so hot in this city. My apartment is on the top floor of my building, with large view-less windows and nonexistent insulation. We have an ancient air-conditioner cut into one wall. If you turn it on full blast, you get a little puddle of cool air that lets you watch TV in some temporary comfort, but doesn't even get close to the bedrooms. My friends and I invest in fans, swamp coolers, and library expeditions, but there really isn't anything you can do about it. Last summer, when it was sweltering, Pablo would see me panting unhappily on the couch and would come over and drape his warm fuzzy belly on my neck. I considered drowning him in the pool, but I also understood his furry little desire: when it gets that hot, sometimes all you want to do is get hotter, and hope that your ability to feel heat will just burn out.

Every city has its own heat metaphors. For New York, summer heat brings up violence, the Bronx in 1978 1977. In Washington, it's that city's former status as a swamp, and the intimation that the slimy politicos that dwell within enjoy such habitats. In the South, you hear endless clich├ęs about laidback attitudes moving slowly in the heat. In Texas, you have George Bush subjecting visitors to the furnace of his ranch, as if that kind of heat will separate the man from the boys.

In Los Angeles, the heat is like our tar pits. It sucks you in, swirls you about, and spits you out a few thousand years later as a fossil. Everyone desperately wants to escape Los Angeles in the heat, but unlike New York or DC, there's nowhere really to go. San Diego? Palm Springs? Las Vegas? Each worse than the last. Your best bet is to drive north, but you have to go a long ways to escape this heat. Instead, those of us trapped in this urban ooze do our best to keep afloat.

But it doesn't look good.


Caroline said...

1977! Have a dissertation sentence:
For the Bronx, 1977 was the year that it all came to a head: first the riots and looting in that summer’s blackout, and in October the dramatic, nationally televised proclamation by Howard Cosell—during the World Series—that “ladies and gentlemen, there it is, the Bronx is burning."

It smelled like barbecue here yesterday. Lots and lots of mesquite.

BBound said...

Damn fact-checking, always trips me up. I've even read your chapter on the subject.

Caroline said...

Really? I didn't think anyone had read that. How did you get ahold of it? Did I send it to you?

BBound said...

Yeah, you sent it to me last summer, when I was teaching RnR, along with that amazing recording you dug up. Both were highly useful!