The locals don’t notice it and the transplants can’t articulate it. Living in Los Angeles requires getting comfortable with apocalypse. Not the fire and brimstone visions of The Bible, though there is some room for those, nor the alien landings of new age dogmas, though space is cleared for these too, but the daily unfolding of a revelatory end.
It is true, as Joan Didion claims, that “the city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself.” It is also true that there is no place on earth where image and reality is more connected, the boundary between them more frayed, than in Los Angeles. The barrier between city and set is blurred. You see a muscular Adonis jump from a parking garage in fatigues and hit the ground running. You look for the cameras. None are pointed here. He might just be exercising. He could be a stuntman. He might just be crazy. Another man enters the grocery store dressed as The Joker. He could be some oddball fan, might be a model from the makeup school down the street or he could be about to pull out an automatic rifle and riddle the place with gunfire. You might find out. You may never know. The images that remain hidden are the harmless ones. The ones that emerge have body counts. This is the strangeness that you must get accustomed to. It’s impossible to explain to a tourist. Anything could happen at any time. It might all end in a minute.
A few months ago, the ground shook. It was a minor earthquake. But it went on just a little too long. Long enough to think about it. And when you think about it, you wonder — is this it? Is this The Big One? You know, The Big One. The one that finally shakes this city into the sea. The one we all know is coming. We just don’t know when. But it is coming.
I’d never felt anything like that in Toronto. Even when the entire eastern seaboard lost power, there was the sense that we’d be back up and running. Here, there is the opposite sense. Even when you have power, there is the sense that it’s all ready to collapse. That it can all just be blown away. At any moment. There will be no warning.
The ground stopped shaking. A few dogs started barking. Nothing else happened. A little dizzy –earthquakes make me dizzy– I went back to reading my book. After all, living here requires a certain degree of comfort with the apocalypse. It’s coming. You just hope it comes after you leave. It won’t surprise you if it comes now. I could go to bed tonight and wake up tomorrow to find that the city had exploded in riots while I slept. It would upset me, sure, maybe. Would it surprise me? Not really. Anything can happen.
And when those winds blow, something always does.
When I first moved to the city, I felt the wind and thought it was a nice warm breeze. I’d heard about the Santa Anas but I’d never really felt them. I felt them a few times before I felt them. I don’t know the exact moment when they got into my bones. I think it might have been that night when they were blowing and I was at work. They shook the power at the grocery store. The lights flickered off. The registers went down. Everything came back up. But, for the rest of the night, a grating alarm screamed in the background.
You can read Raymond Chandler.
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”
That night, I could feel his words in my flesh.
Now, I feel those winds. I don’t feel a nice, warm breeze. I feel those winds and they feel primal. I tingle with basic animal alertness. The winds feel like fire. Like fire is coming.
They brought fire again to us last week. Where I am, we didn’t get much of it. When Korea town burns again, it will be the people doing the burning. But the winds stopped and the smoke gathered. Ash fell from the sky. Eyes stung. Noses got clogged. I watched the moon turn orange and the sun rise red. It’s impossible to describe its color without resort to cliche. The sun was blood red. It’s the only color you can call it.
The winds started blowing again and the air cleared. It’s an ambiguous twist that the winds that cause the fires there, clear the air here. It’s the sort of thing than tempts you towards some moral reaction. Should I feel guilty about the wind bringing relief? What would be the point? The wind does not care what I feel. It’s just going to do what it does.
You just have to get comfortable with that.
And, yes, getting comfortable with apocalypse is obnoxious. There’s no nice way of dealing with the slow motion unfolding. It’s all obnoxious. One can try to change it. One probably should try to change it. That means a lot of preaching and carrying on about changes to lifestyle. A lot of getting into other peoples business. This is necessary but it too is obnoxious. And one can try to explain it. That’s irritating and presumptuous. Mainly, you just carry on, waiting for the flames to come to you. This, of course, is crazy. Los Angeles does all of these things. It does them all at the same time. It is all of these things, all at the same time. How could it be otherwise? Who would want it to be?
Because the thing we also know, right in our fucking bones, is that these ends are also beginnings. The wind is not through with us yet. Even if we started reducing carbon tomorrow and actually got serious about stopping global warming, we still have at least fifteen more years of these increasingly worse fire seasons. And it doesn’t look like anyone, least of all America, is getting serious about stopping global warming. This is not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning. We’re going to see more ash falling from the sky. More images will break into reality. The veil is thin. It’s getting thinner.
The Santa Ana winds will continue to stir in the hills. Our hungry ghosts blow back in from the desert. They’re coming for revenge. They’re coming in hot and heavy to burn us away. They’ll turn our lives into another set. The new abnormal. A school gym is now an evacuation center. The parking lot is now a staging ground. The blue sky bruised yellow. All the pieces will be torn apart. All the pieces will reassemble. The world is taking a new shape. Hail Satan and Humpty Dumpty. Beg Anna Nicole Smith for forgiveness. She will not grant it. Pray that she passes you by. She might not. So get comfortable and get ready.
Some slow apocalypse looms.
An old terror is reborn.
There will be more.
But what else is new?