(Photos by Ted Soqui)I grew up surrounded by the flat, harmless landscape of central Michigan. Every so often, when the terrors of nature found in Southern California dominated our TV newscasts, my Michigander friends and I would stare at the images of fires and earthquakes and smack our foreheads. “I can’t imagine living in that place — ever,” I’d say to my friends, who readily agreed.
Years later, imbued with the power of rationalization gained from a couple decades of life, I moved to this insane city where the ground can swallow you whole or burn you alive. In a sense I was running from one man-made disaster — my pitifully short marriage — toward a continually impending natural one.
So last week, as Griffith Park burned, I unhurriedly drove to my Los Feliz apartment. I had only been paying spotty attention to the news reports (I was at work all day, where I never screw around on the Internet), and had even hit the gym before driving down Franklin Avenue toward home. A voicemail from my friend Mike, who also lives in the neighborhood, properly notified me of the threat level, so I respectfully motored home with the radio off. It was an eerily quiet drive. East Hollywood was bustling as always, but everyone driving seemed to agree that it would be unseemly to blare music or lay on car horns as an angry brush fire raged in the distance.
Firefighters battle the 800-acre Griffith Park fire, the worst in three decades.I found Hillhurst Avenue closed to auto traffic, but the sidewalks were full of people staring up at the burning hills. Each cluster of onlookers was bathed in the dim blue light of cell phones and digital cameras, everyone trying to capture in words or poor snapshots exactly what was happening up there. But the tone wasn’t so much, “Oh, the humanity,” as “Oh, look at that.” Most of the street-side cafés were full, diners peering north in between bites of pasta or roasted chicken.
While many homes north of Los Feliz Boulevard were evacuated, only a few prudent residents to the south had the initiative to take flight. Neighbors of Mike’s packed up their family and some personal valuables and headed to safer ground. Soon after that, Mike watched a car screech into his cul-de-sac and park askew near the curb. Out rushed a delivery person from one of the local Thai joints.
I couldn’t help but be struck by the difference in perspectives between my old life and my new one: Thousands of miles away, watching the fire on CNN, I would have imagined and even hoped that the neighborhood bordering this hellstorm was at DEFCON 1. Half a mile away, watching it with my own eyes, I kept getting distracted by the girl who was blessedly vigilant enough to keep tabs on the situation dressed in nothing but a tank top and tight boxer shorts.
Residents of Los Feliz gathered on the Hyperion BridgeSometime after 11:30 that night, things seemed under control enough for me to return to my apartment. It had been a long day, and when I hit the sack, the almost complete lack of traffic on Hillhurst allowed me the best night of sleep I’ve had in months. The only time I woke up was at 5 a.m., when a helicopter briefly hovered over my apartment.
Days later, at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf patio on Hillhurst, I fell into conversation with two guys from the neighborhood — one lived north of Los Feliz Boulevard and had to evacuate, the other lived to the south and went to bed at a sensible time. As we discussed the fire, I discovered that one of the fellows had an unmistakable accent — he was from Michigan too. We spent a few minutes talking about proud native Jeff Daniels (Chelsea is where his Purple Rose Theatre is located; that had been stumping me for weeks), the differences between the state’s Big 10 universities, and finally the economy, which is awful these days. Michigan has the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate, and it seems that every other person my age is fleeing as quickly as possible.
I shook my head and said, “I can’t imagine living in that place right now,” as the hills of Griffith Park could be seen over my shoulder, freshly charred.