SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- Afriend from the East Coast called to inquire about the latest disaster to hit the Bay Area -- the fire in the Oakland hills. I painted a firestorm of cataclysmic proportions: a smoke-veiled sun that turned the sea the color of blood; inhabitants fleeing from balls of fire; ashes raining down from the sky.
"Man, California living must be over-rated," my friend exclaimed.
We Californians live now, as Joan Didion would put it, "close to the edge," beset with reminders of how transient life can be: the mudslide of '82 that sent houses down slopes to meet highways; the earthquake of '89 that set glass and concrete a-tumbling; now the firestorm of '91, fed by Santa Ana-like winds, that left burnt-out hot tubs, charred sports cars, lonely chimneys. The golden dream is becoming nightmarish, it seems.
With the cool weather, the firestorm has fizzled out, yet another kind of cloud hangs heavily in the air. Psychologists predict that those who survived the firestorm have experienced psychic upheavals that will leave them shaken for years. More than 1,500 homes have burnt, some 5,000 people have been left homeless. There's talk of supernatural forces at play.
"When I saw the sun turning so red out the window," says Min Paek, a Korean American graphic artist, "I thought something is definitely wrong. I turned on the TV and saw a firestorm. In Korea, it's a very bad sign when the sun bleeds." Ms. Paek says she has decided to go to church regularly from now on.
"I was on the Golden Gate Bridge when I saw all that smoke and fire from the East Bay hills and the sun and the ocean all red," Loan Tran, a Vietnamese-American doctor recalls. She got the whole scene in her camcorder. "It's so biblical. I was ready for the sea to part."
If indeed God descended on the once-posh Oakland hills in the form of fire, what exactly was his message? That living beyond our means, pretending the desert is paradise, should have taught us the inevitability of tragic ends?
Out on my patio, neatly tucked away, is my backpack filled with packaged nuts, a "Moby Dick"-sized novel, water bottles, flashlight, first aid kit. I have already learned the lesson of California living. The "EARTHQUAKE" headline on my wall, the cracked sidewalk outside, the invitation to a memorial for a colleague who recently died of AIDS, the homeless people who've become permanent fixtures outside my office -- these tell me all is not well in this man-made illusion of paradise.
When a cousin moved to the Bay Area from Colorado a few years ago she was filled with optimism. She recited the old California sutra to me: "You can be anyone you want to be out here," she said. I warned her of disasters, earthquakes, mudslides, AIDS, homelessness, crowds, crime. The cousin shrugged.
Now after several years of California living, she is becoming nostalgic for aspen trees.
The fire and earthquake experts warn that we can expect more disasters in the future. Californians sigh. Tragedy has a nasty habit of becoming routine.
"You worry too much," Loan, the friend with the camcorder, says. "California still has its splendors." She is planning a firestorm party for Halloween. Any time now we will get together in monster costumes and watch her footage of white sailboats gliding dreamily on the bay while the smoke billows from the distant hills.
A typically glib Californian reaction? Perhaps. But it seems to me many of us have begun to think in a tradition of suffering. When the sun turns too glaringly bright in the afternoon, or when the wind blows dry and hot, carrying the scent of burnt grass, we will likely look at each other and say, "Oh, oh! The Santa Ana is blowing again," or, "Oh, boy! Earthquake weather!"
We will recognize on each other's faces that certain look of foreboding, that nervous California smile, and offer a private joke or two about living in blessed California.
Andrew Lam is a writer who came to California from Vietnam at the age of 12. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.