Los Angeles: volatile mixtures in a western metropolis

    Smoke from the October 2005 fires in LA County. Photo by Anthony Peluso, Ithaca College.

    The owner of a nail salon in the San Fernando Valley has bad nerves in October. This month is when the fire will occur.She leaves the news on.So many of her friends and so many of their homes in danger.

    One day it rained ash.She drove home with the windshield wipers on.The sun, looking bigger than usual, burned a violent red through the smoke-filled air.Everything looked more beautiful through the haze, which saturated colors and blurred the edges of things.

    The last two years have been bad.Last year’s statewide drought made possible a wildfire so huge that you could see it from space. Plumes of smoke showed up as a giant weather system in NASA satellite images.

    Then there is the wind.The wind makes the fire.The Santa Ana winds come roaring through the mountains this time of year, mingling with wildfires in a dangerous chemistry, winding through trees and blowing under doorways; setting everyone on edge.

    The wind rattles the windows of her storefront.When I walk in a gust of wind from outside nearly destroys a stock of nail polish, which balances on a narrow glass sill near the door.Lily’s place is staffed almost entirely by recent immigrants from Vietnam.She emigrated from there more than 20 years ago. She is my best friend’s mother, and I have known her almost that long.

    Today we can’t see the fire from the shop, but it is happening in the surrounding hills. Occasionally bits of ash fall from the sky. She is worried about her daughter, my friend, who is driving in it. Sometimes she can smell the fire and hears them talking about it on the news.

    Lily’s salon is identical to most others in the Valley.It is located on a strip mall and has large painted glass windows: “Spa Mani and Pedi / Waxing / Permanent Makeup; Beautiful!!!Lily is the only reason I go to this one.She insists I visit her every once in a while and does not allow me to pay. Despite the draw of free pedicures for life I do not go very often because not paying someone to fuss with my fingers and toes goes against the grain.

    I am going on this day because high school classes have been canceled on account of the fires.The salon is empty.Lily flags me into a station, pulls up a chair and talks with me for the remainder of my visit.

    There is a strange intimacy about this.She touches my face, pulls snowflake ashes from my hair.She feeds bits of fruit and rice directly into my mouth while we talk, interrupting my sentences like I am her young daughter. This is how she cares. She cares also by worrying, which she does about her real daughter almost every hour of every day.

    She says things like, “I hope Jennie is O.K., I never see her anymore and What do you think of her boyfriend? His hair so long and dirty!”

    “He is OK,” I say, “but I think a little stupid.”

    She will also say, “I remember the first time I saw you, I kept looking and looking because I wanted to know were you Chinese or American?”

    And I remind her that I was both.

    I think to myself, this is a woman who trained to be an architect and now she makes a living by giving bikini waxes to smug teenagers.She will send two daughters through college this way.They will train to be doctors or perhaps engineers, marry white men, and have blue-eyed children who are more American than anything else.

    “You know, Angela, that when I was your age I was six feet tall!”

    “Six feet!” I say.

    “Yes, but since then I have been shrinking many inches.”

    On the news they are still talking about the fire in the hills.The winds are picking up and blowing north, it is getting harder to fight.By now the sky has turned brown.

    “Your mom must be worried,” she says. “You should get home. The fire only a mile from your house now.”

    “Don’t worry,” I tell her. “We should be safe.”

    And we are. Later that night I sit with my family on the cliff above our house in Northridge as bright fire lines move across land to the south and the east.Our neighborhood is not in danger, so we watch.Through the smoke haze the Valley is sparkling like an endless grid of Christmas lights.


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