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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
Southern California is burning again, just like last year. But unlike last year, when the heart of the blaze was tony, expensive Malibu, this year, maybe in honor of the universally diminished financial picture, the blazes are mostly in Sylmar.
Last year, when the fires hit Malibu, I went to Shutters Hotel on the Beach to have dinner with a friend from out of town.
The place was packed with rich people – seriously rich people – camped out in the lobby after evacuating their houses along the Pacific Coast Highway. Incredibly beautiful women and their perfect children milled around merrily, comparing iPhones and James Perse pullovers. Surfer dudes sat outside, on the patio, knocking down Mexican beer and telling filthy jokes.
A few days later, the Malibu fires were joined by fires in the Valencia area – a community of million-dollar McMansions – the gold coast of San Diego County, and the swish areas of Orange County. At a certain point last year, there were so many expensive areas blazing away and so many displaced, homeless rich people that it felt a little like the southern California version of Hurricane Katrina – sort of “Katrina II: The High Net-Worth Edition.”
That night, I took the dog out for an illegal walk on the beach. I live in Venice, which isn't a fire zone but lies just low enough to be officially a flood plain. (In Los Angeles, it seems that each area has its own designated natural disaster: fires in the canyons; mudslides on the hills; floods along the basin; and, of course, earthquakes all over town.)
Silhouetted against the Malibu hills in the distance, I could see flames licking the ridge, lighting up the night sky. It's a pretty amazing sight, to stand ankle deep in the Pacific Ocean, watching flames leap off a distant hillside. Natural historians insist that this kind of thing would happen twice a year at least, and did, before people and irrigation dotted the brown hills with million dollar houses. They tell us that this isn't really a place for people to live and work. And it must be true: Los Angeles does its best to drive us all out and back where we came from with all sorts of biblical weapons – fire, mud, shaking the earth beneath us. But we stick around and write our pilots and make our movies, we go to yoga and buy electric cars, we eat salad and drink vitamin water. And we try not to notice the place burning and shaking and sliding.
Also: we have other disasters on our minds. With the global financial meltdown, recession, and the collapse in advertising rates, it's looking like a very tough 2009 following a very tough 2008.
Maybe that's a sign. Look, I've been living and working in Los Angeles for almost 18 years. As they say about comedy writers and dairy cows, I've had some “good, productive years.” But with the city on fire and an industry-wide contraction about to get even more contracted, it's hard not to ask yourself: “Is it time to go?”
Hard, but not impossible. You have to put some effort into it, some commitment, but it's possible to ignore the constellation of raging natural disasters, all of which are screaming at you to pack your bags and get out. You just have to take the dog to the beach, throw a tennis ball, and turn away from the burning hillside. Plug in your iPod, unroll the yoga mat, and get into half-pigeon. It's the smart thing to do. Because as anyone who has ever dated a rail-thin actress will tell you, this is a binge-purge kind of town. The hills are either soft and green or brown and firebox-dry. When the money isn't roaring torrentially into your bank account, it's racing out to pay the nanny and the yard guy and the BMW and the jumbo mortgage. If the phone isn't ringing a lot, it's probably not ringing at all.
It makes no rational sense to live in a place so dangerously unstable, just as it makes no rational sense to work in a business where fortunes are made and lost at the whim of a focus group. But for those of us who work here – that is, for those of us who realize, deep down, that we have no other marketable skills – you adjust to each disaster, whether natural or career. You refuse to see symbols in the earthquakes. You ignore the message in the mudslide. When the canyons burn, you spend a few nights at Shutters, head back home, and start again. When one network passes on your script, you wait a day, and then you pitch it to the next one.
And that's it for this week. Next week, the high seas. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.