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Parallels of Consumption: The L.A. Lifestyle And The Station Fire

Brandon Reynolds |
September 14, 2009 | 11:08 a.m. PDT

For many in Los Angeles, it's easy to ignore natural disaster.
(photo by Thomas Hart)
It's entirely because I'm barely a month into my residence here in California, this I know. But how does anybody get used to the image of the city aflame? It seems to excite a primal race memory -- the burning city, victim of barbarian nations or the whims of inscrutable gods. It's wrong, and in a very old way. Like you imagine the taste of human flesh would be instinctively repellent, even served with risotto.
But there is too a fascination with this vision. I've made a few trips to LAX in the last week, and orbiting back toward downtown there's the vista -- the tall bright clean static orderly buildings, and behind, sitting over their shoulders, the throb and pulse of the fires in the hills, red pockets of flame squinting like eyes, resistant to stasis, order, stillness. Which light is more beautiful? I should be ashamed.
Of course, the fascination with fire is an older instinct yet -- long before there were cities, before there were fortresses and possessions to consider, there were fires in the hills, built by the nomadic peoples of everywhere, to keep the monsters at bay, to keep the tribes quarantined in the light against the utter hostility of nature, throbbing out there in darkness.
So ours is a complex relationship with fire, and maybe this explains the very surreal attitudes of the people on this, the modern street. People everywhere, as always, driving and dining outside and shopping for post-nomadic clothing and being bothered by things intimate and subjective, and somehow far away from the people, just the exact same kind of people, who live in the hills and have to consider their fortresses and possessions, and whose world entire is, in these next days or weeks, entirely at the whim of some great red eye deciding to close or open wide.
And so that's just really strange, right? That you can be standing outside a bar as people file in, as others stand outside to smoke, the little burning coal in the cig a souvenir version of the hillside one. And all this going and going, all the eating and shopping and banking and so on, expresses the very very modern relationship we have now with fire: the competitive one. Because it's a contest of consumption, isn't it? We've built this city and consumed great resources to do so, we consume to keep it alive, and now our consumption stands in direct opposition to the much older, certainly much less refined one going on above and behind us.
I'm no foe to the bought thing, for sure, and hell in this very very modern time aren't all taboos being undone anyway? Can you not now go into any supermarket's frozen foods section and buy, right next to the lasagna, a tray of Stouffer's human sausage in risotto with creme? Or go to Whole Earth and buy same, only organic, and free-range? Or Trader Joe's version: cheaper; made by, for and of hipsters?
OK, so. We agree it's weird that it's not weird that we go on about our business whilst the world tries, little by little, to eat us? That we've grown beyond the concerns of those first city-folk, who had to flee the barbarians or the raining brimstone (and start up a religion after the fact)? That the darkness is entirely known and unscary now? That our quarantine extends to every horizon? That we have this thing in fact figured out?
Maybe it's because I'm new here. A friend declared he'd luuuuuuv a place in a canyon, but couldn't quite reconcile himself to the strange attitude of thankfulness that keeping your house unconsumed for ten years, say, would engender. It seemed to me at first that there is, in the constitution of the Losangelino, a certain fatalism. But maybe it's something else -- an acceptance of change that is indeed more in line with the capriciousness of nature.
In accepting the inevitability of fires and earthquakes, of risotto shortages and traffic jams caused by free-range hipster migrations, are the inhabitants of this completely unsustainable city in fact connected to nature in a very very modern way? My inscrutable God but that's a scary thought.
The reciprocal consumption makes us equals now. We no longer cling fearfully to the light of the flames or vacate the entire city when it pounces on a rooftop. The first element, the first god, lives with us. Right down the road. And when you go out to buy a few things, there it is, going too on its daily rounds.



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