Coffee and the Woolsey Fire

Coffee and the Woolsey Fire

A spark flies and your life changes overnight. Turning points that reveal themselves. I’ve been living in the Santa Monica mountains for ten years, but my current home, which I moved to 2 years ago, is the first one I've lived in without my husband -- this is where I discovered just how much things have changed since the last time I was single -- thirty five years ago, when I lived in Montmartre and spent a month eating spaghetti with garlic.

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I jokingly refer to my neighborhood as “Cornell, a small country in Agoura Hills”. Nearby is the Old Place, which used to be the old post office and is now a popular restaurant with worn wooden benches and antlers over the door. Down the road is Malibou Lake, where we lived for a year, and the kids had a rope swing to jump into the lake. My neighbors are rattle snakes, coyotes and bobcats; spiders and ants; old California oaks, and wild sage.

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On those rare, rainy nights when the wind howls with a wet echo, I imagine our local mountain lion taking refuge in a cave, or sheltering under a giant boulder, or perhaps, roaming in the wind, ever on a solitary hunt. He lives just across the creek that I can see from the balcony -- I know that because according to Nextdoor he’s been spotted by various neighbors: people post footage from their security cameras, which catch him crossing a patio at night -- or they report driving past him as he darts across Mulholland Highway. He is known as P-64. I think of him often, out there on his own.

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Tonight, a fire has broken out on the other side of the highway. I’m on alert, as always, but get into bed to sleep. I lie there for a while, listening to the roaring wind, wondering about P-64, and fall asleep.

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It’s 4 AM now, and I suddenly wake up. It smells like a barbecue blowing into my bedroom. I get up and peer out the windows at the mountains on either side of the house. I see no flames, no glow on the horizon. Just the smell of fire blowing through the house. I open the door to the room where my son Max is sleeping. “Max, this isn’t good, I can smell the fire. We might need to leave.” He growls and rolls over. I check my phone for more information: the fire is still on the other side of the highway, so I get back into bed. But I can’t get back to sleep. I'm thinking about what I should gather in case we need to evacuate. I've made a short list in my head: the passports, the vase that once belonged to my grandmother, a change of clothes, that should do it... I toss and turn, the fire smell is worrying. Finally, I get up and start to rummage. It takes me about an hour to find everything on my list, groggy in the pre-dawn.

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I check the Twitter feed from time to time, which is how I find out the fire has jumped the highway, so Cornell now has evacuation orders. It’s almost 6 AM. It's time. I'm ready.

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But first -- coffee. I quickly pour myself a mug from yesterdays leftover pot, and pop it into the microwave. Push 1 minute. The microwave starts, and then suddenly, approximately 5 seconds later, the lights go out. The microwave halts. Power is gone. I wince and take a couple sips of cold, stale coffee, before giving up. I brace myself: I drag my son out of bed and load my box into the car along with his computer.

 

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“It’s OK,” I say to my son. “Let's go to Malibu and get a coffee”. All I want is a hot coffee. We are winding our way across Kanan Dume, the canyon that heads through the mountains to Malibu. I look at Max. As we go higher into the mountains and we get a view of the flames and the huge smoke cloud moving in our direction he gradually connects the dots in his half daze. It's a sight to be seen.

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Maybe I’m staying calm partly because I want Max to stay calm. Sometimes he isn’t calm. We drive round the bend in the road, the same stretch of road where, years before, he grabbed the steering wheel from me in a rage.

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The ocean spreads out before us as we emerge from the canyon through the mountains, but as we get to the PCH, the traffic slows down, grinding to a halt. All of Malibu is also evacuating and it’s bumper to bumper traffic heading into LA along the PCH. We make it to Cross Creek and I turn into the Country Mart making a bee-line to Starbucks. As I pull in to park, that's when I realize all the power is down in Malibu too. No coffee. Max pulls his hoodie tight around his face. I'm not sure where to go, but I don't want him to know that.

 

“OK Max, let’s take Topanga Canyon to the valley. We’ll go to my warehouse and see what happens from there. I still gotta get those boxes packed...” Max groans, this wasn't the plan for today. We get back into the slow moving line of cars headed toward LA along the coast. Progress is slow, painfully slow, and as we cross back to the valley, through Topanga canyon, we get a good view of the scope of the fire. Max is taking photos, it’s a huge fire. It's grown in the time we have been driving. He is exhilarated seeing the size of the inferno, its power. Like when we felt our first California earthquake shaking the bed as we watched The Lord of the Rings. He howled with excitement. “This is so cool!”

 

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We descend into the endless grid of the Valley. We are both starving by now. I’m feeling shaky. I need comfort food with my coffee. All I've got with me are my passports, my grandmother's vase, and my 2 pairs of panties. I'll be dropping Max with his dad, but I have no idea where I'm going to sleep that night. First things first though. “Pancakes, Max, I need pancakes.” We pull in to the Country Deli, near my work. The deli waitress seats us in a booth. I sigh with relief. “Coffee please, and a stack of 3 pancakes with bacon on the side.” That’s all I want in the world, just now.

 

She looks at me apologetically: “Sorry, miss, the griddle is on the blink. No pancakes, or French toast. But I can definitely get you started with a coffee”. “Ok,” I always try to find the solution to every disaster, and look up at the waitress: “Can you do waffles?”

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And this day is only just beginning.  

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About an hour later a neighbor texts me two videos. The first shows the house smoldering. Still standing but unlivable. We are lucky, as I can see the other houses along the street have all burned to the ground. The second video shows the inside of the house, and you can hear the fire detector still beeping. The kitchen is charred rubble. My prized piano has the debris of the burning roof all over it. My heart is racing and my head swims. I put the phone down and take a deep breath. Loss is a feeling I know well. This too shall pass. I show Max the videos. I think we are both in shock.

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Images start to filter through social media. The bridge over the creek to the Old Place has melted. The houses near Malibu Lake look post apocalyptic. And the fire is still raging towards Malibu. The next few days I hop from one friends house to the other, and eventually land in an Air BnB hosted by a couple who offers their home for free to Woolsey Fire Victims. People are being really nice, inviting me into their homes, offering me clothes. I allow myself to be held by the community. Just for now, while I try to re-orient. It's a gift, to feel held by your community and allow yourself to accept that spirit of generosity.  

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Meanwhile, I read the news that P-64 is dead. He survived the fire rushing through our area, but only a few days later he was discovered, his cause of death unknown, but his paws visibly burned.

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