California is on fire again, but you probably already knew that. The ones burning now are comparable in size to the October fires in Napa and Sonoma counties, but with a much smaller body count. As of this writing, the Thomas Fire (the largest of the SoCal wildfires) has two people confirmed killed (it was only one prior to Thursday). That’s comparatively good news unless you happen to be the two people.
When I blogged in October about the fires burning then, I trivialized the tragedy with a fart joke so I could reduce it to mere window dressing so I could focus the attention of my writing on myself. I think that backfired. Even though I wisely refrained from making fun of that one fat kid who couldn’t waddle fast enough to avoid getting engulfed in flames, some readers might still have thought I was being insensitive.
Live and learn. This time around, it’ll be different because I won’t be focusing on myself. Instead, I shall look to the fire and think about how it can best be leveraged to improve my personal brand. Unfortunately, I am unable to offer any material assistance to those in need because money does not multitask. Cash cannot simultaneously be a charitable donation and pay for my next drink. Thoughtful commentary, on the other hand, doesn’t cost any money and is worth every penny.
The fire is getting close to Santa Barbara and my friends living there are alternating between wheezing from the smoke and being scared shitless. Photos are going up on Facebook that show my home town, so lovely they named a soap opera after it, in stark contrast to the backdrop fiery glow in the hills. Maybe the fire will be contained in time or maybe it’ll roll on through Santa Barbara, sneering “You ain’t so pretty now, are you bitch?” before setting its sights on Goleta.
That’s some heavy Irwin Allen shit right there and quite frankly, I have no desire to be upstaged by it. Instead, I prefer it to be the opening act where I am the headliner. The connection is that the fire and I share a piece of real estate, albeit at different times. Since I also don’t wish to be upstaged by Santa Barbara, I am choosing the more modest Ventura as my location. My father and stepmother used to live there and it is where I spent the summer of 1981. It’s a nice town other than the parts that are burned to a crisp.
Imagine the story I’m going to tell you, my trip down memory lane, as a painting with a disaster from decades later serving as its frame. Or better yet, think of the story as a piece of catfish blackened by the fire. The blackening enhances the experience, but it’s the catfish you want. A plate of nothing but soot does not make the mouth water.
Now I have to pick what memory I would like to share. I can’t just drone on about everything that happened over the summer. That would be dull. I need to narrow it down to a single topic and run with that. The girl I had a crush on? Not reciprocal, nothing happened, so a nonstarter. My first LSD experience? Transformative as all get out, but disqualified because it happened during a weekend up in Santa Barbara.
There was one incident that happened toward the end of the summer that seemed like the perfect thing to write about. It was the closest I’ve come to having a #metoo moment (as a victim, I mean *wink*). I ran into some guy while I was hiking around the riverbed. I climbed a hill near the freeway and stared at the traffic for a bit. When I turned around, I saw the guy looking up at me and yanking his pud. He blew his load and I bolted like a gazelle.
Brave victims are very in this year so you’d think I should take this and run with it, but here’s the thing. People don’t really like victims. What they like is being wrathful and victims provide the means to justify that wrath.
It’s not like becoming a victim is any great achievement. Let’s say I write a novel. Good on ya, Dave, folks would say. If I write a second novel, even a lesser work, it will add to my total worth as a novelist. Now let’s say I am a college coed who gets raped at a frat party. Right-thinking people will thank me for my courage and demand the rapists be held accountable. If, however, it happens again and again all the way down fraternity row, people would start to wonder what the hell is wrong with me.
However, there is a larger reason why the incident at the riverbed simply will not work. Just before I ran like hell from my personal Louis CK, I saw an unfathomable sadness in his eyes. It didn’t soften my heart and make want to stick around, but it was there. It is quite intriguing in retrospect. It’s far more interesting than my part of the encounter. I saw what I saw and hauled ass. Big whoop. But that guy, was he so broken that was the only way he could meaningfully reach out to another person? Wow.
Sorry proto Louis. As I said, I don’t like to be upstaged.
Fortunately, I am not out of options. There is one left that fits the bill perfectly. It has quirky characters. It has slumming dressed up as character building so 36 years later, you can be suitably impressed by my false humility. Read on.
The Great Central Steak & Hoagie was my first experience with the Philadelphia cheesesteak. They were served with pizza sauce. Even today, that is how I believe it should be done. During the summer of 1981 after my first year of college, I had a job there. The pay was minimum wage plus all the cheesesteaks I could eat. I was in heaven.
The owner introduced himself to me as Mac, but everyone else called him George. Maybe he was trying out a new moniker and nobody was going for it. I wasn’t either and started calling him George as well. George liked dealing with the public so he usually ran the register, both his cigarettes and his gun within easy reach on the shelf underneath.
George’s wife Muse (pronounced “moose”) trained me on my first day. She was not very mooselike. She hailed from Singapore originally and had a no-nonsense demeanor peppered with eccentricities. While showing me how to work the meat slicer, she told me you could kill a person with a piece of meat and not leave a mark.
And then, wait, who the fuck am I kidding? For this story to tie in at all, the Great Central Steak & Hoagie needs to burn to the ground. Maybe it will someday, but not from the Thomas Fire, which never got within a half mile of the place.
It’s a pity too, because George provided plenty of choice anecdotes like how he hated “that hard-rock shit” so we were all treated to a country station during the time when The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira” was in heavy rotation. Then there was that time heshaved off his Michael Rooker curls when the weather got hot and ran out into the parking lot to compare bald heads with Lou Gossett when the actor was a customer. And how could I forget how he playfully called my buxom coworker “Nipples.” That was a hoot and a half.
Now his story probably never be told nor shall I be able to strut my writerly stuff telling it, all because of a fire that couldn’t see fit to burn for six more goddamn blocks.
Fuck you, Thomas Fire. Fuck you in the ear.