The black van slid to a halt and the good doctor ejected himself from the shotgun seat. “We’re evacuating!” he said, as he and two friends race-walked toward his house, next door to ours. He’d had to talk his way past the police to get up the hill from Cathedral Oaks, sliding by only because his friends from Carp had left two Labs in his back yard before they’d gone to dinner.
Suzanne and I had been having our own dinner on Thursday evening when the lights finally died, after a half-hour of fritzing televisions and power-surging phone messages. We were in the Dream House, the one we’d bought in 2001 and moved into exactly one month ago. We’d nested after extensive renovation, doing all the little things you do to make a place yours, down to the anal stuff of alphabetizing books by author, within categories, or happily noting when the hummingbirds found the feeder. When I flew back to the Chicago area for my last graduation as a professor and to check out our for-sale house there, the going-away salutations were tearful but I’d already moved West in my head. I missed our cocoon.
The street looked like Pompeii. The car, which I’d pulled out just-in-case, was ash-laden, the sun blood-orange. An odd lot of fire-tourists were snapping cell-phone pictures of the flames up on the ridge line, but word was spreading among the neighbors even before the Reverse 911 call came. It was a cloudier version of when everybody checked out of the neighborhood where Vivica Fox lived in the movie Independence Day. Trunks up, sliding doors open. Only the threat had changed, from alien spaceships to surging fire.
We’d begun talking about what to take with us over dinner (another homey touch: an Empire kosher chicken). Now, by candle- and flashlight, we were a team. Two file boxes of deeds and mortgages and three garbage bags of other documents-check. Computers-check. Jewelry-check. One suitcase full of clothes-check. One photo, of us and our sons from a wondrous family photo-safari to Kenya-check. Checkbooks-well, check. Dog-arf.
And one for the generational road: Suzanne grabbed the silver candlesticks that her great-grandmother had schlepped out of Russia during her own flight, one step ahead of some pogrom or another, taken along whether for religion, memory, or barter-if-needed.
One question remained: Where were we going? Our realtor-turned-friend, trapped in her own surrealism after the train she was on hit a car in Oxnard, called to offer her condo. A second call yielded the empty house of close friends who were in San Francisco. Another friend cranked open a powerless gate, and we had shelter from the crackling storm.
On Friday, we bounced off the roadblock after trying to get back to our home, then were first in line at the Community Center in Goleta when the gas masks were distributed (working in the Philippines and China has given me some familiarity with these). A quick moment of self-congratulation over how well our survival kit matched up to the instruction sheet posted outside gave way to concern about how quickly the queue of concerned citizens was growing behind us.
After our neighbor failed to reach his place, we met for breakfast commiseration on Calle Real.
As we ate, offers of places to stay kept coming. From a distant cousin we hadn’t even seen yet, in Ojai. From a writer friend. From the editor of this paper, a buddy from back in our days at Rolling Stone. And, as the Gap Fire shouldered its way into the national news cycle, calls and emails came from concerned friends, relatives and clients around the country. That business trip to Cleveland come Monday-fuggedabout it; be well.
So far, we have been discomforted rather than injured or permanently evicted. Glued to TV, computer screen, and Crackberry, we also feel growing community with the 100 people sleeping at San Marcos High, with the perhaps 1,000 firefighters and rescue workers up on that ridge, even with the cops who saved us from ourselves by keeping us down the hill.
We are dispossessed. But we are home.