Albert Hammond had warned of the myth of California, long ago, in 1972. He had done so in musical form, of course. The song was called “It Never Rains in Southern California,” and yes, it was meant to be a sardonic declaration rather than some kind of prideful “flex.” When one listens to the lyrics themselves as opposed to just going on the title, they can hear Hammond clarify of the “never rains in Southern California” part, “Seems I’ve often heard that kind of talk before/It never rains in California/But girl, don’t they warn ya?/It pours, man, it pours.” And what “pours” is not good fortune and opportunity aplenty, so much as destitution and more than the occasional rainfall.
Singing the song from the perspective of a failed “showbiz aspirant” (which is somewhat cruel on Hammond’s part, but then, it’s not like a failed showbiz aspirant would have been able to tell us their tale of woe), he begins the narrative with the doe-eyed protagonist explaining what compelled him to go to California in the first place. So it is that our narrator recalls, “Got on board a westbound seven forty-seven/Didn’t think before deciding what to do/Ooh, that talk of opportunities, TV breaks and movies/Rang true, sure rang true.” For that’s how so many from the outside looking in see it. All “big breaks,” bright sunshine and mild weather as part of the “California dream” that has lured so many out West for so long.
Increasingly, however, that myth has been difficult to uphold. What with the nonstop news of atmospheric rivers and mudslides and earthquakes adding to the overall sense not of “imminent” climate apocalypse, but that the apocalypse is very much here as we speak. All playing into that assholish Don DeLillo quote from White Noise that goes, “Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in… We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This alone warrants their doom.” To be clear, the Greeks invented everything Western culture traffics in now—including “lifestyle.” But naturally, it’s always been chic to throw Californians under the bus, to mock them for their so-called shortcomings—especially on the part of self-superior East Coasters.
Ella Dugray was herself an East Coaster, but she hadn’t fallen into the common trap of believing that the milieu was the end all, be all of geographical points. In fact, she had decided early on that she wouldn’t stay in New York—no, not city, but the state itself. Having grown up in New Rochelle and done the whole “NYC on the weekends” thing, Ella found it was quite played for her by the time she graduated from high school and decided to move to Los Angeles for what she called “a shock to the brain.” Her father, Aaron, who was vehemently opposed to the idea of her going, quipped, “That’s called a lobotomy. And yeah, I think a lot of people of out there got one just to function at the same level as the average citizen.”
Ella was sure the “joke” was more offensive now than it would have been “back in the day,” but she chose to let it slide, saying nothing in response. When she didn’t, Aaron continued to goad, “I guess your lobotomy will come in the form of not pursuing a college education though.” Ella’s decision to bypass college (presenting it more gently by claiming she wanted to take a year off) had been a very sore subject of late—for she hadn’t broken the news to her parents until right before graduation. The confession was worsened by her telling them that she would be “taking a year off” in California. Because she just needed to go, to see for herself what it was all about. Much like the naïve aspirant in Hammond’s cautionary tale. That Ella was moving to Southern California in the midst of another major wildfire that had erupted in early July and was still raging at full-force in mid-August, when she had booked her flight, wasn’t what scared her. It was that, mere months after settling into her new apartment, the heavy, indefatigable rain showers (a result of atmospheric rivers up north) came to roost. Something that was very uncommon—or had been, before the palpable effects of climate change rendered all rhyme or reason to erstwhile weather patterns totally moot. The only “pattern” now was randomness. And so, where once it was easy to perpetuate a key part of California’s brand as “always sunny,” it had become a challenge for the government and the Office of Tourism to keep selling it as such. For California was the land where you might fall right off a cliff—literally—at a moment’s shift in weather and geological phenomena.
Yet somehow, people like Ella kept showing up, determined to believe in the “the dream” (something to the effect of what Pamela Anderson had sold on Baywatch). And even as she watched that dream cascade down around her as rain gave way to harsh snowfall, she still wanted to believe in it. Had to. For there is no stronger armor against reality than delusion. And even the Los Angeles National Weather Service felt nearly obliged not to issue the necessary blizzard warning that would cause a panic throughout the county. They, too, were of the belief that: it couldn’t possibly happen here. History had established California—and Southern California in particular—as the promised land that only rained down rays of sunshine, not actual rain. And definitely not snow.
Alas, the lack of faith in science, and the greater faith in the myth of California itself, was made apparent when Ella and so many others found themselves gridlocked in traffic amid the blizzardy white-out conditions all around them. They had all braved the elements despite the L.A. National Weather Service issuing that aforementioned warning, instructing people to avoid going out and/or driving at all costs. Unfortunately, telling a Californian not to drive is like telling them not to breathe.
On the radio, the DJ saw fit to play Albert Hammond’s seminal single, noting beforehand, “That’s right folks, it never rains in California—and of course it never snows either.” Ella turned the song up to hear it better over the sound of her blasting heater, particularly attuned to the lines, “Out of work, I’m out of my head/I’m out of self-respect, I’m out of bread/I’m underloved, I’m underfed/I wanna go home.” The problem was, she didn’t really know where that would be anymore. For it wasn’t just California that had become a merciless landscape prone to unpredictable and inclement weather. It was nearly everywhere.
That’s why, deep down, she had so hoped that the myth of California was strong enough to battle against the enemy: reality. Looking out her car window to see nothing but a white maelstrom, she knew the war was lost. She opened her glove compartment to take out a hat she remembered stuffing in there at the beginning of her arrival, assuming she would never need it. Now, it might be the only thing that would save her from freezing to death. If she did, perhaps she ought to leave a note in the car…just in case. One that read something to the effect of, “Will you tell the folks back home I nearly made it?/Had offers but didn’t know which one to take/Please don’t tell ’em how you found me/Don’t tell ’em how you found me.”