Quaking and Stormy, California Reminds Us That It’s Alive

The southern part of the state is quaking and shaking, heavy rain lashes the northern coast, and snow piles up in the Sierra. Every now and then California reminds you that it’s alive, not just the plants and creatures but the rock itself, even that dry old sky that goes whole seasons without much change.

I woke at a reasonable hour, heard the rain through the open window, and it sounded so pretty that I decided to go back to sleep for a while. By the crack of noon, I was covered by a hat and my rarely used “rain shell,” headed for the beach. Great sheets of water and temporary rivers along the sidewalks made for a beautiful vision after another too-dry winter. The neighborhood ducks were out, a mating pair of mallards, delighted by all the worms and whatever else had been awoken by the rainfall.

The beach, my fine little beach of dredged sand, was perfectly empty of people, the tide at its high point and whitecaps on the bay, thanks to the storm, which had also delivered a supply of logs, boards and other driftwood. There was a dead duck, too, still feathered, its beak pointing up. 

I gather an armload of plastic along the way, mostly water bottles and the clear wrap that looks like jellyfish to hungry shorebirds. When people are out, this is a fine way to be momentarily sociable. Not long ago I scooped up an obnoxious piece of bubble-wrap on this same beach and got a hearty “Good man!” from a fellow walker. He and his wife told me how they liked to fill a bag with beach trash at the end of their walks. You can’t get everything but it’s satisfying to put it in the trash or recycling bins.

On the bay, there’s nothing but the reflected gray from the rainclouds and birds bobbing in the little waves. Nothing of San Francisco is visible, not the skyline, not the bridges, not the green ridge of hills topped by Sutro Tower. Minus the usual pounding Pacific surf, there’s no sign that I’m well within the protected bay. It’s an East Coast beach feel, gray and sodden, the great steel cranes of the nearby Oakland port visible through the downpour.

At high tide, the outflow pipe is deep underwater. But I know its general location, where it comes out of the sand at low tide, and I look out for signs of runoff, the oily sheen you often see when the streets and freeways are washed by a storm. It’s not visible today, maybe because days of rain and a series of late winter storms have already washed the grime into the bay. Anyway, there’s no sunshine to reflect off those glossy patches.

In these few short miles of walking in the rain, a week’s worth of work and forms and technical difficulties is mostly forgotten. The birds enjoy their freshwater shower, and the water pours off my hat. In weather like this, almost anyplace is romantic. Brooklyn under heavy snowfall, the streetlights haloed in snowflakes. Phoenix in a thunderstorm. The Outer Banks of North Carolina as a hurricane approaches.

Even Disneyland, that icon of artificial environments, is a revelation in a thunderstorm. Not too many years ago, we were there for my oldest son’s seventh birthday. We arrived from the desert, after school and work, and it was dark and stormy upon arrival. Thousands of people were running back to their motels as we walked up to the gates, and as the rain lashed the park we went from one beloved ride to the next, no lines at Pirates of the Caribbean, walk right inside Star Tours and Space Mountain and take a seat. Within 90 minutes we had done a whole day’s worth of Disneyland, without a single Fast Pass or delay of any kind.

New Orleans Square, the most realistic of the Disneyland architectural set pieces, was gorgeous in the rain, the fake gas lights flickering and great pools of inch-deep water on the pavement for the kids to stomp through. As my kids debated which $15 pirate weapon they would pick out, I talked to the lady at the counter in her costume that reflected nothing I ever saw growing up in New Orleans.

“When Katrina happened,” she said, “people from New Orleans gathered here. They just gathered here and talked about New Orleans, talked about the hurricane or hurricanes they lived through.”

She wasn’t from New Orleans and this was a theme park in Anaheim, but they talked to her like she was a local, using the peculiar dialect of the place. Everybody told stories, and with no television news to demand everyone’s attention, the stories were of “hurricane parties” and venomous swamp snakes washed into residential neighborhoods that were also swamp not so long before.

I wound up telling a story, too, because it was raining and New Orleans Square was as empty as the French Quarter on an early Sunday morning. I told about a hurricane party I remember, at the seafarer’s union hall, an official disaster-rated hurricane shelter my family had been invited to by our better-connected neighbors. The bar was open, the adults were happily drunk, the TV was going with the sound turned off and a weatherman in shirtsleeves doing another all-nighter as a hurricane maybe was about to turn up the river and do what we all knew would happen, someday. The kids were all running around on the stage, and a child just a little younger than myself was tearing up on the old upright piano on the hardwood stage.

They were songs everybody in New Orleans knew, records made famous in the previous decade or two, Fats Domino’s “Walking To New Orleans” and Professor Longhair’s “Go To the Mardi Gras.” The kid was little Harry Connick, the district attorney’s son. The D.A. was well known for singing and playing piano, too, and some of the parents remarked with approval that Harry Junior might someday be as good as his dad.

Ken Layne is the editor of Greenfriar.


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