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What Life Is Like In California’s Post-Apocalyptic Landscape


I woke up in the morning wondering about the dark red rays coming from behind the curtain. While I expected the darkened sky, the degree of darkness and the fact that I couldn’t smell fire surprised me.

Northern California fires have become increasingly common over the last decade as a consequence of mismanaging the environment. Native Americans staged controlled burns to safeguard their villages and create favorable hunting conditions. We failed to emulate that practice, and, as even Mother Jones concedes, so much fuel accumulated in the wilderness that megafires began burning year after year.

Year after year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has blamed global warming and utility companies for the ensuing deadly disasters. So far, the summer of 2020 has been a cool one, and no power lines sparked any fires. But since dry lightning strikes pierced the air in August, the state has been ablaze.

The difference today is that smoke is stuck high in the atmosphere, blocking the sun, but allowing the San Francisco Bay Area to breathe under the layers of fog. Large flakes of ashes fall onto the ground.

I had plans to meet a girlfriend for breakfast, and both of us were to bring our kids. I’m not the type to cancel a much-needed social appointment in the midst of a lockdown. I thought about it, though. At nine in the morning we were out on the sidewalk, photographing the tree leaves against the glowing orange air. Cars were passing by with headlights on. Streetlights shone.

I had no problem finding parking in what was even a day ago a fairly busy downtown area, even though over the last half-year we have been on a downward spiral. The San Francisco Bay Area is the home to the earliest, and the most restrictive, lockdowns in the nation. The six Bay Area counties imposed the very first American shelter-in-place orders. Those were followed by mask mandates. Initially, residents were mandated to wear masks indoors, and within six feet from each other. At the time, the majority ignored the outdoor masking laws.

Then, just as the talk of relaxing shelter-in-place restrictions filled the spring air, the Black Lives Matter riots started, and stores boarded up, plastering BLM logos on the plywood blocking their windows. The riots faded quickly — Antifa rioters who are at the forefront of the actions can’t afford to live around here — and, once again, there was talk of opening.

Then Alameda County passed new masking laws, requiring people to wear facial coverings when up to 30 feet away from others. If the earlier regulations allowed strangers to kind of, sort of share the sidewalk, the new ones pretty much made it impossible for two people to show their faces from across the street and still be in compliance with the law.

More masks went up, including on drivers alone in their cars. Then some Karens learned about the need to protect their eyes from the virus and donned sunglasses, leaving not a sign of their humanity exposed. We’ve been trained.

Over all these months, children had to be entertained. At first, they took to drawing rainbows on the sidewalk and talking to their friends from across the street. Once the riots started, parents taught them to paint BLM logos to display on their front lawns. Every day a new one would go up in my neighborhood of ordinary upper-middle-class East Bay parents, most of them white and Asian, raising their kids with what amounts to a new religion.

Then, just in time for the fire season, restaurants opened for outdoor dining. So there I was, sitting at a table under a street lamp, clutching a cup of coffee, pretending to be “actively eating or drinking,” but in reality talking to a friend. How is it not Armageddon, we mused, staring into the darkened sky. Or the ninth plague.

Amidst all the social and sensory deprivation we’ve experienced since March, this felt the most unreal. A morning that dark would feel normal in the north in the winter, and both of us are northern girls. My friend said she spoke with her mom, who complained that it started to rain, and days are shorter now, and chilly, and she no longer wants to go outside.

Well, nobody wanted to be outside here either, apparently, more so than since the start of the pandemic scare. Something in our brains was telling us to stay in.

On the plus side, last weekend, shortly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was caught maskless getting her hair blown, claiming ignorance about the local quarantine laws, Alameda County permitted indoor salon operations. We wondered if it was the astonished reaction of the national media outlets — “Who knew it was still illegal in the Bay Area? So unreasonable!” — that shamed the county officials into amending regulations.

Did you know that since March there have been 83 COVID deaths in San Francisco County (population just under 1 million), and 296 in Alameda County (population 1.5 million)?

All of a sudden we noticed an old man snapping pictures of us. He said he was photographing the weird fire skies, and that our table was merely in the background. We asked him to stop, after which he moved away, but continued shooting. Seniors are especially lonely right now, and at least this New Normal sky gives him something to do. Anyway, we left — and immediately proceeded taking pictures of each other against the saturated orange sky. Sweet Meteor of Death, when did you strike Oakland?

Then we drove to my house and went out to walk the dog. Normally I see neighbors walking dogs, and kids on the swings in their front yards. Maybe some bicyclists, or a few joggers. Not today. The only other pedestrians were two photographers documenting the hellscape. One of my neighbors popped out to snap a picture.

The colors were off, I noticed. The grass had a bluish tint, and tree leaves were shimmery silver under the street light. According to the forecast, it was supposed to warm up during the day, but it didn’t.

What is this nuclear winter? Under the morning twilight sky, fully concealed faces are moving past BLM logos and raised fists painted by children. It’s a total triumph of the political over the personal.

A few hours later, after checking social media for the annual Bay Area fire season pictures, I noticed the crows flying in large formations. Probably heading south. Something in their brains told them the summer is over. Time to leave California.