"It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles's deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are."Mystery writer Raymond Chandler also evoked the Santa Ana winds for the first lines of his short story Red Wind:
"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."There are plenty of other references to Santa Anas, in literature and the lyrics of popular (or at least wannabe-popular) songs, and journalists sometimes use them as a hook, usually in the same way Didion and Chandler did. And for some reason whenever anyone writes about either Chandler or Didion, those passages are very likely to come up. But I would like to paraphrase Didion thus:
"It is hard for people who have moved to Los Angeles from somewhere else and then spent most of their time with other non-natives to realize how little the image of the Santa Ana in the local imagination resembles that in the imagination of the arty immigrant."I suppose that Didion, displaced from the rather bland valley town of Fresno, with its enervating, sultry summers and foggy winters, and hanging with the peripatetic literatti who flit in and out of the metropolis, and Chandler, who arrived in an era when the great majority of the local population consisted of people born elsewhere, had their rather overwrought reactions reinforced by their peers, but to those of us born in Southern California the Santa Ana winds don't loom quite so large, nor do they evoke any especially sinister feelings.
To be sure, they can be a great inconvenience, and sometimes a hazard, especially to people residing in the towns just below the mountains. There, the wind can do considerable damage. toppling deciduous and coniferous trees and tattering or denuding palms, ripping shingles from rooftops or, now and then, completely removing a big chunk of a roof. Falling trees or branches often snap electrical lines, causing power outages. They can also crush parked (and sometimes moving) cars, and do quite a bit of damage to buildings. Pasadena and other foothill towns get hit pretty hard every few years, and the cleanup is costly. And yes, a few unfortunate people have been killed in the storms, but probably fewer in a decade than automobile accidents kill in a typical week.
None of the kids I grew up with were bothered by the Santa Ana winds, though some of their immigrant parents found them distressing. We younger folk were more apt to be delighted by them, finding them an interesting diversion from the run of ordinary days. The strongest winds tend to come at night, and the next day they will usually be reduced to no more than bracing breezes with occasional stronger gusts. They can make for pretty good kite flying weather. But the best thing about them is that they blow the smog and haze away, leaving the air sparkling and bright. From where I lived on the south side of the San Gabriel Valley the mountains after a Santa Ana wind looked so close that you could imagine reaching your hand out and touching them.
I have no recollection of my hair ever curling (though the dry wind inevitably brings a lot of static electricity, so it can be hard to comb) or my nerves jumping or my skin itching from a Santa Ana wind. I do recall thinking sometimes that I could catch a whiff of desert sage in the air, though that was probably my imagination, which apparently runs in quite a different direction than Chandler's or Didion's. And while a great many of the man-made structures of Los Angeles did often impress me with their impermanence and, in some cases, their unreliability, I would never have associated those characteristics with the entirely innocent wind. And even with the more primitive meteorology of that time the Santa Ana wind was quite predictable. Like any wind it might appear capricious in its effects, but we always knew when it was coming.
Because I lived a few miles from the foothills and there was little chance of serious damage at that distance, it always pleased me to go for long walks on nights when the Santa Anas were blowing. I found them invigorating. I can recall many enjoyable nights walking with (or against or across) the wind, inhaling the clean desert air, and watching the city lights that were spread across the valley floor all sparkling and twinkling as though they were dancing. Walking became like dancing on those nights, too, with the warm wind as my partner. People like Joan and Raymond don't know what they missed. The Santa Ana winds are one of the glories of Los Angeles. But maybe it takes a native Angeleno to truly appreciate them.