At the end of a storm… There’s a golden sky… (Yeah, Right)
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart…
— Recessional by Rudyard Kipling
Those of us who return to the foldout FEMA tables under the stucco pillars and inside the clay-colored walls of the once-deserted Sears store are old hands at being evacuees. The adrenaline rush of the rides through the flame tunnels is over and the adrenaline jag is fading.
The town we lived in is gone; reduced to pale drifts of an off-white filth that pervades every “official” photo of every incinerated house. The incidence of finding human remains has diminished from a dozen a day to one or two here and there. The list of the “missing” has shrunk from over one thousand to a few hundred. Everyone talks about this as if it is “a good thing” and I suppose it is… for all but those few hundred. Every day they become more distant and more dead.
Those of us from Paradise who are still standing have survived the fire this time. The rains have put paid to the flames that devoured our town and our lives and then rambled on southeast like some overstuffed ogre. After the burning, we’ve had a couple of weeks of organization and logistics and then the grace of Thanksgiving to salve our souls.
“Nothing like a good disaster to sort things out.”
And now, as it must, the attention of the world has moved elsewhere; moved towards our brushfire wars and our poisoned politics and our boring blather about the “you-better believe-they’re-beautiful” genderjumpers and their ludicrous lives; all the buffo bonfires and pooh-pooh cushions of life in this inverted epoch. The groove, as they say, must move.
The groove has moved but Chico is where it was. This week, on the faces of those who have passed through the fire, you are starting to see a wan resignation. You see people becoming aware that they will be living life in the Yellow Zone from now until further notice. You see that the waiting lines at the FEMA tables have grown used to the volunteer with his bullhorn shouting out the numbers from theTake-A-Number Machine. Down mall from FEMA, you walk into the Xfinity store and you see people packed into the lounging couches in front of the big screen not even following the game. Here too they’ve been assigned their places in one of a hundred waiting rooms they know they’ll visit in the next month, year, years, decade.
The whole epic scenario of this catastrophe has now reached the phase where the people whose lives have been destroyed come to know a new thing: The beginning has ended, the fire has been killed, and now comes the hard part.
Welcome to “The Grind.”
Everyone displaced from Paradise has come to know in the first two days of this week that the rebuilding of their lives, no matter where it will be done, is going to be a long, hard, and debilitating march through the institutions.
The institutions along our line of march involve the federal government, the state government, the county government, the city government, and the Paradise Town Council In Exile. Dealing with each of these, in turn, will involve multiple visits, multiple repetitions of work already complete, piles of paperwork, and then more visits to places with a Take-A-Number Machine. Then there are the insurance companies, the various services and utilities one has to work with. On and on and we haven’t even gotten to the point where you actually secure housing and have to set it up.
Securing housing is the Holy Grail in and around Chico now; the Holy Grail and the Pearl of Great Price all in one. It’s the one thing you have to have. Last night I saw what happens when you cannot be “housed.”
When tenting began on the first night of the fire spontaneous tent towns began to grow up at WalMart and the East Avenue Church. There were others as well. In the main, these camps of folks from the Camp Fire have faded and dwindled naturally as the onset of the cold and the rain makes the tents untenable. But some of the hardcore homeless, the desperately poor and unsocial, the tweakers, and the junkies gaming the system have persisted in their tents. Removing the remnants of the tent towns by any sort of edict or force is, of course, politically impossible. And those in the tent towns know this and work it.
One particularly medieval tent town has sprung up around large dumpsters in front of the closed out Toys R Us store. Here there are scatted tents of different sizes adding up to a reasonable Bedouin camp in the Sahara… except this is in a parking lot.
Across from the tents is a bank of porta-potties brought in by the city to control the shitification of the Toys R Us Parking lot.
I drove by that set up in the parking lot after dark and the tent people were out. You could see them in the dark shadows pawing over the piles of old clothing people keep dropping in the dumpsters to no purpose. As I drove past the tents a large one’s flap was thrown back and a big and portly man in a lumberjack flannel shirt and what appeared to be Leiderhosen emerged into the yellow tinted and dim “Earth Friendly” streetlights. He was heading towards the line of Porta-potties across the road. I looked at him and then looked again. Hard.
As God is my witness this man was heading towards the porta potties with a live raccoon riding on his shoulder, waving one of his or her paws like royalty passing in review on the way to the can.
As noted above, after a fire takes your town in its paws and plays with it, housing becomes the most critical long-term need. Not everyone gets housing. Those that show up with a live raccoon on their shoulder probably have a long long long long long grind ahead.
Then again, we all do.