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Smog City

A dispatch from Los Angeles

Emil Stern
July 03, 2023

Summer in LA: wildfires, earthquakes, prickling unease, and memories from only a couple of years ago of the National Guard driving down Robertson Boulevard. Still, none of these things bums Angelenos out like June Gloom. June Gloom is the annual local weather phenomenon during which the sky gets gray, the temperature drops, and seasonal depression rates climb. Giving the ambient murk a cutesy name (along with May Gray before it) is supposed to make it more palatable, but it doesn’t. All the spicy margaritas and superblooms in the world can’t quite make it alright. June Gloom, while calendar-reliable, is somehow annually surprising, maybe because it’s hard for the human brain to process that, after a spring full of bougainvillea, cactus flowers, and ripe loquats, the signs of impending summer are falling temperatures and skies filled with what looks like dirty cotton candy.

There is good news: June Gloom is only a temporary setback. Real summer starts when LA starts to feel like Lebanon, 1984. That could be the Fourth of July, or it could be the week beforehand, during which Angelenos gear up for their annual homespun firework displays, the fireworks themselves driven in across state lines and from Mexico. So, right about now, it’s summer! You can’t see too far ahead as the streets are obscured with billowing smoke, you can’t hear anything much over the ear-shattering crackacracka of street fireworks and panicked dogs’ yowlings, and good luck having a thought beyond God, I hope I can make it home through this. Talk about invigorating! Are fireworks legal in LA? In some incorporated cities, the answer is yes. “Safe and sane” is the watchword, a phrase that has not once occurred to me witnessing these displays. In other unincorporated spots, the answer is a flat-out no. I’ve never seen any fines handed out, however. So far as I know, no one has yet given a name to this phenomenon. May I suggest July Terrify?

Early in my LA days, some friends asked if I wanted to join them for a beach trip on the Fourth of July. Of course I did: I’m familiar with the beach. I’m Australian! One place I feel most at home is on the soft sand, gently baking near the peaceful shushing of the waves. That’s a different kind of summer beach, buddy! Dockweiler Beach on the Fourth of July is crammed with people, pit fires grilling meat and hot dogs, smoke bombs and sparklers alarmingly close to eyeballs and hands, and vendors selling ice cream and cut fruit with lime and Tajin spice mix. Music blasts from hundreds of boomboxes to create a kind of chorale: Reggaeton mingles with rap and pop, T-Swift and Biggie effectively dueting. It feels like a heavily scored cinematic montage come to life, one that’s more Michael Bay than Michael Mann. Behind it all is the roaring of aircraft taking off from the very nearby LAX. Look up! The sky may not be your brightest blue, but it’s enlivened by small planes trailing ads for summer blockbusters zipping across. The sun goes down, more alcohol gets discreetly passed around in expensive water bottles, and you can start to see the stars, as well as, behind you, the lights blinking on the smoke-stacked industrial developments someone decided to put right near the beach. So what’s a little DDT when it’s summer in LA? It’s good, rowdy fun, thoroughly anarchic and coming pretty close to the words of the Star-Spangled Banner made visible, with the rockets’ red glare really coming close to burning out your retinas (hopefully this year there will be fewer M-80s, which sound legitimately terrifying). All I can say is, good luck to any British vessels that want to stage an invasion with all that going on.

Thanks to climate change, September and October also feel like summer in LA. Temperatures last year climbed into the 90s. Heat waves, brownouts, totally chill government pleas to not use electricity during the afternoon hours: There’s a prolonged hangover after the actual summer, one more frightening than the crack of a bangsnap against pavement. But that’s a threat to the nervous system that’s going to take more than a Mezcal Negroni to overcome.

Emil Stern is an Australian screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is working on a book about his family, Displaced Persons.