Kage Baker loved the marine layer.
May Grey, it’s called in Southern California. June Gloom. Some years, it stretches into July Why God Why?, but that’s rare; though we do have years when the summer sun is basically not seen from May Day to Labour Day – except for the 4th of July, when it usually clears up and gets blazing hot for 2 days.
But the norm is grey mornings and evenings, and a general mistiness throughout the rest of the day. Sometimes it never clears at all by daylight. It’s part fog, part cloud, part the fever sweat of summer starting in the gold hills; it rolls in from the Pacific Ocean, and swamps the narrow strip of California anywhere within 50 miles of the coast.
Technically, this soft miasma is called “the marine layer”, and it’s a phenomenon of the enormous quantities of cool water playing temperature games off the coast of a near-perpetual drought. What it really is, more or less, is the top layer of the ocean: bubbles,mist and water vapour, 3 miles deep and coming in as inexorably as the lesser tide that keeps to the beaches. Kage loved the idea of walking through it, breathing in it.
It rarely gets low enough to provide any decent moisture – many’s the May Day dawn I have bathed in the scant dew scraped from leaves.While it seldom dips usefully near the panting earth, however, it tends to be fathoms deep: enough to keep entire days in a hot twilight, without even a phantom white sun disk to mark the passing hours.
Shadows don’t happen under the marine layer. Seen from the air, it’s an opaque silver sea where scant blue and golden islands break the surface and turn out to be the Santa Monica Mountains.
But Kage loved it. The warm grey days were one of her favourite seasons. Maybe because Time doesn’t happen reliably under the mist, either; she loved to spend these days just wandering around with no schedule whatsoever. When we were teenagers and school was out, we’d wander down to Hollywood Boulevard – if we couldn’t beg a ride from a job-bound parent – and break our fast on the first pizza of the day. It was 25 cents a slice at Two Guys, with another quarter for Coke (Kage) or a coffee (me). The sparkling pink sidewalk would be slick and wet from the hoses of conscientious shop owners hosing off the night’s accumulation of gum, bottles and tourists, and you could go an entire block on a skateboard with one kick.
We’d wander through the Supply Sergeant, eyeing military surplus with wild plans for gearing up and taking to the road. Or through the Hollywood Toy Store, when Kage had decided on a magic trick she had to have – she loved sleight of hand, and bought all the plastic props from there. Every import shop carried cheap incense, through which one could graze absolutely free, and avert the eventual wrath of the teenager-wary shop keepers by finally buying ONE (1) German chocolate bar to share out between you. There were closed restaurants with interesting menus posted outside; they all had legends attached, some dating back to the days of elegantly criminal movie stars in fancy cars. There were tourists and interesting insane people and hippies and Scientologists and Hare Krishnas – it was 1967 and Hollywood had reached some sort of bright, tacky zenith of display.
Faux movie characters wouldn’t show up for another 25 or 30 years. The weird people were real, back in the day …
In the afternoon, we’d get more Coke and coffee and Italian cookies and wander up into the Hollywood Bowl. Before the evening concerts began to set up, the whole place would be empty, with the grey mist hanging in the great Bowl like curtains. We’d sit on the silvered wood benches in the cheap seats, even though we could have sat in the boxes with no one there … Kage would tell her stories, arguing out the details and plots with me as we sprawled on the warm wooden seats.
Eventually, we’d call home with the last dime we had – that long ago, Dear Readers! – and beg Momma to come and get us …
Today, I’m far from the misty Hollywood Hills; which, I am told, have burned off what little marine layer they have this year anyway. It looks to be another scorching summer down there. But here in the rising hills of Berkeley, I am in sight of the San Francisco Bay, and that top layer of foam has spread all the way up from the Bay Bridge. The sky is doves’ breasts and ashes of roses; the air smells of the sea. The cat is out in the garden chasing white butterflies. The bees can see the sun, I know, but it’s only a rumour to the rest of us here down under the marine layer and the buckeye trees …
Kage would love it.
Your words are magic. I smell the iodine in the fog and can watch it in my mind’s eye roiling over the hills around the Bay.
Not my words, Lynn – it’s this place that is magic. The Summer Country.