What To Do When Your City Is On Fire

by Jessica Ripka

If your city is on fire but you are not in immediate danger, here is what to do:

1. Get coffee. The good coffee from a place you never go because it’s overpriced and there’s never any parking. Somewhere with a chalkboard that un-ironically reads: YOU’RE ALIVE AND COFFEE EXISTS! Take the long way there through the hills of Silverlake so you can get a good look at the growing plumes of smoke filling the sky. Tell the friend who’s driving how hungover you are, then wonder aloud, “Is this how the dinosaurs felt?” “Hungover?” the friend will ask. “No,” you say, “Doomed.”

2. Head to work. Listen to the local NPR station on your way for live updates only to turn it off then on again because you are equally intrigued and horrified. When you get to the office, ask where several of your co-workers are, then gasp in disbelief when you hear they’ve been evacuated. Steady yourself at your desk when you realize that after fifteen years of living in Los Angeles, the standard six degrees of separation from those affected by fire season has officially been reduced to one.

3. Try to get some work done. Schools will close and co-workers will struggle to coordinate how to get their kids. Someone will need to figure out what to do with their horse. Do whatever feels the most helpful, even if it’s merely emptying the recycling bin.

4. Call your family. This is important because sometimes family members—ones living far away—will assume you live amidst nothing but sun and palm trees. Let your mom know you’re okay but your boss nearly lost his daughter in a mass shooting the night before and his backyard just caught on fire. Don’t get angry when your mom says with a heavy sigh, “God simply cannot protect us if we can’t protect the unborn.” Instead, give her a moment to let her think you’re absorbing this and reply, “Y’know, I really don’t see the connection there.”

5. Go home early. Because your boss insists and your house is still standing. Pace around for awhile coughing, feeling like your house is okay but your lungs are not. Let yourself cry.

6. Head to the Korean spa. One made of large cement stone and salt rock. One that feels like it will exist forever. Strip down in the locker room and watch your skin turn pink in the large tub of hot water. Make brief but kind eye contact with anyone else in the room—all bodies in various states of decay. Soft tissue and dark matter. Offer an elderly woman your hand to keep her from slipping as she descends into the same tub of water. Do this even though you are both naked and tired and do not speak the same language. Move over for anyone else who joins you. Make room and stay close

Jessica Ripka is a 2015 Summer and Winter Tin House Fellow and a 2016 graduate of the Transom Story Workshop. She is a creative nonfiction writer and audio producer currently working in film in Los Angeles. She can be found on Instagram @jessicatheripka and Twitter @ jessicaripka.