Roger L. Simon

Return of the Locust: Living with an Arsonist for New Year's

The Los Angeles arsonist who has been making news the last few days for lighting perhaps forty car fires is operating in my hood. Just now I drove back from dinner past the Hollywood & Highland complex, only minutes from my house, where the night before this mysterious person ignited a Camaro. The LAPD is now describing him as “an older white male with a receding hairline and shoulder-length ponytail.”

In these parts that’s not exactly a small subset. It’s a good description of roughly half the males shopping at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market every Sunday morning. Knock on any door, as they say.

As of now, there’s no word from those same police on the motivation, but arsonists in general are known to be on the far side of normal, at least we can all hope they are.

But it’s hard to resist seeing this guy, whoever he is and whatever reasons he has for doing what he’s doing, as a creature of our times, the externalization of the madness all around us, not just in Hollywood… but, of course, especially here.

We seem to be living a reprise of Nathaniel West’s classic The Day of the Locust, published in 1939, another year that was not so good. West wrote of Hollywood burning then, during the Great Depression, and it’s burning now.

Tonight, outside Katsu-ya, a swank sushi joint designed by Philippe Starck, I saw a heavyset black guy in a top hat and multicolored tails forcing the swells waiting for their valeted cars — still Mercedes and Beemers — to listen to personalized raps he would sing to them whether they wanted to hear them or not. Trust me, almost none of them wanted this serenade, but they paid him anyway. Blood money, of sorts.

The City of Angels is filled with grifters, working any angle they can find. And it looks to be getting worse, although we are told that unemployment has fallen a few decimals to 11.3%. Of course that “optimistic” stat came from only 6600 actual new jobs for November in a state where 1.1 million are said to be unemployed. That would make the California unemployed by themselves the tenth biggest city in America, slightly smaller in population than Dallas. And that’s without counting the unknowable number who have given up looking for work and are out there working the streets.

We’ve been warned by the police to make sure our cars are locked and our car ports and porches illuminated. Common sense, it would seem, but strangely on my way down to dinner I saw several cars stationed in their garages with the doors open, as if baiting the arsonist to do his mischief.

But then the Santa Ana winds are blowing and it’s a hot New Year’s day here in Southern California with temperatures in the eighties. Raymond Chandler would not have been surprised. As he wrote in his short story “Red Wind”:

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.

Welcome to 2012. Jim Morrison’s old house was on fire. Who knows what’s next?

I’ve got my garage door shut and the lights on.

UPDATE: Fire count now up to 55. A “person of interest” has been detained.

(Thumbnail image on PJM homepage by Shutterstock.com.)