It’s been over two decades since I lived in Southern California and now, incredibly enough, I often take the air in the Bay Area for granted. Namely the fact that I can’t see it. Growing up in Pasadena in the 1950s and 60s, we could see the air we breathed.
As a kid I was too busy playing out on the streets in upper Hastings Ranch, a housing track tucked under the mountains, to be concerned about it. But, at 12 — the age when most kids start to notice the things that aren’t quite right — I realized that my lungs hurt, my eyes watered and gym class was cancelled when there were first-stage smog alerts.
“You can see the mountains today,” was an oft-heard phrase said in grateful amazement. The person was referring not to distant mountains, but to the San Gabriel Mountains, which were so close you could easily hike up to them. Not that you would want to, because most days the smog was so thick that it enveloped them. But on rare days, the mountains were actually visible.
When I was on my high school newspaper, I got to interview AJ Haagen-Smit, a Cal Tech professor who figured out the chemicals in smog that were making my eyes hurt and propelled a movement to regulate car emissions. Today he is considered the father of air pollution control, and definitely one of my heroes.
But back then smog was such a part of my life that it is hard to believe that I rarely say the word now. I don’t wake up every morning and comment on how bad the smog is or how you can actually see the mountains or even Catalina Island. Because on clear days when there wasn’t smog blanketing the Los Angeles Basin, we could see Catalina from my parents’ living room. That was the true allure of Los Angeles — when it was clear, it was fantastic — and I think that was mostly because it was such a surprise to see it.
So next time you think of something that’s not quite perfect here, like the housing prices and often too-crowded freeways, give thanks for air you can’t see.
With a Perspective, I’m L.J. Anderson.