Column: September is the cruelest month — at least in L.A.
If I ever leave Los Angeles, it will not be because of the traffic, or the city’s inability to aid the unhoused, or even the sight of all those celebrity lawns in the middle of a drought.
No, the only thing that could force me out of my chosen home of three decades is September.
September in Los Angeles is the worst — a culturally manipulative, psychologically abusive, dirty con of a month.
It is officially the first month of fall, conjuring up all that season’s comforting hallmarks: crisp “sweater weather,” mellow light, changing leaves, evenings in front of a crackling fire and pumpkin spice everything.
But even before global warming turned California into a heat-domed tinderbox where fire tornadoes exist, September in L.A. was always hotter than most previous summer months and occasionally total hell.
L.A.’s signature September scent may be wood smoke, but the flames are devouring homes and landscape, not crackling merrily in the fireplace.
It isn’t often that Angelenos have a right to complain about the weather, especially since rain or even cloudiness is treated here like a blessed, drought-defying event.
We are used to cultural evocations of seasons that don’t play out the same here as they do in other parts of the country: There is winter snow in Southern California, you just have to drive to it. And while there are some who poke fun at our tendency to pull on winter boots the moment the temp drops below 70, I always feel we are just trying to stay connected with those who live in less temperate climes.
In September, however, there is nothing to do but suffer. From the heat, from the fires and from the cultural disconnect.
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While stores and catalogs flaunt the return of corduroy and tartan plaid, Angelenos are frantically whisking through racks and websites trying to find summer clothes in autumnal colors and breathable back-to-school shorts that won’t get their kid dress-coded. Traditional back-to-school shopping, the kind that involves long pants and any top not a T-shirt, won’t happen till sometime in November.
Oh, we’ll drink the pumpkin spice lattes, but we’ll need them iced, thanks, which kind of ruins the whole cozy point. But then “cozy” is not a word associated with L.A. in September (or, if we’re being honest, most of October).
Unless you mean a cozy murder, because if Angelenos are subjected to one more image of a matching-flannel family smiling over a bowl of rosy apples or gathered around a crackling fire, it will be tough to identify the killer. The UPS driver facing heat so extreme it turns the asphalt soft? The remote worker suddenly realizing the benefits of the office (better air-conditioning, and free)? The high school football coach wondering why a sport that must be played outside in hideously heavy gear is a fall activity in California?
My money is on the East Coast native with the September birthday who, even after 30 years in L.A., still expects to experience a month warm enough for bare legs in the daytime but hot cocoa weather at night.
You can certainly make hot cocoa at night in September in L.A.; you don’t even need a kettle. Just leave a cup of hot water outside for a few minutes.
Obviously, a lot of the dissonance comes down to marketing — Halloween decorations show up in stores in early August, along with autumnal banners and all those apple/pumpkin/fall nights spiced candles. But that hard sell is just a continuation of how American culture has depicted September for centuries.
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Poets, painters and pop stars all lean on September as a time of beauty and transition, when the steamy dog days of summer give way to, as John Keats wrote, the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” A time of happiness and productivity, before winter — real or metaphorical — sets in.
“Up from the meadows rich with corn, / Clear in the cool September morn, / The clustered spires of Frederick stand,” begins John Greenleaf Whittier’s famous poem “Barbara Frietchie.”
“Lyric night of the lingering Indian Summer, / Shadowy fields that are scentless but full of singing,” Sara Teasdale wrote in “September Midnight.”
Film and television have made the images more prosaic, but in the collective imagination September firmly remains a time of yellow leaves underfoot, chilly rain streaking the window, brisk cloudless days — a time when it’s delicious to be outside or in.
“Try to remember the kind of September / when life was slow and oh so mellow,” sang Jerry Orbach in “The Fantasticks” — and a million other people since.
Kind of hard to be mellow in L.A. when you’re trying to figure out how to make it from 4 to 9 without using a major appliance in order to help prevent the power grid from shutting down. (Do TVs count? Because in L.A., what September really means is the Emmys and the fall TV season.)
Not surprisingly, music has been a powerful generator of the September myth.
“September,” “September Song,” “September Morn,” “September Grass,” “Pale September,” “Come September,” “See You in September.” It’s hard to think of a more musically name-checked month. Tell me you can’t instantly summon at least one song about September faster than one about any other month.
With the exception of Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” the month is inevitably code for love and memory, possibility and crisp autumn nights. I don’t think Earth, Wind & Fire were thinking of a triple-digit, wildfire-igniting, sweat-drenching heat when they sang “September” to the top of the charts.
Even before global warming presented us with a Labor Day heat dome, nothing separated L.A. from other American big cities as much as September. It is the flaming mirror image of June, when people expect L.A. to be warm and sunny and are inevitably shocked by the chill and damp.
In a good year, that is.
L.A. may be the hometown of American cultural production, but when it comes to the weather, we are trained to see seasons not in national ad campaigns but in more local signifiers — the jacaranda, the crape myrtle — and, yes, all those for your consideration billboards. This city is proudly out of step with many other places in the world and we like it that way.
Still, September is a strain. You could consider it payback for all those lovely New Year’s Days that have lured countless Rose Parade visitors west. That would seem fair if it weren’t for all the September-specific cultural baggage. Every year, I wish local merchants would read the room, or the weather report, and hold back on all the “welcome fall” marketing, which only makes things worse. But I have loved ones who live for pumpkin spice season and I don’t want to start a riot.
Also, if I’m being honest, I’ve got a pumpkin wood candle going right now.
Yes, it’s 104 outside and the smell of wood smoke is cause for alarm rather than comfort, but who doesn’t like the scent of a good autumnal candle? Even with the thermostat turned to a power-saving 78, this month’s siren song remains so compelling that a little bit of fake September is better than none at all.
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