A housing crisis is clamping down on middle-income workers—teachers like Renata Sanchez—in prosperous California
When Michael Garcia first spoke to me, I secretly wished he would leave me alone.
I was up in Malibu near Point Dume on a Monday afternoon, reporting on a story about the California wildfires. By the time I was there, the fires weren’t burning as badly anymore, but the city of Malibu was still under mandatory evacuation. All the streets were bare save for a few police cars barricading the roads to stop people from entering. The air was still thick with ashes, the hills were charred black, and I even drove past a car that was completely burned and gutted into steel scraps. One of the most beautiful spots in Southern California now looked like a wasteland.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had two goals in Malibu: (1) See for myself the destruction from the fires, and (2) check on a house as a favor for someone I knew. The second goal worked well with the first, since that person’s house was located in a spot worst-hit by the fires. He and his wife had to evacuate when the winds blew the wildfires into their neighborhood, and understandably, they were incredibly worried about the condition of their house.
So there I was with my car parked in a cul-de-sac neighborhood in Malibu, when I met 85-year-old Michael Garcia, the couple’s neighbor—and the only person crazy enough to stay put despite an order to evacuate. As I wandered around looking for the house, Garcia was also outside looking for a piece of debris that he saw shooting across the sky the day before. It was such a marvelous sight that once the fire abated, he climbed into his Marrakesh beige Hyundai Genesis and drove the 500 feet over to investigate. And as soon as he caught sight of me, he decided to investigate me, too.
“Hey, what you looking for?” he called out.
I was surprised to see another human being there besides a cop, and I assumed he might be a maintenance guy, especially since he was dressed all in tan colors. “I’m looking for somebody’s house,” I answered, hoping he’d be satisfied and just go away. I was eager to finish checking on the house and leave, because I had a potential meeting with a pastor who would be a good source for my article, and I knew it would take me two hours to get there.
However, Garcia got even more curious: “Whose house?”
I told him the person’s name, and Garcia exclaimed, “Oh, he’s my neighbor! He lives right across the fence from me.” Then he wrinkled his nose: “Don’t like the guy. We argued last time over my tree. It was growing over to his backyard and he tried to make me pay to trim the branches.”
I made some sympathetic noises. Then Garcia eyed my reporter’s notebook, and when I told him I was a journalist reporting on the wildfires, his eyes gleamed. “Oh, for which publication?”
“WORLD Magazine,” I said. But my accent can’t pronounce “world” correctly, and his hearing was poor, so he looked confused.
“Rose Magazine?” he asked.
“WORLD as in ‘A whole new world,’” I said, singing the trademark Aladdin song.
He still looked slightly confused but let the matter go. “Anyway, my pool house got burned down!” Then he told me that the fire destroyed about a dozen more houses in the neighborhood. “Want to see them?”
“Sure,” I said, by then recognizing that I would be a fool not to accept Garcia’s friendliness. So I hopped into his car, and he drove slowly around the block, pointing out to me the damaged houses and waiting patiently in his car while I got out to take pictures.
After the brief tour, Garcia invited me to his house. It was a mess after the fire, but had not burned. The pool house was falling apart, his avocado and apricot trees were blackened and crispy, and his pool had dead leaves and ashes strewn across the dusty water.
Garcia, a born-and-bred Los Angeles native who had worked his way up the social ladder from shoe shining to baking to real estate, has lived in this house since 1993 after his previous one burned down from another bad Malibu fire. This is a smaller house, and he now has three cars instead of four (lost in the previous fire), but this is the house he enjoyed with his wife until her last days, and this is also the house his daughter visited until she died.
He has three sons, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. He currently lives alone in his 2,000-square-foot house, surrounded by pictures and memories of his loved ones who have left his world, including the ashes of his best friend Paul that he now keeps in his dining room. Because he and Paul were both University of Southern California alumni and die-hard Trojan fans, he covers Paul’s urn with a crocheted yellow-and-red Trojan sock and keeps it next to all his other Trojan fan gear.
Last December, Garcia thought he was going to die. He was so sick that he spent half a month stuck in bed, with a back that could barely stand upright. He thought, “Well, this is the end, I guess,” and he called all his children and grandchildren to his bed, said his goodbyes, took family pictures, and even had a priest administer last rites. Instead, his health suddenly improved, and he was soon rustling out of bed: “Well, never mind! I guess I’m still alive then.” He told me, “You never know what’s going to happen. You’re here today, you’re gone tomorrow.”
So when the recent fires blazed toward him, Garcia popped open a bottle of merlot that his late daughter had given him and languidly sipped a third of that bottle by himself. He even took a selfie, a picture showing him drinking wine while golden embers rained behind him in his backyard.
Later, Garcia gave me two of the precious avocados he still had left from his now-dead avocado tree. Then as he fiddled with his Samsung smartphone to get my number, I saw that his background picture was of a wide-smiling woman with rich, dark hair. “Is that your wife?” I asked.
“Yes, and she was my soul mate,” Garcia said. “Isn’t she beautiful? She was the best woman in the world. Never had a mean word about anybody.” When they lost everything to the 1993 Malibu fire, his wife consoled him: “They’re only things. You and me are what’s important.”
Before I left, Garcia made sure I had his number as well: “I get so lonely in the house, you know? Come visit anytime. You don’t even have to knock. Just walk right in.”