The first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. The gardeners always came early on Thursday mornings, and I would shove my head beneath the pillow to drown out the symphony of weed-whackers.
But today there was no noise. And it stayed that way until my grandmother began shouting from the backyard. I went outside and found her and my mother gazing into the distance. That’s when I saw it: a towering plume of gray smoke that spun and billowed into the sky.
We estimated that the fire was two blocks away; a safe enough distance, but a little too close for comfort. My mother left for work with this advice: “If the fire comes here, you could run or something.” I agreed that it was a solid plan.
But I went out later to gauge the aftermath when the smoke had abated. The police had blocked off traffic on Valley between Monterey and Second Street, sending a glut of cars into the residential streets. The funny thing was, while traffic control was air-tight, residents were mostly left to their own devices. Business owners stood outside their stores with their arms crossed. The mechanics at the Shell gas station had set up foldable chairs on the lot — a ringside seat to the spectacle. Mechanic Hai Le showed me photos he’d taken on his iPhone, complete with a running commentary on the sequence of events. “The fire, when it started, was very small. Only a little smoke. But 20 minutes later, the fire was shooting out of the roof,” Le said as he scrolled through the images. I asked him if he was afraid that the fire would spill over to the gas station. “Yeeeah!” he replied. His eyes were practially out of their sockets. It was a stupid question, OK.
One elderly Asian woman, no more than five feet tall, was walking alongside a big yellow hose that led to Blue Ocean Seafood, which I discovered was the scene of the fire. She followed the trail until she was standing a few feet from the backdoor of the restaurant, which was no longer ablaze but still simmering. She stared at the building as if it were a sculpture at the Getty, and when a gust of white smoke blew over her, she turned around thoughtfully and headed in the opposite direction.
I went further down the block to inspect the front of Blue Ocean. I’d had dim sum in this building on countless Sundays (back then it was known as MVP Seafood). Now the windows were blown out, the roof had caved in. Inside were the charred remains of banquet chairs, light fixtures, and roofing material. The walls, however, had held up nicely. A stream of water ran out the front door and spilled onto the gutters.
There was a small crowd of onlookers outside Harbor Kitchen, which sat directly across the street from Blue Ocean. There was a giddiness in the air—the sign that a grave disaster has passed. The men, mostly Asian, joked around in both Mandarin and Cantonese. A Caucasian man told his friend of a restaurant that served “amazing shrimp etoufee.” Among the onlookers was Vincent Chang, who worked as a waiter at Blue Ocean. He’d arrived after most of the flames were put out. “No one called me, so when I get here all I see is this. I don’t know what happened. They sent all the workers home,” Chang said.
A policeman caught one of the onlookers stubbing out a cigarette on the curb. The officer asked for the man’s ID, but the man seemed to not understand. “Does anyone here know English?” the officer asked the crowd. Chang stepped forward without a moment’s hesitation. But in spite of Chang’s efforts, the smoker was still oblivious.
“I bet he’s got a fake card,” one of the onlookers said in Cantonese. “Oh yeah, he’s probably got a fake card.”
The tension mounted. The policeman was irate, the smoking man was flustered, and Chang seemed nervous about the prospect of getting someone in trouble. “We can take you to jail if you don’t show me an ID,” the officer threatened. Then, finally, the smoking man produced a driver’s license and a pack of Marlboros from his pocket. The policeman wrote up the citation, barked a few words of warning, and the three men dispersed.
The work was not over for Chang, however. He was now tagged as The Guy Who Can Translate, all thanks to his act of goodwill. He provided his statement to an officer from an arson department, then translated for the others who were also asked to provide testimonies. Chang didn’t show an inkling of reluctance. He retained his cool throughout the whole ordeal. Perhaps it was something he’d picked up from working at a dim sum restaurant—which are often loud and packed to the rafters with hungry diners.
At some point the irony hit me: in the background was his former workplace, which had been reduced to a pile of rubble, and here he was, going back to work when the day had came to an end for everyone else.