Having grown up near a rain forest on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, with friends I have visited during “monsoon seasons” in Florida and elsewhere, I’ve seen rain before, and even have some idea of what to do when it happens. But I have now lived for years in Southern California, where heavy rain causes more panic than the prospect of “The Big One.” So as I sat in a water-stalled car, I began to contemplate the mixed blessings of drought-mitigating downpours, and I noticed that Southern Californians’ umbrella habits differ substantially from those where it rains more often than the earth shakes or the hillsides burn or slide.
Waiting for the current to carry me downstream (downroad?) or a tow truck to slosh up, it occurred to me that rather than being yet another Golden State quirk, Southern California umbrella etiquette reflects that most basic of economics propositions–incentives matter. People adapt to differing circumstances, so Californians who live in an irrigated desert take substantially different rain precautions than those experienced in “precipitation management.”
In rainy areas, umbrellas are a valuable, intensely used asset, so people treat them appropriately. They have umbrella stands, keep extras handy, and even remember where they put them last. They sometimes even own high quality, stylish and durable umbrellas (London has whole stores devoted to umbrellas). People also know how much space they take up, so they don’t constantly poke each other with them.
In Southern California, things are a bit different. Because, despite our recent deluge, when it will rain next is frequently more a matter of which month rather than what time, we know that we are likely to lose or accidentally wreck our umbrella before we use it next. As a result, we make few, if any, accommodations for when we will use them. For example, I have yet to see an umbrella stand in a Southern California home, though I have seen trash cans and buckets rushed in from the garage for that purpose. This also leads us to favor cheap, easily collapsible (in more ways than one), virtually disposable umbrellas over the classier bumbershoots found elsewhere, knowing that they need last only until we lose or abuse them (making them the rainy day equivalent of a Bic pen).
Because we normally wait so long between raindrops, we never have our “good” umbrellas with us when we want them, which leads to some pretty innovative behavior (what we are known for, after all). Caught off guard, we put almost anything on our heads, from garbage bags to cardboard boxes and newspapers. We also scramble to make do with those umbrellas we can find, filling our walkways with multicolored refugees from golf bags and bodybuilders sporting frilly umbrellas stolen from their wives. Then we clean out stores’ meager inventories at a rate indicating that Noah was holding the Ark for us.
Umbrellas are routinely forgotten. But they don’t lay around for long, because someone else who also forgot theirs “borrows” your mislaid one before you remember and can go back for it. Instead, you see a litter of broken ones as soon as storms break.
Just as I was beginning to ponder the deep question of how much of what we consider cultural differences between regions really reflects different climates (wherever we live setting the standard for “normal,” of course), a tow truck driver appeared wearing a dry cleaning bag over his clothes (with holes torn in it for his arms). I didn’t have time to consider the issue further, as I had to go replace my sun-cracked wiper blades so I could see while boating home on the freeway to look for where I put my rain coat. Still, I wonder…