He's not simply an omnipotent and recurring global weather pattern. He's anger and angst, caprice and compassion, fu...

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1997

El Niño Has a Headache

He's not simply an omnipotent and recurring global weather pattern. He's anger and angst, caprice and compassion, fury and fun. And he wants to be understood.
By David Rakoff

El Niño Has a Problem

"Mr. Niño's gonna be late ... headache," says one of his functionaries, a compact squall of warm Gulf Coast rain who blew in to tell me this and disappeared just as quickly. I'm sitting in the Bar Marmont, drinking one of the blueberry vodka infusions for which the bar is deservedly famous — blueberries whose extra-mild New England winter resulted, in large part, from the efforts of my delayed interviewee.

Indeed, the entire bar is permeated with El Niño's influence. The grain bases of the spirits, the Costa Rican hardwood marquetry, the bamboo of the basket holding my shrimp dumplings (ordered since they were out of the gravlax, because of the dearth of Pacific salmon), even the windswept hair of my suspiciously thin, pillow-lipped, neurasthenic waitress can be traced back to him.

No wonder El Niño has a headache. On his third worldwide tour this decade alone, he has become Chairman of the Board of the climate trade. His global reach has transcended his rather modest beginnings as a meteorological bit player to the point where nowadays, when people say "weather," what they mean is El Niño.

"Niño," says Hollywood mogul and ëminence grise Lew Wasserman (who pronounces Niño's name to rhyme with "Reno"), "is a force of nature. He's responsible for everything. Literally. Your opening weekend grosses bottom out because of unexpectedly nice weather? Nino. A plane goes down in Southeast Asia because of brush fires caused by years-long drought? Nino."

El Niño finally arrives, trailing behind him three or four sycophants and a 35-foot wall of seawater that washes away the couple at the next table. Our server is not pleased. "Duke her," El Niño says to one of the hangers-on, who peels off a crisp hundred-dollar bill and hands it to the waitress, busy pulling minnows from her hair.

El Niño Has a Tantrum

We're on La Brea, shopping for Noguchi lamps. "My decorator got me hooked," he says, headache suddenly forgotten, "and I love their organic forms." He calls his assistant from his Humvee, outfitted with NASA-level racks of communications hardware, for the address of the store. He's solicitous on the phone, apologetic for making a purchase, for feeling entitled to this small, unnecessary expenditure. Paradoxically shy behavior from someone who, it is said, has just become the most expensive network of interconnected natural disasters in history.

"Yeah, when the news broke, I had tons of joke messages on my machine ... you know, Tom Cruise asking to borrow some cash. But it's really not about the money for me. It's about my personal journey. I mean, I didn't even know I could do this."

Aside from John-John and Caroline, no one's growth has been as scrutinized or as public. But Niño's occasional acting out belies an inner sensitivity — a sensitivity that loves Noguchi — that is all too easy to forget. "It's nice to be the subject of almost every dinner conversation. I won't lie; I like the attention. I mean, who wouldn't? But it comes with a price. I get blamed for just about everything going."

I gently bring up some of the rumors that hound him: the drought across much of Southeast Asia; the 300,000 starving people in Papua New Guinea; the gerbils. For the first time in our brief acquaintance, Niño loses his cool.

"You know, I gave the Weather Channel the best numbers they ever had, and then they're all, 'Oh, too rough, man.' So, I'm like, OK, how about fewer hurricanes on the Atlantic coast this year, fewer tornadoes in the Midwest; how about fishermen up in Alaska pulling up pompano and orange roughy in their nets? And then it's like, 'Oh, Niño's lost his edge!' and I'm like, why don't you bastards in New York and Boston complain about my edge when your utility bills go down to almost nothing this winter?"

Chastened by his own outburst, he drives us out to Malibu for a late lunch. "I like the ocean," El Niño says. "It's where I come from. It relaxes me." The view from the outdoor table is magnificent, the sun brilliant, the Pacific lapidary, each whitecap applauding my lunch date. His irritability now gone, El Niño takes justifiable, proprietary pride in our surroundings.

He picks at his seared tuna over Asian greens. "Asian greens," he muses. "I thought I got rid of all those." He lets out a bark of laughter that dislodges a large mansion from the cliffs above us, sending it crashing down to the highway where it crushes a school bus full of children. Restored as he is by the sea, El Niño doesn't even notice.

El Niño Has a Moment

We meet again at the Bar Marmont before I catch my flight back East. I worry a little because El Niño's high spirits on this day have produced thermals strong enough to cause no fewer than three crashes at LAX. He is feeling on top and exuberant, interviewing ghostwriters for his memoirs, weighing offers from heavy industry for a global-warming-as-natural -phenomenon campaign. Even, perhaps, putting off his imminent disappearance for a while. "Who knows?" he quips. "Meteorologists can't really figure me out. Neither can I — I'm completely mysterious."

That he is. The ceiling of the bar is festooned with butterflies. El Niño looks up, charmed (only natural that he should appreciate a particularly skillful nature morte). He begins to sing softly to himself: "Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away / Only a phase, these dark cafë days."

Suddenly becoming conscious of my presence, he laughs, a little sheepish. "That's one of my favorite Joni songs, 'The Last Time I Saw Richard.' You know, she used to live just up the road in Laurel Canyon. Blue and Hejira totally changed my life."

Then the pensive Joni fan falls silent for a moment, and the only sound is the faraway Doppler of a DC-10 going down.

David Rakoff is a New Yorker who thought El Niño was absolutely fascinating long before everyone else jumped aboard.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

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