Not long ago, as I was dropping off to sleep, I experienced a shake. I wasn’t cold – that would be a shiver – and I was not feeling fearful – that would be a shudder. This was a shake. And in fact, it wasn’t even me who was shaking.
It was the house.
Venn Diagram: Southern California is “Earthquake Country.” The city I live in is in Southern California. Ipso facto, the city I live in is in “Earthquake Country.”
This shake was nothing, a Richter Scale measurement of “Ho hum.” There would be no mention of it on the local news, no anchorperson ducking under their desk, demonstrating the appropriate response to such situations, but also a trepidatious concern that the overhead studio lights could at any moment come crashing down on their heads.
The shake is a jolting reminder – that’s too much; let’s say a jostling reminder – that, where I live, an earthquake of serious magnitude could befall us at any moment.
This is no twister on the horizon – “Get in the cellar, Dorothy!” – or tropical storm off the coast – “Drive away from the water!” – This is “We’re here. We are shaking the life out of you. And there is no place to hide. You can run under your door jamb, but who are we kidding?”
Earthquakes are scary. Precisely because they arrive without warning and you cannot get away from them. Plus, we’ve seen movies about earthquakes, where the ground opens up and buses fall in. And I’m not entirely certain where they end up.
There is always the question of why people would choose to live in “Earthquake Country”, the same question applying to “Cyclone Country”, building your home by a river with a reputation for flooding, or close to a swamp where an alligator could crawl out at any time and snap up some young ‘uns.
The answer to such questions is because, excluding these occasional disruptions, these are generally nice places to live.
“Ah lahk to look at the rivah; jest nawt when it’s a’risin’.”
The other reason for selecting dangerous places to live is because of a mechanism in human nature that allows us to forget the bad parts. This is the same mechanism that explains why women have more than one baby.
Of course, writers are different. We never forget anything.
It was late Sunday night, in 1994. Our daughter Anna, then ten, was at a sleepover in the Fairfax area, about a twenty-minute drive from our home. A Sunday sleepover was permissible, because the following Monday was Martin Luther King’s birthday, which is a school holiday.
It was, like, four-thirty in the morning, when we were jolted – I mean it this time – out of our sleep. There are two kinds of shaking that I’ve experienced– a rolling rhythm reminiscent of whitewater rafting, and the kind where the earthquake’s a pair of pliers and your city is the tooth that it’s trying to yank out.
Major pieces of furniture are sliding around. Cabinets fly open, spilling their fragile contents onto the floor. And in our case, the violent shaking induced our rooftop chimney to break off and crash through a skylight in a downstairs sunroom. Such an occurrence makes an extremely loud noise.
For the first few seconds, your reaction to the earthquake is always the same:
“Is this an earthquake?”
When you decide that it is, you jump on of bed, and stand in the doorway, although honestly, this seems as equally protective during a “big number” earthquake as crawling under your desk during a nuclear attack.
The next uncertainty about an earthquake is, “When is it going to stop?” In the ’94 earthquake, it was less than a minute. But while it’s happening, it feels like forever. And there is no reason to believe it won’t be.
Finally, the shaking ends, and you catch your breath. Though the lights were out, we went downstairs to check on the damage. A large cabinet and all our floor lamps had toppled over. There was a huge crack in one of the living room walls. The glass was shattered on several of our framed pictures that had been shaken off the wall. And, of course, our chimney was a pile of brick rubble on our sunroom floor, mixed with the shards of our obliterated skylight.
There was no power, and the phones were out of service. (This was before cellphones.) We went outside, and turned on the car radio, our only source of communication with the outside world.
We were told that the quake had been a substantial one, and that its epicenter was in Northridge, about twenty miles away. However, a underground “fault line” led straight through Santa Monica, which we later learned had been extremely hard hit.
Dr. M’s maternal reflex required her to jump in the car, drive over to the Fairfax area, and retrieve Anna from the sleepover. My reflex, as usual, was caution (with a modicum of fear.) I told her it seemed unwise to drive on the freeways until we knew how they had survived the impact of the tremor.
As it turned out, the radio reported that that the 10 Freeway had been seriously damaged. A portion of it had collapsed just before the Fairfax off-ramp.
(There are occasions when caution is synonymous with common sense, though less than enough of them to rehabilitate my reputation.)
With the freeway impassible, we took surface streets to get to our daughter. Pico Boulevard was abandoned and lightless. It felt like driving through a city after an apocalyptic blast.
Finally, we found the sleep-over house, and located Anna in the dark. She seemed okay. Until she saw us. After which, she immediately raced to a bathroom and threw up.
Relief takes a variety of forms.
The following morning was for, literally in this case, picking up the pieces. Our nerves remained frayed, and we were hardly reassured by the sporadic, often extended, “aftershocks” that continued throughout the day. After about the dozenth aftershock, I recall turning angrily to the heavens and shouting, “That’s enough!” As usual, my instructions to heaven went entirely unheeded.
At that time, I was consulting full-time on a series called Thea, which was meant to be the female answer to The Cosby Show but wasn’t.
With the phones working again, the first call I received was from Thea’s show runner. He wanted to know when I was coming into the office. I told him my house was a shambles, my nerves were shot, and I intended to spend the day trying to return both of them to their usual condition.
The show runner only heard “I’m not coming in.” His response was to drive over to my house, where he required me to work, oblivious to the fact that I had just participated in a real-life disaster movie. He viewed this as dedication. I just hated the guy.
It is now 2012, making it eighteen years since the last “Big One.” The “Big One” before that was in 1971. Though earthquake prediction is far from an exact science, the intervals between them seem to be in the area of every twenty years.
What I am saying is,
We are pretty much due.