While enjoying my first long, sound sleep in ages, I was rudely awakened, at some completely unreasonable hour, by a shuffling commotion followed by a sudden poke in the eye, as a smallish person clambered into my bed. Apparently, I had just slept through an earthquake. Unable to return to a state of peaceful slumber, I lay there in the dark, feeling like the filling in a squashed sandwich, thinking about earthquakes.
I wasn’t afraid. I thought about the earthquake drills we used to have at school. We all knew, of course, that Los Angeles is located on a major fault line. Besides the great San Andreas being an important part of our local geography lessons, in the 80’s, after a few fairly large temblors, there was a tremendous amount of news hype about the inevitable “Big One” that could hit at any moment. In addition to regular earthquake drills that would take one or two class periods, we also started having a yearly drill that was essentially an all-day affair. After weeks of receiving notices reminding us to bring water and sunscreen on the allotted day, the kids were obliged to march out to the field and sit there bored and hot for hours, while the teachers practiced search and rescue and setting up a triage area.
Once, when I was in the 9th grade, I was called on, along with two other girls, to pretend to be trapped in one of the bathrooms during the drill. We were told to wait until someone arrived to “rescue” us and administer first aid. I was supposed to pretend I had a head injury and the other two were also assigned some grave afflictions. None of us knew each other; we had all been recommended by our teachers because we were quiet and stayed out of trouble.
This was, of course, in the days before every teenager came standard equipped with some kind of instant messaging device. There we were, three shy kids, forced to wait together in a hot, smelly bathroom, with no diversion. I hadn’t even brought a book. I recall someone (probably me) observing that for once it was actually possible to see the mirror, without a horde of girls fighting over the best position to reapply their eyeliner and empty out cans of Aquanet on their mile-high bangs. It was 1986, after all. I don’t remember what else we talked about. Not much. It was awful in there, and we debated whether or not we were allowed to open the door. Hours passed, but no one came to get us.
Finally, we couldn’t take it anymore and partially opened the door. I peeked out, but no one was around. Revived by a little fresh air, we began talking and laughing about what a weird thing we were stuck doing, when suddenly a loud crashing sound announced the arrival of one of the school counselors slamming the door wide open. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN HERE?” he bellowed. Practically dragging us by the scruffs of our necks, he escorted us out to the field, completely ignoring our indignant protests and explanations. I never did get to fake a head injury and be carried on a stretcher, and no one ever apologized for making us sit in the bathroom all day and then forgetting about us.
Some people think it’s crazy to live somewhere that has regular earthquakes, but it’s not really scary when it’s just part of your environment. Sometimes, earthquakes can even be kind of fun. One time, during a sleepover, while lying on the floor in a sleeping bag, I was suddenly carried across the room in a series of bounces. It was like being on a ride and I thought it was funny, until I bounced into the wall and bonked my head. Another time, the ground started moving, so I went to stand in the doorway of my room, and felt the earth undulate in a wave under my feet. My roommate was also standing in his doorway and we stood there and laughed that it felt like we were surfing.
The biggest earthquake in my experience, and I must admit, the most jarring, was the one that occurred on January 17, 1994. Although it has gone down in history as the Northridge earthquake, its epicenter was actually in Reseda, barely a block from my parents’ home. I had recently moved into a tiny apartment downtown, but I had spent the night at the house. I was sound asleep when something unusual woke me up. In the kitchen at the other end of the house, a hundred wine glasses were nervously chattering.
Suddenly, the street lights that illuminated the room at night blew out, one at a time in a quick succession of spectacular blue flashes. I felt the first tremors as the world plunged into darkness, instantly followed by a cacophony of screeching tires, splintering glass and the crunch of metal on the street, accompanied by crashing sounds from within the house. A large bulletin board hanging on the wall came loose and landed on top of me – luckily, it was not heavy. Pushing it aside, I stood up and realized the ground was still moving sharply from side to side – no gentle pajama-surfing here! Earthquakes always seem longer than they really are. This one was only 20 seconds, but it seemed to go on and on. I held on to the doorway and waited, and thought about the stack of dishes I had left on top of the refrigerator in my new apartment.
The ground stopped shaking at last, and there was a peculiar silence. After a minute, I heard a strange shuffling, clanking sound. It was my poor dog, who appeared to have come in through the pet flap at the back of the kitchen. I found her gingerly trying to pick her way across the floor through a sea of glass. I pulled on some boots and managed to guide her through the wreckage unharmed, and she walked by my side as I investigated the house for damage. A large bookcase had fallen over in the hallway, completely blocking passage to the front door, and the way to the back was blocked by all that glass wreckage. Snapping on her leash, we exited the side door, into the yard, and out through the garage.
It was a beautiful night. The moon was up, the air was clear, and everyone was out. One thing about earthquakes, like other natural disasters, is they tend to make people more neighborly. I took the dog for a walk around the neighborhood, sniffing for gas, stopping to chat and share smokes with the neighbors. As I turned one corner, I witnessed the spectacle of a tree on fire with a group of calm observers standing around, silently looking on. It was a strangely peaceful sight, and very beautiful.
Of course, there was tragedy as well. Just down the street, an apartment building had collapsed killing a lot of people. As the sun came up, I walked down to the corner and saw the wreckage of the crashes that had occurred when the lights went out. It looked like a moving car had crashed into some parked cars. I hoped no one had been injured and kept walking. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was at the precise location of the epicenter that I spotted a large dead dog, cut in two pieces right through the middle.
Writing about it now, I wonder why I still don’t feel afraid. In recounting the event, I don’t feel horror, but rather, the sensation that I am recalling a dream. It felt surreal then, too. Sometimes, that happens. It reminds me that waking life isn’t any less symbolic than dreaming life.
In recent news, massive earthquakes have been devastating other parts of the world. We could easily be next. Why not? People have been sucking out the Earth’s blood and guts for centuries. What have we put back? The Earth shifts uneasily in her slumber; we’re only fleas hanging on for the ride. Just hope she doesn’t scratch.
Natives at the foot of the volcano don’t live in perpetual fear of being swallowed whole by rivers of hot lava. No, they worship that lava, and the mountain from which it flows, and they pay tribute with chants, prayers, dance and offerings. From the lips of the same goddess we receive both the breath of life and the kiss of death.