Yesterday in the library the photo on the cover of some science magazine caught my eye - it was two freshly crushed automobiles under a collapsed stucco apartment building - the cars had California plates with '94 stickers on them, and it set me to thinking - one could've been my car. Since there's nothing to report today, except that foot-pain continues to dwindle, I'll relate my experiences during the Northridge Quake.
I was jolted awake like everybody else at 4:30 AM on January 17, 1994. I had experienced several earthquakes during my seven years in LA; this was the longest, and much more violent than my first, which was the Whittier Earthquake of October 1, 1987 (in retrospect, the first was the scariest). My tall, narrow shelf unit fell obliquely upon my legs; fortunately it was empty <1> so I received only a glancing blow. After the violence, stillness, punctuated by a one-minute cacophony of car alarms, which gradually tapered off into an unnatural silence. And darkness - no power. I felt my way to my front entrance, but I couldn't exit - a large picture that had been leaning up against the wall by the door had fallen over, and when I lifted it I could tell the glass in its frame had shattered. Since I was barefoot, I retreated to get shoes and a flashlight. After clearing away the broken glass I went outside, but it was so dark I went right back & got a candle, which I lit & placed on a low wall (kind of a bonehead move, since my apartment building's stoves & heaters were fueled by natural gas; but my nose didn't detect any). Then I walked around the block.
I lived just off Wilshire Blvd, and since there was no electricity, the street lights and the corner traffic signal were out. But there was activity - really strange. A very few cars were on the road, and rather than proceeding cautiously they were going through the intersections at very high speed! My conclusion was these were driven by merchants whose only thought was to get to their shops as fast as possible. The sign up on the flower store at the corner had fallen onto the sidewalk with a bunch of bricks, and window glass was all broken out everywhere, like Kristallnacht. Still, it was dark and scary, so I went back to my candle, listening to these engines revving off in the distance for a while - then I went back to bed.
An hour later, there was some dim light in the sky, so I went out again, walking the dozen blocks down Wilshire to Ocean Avenue - I wanted to see how Carol <2> was doing. She lived then in a building on that broad street which runs along the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean. As I was walking along Ocean, before I came to her place I passed a group of people - she was among them and even in the gloom we recognized each other's presence, I think more by other senses than sight. As we were close to the big Sheraton, we went in to the lobby, illuminated by emergency lighting, where knots of dazed guests were gathering. Their kind hosts were passing out coffee and croissants; who were we to refuse such hospitality? Out we went to gaze at the ocean at dawn; it was a reassuring constant, unlike the buildings behind us with all their new cracks. The sun was up now, and we walked back to my place, with some amusement we noted my cat's reappearance - as was his nocturnal custom, Boris had been out roaming that night; I'll never know what he experienced during those wee hours, but his behavior then was twitchy and he kept looking over his shoulder in a comical fashion.
As the city came to life I got a better picture of the disaster's extent from my battery-powered radio. Helicopters appeared, slowly orbiting the larger buildings, assessing the damage. There was some mild personnel hysteria among my building's residents - a tenant with whom I'd had some unpleasant encounters in the past (occaisionally he'd play his stereo REAL LOUD) was out back brandishing this enormous crescent wrench (matching his own head, which was unnaturally large for his bodily proportions). Even though we agreed we didn't smell gas he was eager to turn off the building's supply anyway - why is it that in an emergency the inept gain easy access to dangerous tools? I thought I'd talked him out of it, but a little later I noticed my apartment growing cold - I went around back, and sure enough he'd twisted the master valve! I wrenched all the individual units' valves shut (with my own smaller but still adequate spanner), opened up the main and then my own, and went back inside to perform the tedious chore of igniting the stove & ancient heater's pilots.
Around the time the power was restored I got through on the telephone to some family back east, to give assurances that all was well. Then I drove over the hill into the Valley, to close out the bank account I'd established seven years before, in Pasadena - what made that trip interesting was a big aftershock struck while I was on the freeway, and I didn't notice anything because my car's suspension absorbed it completely. My home parking space was under my building; had it collapsed the magazine's cover photo could have been an almost identical illustration of my own trauma. Fortunately the epicenter was far enough away that this did not occur, although there were some specific places hit hard nearby. Out on Wilshire that afternoon, the sunny air was filled with the sounds of cleanup - sweeping of broken glass, hammering of plywood into place, and power tools. The Vons (supermarket), the pizza joint, Thrifty Jr. (drug store), the BookStar, and the Sushi King: all had sustained damage, and would be closed indefinitely - these were among the places that had made my immediate neighborhood so pleasant! It really was time to go. The next evening, after we enjoyed a tasty Mexican meal <3>, I drove around with F and her (then) boyfriend checking out the damage - sobering and somewhat frightening - crumbled façades, mostly. Although my building seemed intact, my bedroom wall had developed a zig-zag crack, floor-to-ceiling.
The moving company called to cancel that day, but their teamsters (two women) showed up the next. As they efficiently packed away all my gear I quizzed them about other jobs they'd done - they said the biggest within recent memory had been moving Dinah Shore. The following morning an enormous semi appeared out back, and its driver transferred all my stuff into his trailer. That night Carol and I had sushi after dropping off Boris at the airport, and the next morning with great relief I drove away from Los Angeles, and my depressing final months there, wracked with fires, floods, riots, and David's death. But the novelty of life back East soon wore off; I discovered that I hadn't successfully closed out that bank account (a final month's interest had been unexpectedly accrued). When I recalled the Catch-22 difficulties I'd run into opening it (reluctance on the part of landlords to accept out-of-state checks; reluctance of banks to open accounts for persons with no fixed address) I happily realized that my California door had not quite closed - I sent them a hefty deposit to figuratively wedge my foot into that door - and three years later, I moved back. Now, once again, my car is parked underneath the overhang of a stucco apartment building...
Kristallnacht - November 10, 1938: when the Nazis trashed Jewish shops all over Germany. The name comes from the resultant broken glass all over the streets.
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<1> Because I was moving back East, all my stuff was in neat piles in the living room, awaiting the teamster-packers who were scheduled to come that very day, to box everything up. Back
<2>A friend of David's with whom I've unfortunately lost touch. Back
<3>At the just-opened restaurant occupying the former home of The Galaxy, a wonderful place I visited often. Inside of a couple years the Mexican establishment had failed; it's a coffee shop now. Back