Friday, July 30, 2004


I got an e-mail from Barbara Boxer today.  We're pen pals because I communicate with my representatives all the time.  They work for us, you know, at least, those of us who bother to vote, and so I like to share my opinions on various issues and let them know what I'm thinking - a little guidance on the important issues.  She's totally got my vote in November by the way - Senator Boxer is doing a most excellent job.  So now I'm on her e-mail list and she lets me know about the things she thinks I might be interested in too.

Like this e-mail today about how the technology they use to predict earthquakes, while not perfected, has been greatly improved and the prediction is that there will be a major earthquake in the Southern California desert sometime before September.  It's been ten years since the last "major" earthquake and so, while I remember being traumatized back in 1994, I have stopped with the vigilant, just-in-case behavior.  Like sleeping in pajamas with a pair of steel toed work boots by my bed - just in case.  Like having door locks on my cabinets to prevent all of my dishes and glassware from flying across the room.  Like making sure that I have batteries on hand for flashlights and radio so I can see and hear what's going on.

I have lived in Southern California all my life so the threat of "the Big One" is omnipresent in my consciousness.  It's like the boogie man and every time the earth moves I wonder if this one is it.  I am not and will never be blase about earthquakes the way some of my fellow natives can be.  The first earthquake I remember occurred in 1971 when I was just a little kid.  The earthquake hit in the morning early enough that it was light out but my dad was still walking around in his underwear, getting ready for work.  It was a 6.7 and it's epicenter was the San Fernando Valley.  We lived in Long Beach, about 25 miles south.  When the earthquake hit it was the noise that woke me up.  Earthquakes make the weirdest and most distinctive noise that starts low and far away and then overtakes you.  And they come on quick like someone sneaking up behind you and hissing in your ear.  Even though I was a kid I remember being awakened by the sound and sitting up in bed, very alert and frightened.  The next thing I knew my bed which was on caster wheels was flying around the room, sliding on the tile floor, bouncing off the walls and the furniture like a bumper car.  I remember my father coming in and grabbing me and taking me to stand in the doorway, because that's what you're supposed to do, stand in the doorway where there is supposedly better structural support.

Which is all well and good unless you're in a liquifaction zone.  When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in Northern California in 1989 it was a 7.1 and there were houses in the Marina district that sank into the ground because they were in a liquifaction zone.  If you have ever stood on the sand at the beach at the point where the waves ebb and flow and marched up and down in place, that hole that you found yourself standing in was the result of liquifaction.  Where water and sand are mixed together via pounding and the sediment turns to soup.  They found the bodies of the people who lived in those houses standing in the doorway of their home holding each other buried beneath the failed foundation of their homes.  That earthquake hit in the early evening.  We were watching a baseball game that was being played at Candlestick park on TV, you could see the stadium bouncing up and down and hear the announcers freaking out and then the transmission signal was cut.  We knew it was big because right after the TV signal was lost we felt the earth shuddering - and we were over 500 miles south.  That was the closest thing to the "Big One" that I ever saw.  Bridges and freeways collapsed.  Specifically the Bay Bridge collapsed.  It's a bi-level bridge with traffic moving one way on the top and the other way on the bottom and the top collapsed onto the bottom.  People were trapped in their cars, under rubble, suspended over water.  That's pretty much my worst nightmare.  About the only thing worse would be to be driving in a tunnel underwater, in a traffic jam, when a big earthquake hits and have it collapse.

But that earthquake was far away and I experienced it through pictures and through the accounts of my friends that live in San Francisco and the surrounding areas that were affected.  I had no idea what a really big earthquake felt like until January 1994 when the Northridge earthquake, measuring 6.7 on the richter scale, hit at 4:30am.  I was awake because my 22 pound cat, Peaches felt it coming and went tearing across the bed at full speed and into the closet.  That startled me awake so that I heard that sound, like a train if you're sitting on the tracks, and before I could think or move it hit and everything in the room seemed to be airborn all at once.  I tried to get to the doorframe of the closet across the room but the floor was moving up and down and I kept falling down.  It wasn't a rolling motion like previous earthquakes I remembered.  Everything was moving up and down like King Kong had picked up our house and was shaking it like a ketchup bottle.  It was violent.  I could hear glass breaking from all over the house and all I could say was "fuck" over and over as I tried to get to the closet where I kept my flashlight.

And some clothes and shoes - because I was butt naked and there was glass all over my carpet from where the computer screen had shattered.

When it finally stopped I stood in front of my closet which had exploded with every bit of crap that was in there when I opened the door, running in circles, in the glass, because I couldn't find anything buried in all that stuff.  My bedroom door opened and there stood my roommate dressed in a t-shirt and Doc Marten's.  Behind her was a white dusty fog rising from the chunks of plaster that came from the walls downstairs.  She made me stop running in the glass and got me focused on finding shoes and clothing.  We got our other roommate from her room downstairs where she was attempting to light her was with a CANDLE! and since there was no elecricity and none of us had batteries or a battery powered radio to put them in we went outside and sat in the car and listened to the radio there as the transformers on the electrical poles in the neighborhood exploded up and down the street.

All the people on the radio could say was that it was a really big earthquake, Cal Tech's initial estimates were that it appeared to be centered in the valley where there were fires shooting out of the ground and that it could be as big as 7.0.  Damage and injury reports were starting to come in.  An apartment building in Northridge had collapsed.  The Santa Monica Freeway had collapsed at Fairfax - about a mile down the street from our house.  As we sat there my friend Ray roared up in his bright red Porsche.  I noticed he was wearing leather driving gloves and his blond girlfriend sat in the front seat in her skimpy pajamas.  The image was surreal, but he was so sweet - coming to check on us to make sure we were okay.  And we were.  It was our house that was trashed.

And it seemed it was only our house.  As all the neighbors came out to check on each other they all reported that there was minimal damage in their homes.  Apparently ours was the only kitchen where the cupboards projectile vomited their contents.  The neighbors all came in and ooohed and ahhhed over the mess of spices and glass and fine crystal that ended up blended on the floor of our front hallway - 20 feet from where those respective things had lived in the kitchen.  And we were the only ones who had chunks of plaster fall out of our walls revealing the chicken wire and framing beneath.  We rented our house, a spanish style 2-story in a neighborhood of similar tract homes built in the 20s with a swimming pool in the backyard shaped like a wine bottle.  It was charming - but for some reason it was also the hardest hit on the block.  It could be because the landlord never repaired anything and it was only one of many that he had purchased and fixed up cosmetically.  We sent my roommate's boyfriend into the little basement where the water heater was, to see if there were any gas leaks, the weeny wanted to know why he had to go - because you're a man - and when he came back up with the a-ok he brought up a knob that he found down there that had a swastika on it.  Apparently something in our basement was original equipment and imported from Germany - over 45 years prior.

We bonded with all of our neighbors that day - some of them people we had never said so much as hello to in the year that we'd lived there.  One of them had a gas stove and he let everyone come over and make something to eat because the rest of us were cooking with electricity - and there was none.  My roommate, the one who had it so together that morning and helped me put my shoes on, fell apart completely as the day wore on and the aftershocks, some as big as 5.5 kept hitting.  We had no electricity until the next day and no phones for a day or two longer and we didn't want to leave because we kept expecting something bigger and more horrible to happen.  My cat didn't emerge until late that night and I held him as I sat awake all night waiting.

In the days following the earthquake I went to bed fully dressed with my shoes and a flashlight right by the bed.  I had a full supply of batteries in a bag by the bed next to the portable radio.  The stuff that didn't get broken in the earthquake sat on the floor.  All the pictures were off the wall, sitting on the floor, leaning against the walls.  For weeks after the earthquake people would not wait for lights if it meant their car would be sitting under a freeway overpass.  They waited on the other side of the overpass and the people behind them did not care, because they didn't want to sit there under a huge slab of cement either. 

But as the months passed I became less jumpy.  I stopped binge eating cheetos in the grocery store aisles and hording canned goods - just in case.  My pictures are hanging on the walls and I have flowers in vases again.  I don't know where my flashlight is.  I don't know if I have enough batteries to make the boombox that sits, covered in dust in the closet play.  I often fall into bed sans pajamas and while there are shoes littering the floor by my bed they are mostly high heels and sandals.  I never have any cash on me and I often let the gas gauge on my car go all the way to 'E' before I fill up.

But Barbara's e-mail today has nudged my subconscious.  The place where all the fear is stored from traumas long gone.  I'm stocking up on bottled water and getting some cash to keep in the house.  The car gets filled up when the tank is half gone and I will get a stash of cash to have on hand.  I will pull on at least a t-shirt before I fall into bed and make sure the flashlight is by my bed with fresh batteries installed.  The boombox will be dusted and placed somewhere that it will not be buried by closet crap.  

Just in case. 

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