*Twenty years ago this week, a little after 4:00 AM, I was in bed in my West Hollywood apartment, getting busy. We hadn’t been dating long. This, in fact, was our first time “together,” so to speak, and I was working harder than James Brown to make a good impression.
I thought I’d succeeded. Indeed, in my mind, her expression—equal parts dreamy passion and stark fear—said it all.
“The bed is shaking,” she observed, looking up into my eyes.
“I know, baby. I know….”
“NO-—the BED is SHAKING….”
Just as those words left her her mouth, we were no longer in bed, but on the floor, put there by another, more definitive jolt. We were having an earthquake.
Scrambling to our feet, instinctively, frantically, we began to put on clothes. There wasn’t another immediate tremor, and though experts insist that by running outside you risk being hit by falling debris or live electrical wires, I didn’t think it wise to stay in the apartment. Carrying our shoes, we ran for the door. I could hear car alarms and nervous dogs barking.
Out on the street we found my neighbors, either bemused or frightened, asking one another if they were okay. No one had suffered injury or property damage. We were lucky.
Most everyone living in Southern California at the time can tell you where they were on January 17, 1994 at 4:30 am, during the Northridge earthquake–so-called in reference to the San Fernando Valley city where it was centered.
With an official magnitude of 6.7, the quake was responsible for 57 deaths, 5,000 injuries and an estimated $20 billion in damage. Two decades later, I still live in Los Angeles, where the occasional tremor is a way of life. You’re probably asking yourself why am I still here.
Well, there’s the weather, which is great. The smog, traffic and gangs notwithstanding, the L.A. lifestyle can personify an easy, laid back vibe. And while just a few hours before writing this I got into a thing with a woman at the Whole Foods meat counter over which of us was to be served next, people here, when they aren’t stir crazy, are generally kind.
However, the cardinal reason I continue to live on land prone to shake without warning and nowhere to run when it does, is the same reason I’d say most of us remain here: Quite simply, I don’t believe I’ll die in an earthquake. It’ll happen to somebody else—and it has—but not me. It’s just what you tell yourself.
If I truly were afraid of going that way, I’d have taken my ass back to Oklahoma City (which in recent years has had small earthquakes of its own), where they have tornadoes, but at least you can forecast those and take refuge in a storm shelter.
The irony is that if it weren’t for earthquakes, I probably wouldn’t exist. In the late ‘40s, Mama and her two younger sisters followed their mother to Los Angeles from Oklahoma in hopes of finding work. The others stayed, but the infrequent tremor scared Mama back to OKC, where she ultimately met and married my father. The rest, as they say, is history.
I remember the first time I felt the earth move. It was 1973 and I’d come out here and enrolled in community college. I was standing in the living room of my Aunt Jewel, with whom I was staying, when her Craftsman home shook. It began quietly before really shaking and then fading just as it had started.
The whole thing lasted a couple of seconds. I was fascinated. My aunt and grandmother came out of their bedrooms. “Well, Mr. Stevie,” Aunt Jewel said, gleefully, “you just experienced your first earthquake! Wha‘cha think about THAT?”
What I thought then is what I think whenever I feel the shaking… or hear about other great episodes of nature’s sheer force, whether it be tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones or tsunamis: that God is some kinda mighty, and that “awesome” is a word way overused.
To think: the same force that governs earthquakes and shuffles planets and rearranges universes as casually as you move the furniture around in your den is the same force that works spiritual, emotional, medical and financial miracles every day. This is the power you want in your corner.
Out on the street that morning, a married couple I knew from two houses down came up with the idea of inviting neighbors—about ten of us, some of them strangers—to their place for an early breakfast. Since it was a beautiful morning (hey, L.A. weather)–and since, because of the tremors, no one wanted to be inside longer than they had to—they set up two tables in their back yard and served us scrambled eggs, hash browns, orange juice and pastry. The Force can bring people together.
Sometimes, anyway. While my friend and I were lovey-dovey over breakfast, when I phoned her the following day she told me she’d decided against us going any further—something about what happened the morning before representing some kind of an omen.
Sure, I was disappointed. The girl didn’t know I was gonna rock her world. I’ll be doggone if the Northridge quake didn’t beat me to it.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]