Dear earthquakes… it’s over. Bye.

May 3, 1974: Actors dodging rubble during filming of motion picture
(LA Times)
Certain aspects of your personality don’t mesh with certain aspects of my personality. I’m afraid I’m choosing to die in another form of natural disaster.
It's all a matter of where you stand.
It’s all a matter of where you stand.

A couple of days ago my Facebook feed was filled with several posts about an article in the New Yorker about a massive earthquake that’s due to strike the Pacific Northwest. The author says that it won’t be the Big One; it will be THE VERY BIG ONE.

Normally, I’d jump all over phrasing like that. Not today. Not for you, earthquakes.

The author goes to great, well-written lengths to explain the mechanisms behind such a Very Big One and how it will turn everything west of Interstate 5 into the infrastructural equivalent of a rotting cantaloupe filled with dead bodies instead of seeds.

But I didn’t need an education. I was already quite aware of the phrase “Cascadian Subduction Zone.”

And “liquefaction.”

And “ghost forest.”

And “inundation zone.”

I have been fascinated with disasters since I was a child –so much so that our neighbors gave me a coffee-table book called The World’s Greatest Disasters when I nine. I read and reread the book so many times that the book’s British origins helped fuel a lifelong Anglophilia in me. After all, what kid can resist reading that the debris following the Christmas Cyclone of 1974 in Darwin, Australia was “scattered higgledypiggledy?”

When my mom dabbled in Community College when I was eleven or twelve, she would take me to the library when she studied. I was expected to amuse myself with the various AV materials available, and I found myself repeatedly watching one called San Francisco: The City That Waits to Die. In it, men in white lab coats placed a small toy house with a flag attached to it on a mass of wet sand, and then they shook the shake table. Every time I re-watched the film, the tiny house plunged downward until only the top of the flag could be seen. Our house at the time was on sandy soil and in imminent danger of liquefaction despite its location in Virginia Beach.

And to this day, if I wake up in a weird position on the bed, covered with pillows, I just lie there still, pretending what it’s like being covered in debris.

That’s exactly the problem with you, earthquakes. You just knock stuff down. Stuff doesn’t get tossed into trees higgledypiggledy; it just tumps over on a guy, trapping him where he lays. And until the rescuers come, if they ever do, the guy will have no choice but to flash back to that night when his second-to-last girlfriend before the gay took hold, Karen, decided to handcuff you to the bed in her Burbank apartment and then decided to fix herself a sandwich in the kitchen. She continued to eat the sandwich no matter how many times the guy pleaded, “Ummm… Karen?”

Earthquakes, you are the Karen of disasters. They really don’t care where you are and how much distress a guy’s in. “Ummm… Earthquake? I’d really like to move my arm. Can you come and move this chunk of highway overpass?”

The New Yorker article said the Very Big One could hit next Thursday. Or next Friday. Or Christmas Day, 2109. Who knows? All it offered were probabilities that, if they involved precipitation, I might take an umbrella with me when I left the house. Or I might not. Getting wet sucks but so does carrying around a stupid umbrella all day.

It all depends on where you are when the quake hits. One curious, or not so curious behavior I noticed when I lived in LA always happened the few days after a temblor of any note. No one would stop their cars under an overpass, and since LA is nothing but a network of overpasses, this messed with traffic big time. Yes, driver five cars ahead of me, you are protected from the 101 when it comes crashing down on Coldwater Canyon Boulevard, but my ass is sticking out into Moorpark, and you know how people drive like maniacs down that street. Spin the goddamn Wheel of Crush like everyone else!

Earthquakes, you just decide to happen. You don’t care if you’re in a guy’s in his car, in in his office, or in Karen’s bed having a discussion as to why he didn’t find being handcuffed to the bed erotic in the least bit. You can’t just assume someone’s a big fan of constraint. It’s called consent.

Not a cat. Not a sculptor.
Not a cat. Not a sculptor.

Yes, some people say pets go batty just before one of you hits, and I remember Karen’s cat, Rodan, freaking out that night. BTW… the cat’s wasn’t named after the sculptor with an “I;” rather she was named after the Japanese dino-bird monster from the Godzilla movies. Karen did have her charms, or I wouldn’t have been constrained somewhat against my will in her bed. The stupid Persian bit my upper thigh. Then the twin Landers and Big Bear quakes struck in quick succession. However, if I connected every time a cat bit me with being crushed to death, I’d be living full-time in a blanket fort under the dining room table.

Other disasters are polite enough to announce themselves without cats biting you. When Hurricane Sandy struck NYC, I had a week to buy the necessary duct tape and Scotch. Even a tornado gives you fifteen minutes to figure out where exactly the northwest corner of your basement is, then move from it because that’s where the hot water heater is, and the only thing worse than being crushed or handcuffed to death is being scalded to death.

And it’s not just natural disasters. In the months leading up to Y2K, I constantly pestered my then-financée, Lynda, about batteries and camp stoves. “If I give you $300 to spend on ‘supplies,’” she air-quoted, “will you promise to shut up about it?”

And another thing: In the days leading up to the 1992 LA Riots, the racial tension was palpable, and when they released the verdict, the rising columns of smoke and flaming palm trees along the 101 let me know that maybe my neighborhood might not be safe come nightfall. Luckily, I had met Karen the week before at a party. She must have been attracted to how I stood there against a wall with my arms akimbo, silently judging people. We chatted about her love of all things pie, Rodan, and her apartment in a gated community in the hills above Burbank. She told me to call her anytime.

“Hello Karen… chit chat chit chat… just wondering if you were okay with all that’s going on. I can come up [to your gated apartment above Burbank] if you need someone to hang out with. I can bring pie.” When I got there, she told me to take off my shirt and handed me a bottle of cheap vodka. “We’re not watching the news tonight,” she said, and we spent the evening sitting on the couch, both of us without our shirts on, swigging vodka, making out, and watching John Carpenter movies on the VCR. We never got to the pie.

Disasters can be fun if you have time to prep. But the odds of being trapped with vodka and a topless chick are vanishingly small in one of you, earthquakes.

The dual earthquakes that night after the handcuffing only led to minor damage beyond the wounds on my wrists and upper thigh. A mirror fell off the wall in Karen’s closet. When I got home around 10am, all my kitchen drawers were on the floor. I lost a measuring cup.

Pretty much the only palpable damage anyone could find was a traffic light that had fallen at the corner of Colfax and Moorpark. My father had been out to visit a couple months previously and happened to remember that I lived sort of near that intersection. The earthquake had hit at around 5am EST on a Sunday morning, about the time my dad woke up for Mass. There were eight messages on my machine, a number only exceeded that morning I managed to sleep through 9/11. All my dad’s messages related to my safety were all identical in that they would never mention the actual threat to my safety. So, I got to listen to eight versions of “Hey Chris, this is your father. Just wanted to discuss the events of the night with you?” How’d he know about the handcuffs? Instead, CNN had been showing the damage at Colfax and Moorpark on an endless loop both before Mass and after Mass.

“Are you okay? I couldn’t get hold of you.”

“Oh yeah, I’m fine. I just had spent the night over at this girl’s…” My voice trailed off. Why didn’t I just say the quake knocked the phones out? He would’ve bought that in a heartbeat. Now I was going to be crushed under the weight of some heavily rebar’d Catholicism.

“Oh…” he muttered. “You know that’s not how we raised you.”

“I’m twenty-five?” My nervous up-talking kicked in.

“That doesn’t matter.”

“All the drawers fell out in my kitchen?”

“I think I need to process this. This is not what I expected. Goodbye.” He actually sounded sad. In last few hours I had been handcuffed somewhat against my will, bitten by geologically addled cat named after a Japanese dino-bird, and who knows what boulders could’ve come crashing down onto me from the hills above Karen’s apartment? But he needs to process the knowledge that maybe his twenty-five year old son might not be a virgin.

A region-crippling ice storm would never rat you out to your dad. Other disasters have your back.

Earthquakes, it’s just not going to work out. I need time to prepare supplies and believable cover stories. That’s just the way I am. I find your unpredictability a little, shall we say, aggressive. I don’t think we should ever see each other again. You enjoy the Left Coast, and I’ll stay here in the tectonically stable middle of the North American Plate.

But I honestly hope you find a nice guy to fatally crush. I really do.

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2 thoughts on “Dear earthquakes… it’s over. Bye.

  1. My favourite part about the article you referenced was this: “The odds of the very big one are roughly one in ten. Even those numbers do not fully reflect the danger—or, more to the point, how unprepared the Pacific Northwest is to face it.”

    Thank you, New Yorker, for making us West Coasters look slacky and irresponsible for being unprepared to deal with a catastrophe that would make mulch of any preparations we could make, as it shook and bounced every building, road, and scrap of infrastructure apart into its component elements. (Thanks also for leaving everything above the 49th parallel out of your dire predictions; good to know that the damage will stop at the US-Canada border.)

    West Coasters are kind of like the people who live on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius; we know the place could blow at any time, but have you see the view from here?

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