At 4:31 in the morning, seventeen years ago today, I was jolted out of bed — along with millions of my fellow Angelenos — by the strongest earthquake I’ve felt in my lifetime. The Northridge temblor killed more than sixty, did billions of dollars in damage, and left lasting scars across what weather forecasters (and very few others) call “the southland.”
In January 1994, I had just begun my second semester of teaching at Pasadena City College. Having passed my qualifying exams a few months earlier, I was busy researching my doctoral dissertation. I was sober, though I had a few spectacular relapses in my future. And I was engaged to be married for the second time (to Sara, whom I wrote about here.) Sara lived in Brentwood on Bundy Drive, 200 yards away from where the Simpson murders would take place later that same year. Normally, I slept over on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights only; since Monday, January 17 was the Martin Luther King holiday, we planned to stay in bed and then wander down the street for brunch.
Like most people who live in quake-prone areas, when the shaking started, I woke and lay there, waiting to see if it would get stronger. All my life, I’ve felt little rumbles that never intensified into something big. The strongest temblor I’d felt until this point had been the May 1983 Coalinga quake. But seventeen January 17ths ago, the shaking got stronger and louder. Sara and I jumped from bed and ran to the doorway. The shaking got more violent; on the second floor of her pre-war apartment building, it felt as if a giant was shaking the structure apart. I saw the TV fly off a bureau, exploding on the floor; I heard the china dropping from kitchen cabinets. And then I heard nothing but a roar unlike anything I’ve ever heard. I shouted at Sara, “I love you”, certain that those were my last words. “I love you too”, she yelled. We held each other and held on.
The shaking stopped. I, who have a mild but exasperating habit of getting vasovagal syncope at the worst times, got dizzy and crumpled to the floor, passing out. Once she was sure I was still alive, Sara pulled on her sweats and her boots, grabbed a flashlight, and ran to rescue her ninety-something neighbor. I joined her fifteen minutes later, when I could stand again.
My apartment, a mile away, was shattered. The building stood and was still occupable, but I too had lost a television and all my dishes. A huge bookcase had fallen on my bed, making me very grateful I had spent the night at my fiancÃ©e’s. Since we were engaged to be married, lots of people in our families decided that we should register for replacement china early; since we were going to be husband and wife, why re-purchase two sets? We got a new china set — or rather, Sara did, as she was the one who kept the earthquake replacement gifts after our divorce two and a half years later. I finally bought my earthquake earthenware in the fall of 1996, later than anyone else whom I knew.
The Northridge quake was a tragedy. And it came at a time when Los Angeles seemed to be so vulnerable to tragedies. It had been less than two years since the Rodney King riots, and in between, we’d had the devastating fires of October 1993. The joke that went around in those days was that L.A. did have four seasons: fire, flood, earthquake and riot. Even as the economy was slowly getting better, in the early to mid 1990s, there was an apocalyptic scent on the jasmine-infused breeze of my adopted home.
But I also have fond memories of that era. I remember the community spirit, at least in my extended circle of twenty-somethings (most of whom were fellow UCLA grad students or fellow members of Twelve Step programs.) Mandatory curfews were in place after both the riots and the quake, and with police (and National Guard) on the streets, we arranged slumber parties and clean-up parties. Lots of food and laughter. Lots of sex, too — proximity to death and destruction can so often be an aphrodisiac. Sara and I, who had a very troubled relationship, were never closer than we were in the first week or so after Northridge. I remember it as a sweet and magical — if terrifying — time.
I’d like to keep the memory and not have it repeated, however. Here’s to quiet on the Inglewood, Whittier, and San Andreas faults. And here’s to the memory of those who died seventeen years ago today.