oh my god…get up…quick…

Everything is shaking apart around me.

There is no light. My eyes are muffled in blackness, and it’s hard to breathe. It is hard to breathe because the world is hurling back and forth, back and forth, over and over.

It is so loud I cannot think.

I feel like a miniature in a cracking doll house being violently shaken by a child.

I am fifteen years old.

I’m awake. I am standing. when did I get out of bed?! my back is against the doorframe to my bedroom. My hands and right foot are pressed forward, into the other side of the doorway. I woke up in this doorway. I realize I am screaming. I do not know how long I have been standing here, bracing myself in the door. I can barely think with the earth yanking me, my neck whipsawing forward and back.

Some far-off part of me is confused, foggy, still asleep. I shake my head like it’s going to help. There is a deafening roar that isn’t stopping.

The shaking hiccups, lurches east, slows. The roar dims to a low growl. I hear my dad yelling at the top of his lungs from his bedroom. He cannot open his door–we are still shaking, a sickening seaboard heaving now–because the violent motion has clamped his door into place. He is trying to get to me. “I could hear you screaming, ” he will tell me later, and I’ll feel guilty for worrying him.

I feel a brief flush of idiocy, standing here screaming like a stupid kid. The door to my parents’ room whips open with a crack, as my father finally yanks it inwards and the house lets it go.

A moving thing shudders down by my legs. Our dog. We are still rolling slowly, subtle.

There is nothing but thick, fuzzy blackness muffling my head and hands. Outside I hear the hissing of transformers busting, power lines snapping like snakes. My mom grabs my hand in the dark, pushes into it the flashlight that always has waited under her bed for tonight.

The ground bucks under our feet one last time, then calms. There is still a weird supernatural groaning in the air, as if the earth is still squealing massive gears together underground. My parents huddle close to me, confirm I’m ok, tell me they’re going to turn off the gas & check on the neighbors. They station me in the doorway to my room, with Murphy, the dog, and my flashlight. They head out, my vision of them smothered as they move away into the dark.

There is silence, punctuated by yelling outside in the street. Silence again. I crawl down the hallway and look out a window. I see more blackness, lit to the west by the ultraviolet glow and sizzle of a bursting transformer.

I huddle back with Murphy. Flashing the beam of my light down the hallway, I see it’s strewn with furniture. Pictures slammed down into the baseboards. A secretary desk leans diagonally across the hall. I am surrounded by the deitritus of my parents’ home decor. Then there are the clocks.

In the pitch black, my flashlight begins to die; in the silence and the dread and the waiting for my parents–where the hell are they, it’s been so long–in the blackness, I hear the clocks in the house ticking. Irregular. Broken. Half-measures–tick. Ti—ti-tock.

Tock. T-t-t….

tick.

tick.

Ticktick.

…tock.

I begin to feel like I’m losing my mind, with the stuttering clocks and the flashlight dying. I shake it to rattle the last life out of the batteries, grab onto the ruff of Murphy’s golden-lab neck, and huddle down.

After what seems like an eternity meted out in out-of-time clockworks, my parents return. I hear them banging around in the maze of downed furniture. The air feels full of static.

“The castle is gone,” my father says.

When my great-grandfather emigrated to the US with his bride, he and his brothers–the Knapp brothers–settled in Hollywood first (bean fields at the time), then soon moved inland to the San Fernando Valley. Their trade was stonework. What do stone masons do when they’ve come from the Swiss-Tyrol, where their fathers built hulking Tyrolian castles?

My great-grandfather built a castle. In the West Valley. On the corner of Cohasset and Owensmouth.

It had a wine cellar. A huge garden when I would play as a small child. Biblical tableaux sculpted out of cement over wire armatures dotted the garden, the delicate expressions of Mary and Joseph carefully molded with affectionate, calloused old hands. Amongst the plum trees and goldfish-stocked fountains was a giant sculpture of a butterfly, child’s-playground-sized, its wings decorated with colorful broken crockery. A pergola supported grapevines. A garage with a small upstairs apartment stood next to a little mother-in-law’s cottage; the castle itself was to the other corner of the property. It had a delicate, almost-Islamic turret poised like a steeple over its facade, a gallery of spiralled columns leading to a massive front door carved of wood. The door was about eight feet tall, with a heart carved into it just below a small window that allowed the occupants to peer out. A rambling stone floor I barely remember, a back patio–what was in the house, I can hardly recall. High ceilings. White plaster walls. Alcoves. Stained glass. Many Christmases with unknown relatives pinching my cheeks.

When I would dare to creep down into the wine cellar, I could look above me at the low plaster ceiling to see arrows drawn with the smoke from candles–candles my dad and his cousins had lit and played with when they were kids, drawing spooky arrows and their names into the ceiling with the oily smoke.

So, the castle fell down.

It had not been built for earthquakes. Indeed, it was likely my great-grandpa had never experienced an earthquake. There was no rebar in the walls. Just a narrow hollow space between stones, with the occasional ancient beer can or now-opalescent glass jar from some treat or another tossed into the hollow.

At the time, the castle was being rented to friends of my father’s cousin. They barely got out with their lives. It collapsed into itself like a house of giant stone cards.

So, we were ok, but a huge chunk of my heritage was suddenly wiped from the earth. Our family sold the property. I was too young and no one listened when I protested. The pile of stone rubble was removed, the wine cellar filled in. My father salvaged some sculptures that hadn’t shattered, the base of a spiral column, some large garden pottery and the monumental wooden door. Everything else is gone. There is now an empty lot there. No one has bought it. No has has built upon it. It makes me sad.

My parents and I lived under our sturdy antique dining room table for about a week. We didn’t trust sleeping in the beds. In the attic above, separated from us by a thin sheet of drywall and insulation, sat more heavy antique furniture, atop plyboard. A good shake could rattle a long-dead great-aunt’s trousseau chest off its precarious perch & send it hurtling down through the ceiling. So we slept under the long dining table.

There was no electricity. I ate Charlie’s Tuna Kits for three days. I enjoyed this, because for some reason tuna kits filled me with delight, with their specially packaged small packet of crackers, mayo, relish, small wooden spoon and tiny tin of tunafish. Something about the compartmentalized cuteness of the thing. I still enjoy airline meals, bento and Japanese school supplies for this reason.

Anyway.

The one thing I remember more than anything, more than the horrible tick-tocking of the clocks or the terror of waking up in the doorway, screaming myself awake (thank god for earthquake drills, I’d leapt out of bed in my sleep)–the one thing I remember the most was walking outside after my parents returned, with the dog at my heels, and looking upwards–my jaw dropped–suddenly everything fell away–

breathe.

…with the electricity of the city extinguished, every star I’d never seen exploded to life.

Above the still-humming blackness, billions of stars silently glittered down onto Los Angeles, a city that hadn’t seen starlight in a century.

Amidst the nuclear glow and hiss of bursting transformers, amidst the chaos, the distant rise of sirens, the hum of the earth, I felt my jaw drop; it was glory, in the Biblical sense of the word–terrifying and beautiful. Nature had humbled Los Angeles.

That was the Northridge Earthquake, fifteen years ago today, at this very time, 4:30am.

72 died. 9,000 were injured.

It “caused an estimated $20 billion in damage, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.” Wikipedia

And I have never seen so many stars in my life.

9 Replies to “oh my god…get up…quick…”

  1. It’s funny, we both had similar awe-struck moments regarding seeing stars after the 94 Earthquake, except I was half your age(7 at the time). I wrote my own thing on the Earthquake this past year… here you go if interested. Just though I would share.

    Merridy Street

    Walking back from the Liquor store on the corner of Dupont and Topanga, with Red Vine Licorice in one hand, and a Cactus Cooler in the other, my four year old brother Frankie and I pass by the same quaint, one story houses that we pass by everyday on the way home from school. At some point, my brother will pick up a snail or two, we will stop to pet two Doberman’s through palm-sized holes in a chain link fence, steal a lemon from our neighbor’s front lawn, and cross the street to avoid the violent Chow on the corner of our block, who will no doubt smash his round face against his side yard gate in a frothing mess of slobber to try and bite us.
    Our neighborhood is a Pleasantville of non-offensive, vitamin colored houses, the same four or five house plans flipped and repeated over and over to make up a neighborhood of family-friendly cul-de sacs and short blocks. With the exception of the dogs, my brother and I are, undoubtedly, the only ones out and about. All the neighbors are safe inside their homes, the drapes drawn shut. The pale stucco of every house reflects the acid trip sunset in the western sky like a mood ring, unnaturally stunning hot pinks and eggplant purples, amplified by the thick smoggy haze that blankets the Valley. It’s this same smog layer ― creating the most surreal, acid-trip sunsets, worthy of postcards sold in liquor stores all around the Los Angeles area ― that soaks up all the city lights in it’s thickness and makes the night sky glow a milky lavender, like a fresh bruise, blocking out the constellations and tucking the Valley in for the night, giving us the comforting illusion that we rest inside our own impenetrable bubble of suburban harmonium. Throughout night, the dull and constant rumble in the background throughout most of the day submits to the soothing hoos of mourning doves. Sometimes, as I lay in my bed, staring at the glow-in-the-dark, constellation stickers hanging on to the cottage-cheese ceiling, trying to get back to sleep after waking up from the cat jumping on my chest, or my bladder being full, or a nightmare about dinosaurs eating my brother… I can hear the doves, much too soft to be heard during the day, as they peck the freshly laid grass seeds by the shed where the Opossums sleep, nestled against garbage bags full of stale clothes.
    * * *
    At 4:30 a.m., on January 17, 1994, I wake up, not from my bladder or by dreams of dinosaurs eating my brother, or by my cats selfish need to trample on my stomach, but by every single dog in the whole neighborhood yelping and hollering. I imagine the massive, orangutan orange Chow on the street corner, pressing his swollen, cotton ball fur through the holes in the chain-link fence while his speckled black and purple tongue coats the wires in his saliva. The Golden Retriever two doors down, hopping like a kangaroo to peek over the pointed tops of the sunlight stained, picket wall. The two gentle Doberman’s by the Liquor store, standing on their slender back legs as they howl in unison toward the violet sky.
    At 4:31 another noise joins the dogs, the sound of beds creaking and windows shaking in their loose panes, ceramic plates breaking on orange and brown linoleum floors – making dents in the 70’s inspired Mushroom pattern, aquariums shattering onto brown carpet as the fish scatter like marbles throughout the house to be discovered as one discovers a squished grape under one’s bare foot, and beneath it all, a low rumbling like the rumbling of an empty belly that was hooked up to a megaphone and shoved into your ear.
    They always taught us in school that when these things happen, it is best to stand in a doorway, which will supposedly remain standing as everything else collapses. Whoever thought this was a good idea clearly hadn’t tried it out in a real circumstance, like the people who tell you to get up and walk when you have a cramp in your calf. No -I just lay there in my bed, cottage cheese chunks landing in the creases of my eyes and nose and mouth. And when the house stops moving, it’s like I have been shut in a closet, suffocating on air filled with all the sluffed off skin and lint and dust that has been resting for years in the deepest nooks of the carpet and beneath the baseboards and under the bed. I can’t see the corners of the room, or even the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling, it is blacker than desert nights in Joshua Tree, where at least the moon can draw the outlines of your own hand in front of your face.
    I slide my feet onto the carpet, every step a ballet dance of tentatively tapping toes, testing for broken glass or sharp knickknacks flung from shelves. By my doorway, the floor is soaked in over ten gallons of water from the fish tank at the end of the hall. Teal and magenta gravel wedges itself between my toes, marinated in slimy fish-water. In front of my door, I can see a little metallic body reflecting what little light is left in the house. Sharky, my black tipped Silver Shark Fish, barely the size of my thumb, is laying on his side, nestled in the brown carpet. He is gasping for water, his little bloated fishy-lips opening and closing mechanically. In the living room, my turtle, Sam, is lying on the linoleum, his stumpy little feet clawing in slow motion at the air.
    * * *
    Small, silhouetted lumps of families bundled under blankets, like a sea of bag ladies, begin to hobble outside of their houses to an orchestra of varying car alarms and fire squads, police sirens, and honking horns and still barking dogs, which are now running loose down the streets in every possible direction. In the weeks to come, walking to and from the liquor store to buy clean water, we will find some of these dogs; many are hit by cars, left on the side of the road for days before being removed or identified by their owners. Tomorrow, carrying home a box full of glazed doughnuts(the only food place open for miles), I will discover one on my own, a black and white pit bull, on the sidewalk – impaled by a parking sign in front of the baseball card shop, one of his eyes popping out of its socket. I will walk home the rest of the way with my eyes glued to my feet because one of our cats ran away, and she hasn’t come back, and I don’t want to know why.
    * * *
    Sitting on our front lawns, we wait for the sun to rise. Everyone is in their front yard, for once making use of their perfectly coiffed lawns, unable to go back inside for fear of aftershocks or gas leaks. Notably though, no one is in their backyard, as if to say in the only way they know how, to neighbors they never introduced themselves to before now, that they are ok, and that they wanted to know that we were ok too. We all quietly take roll with our passive glances up and down the street.
    On our own front lawn (not nearly as well kept as our neighbors, notorious for it’s dirt patches and dandelion growth), my brother sits upright in his purple and gold Aladdin hoodie. My mom is picking glass from inside the cotton hood – little shards of “special occasion” glass and dinnerware from the China cabinet in the living room, and not from the window in his bedroom, which had shattered all over my brother’s bed. At 4 in the morning, my brother had woken up with the dog, gotten himself dressed, woke my mom up to have her tie his shoes (which she, probably half asleep, didn’t question), and started to watch The Great Mouse Detective on the brown leather couch in the living room – which was beneath the China cabinet. He just sits here quietly with his nose gently resting against his favorite balloon printed blanket, his “Dee”, not even realizing how lucky he is that he had an urge to leave his room to watch a movie before his bed became a pool of glass. I sit quietly next to him, wrapped in my own blanket, with a fisher-price picnic basket at my side – my turtle, Sam, scratching at the frictionless plastic in vain to try and climb out.
    * * *
    Sometime before 6:58 AM, when the sun would rise on January 17, 1994, you could see every face on Merridy St. looking not downward, at the cracked street, zigzagging like asphalt lightning over the sidewalk and through the road, or at the uprooted trees toppled over like dominoes onto cars crushed like aluminum soda cans, but upwards, at the sky normally flattened out into its dull lavender, where little white twinkles of light were shining crisp and purposeful like they do in the desert – a connect-the-dots of warriors and serpents and giant spoons made up of planets and galaxies so far away that they look like specks of glowing dust scattered on a placid lake. For the first and only time in my life in that place, I saw stars.

  2. I, too, remember the stars vividly. I was 12. I rememebr my mom pulling me up and into the doorway and the horrible noise around me. Then silence and black. We knew we needed to look for the candles in the hall, but we couldn’t see a thing. Thank the Timex gods for their “indiglo” technology. It lit up the entire hallway and then some!
    When the sun finally rose, my dad took me out to drive around and assess the damage (we were in Toluca Lake at the time). Our area was relatively OK. Our liquor store, Dales Jr, was still selling necessary supplies to locals, but there were hundreds of broken wine bottles everywhere. We then ventured towards the Sherman Oaks/Encino area. Having seen earlier pics of Northridge in the news, I really felt Sherman Oaks/Encino got hit worse. One apt building in particular (off Coldwater Cyn I think) was split into 3 giant, separate pieces. Water was shooting out from under the street. That’s also where the parking garage collapsed on that poor man who was cleaning it.
    Later in the evening, we were sitting on our front lawn, because I was scared to be in the house. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the neighbor’s wall lights, because everytime we had an after shock, they would shake, and I would know.
    I didn’t sleep well for the next few nights, but slowly, it got easier.

  3. Wow, playdohartist, you’re a fantastic writer. I’d love to see more of your work if you have a blog or something.
    Daveshare, I remember the fear or going to sleep…it did get better, but man, that first night…I actually don’t think I slept for a day or two, I was so high-strung.

  4. I am way older then the rest of you (I was like 30 in 1994). What I remember the most was all the stars in the sky (being that all the lights in the City were out, you could see the stars) and the “waves” caused in the pool of our apartment building.
    During the 1971 earthquake: I was maybe 7, we had just moved to our Santa Monica house. My parents had given in the nagging and bought me a fish tank the week before.
    Poor fish. The quake tossed out all the water and fish from the tank.

    That was my first and last fish tank.

  5. Wow, LM, what a great account of what you endured. I didn’t move here until 9 months after that quake. The only thing I’ve been through remotely similar would be a hurricane in Texas while living (and not evacuating) a block from the Gulf of Mexico. Now I feel the need to get some emergency supplies together.

  6. Thanks LM! I don’t have a blog with my writing up yet. my blog(v-soberanis.blogspot.com) currently has only my animation and illustration work. I have been pondering adding a writing section to the website I have been compiling though. I’ll let you know when I do :)

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