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.
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.
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–
…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.