At 4:31 am on the morning of January 17, 1994, I was rudely awakened when the bed I was sleeping in started jerking violently back and forth underneath me.
I was further confused when Jimmy threw himself on top of me. In retrospect, I realize that this was extremely loving and brave, that his intention was to protect me. But at the time, it just freaked me out even more, and made it difficult to breath.
It was an earthquake. The room was filled with a low roar, as well as crashing and the breaking of glass. After what seemed like 10 to 20 minutes, but was, in fact, only about 10 to 20 seconds, the quake stopped, and we finally breathed.
The first thing we heard was the shriek of car alarms. Remember, at that time, all the car alarms were motion sensitive, and every alarm in the city of Los Angeles went off at the same time. It was surreal.
We looked at each other. We were both okay. Slowly, we got up and started to survey the situation. Californians are schooled in earthquake safety. We all know what we're supposed to do in case of earthquake. But I can tell you from first hand experience, that in the moment you don't remember diddlysquat. I remembered something about putting on shoes as quickly as possible, but of course I couldn't find any. After groping around in the dark for a couple of minutes we both managed to find something to put on our feet, and then started creeping around accessing the damage to our apartment.
The electricity was out, but we, naturally, didn't have any flashlights with batteries in them (another earthquake safety recommendation), so we ended up lighting candles to light our way. In the hallway outside the bedroom, several pictures had fallen off walls and the glass had shattered on the floor. In other rooms, nothing had fallen off the walls at all. It was strangely haphazard. Some shelves had everything shaken off them, but other shelves were perfectly unmoved. The china cabinet with all of my Mama's crystal in it was pristine.
The kitchen was a mess. Food had flown out of the pantry and all over the floor. A few plates and cups had shattered on the floor. One of the weirdest issues was that a bottle of eucalyptus oil, which I used to use for facials, had smashed to the floor, and the entire house was filled with the pungent and eye-watering smell of eucalyptus.
Gradually, we, and all of our neighbors crept outside to check on each other and reconnect with the outside world. It always fascinates me the way people come together in crisis. Neighbors who might only vaguely nod hello to each other on a usual day will hug and cry together in a disaster. While we were all standing together in the courtyard in our bedclothes, figuring out what we should all do next, one of our neighbors, Pam, the busybody, came around the corner from the back of the building. "I thought I smelled gas," she announced, "so I shut the gas off at the meter." Which seems like it would have been a smart thing to do. But unfortunately, what she thought was the smell of gas was in fact the smell of...you guessed it...eucalyptus. So now we had neither electricity nor gas.
We also had no telephones. This was before the day of the cell phone. But it was past the day of the old rotary phone - we all had electric phones. So the problem wasn't with the phone service, but that we had no electricity. One of our neighbors had an old fashioned land line, and we all took turns using it to call out. We, of course, called Mommy in New York, who was, as you would imagine, hysterical. Because while we had no idea what was going on, she was getting CNN coverage of the quake, and she was seeing the magnitude of what was going on.
What became known as the Northridge Earthquake was magnitude 6.7, a significant shaker. It was felt as far away as Las Vegas. Apartment buildings crumbled, the 10 Freeway collapsed. 57 people died, more than 8,700 were injured including 1,600 who required hospitalization. Half the chimneys in the city fell down.
But we knew none of this, because we had no television. We finally located a Walkman (remember those?) with a radio in it that had working batteries, and we huddled together on the sofa, each of us with one of the two earplugs in an ear. This huddling and shaking had an interesting side effect. Jimmy became rather frisky. Statistics showed that 9 months later there was a huge spike in the birth rate- quake babies - so apparently, he wasn't the only one.
The worst thing about the next few days were the aftershocks. Every few minutes we'd get a tiny rumble. Nothing too damaging, but enough to send panic through your body. You didn't know if an even bigger one was on the way. Nobody slept for days. Nerves were raw.
As that first day went on, people started reaching out as best they could. Jimmy's Cousin Cathy drove over to check on us. We were extremely lucky, and got our electricity back with in a few hours, but most of the city did not. As a result, our apartment became the go-to place for our little group of friends. That night, a bunch of people came over with food and liquor and I managed to cook a dinner on the barbecue grill and in the microwave (remember, Pam, the busybody had shut off the damned gas - grrrr).
Cathy and her boyfriend came over, as did our friends David and Debra, who stayed the night because their apartment was pretty damaged. And our friend Denise came with a random guy none of us knew. Some British guy she'd met when she was in England, who had happened to show up on her doorstep the night before, looking for a place to stay, and ended up in the middle of a disaster.
I love this picture of all of us - it really captures how on edge we all were.
Notice our cat, Rodney there. We had three cats at the time, all of whom have now passed on. Two of them, Bette and Imogene, reacted to the quake like cats - they ran and hid. In fact, we didn't find Bette for days - she was totally freaked. Rodney, however, who was the most amazing cat that ever lived, and I always said was one reincarnation away from human, decided that the safest place to be was right in the middle of us. He followed Jimmy and I around for days and kept wanting to sit on us.
We, of course, were very lucky. Our apartment had no structural damage. Our breakage was minimal. We had friends who lived in the San Fernando Valley who lost a tremendous amount. A lot of people moved away from Los Angeles after the Northridge Earthquake. But I always figured that every place in the world has certain natural disasters it's prone to have. New York had an earthquake last year for God's sake. So we stay.
We haven't had a substantial shaker in years. In fact, Jude's never really felt one. Sometimes this scares me. Maybe the Big One is right around the corner. But I can't think about it or I'll get freaked out.
Hmmm. Maybe I should make sure the flashlights have batteries, and I have a pair of shoes next to my bed.
Or maybe I'll just go knock on wood.
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