Twenty years ago today, January 17, ‘94, at 4:31 a.m., I was awakened not by the seismic waves springing wildly out of the north-central Valley, but by my girlfriend, who was shouting at me to get out of bed, having herself sprung to the door where I could see her pressing on the frame with both palms outward in a near-gesture of benediction, her panicked expression a petition for Providential mercy. I think at the time she would have called herself skeptical of the notion of divine intervention, but there’s nothing like the threat of imminent danger to turn us into Pascal’s suckers. Between her and me, though, she was smarter. The Northridge quake took a toll.
But it also gave me the opportunity to be a smug bastard. I could hear E.J., our roommate and the bass player in our band, shuffling around in the living room and talking to Andrea about all the books and CDs that had spilled from the shelves and which were now carpeting the floor. I knew from the sounds of their conversation that there might be some tedious picking up to do. I might be able to avoid it entirely, though, if I could make Andrea feel ridiculous about her irrational dread. I might cut an easy path through the inconvenience of the mess, which, as it turned out, was considerable.
A man. A plan. A canal.
A display of indifferent nonchalance would yield the additional benefit of becoming a functional demonstration of late 20th-century alpha-male certitude, as though Nature’s worst were merely an exasperating inconvenience to be endured by me, He-Who-Could-Not-Be-Bothered. I’d been asleep, after all. What had I not seen before? In what way was I not jaded? Be dashed, World of Mysteries.
So I painted it pretty thick, annoyed with her for getting me up – clearly this earthquake was due to some failing on her part. She saw through the ploy right away, I’m pretty sure, but it didn’t matter, my case was unassailable. I’d’ve slept through the whole thing had it not been for her hysteria. She’d have to take my mild abuse for the short term and even work a little to bring me into a better humor. The healthy bond between us.
In my defense, I’ve never been a morning person.
Our neighbors were up and more than a few West L.A. residents were milling about on Bundy Drive, by day a busy thoroughfare perhaps best known as the street where Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman would be found murdered on June 13 of that year, a crime for which O.J. Simpson would turn himself in exactly five months to the day after the quake.
We were a few blocks south of O.J., so our paths, alas, never crossed the morning of the earthquake (nor ever). We did run into just about everyone else on our own block, people who had managed to remain mostly invisible to each other until then. The black, early hour was chilly, as I recall, and many residents were wearing robes or other sleepwear, a sartorial situation which was in its own way a little unsettling. Emergency intimacy. Ho-hum, but noticeable. E.J. and I explored the extraordinarily limited novelty of loitering on Bundy in the dark with a small herd of drowsy Westies. The managers wanted us out of the building so that they could make sure, I suppose, that it wouldn’t come crashing down. Andrea was talking to complete strangers about tectonic horrors sundry and various, but I was sleepy and cold, so I flouted the protective ill-logic of freezing in the open and I sneaked into the underground garage and hid in a car. I zoned out for a few minutes before Andrea was knocking on the window, reporting that we could go back in.
The quake was a harbinger. Later that year, a T.V. anchor would say of O.J.’s White Bronco flight, “This is one of those cases where you just can’t believe that reality is real” (Lee). Had I been more present in the moment of that morning on January 17, I would have been inclined to project the circumstances of natural upheaval as a sign of things to come. That tendency is certainly in keeping with my usual take on the universe, and I would absolutely feel that inclination more than once during that year, as I broke up with Andrea by pursuing another relationship, watched a four-year project dissolve, struggled to find a new way to define my future, and felt repeatedly the stings of loss and the urgency of new possibilities. There would be no easy paths cut through the subsequent inconvenient messes of my own making.
Had I been more awake to the implications of the earthquake, I might, too, have been a little easier to be around that morning. I could have recognized that somewhere in my city, some people were really suffering. Looking back it seems that I had an investment in not always believing that reality was real, and it’s taken some considerable part of the last twenty years to get to a place where that investment has dwindled, thankfully so. Turns out, earthquakes, God’s or otherwise, bring things down, and some of those things stay lost. I don’t regret all of those losses, but I do at times regret not knowing when I was losing.
- Lee, Ryan M. June 17, 1994. Dir. Brett Morgen. ESPN. 16 June 2010. Television. Quick-cut footage of the events of June 17, 1994, especially the O.J. Simpson chase.