This is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek recollection of what I experienced on the morning of January 17, 1994 when Mother Nature turned psycho-bitch and hit Southern California with what was to become known as the Northridge Earthquake, even though it technically started twelve miles under my apartment in Reseda. Some of the story is true – I did live in Reseda and my life did get torn apart, but the bulk of this story is obviously stylized for the sake of a good laugh. Enjoy.

Earthquake Memories

Artist’s rendition of me being traumatized

Chapter 1.

As I slipped under the covers on that moonless January night, I made a mental list of all the things I was going to do on my extra day off that I’d already put off that day and the previous day as well as the week before, with a naive trust that the new day would arrive without incident and no doubt allow me yet another day to procrastinate. It was Sunday night and Monday was Martin Luther King’s birthday – a man whom, even though I wasn’t black, I still admired greatly because his words touched everyone’s desire for fairness and justice, with the truth of his message and the power of his speeches still echoing through the years and culminating in a day off in his honor.

As my eyes gently closed and sleep approached I, like most Southern Californians, lay completely unaware that twelve miles beneath the city of Reseda where I lived (previously famous for being in a Tom Petty song and where the Karate Kid grew up), mother nature was, like myself, stressed out and under too much pressure from the daily grind, and at 4:31 in the morning she finally cracked, ripping me out of my unconscious sanctuary with the most insane, demonic shaking I’d ever known or thought I could imagine and forcing me to face, in only a fraction of waking awareness, an immediate retrospective of my short life and the soon-to-be-revealed prospects of an after-life.

Like most people raised in quake-prone California, my first reaction to the shaking was to immediately jump out of bed and stand in my doorway. I can’t say for sure when I was first taught this but I can only assume it was back in grammar school alongside the surprise “drop drills” that were supposed to keep us safe in the event of a nuclear holocaust. For years this false sense of security allowed me to believe that if my building ever did collapse during an earthquake that there’d be nothing left when it was all over except a big pile of rubble and me…standing in a doorway.

The quake quickly grew in intensity, and as I madly pitched and rolled in the sudden storm, standing like Sampson in the temple, preparing for my death while immersed in the sound of everything in my apartment simultaneously shaking in a mad, jangled symphony of breaking glass and falling stereo equipment, I found myself thinking about the many different religions that existed in the world today while simultaneously converting to every single one of them – including atheism, which in retrospect might have seemed a bit odd, but I was scared and desperate and at the same time wondering if the after-life had cable.

After 30 minutes of violent shaking, which in actual time was only about 15 seconds, the quake was over…and I found myself naked, trembling, and in the most pitch black darkness I didn’t think I could ever experience. While my apartment continued to rock and roll, I stumbled through the debris until I found what I knew I had to have for survival in the crumbling, lawless, post-apocalyptic society that surely awaited me outside…my pants. While attempting to put on my 501’s in total darkness I began to discover just how much I hated button-fly jeans. Under normal circumstances they give me no trouble, but fumbling with buttons while your apartment is busy moving to another zip code is not something you want to have to deal with if you can help it.

The rest of that morning is still something of a surreal, traumatic blur. I vaguely remember moving blindly through my apartment, smashing my knee into my entertainment center, crawling over my entertainment center, feeling my way through the darkness and gradually stumbling into my kitchen in search of a flashlight and a half-drunk bottle of Tequila that would soon be empty if I could find it.

I remember poking through the darkness and eventually locating my junk drawer, pulling it open, taking out my flashlight, turning it on, and discovering in its few remaining seconds of flickering battery life that all the windows in my apartment were broken, my ceiling had partially caved in, everything in my cupboards and refrigerator had been relocated to my kitchen floor and, as I already knew, my entertainment center had fallen over.

My apartment had been trashed beyond recognition and I was starting to smell gas, so I found another flashlight, gathered some valuables and got the hell out. Thankfully my brother lived only a few blocks away so I drove there, actually missing his street entirely as I tried to navigate through the solid black pre-dawn, stone age darkness of a city without streetlights.

I was a frazzled wreck that day, but only over the next few weeks would I gradually discover, through numerous flashbacks, panic attacks and persistent insomnia, just how much and in what unexpected ways this earthquake had caused cracks in my own apparently fragile foundation and changed my life forever.

Chapter 2.

About two weeks after the earthquake and perhaps a week after returning to work, the company I worked for sent out a memo announcing the formation of a support group for those of us who were still having some difficulty dealing with the post-quake reality of daily aftershocks, jangled nerves and sleepless nights. I decided to attend, figuring there’d be a lecture, some instruction on how to meditate and maybe some chocolate chip cookies or free Xanax. What I didn’t expect, however, was that I was about to be confronted by my oldest, strongest, and second-most terrifying of all my personal fears (having been replaced by earthquakes a few weeks earlier)…PUBLIC SPEAKING.

After we’d taken our seats, the leader of the group, a 30-ish, still-idealistic social worker named “Barry”, suggested that all twenty of us sit in a circle and talk, one by one, about how the quake had affected our lives.

This didn’t seem to bother most people, but for me the effect was similar to drinking 20 cups of black coffee followed by a quick ¼ mile sprint around the block. Back when I was in school, teachers would often call on me just for the entertainment value of watching me stutter and sweat before finally admitting I didn’t have the answer – even though I often did. After awhile it got to the point where they’d simply call my name, watch me jump to attention, and then move on before I even had a chance to mumble “I don’t know”.

So here I was, only a few days after the most hair-raising experience of my life, still shaking and ready to wet myself at the slightest vibration or sudden loud noise that in any way reminded me of that terrible morning, and now I had to sit and anxiously wait for my turn to talk about it.

There were about 10 people ahead of me, which would give me just a little too much time to think and over-rehearse my comments to the point of losing all spontaneity. As much as I’d always hated public speaking, I’ve also found it less painful if I got it over with quickly so the apprehension didn’t get a chance to build out of control. Waiting to speak for me is kind of like being in line for a firing squad and watching everyone ahead of me slump to the ground. If it’s inevitable and there’s no way out, I’d just assume not wait.

As more people talked of the terror they went through and as it came closer to my turn, I could feel my nervousness grow stronger and the pressure building up inside me, filling me with a sudden and tremendous urge to heave without warning. I thought I felt the room twitch and tremble slightly but no one else seemed to notice or react. Then I realized it was me. My legs were doing an Elvis impersonation without my consent.

A few people ahead of me had already said the quake felt like a train or an elephant stampede going through their house. That gave me an idea and I inked-in what I was going to say. Then the person next to me said he thought a wrecking ball was smashing into his bedroom. Damn it, that was my idea! Now I had to think of something original again and I was nearly out of time. When it was clear my neighbor had wrapped up his thoughts, the instructor turned towards me – followed by every eye in the room and a 10,000 watt spotlight that slowly dropped from the ceiling. I started hoping for a large aftershock or nuclear attack to help ease my anxiety.

“Well, I don’t really know what to compare it to” I managed to choke out as my voice trembled in unison with the unheard music my legs were keeping rhythm to. “I’ve never had a train come through my bedroom so I can’t really say it felt like that”. Everyone laughed, but it only added to my nervousness. “I think I’ll probably be using the earthquake as a watermark for any future disasters I happen to live through. Like, if I ever got HIT by a train I could say ‘You know, that felt a lot like the Northridge earthquake’ ”. Everyone laughed again, this time louder. I was buoyed by the sound but my legs were trembling severely from the nervous energy my body was releasing. “I think the closest thing I could compare the quake to would be one of those electric paint-can mixers you see in hardware stores. Actually, it also reminded me a little of Space Mountain at Disneyland; total darkness, a lot of screaming – except I didn’t expect to die on Space Mountain.” I was on a roll, but my arms and legs were now shaking out of control and I could feel the sweat as it pored from my body like a burst reservoir. I tried to speak again but the fear was now grabbing me by the throat and squeezing me hard, choking me, drowning me in a pool of my own creation. I gasped for air and pleaded for mercy as I slowly slipped and vanished into a desperate, inky darkness.

When I came to I was huddled under my desk in a fetal position, rocking back and forth and grasping my jacket for comfort. “Jeff? Hi, I’m Dr. Johnson from the clinic next door…I just took the liberty of booking you a very nice room at the local happy home” said the gray-haired gentleman calmly, his head sideways as he bent over to speak to me in my new shelter. “After that, I’d like to see you 6 times a week for the rest of your life. In the meantime, take 3 of these until the ambulance gets here.” I popped the pills without water. “What about my job?” I asked, still delirious from my apparent breakdown. “Oh don’t worry, we’re arraigning to have your computer and all your work brought to you in your new, padded cubicle.” Before I could weep, the pills took me away as I slowly drifted back into my last remaining sanctuary.

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