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Quake Hold

When I’m traveling and I tell someone I’m from L.A., I brace myself for the inevitable question: “Aren’t you afraid of earthquakes?” Of course I am. When you’re nice and cozy beneath the covers and suddenly your bed frame shakes you awake and you’re re-creating a scene from The Exorcist, it’s freaking terrifying. The reality is, we live on all kinds of active fault lines. Eventually they’re going to give, and you can’t deny the science of that. Unlike tornados, quakes don’t have seasons, so until we have a warning system, there’s no telling when one will strike. In a way, the randomness is liberating: Who knows if today will be the day? You can’t let fear paralyze you.

In the ’70s, I lived across from a woman so convinced that California was going to fall into the ocean, she finally packed up her family and moved east. She remembered the ’71 Sylmar quake, which I think rattled not only her house but her brain. I was a toddler during that temblor. My parents had to yell at each other to “get the baby!” because it sounded like a bad windstorm was whipping through our Valley house—or so the story goes.

My memories of the Northridge quake are more vivid. In this issue we look back at that morning 20 years ago. In the predawn hours on January 17, 1994, a shudder rippled through my 1920s Los Feliz townhouse like a protracted body chill. I held on tight to my roommate, Jill, as we stood in a doorway. It was loud: the car alarms, the house crackling and groaning, our screams. After the quake ran its course and we could breathe again, we went looking for damage, fearing the worst. The building must have been on bedrock because, of all the tchotchkes and dishes and artwork I had crammed into it, the only casualty was a torch that had broken off a miniature Statue of Liberty. Jill and I stepped outside to find neighbors as dazed as we were. I went for a walk and soon discovered that Craftsman bungalows had been kicked off their foundations and chimneys had been reduced to piles of bricks. Our local market was a wreck. The owner teetered over fallen merchandise to grab me some juice and muffins. Even then I knew the city would bounce back fast. It had to; we’d already been through so much with the riots two years before. I reminded myself of our collective resiliency whenever an aftershock would come, which was frequently. I’d be getting ready for work and hear the rumbles approaching through the open windows before I could feel them. I imagined demons emerging from a netherworld. A beat, then boom.

We live above that netherworld every day. All we can do is keep a stocked emergency kit at home and in the car and, well, roll with it. The payoffs of living in a place like L.A. make up for the uncertainty.