I don’t remember much about 1994, but I do remember the Northridge earthquake. Striking when I was the ripe old age of eight, the quake formed one of my earliest memories of fear. Shattered dishes or broken lamps littered nearly every room of the house. Family friends had their foundations split in two. The king-sized oak headboard that loomed ominously over me whenever I’d jump on my parent’s bed was promptly out the door the next morning (we only waited to find help with moving the beast). And this was just in Orange Country, sixty or so miles away. Grade school quake drills thereafter found me a model of compliance, no matter how disruptive to my daily routine or, heaven forbid, boring. Kids can be crushed by falling plaster too.
But when a 5.8 magnitude tremor hit yesterday just a few miles away from my new home in Charlottesville, Virginia, I realized that something had changed. When a fellow traveler in the library turned to me during the shaking and exclaimed, “This isn’t safe. I’m getting out of here!” I could feel a kind of civic pride swell up in me, one that I had never really known I had. I was a Californian, an Angeleno by adoption. Weren’t my middle names San and Andreas? Wasn’t I sure-footed on swaying earth by virtue of baptism in the SoCal sunshine?
Joan Didion once wrote that the self-assurance Californians exuded in the face of their tectonic misfortune was “less equanimity than protective detachment.” But there have been few times I’ve ever felt more attached to California than during Tuesday’s rumble in the Mid-Atlantic.
It’s no secret that the specter of the Big One and memories of quakes past form part of the Bear Flag Republic’s collective identity. Living with quakes is a tax paid for the beaches and balmy weather. Surviving them lends a reputation for ruggedness to citizens of a spaced-out and superficial place. Even if Northridge produced as much as $43 billion in damage, these things can still simply be shrugged off. Quakes bring credibility that money can’t buy (unless the cash arrives in the form of federal disaster relief).
I suppose that calling a place home means taking it warts and all–you just don’t realize you’ve got a thing for the warts until you’re gone, and they’re gone. In past periods of exile, I’ve met who-knows-how-many LA ex-pats who declared they couldn’t stand driving anyplace but their native town. LA’s traffic, at least, gave LA’s drivers respect for each other’s time. “Why doesn’t anyone out here know how to swing three cars through a yellow light on a unprotected left turn?” asks the LA ex-pat. It doesn’t matter where “out here” is. It’s not one of the Golden State’s overcrowded and pot-holed avenues, funneling frantic road warriors and making pedestrians head for the hills. So it’s just not the same.
But that’s a pose. I must admit that not long after the shaking stopped here in Virginia, the feeling of superiority began to leave me. In truth, my library companion, despite her desire to get out of here, wasn’t anywhere near as panicked as I thought she should have been. She may have been savvier than she seemed. An aging library full of books–probably the highest concentration of potentially flying objects this side of Roswell–wouldn’t be safe, right? I guess she had a point. Trying to exit stage left before the twenty some bookshelves between us and the emergency exits had a chance to prove they were up to code? Maybe a good call, in retrospect.
I admit, about twenty seconds in–after I could finally believe that this aspect of the California dream would stalk me across country–I took a good hard look at the desk in front of me…and opted to weather the storm upright and in-chair. Californians don’t really go crawl under their desks, do they? Isn’t this our take on the stiff upper lip?
This is when I realized that, after being drilled for years, my sense of belonging outstripped my good sense. The instinctive feeling that I was earthquake-prepared, and that this was as much a badge of my West Coast roots as wearing sunglasses indoors, just meant I was prepared to go down with the ship. My steely demeanor and inadvertent smirk masked a garden-variety pride. The pride, I’ve heard a proverb runs, goeth before the fall.
But even that pride was wounded when I listened to the stories in the air when after finally stepping outside. “My cat slept through the whole thing, and he is supposed to be my early warning system!” Or, “They made us evacuate the building, but we couldn’t even use the elevator!” Lamenting inconvenience after escaping potential catastrophe? These Virginians could have been in a scene from Clueless.
Which made me afraid to even open my mouth. Pull the California card? That didn’t seem like a winning hand. Even admitting my origins might have seemed like gloating, like pulling out a postcard of Malibu to folks who had invited me to Virginia Beach. The thrill of “going home” for a turbulent sixty seconds had made me feel less anonymous and more comfortable in my new digs, but now I wanted my anonymity back. Childhood drilling didn’t seem to have instilled the right reactions as much as affectations. I wasn’t going to come out looking smooth, just smug. That’s a pretty poor way to represent.
The whole earthquake-complex, it should probably be said, seems a little perverse in general. Freud might say it’s compensating for something. Yeah, most folks who have lived on the Pacific remember a tremor or two. But the reason residents so easily seize upon the quake as a collective symbol is because it’s been institutionalized in schools, the workplace, TV announcements, and architecture. The quake is a common point of reference less because of shared seismic experiences than because of our pervasive attempt to shelter ourselves from the tremors. We shouldn’t forget that our unpredictable Earth produces real suffering. In light of the lives lost around the world in recent years–from Java to Japan, Phuket to Pakistan–chuckles about East Coast unease echoing from San Diego to Eureka seem not only off base, but cynical.
I think I need a new favorite California wart in which to invest my pride. Maybe the smog.
Colin Kielty is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia.
*Photo courtesy of macten.