May 14th, 2002


I was sitting at the computer, where were you?

When is the exact time to jump up from what you’re doing and head for the doorframe during an earthquake? I’ll admit to some jaded-ness. I grew up in the Bay Area so earthquakes aren’t the scariest things to me. Often my reaction is to make eye contact with any one in the room and chuckle a little in a "Oh, here’s another one" kind of way.

And I think that’s more or less the typical reaction. During the big 1989 earthquake I happened to be at work with all Bay Area locals. The ground started shaking. Everyone stopped their conversations but made no attempt to move away from the glass window or two story stacks of boxes. Then, at the same time, everyone’s smiles turned in to worried looks and we ran for the doors. You didn’t need telepathy to know that everyone was thinking, "Oh shit. This is the Big One".

It wasn’t. But it was big enough. It’s cliched (around here at least) to even bring up the fact that all of us here at the time know where we were when it hit. But living through something like that, and in the immediate aftermath finding the radio completely dead and seeing smoke billow up from various parts of the city, gives you a chill that you never completely get rid of.

So one might think it would make me more earthquake sensitive. But nah. Just like in 1989, it takes a few seconds to even begin thinking of getting off my but and running to relative safety. And why not? In 1906, supposedly, no one was left standing after the last Big One. Medical records show thousands of cases of broken wrists from falling.

The apartment I live in now is super-shaky. I don’t know if it’s being on the top floor, if it’s a poor foundation, on landfill or what. The N-Judah and big windstorms make us think earthquake. Last night’s earthquake was only 5.2 but it lasted twice as long as the one in 1989. Plenty of time to react, but it took things falling off shelves in the kitchen to get me to move. And even then it was only because I was worried it would get bigger. Standing in the doorframe, looking at my housemate on the opposite end of the house standing in her doorframe, I could see our hallway walls and ceiling moving like an unreinforced cardboard box. They kept their spatial relations to each other, but not in a way that inspired confidence.

These are the times that living on the third floor is a little scary. Though not as scary, of course, as the combination of slow reaction and living below other floors of people. I try to stay Californian in times of crisis and assume that in the case of a huge disaster I can just ride the wreckage down to street level. I take inspiration from other Californians like the surfers who ride waves during Great White Shark sightings. "Dude," they say, "I’m more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the beach than get bit by a Great White."