Shake Shake The Room


[Also at Esquire]

The day we moved house, the house moved. That’s what you get for living on a fault line.

It was 6.25am on St Patrick’s day, March 17th, and I happened to be up, trying to get dressed in the dark, without waking the wife. It’s hard to sleep when all your stuff’s in boxes and the rugs are rolled up. I felt ungrounded and unstable. And as though to rub it in, the floor began to rumble and the chandelier started to swing.

I was putting my Levis on at the time, balancing on one leg, and the quake tipped me over so I was propped up against the wall at a 30 degree angle. I remember thinking “this should have stopped by now.” And, “maybe this is the one.” And, “at least let me get my pants on before the roof caves in”.

It was a 4.4, according to the Los Angeles Times Quakebot – literally a robot journalist that tweets the location and size of every tremor. And it was the start of a series because apparently earthquakes are like buses – LA has broken what the paper calls its “earthquake drought”, two words that individually describe the two greatest threats to the city’s existence, and yet when paired together, are actually quite welcome.

After 14 years out here, I’ve learned the local response to seismic activity – a “woah” and a tweet and you’re on your way. It was always the way. I was at the pub for my first shudder, way back before Twitter, even before 9.11. For a few perilous seconds we watched our pints shimmy across the table, but that was it. Then everyone just laughed and kept drinking.

But this time was different. It wasn’t the typical jolt or jiggle, so quick that your fear centers can barely start their engines. This one was a roller, it took its time – long enough for thoughts to form about the fragility of life, and how this might be the way it all ends, especially out here. Because LA’s always on the brink of something – if it’s not a burp in the tectonics, it’s raging forest fires or impending drought. Our perfect weather comes at a steep price.

And yet still we laughed. The face of the quake was a KTLA anchor called Chris Schauble who scurried under his desk, clearly terrified. The clip went viral and he became a figure of ridicule – never mind that he did all the right things, and that fear is not only rational but advisable, given that it was, you know, an earthquake.

But facing reality isn’t LA’s strong point. We deny death here and worship youth. We chase dreams and immortality. It was optimism not realism that drove the pioneers westward, and that fantastical thinking still holds true. Out on the precipice, all eyes are on the horizon, not on the rocks below.

Minutes after the St Patrick’s Day quake, I worried about trifles again – whether we had enough bubble wrap for the move, whether the sofa would fit through the door of the new place. It all went swimmingly in the end, and we love our new house. That ungrounded, unstable feeling, it starts to dissipates once you open up those boxes and roll out those rugs.

Then on March 31st, the floor rumbled again. It was bigger this time – a 5.1. And the epicenter was closer to home.

The question is: Are all these quakes building up to a big one, or are they releasing pressure in the plates, and actually reducing the chance of a catastrophe?

It’s got to be the latter, right?

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