L.A. STORIES : The Day the Earth Didn't Stand Still

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I've kept the cracks in my apartment. I told the landlord to leave them alone. I don't want them fixed. Part of my ceiling is marbled with the same kind of design that is invading the skin around my eyes. One continuous ripple runs around the base of each room, as if something nearly pulled the entire building out by the roots--which is in fact what happened.

I feel the same way about the fractures in my drywall as I do about those wrinkles around my eyes. It's all natural wear and tear, symbolic of survival. I will never get a face-lift, and I will never repair my apartment. Oh, it's not dangerous, really--it's cosmetic damage. The building is as structurally sound as any edifice in L.A. these days. When I move out, someone else can patch the ceiling and the walls. For now, they're my cracks. They're emblematic of what I've endured--physically and metaphorically.

I have stared at the cracks countless times in the past year, and have tried to remember exactly how my encounter with their author felt. I can't. Factually, I recall the quake clearly. Emotionally, I can't quite conjure the feeling of it. Perhaps it's like childbirth--you remember that the event was horrific, but you can't quite recall the exact nature of the pain. Survival mechanism, no doubt.

Oh, I remember yelling, "Oh, my God" over and over. I recall being in bed, thinking a hydrogen bomb had been dropped, then suddenly being out on the street, shivering and swearing. The in-between run-for-your-life part is not in my memory bank. But many other things are--perhaps only because, somehow, I managed to set them down in print that very day. Here, not previously published, is what I wrote:

"There in the darkness of cracked and shattered Dickens Street in Sherman Oaks, people bolted, staggered, in some cases crept like cats out of apartment buildings. Some had the presence of mind to go building to building and shut off gas mains. In those first few cold minutes, though, most just stood in driveways, shaking with chill and fear and shock--confused, cursing incredulously, holding hands, even laughing compulsively. And looking up.

"The sky was absolutely dazzling, by city standards. It was truly dark ; nature had turned over in her sleep, and all the man-made lights went pffft. The stars were like spattered paint. Orion and the Big Dipper seemed plastered overhead, naked and immobile, the surest of ceilings. People whose walls and roofs had cracked, who had been awakened by an unseen, bellowing monster, kept glancing irresistibly upward. Almost as if to comfort themselves. The earth had quaked, but the sky wasn't falling.

" 'You know,' said my next-door neighbor, 'that's why they sent the Hubble Telescope up there--to get away from city lights.'

"The remark, there in the shaky, portentous morning, was preposterously casual, and off the subject. But then, what wasn't preposterous? The world had hiccuped ever so slightly, and for those tiny creatures dwelling on its surface, it had nearly been the end of the world. For some, so sadly, it had been. And when the sun rose a couple hours later to reveal a fractured new world, preposterousness abounded.

"Neighbors barbecued wienies on front lawns; whole families slept, clinging to one another, on sidewalks; couples snoozed in parked cars pulled into no-parking zones along the street for safety. Wandering homeless people didn't look quite so homeless. A little girl in a sleeping bag asked her father the Japanese word for 'those big waves,' then added, 'I sure hope they're not coming here!' And a lot of people went out for strolls.

"That's right, strolls. Right down the shard-strewn sidewalks of Ventura Boulevard. They walked their dogs, they . . . jogged. Two young women in sweat shirts and jeans actually bothered to anoint themselves with lipstick and perfume before going for a brisk morning constitutional. They tiptoed over ragged chunks of concrete that had fallen off parking structures, heedless of more chunks that might rain down. One raven-haired woman elegantly attired in black heels, painted-on jeans and a tight purple sweater guided her big, ugly, expensive English bulldog away from sharp debris. Male shop owners stopped sweeping up the wreckage of their lives to ogle her. A magnitude 6.7 earthquake was no match, apparently, for testosterone. At the Sherman Oaks Newsstand, while sirens in the background heralded professional heroes on their way to noble pursuits, people browsed magazines about Michael Jackson and Nancy Kerrigan. Some hardly glanced at passing hook-and-ladders. Complacency? Shock? Survival-instinct-induced calm? Maybe all of those things.

"I admit it--I strolled too. I just wasn't quite sure what else to do. My home was a colossal mess I didn't want to face. I had aided neighbors as much as I could; most of them had packed a few boxes and fled. I felt displaced; left behind, I felt like wandering. As I took the first few steps down the block, I noticed that the cool morning shade was queerly disrupted, here and there, by tangible shafts of hot, dusty, Santa Ana condition air. I'd never felt anything quite like it before. 'Earthquake weather,' I heard someone say.

"I strolled past turbaned Sikhs surveying the wreckage of Aaahs, the suburban kitsch emporium. Past an elderly woman who offered a panicky, 'Everything's closed! There's nothing to eat! Nothing! It's terrible!' Past the In-N-Out hamburger joint, which was, amazingly, preparing to open. Past the Contractors License School building, the third floor of which was half caved-in. Past two prefab chimneys that had plummeted 60 feet off one of those silly condominiums that look like the front of It's a Small World at Disneyland. Past a truck bearing nothing more official than a Grateful Dead sticker, parked strategically to block people from entering a crack-riddled parking structure. Past constant sirens and occasional radios blaring broadcasters clumsily spewing such cliches as: 'It was like somebody shook the Valley out like a blanket!' (More like it was attacked by a psychopath.) Past crooked telephone poles, toppled light standards and cars that periodically shimmied from aftershocks. Past the evidence of a nighttime storm of glass, concrete, bricks--and, in a strange touch of beauty, oranges shaken loose from trees once as ubiquitous in the Valley as houses are today.

"And I kept thinking about those stars. The surest of ceilings."

Rereading this bit of writing the other day, it occurred to me that there is another reason I'm keeping the cracks in my apartment. The earthquake reminded me that the world I live in is made of land and sky, not stucco and crossbeams.

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