They say there was an earthquake Tuesday morning, but if I hadn’t felt it myself I wouldn’t have believed it.
As soon as the floor stopped rolling I drove out to Chino Hills, the quake’s epicenter, so I could chronicle the devastation. But I found no panic in the streets. No fires. No crumpled buildings.
A guard at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda told me the place was closed because of some unspecified damage. Twelve-year-olds John Horner and Sally Salter were happy to have an empty parking lot to ride their scooters, and Sally said yeah, it was a pretty good shaker, but earthquakes don’t scare her.
All of this is my way of explaining how I happened to end up at Tubby’s Tavern in Whittier midday, throwing the company credit card down on the bar and ordering drinks for one and all, courtesy of Sam Zell.
Actually Tubby’s was my second bar. I started at Ed’s Pub, just up the street in La Habra. So let’s begin there.
“The mirrors started swaying, the lights were moving, and I thought the whole building was going to come down,” said bartender Irene Lupercio, who ran out into the parking lot, as did the clerk from the pawnshop next door.
A few minutes later, she got up the nerve to go back inside and before she knew it, Michael Gallardo showed up and ordered a beer.
“It’s my day off, so I was home, and the ground starts rockin’ and rollin’,” Gallardo said. “So I thought, ‘You know what? I’m gonna go to the bar, drink with my bros, and if this is the Big One, I’ll go down with a cold one.’ ”
You have to admire that kind of courage in the face of disaster.
Gallardo, a 37-year-old landscaper, has a “La Habra” tattoo on his left bicep. He struck me as the kind of decisive guy who didn’t need excuses to stop by Ed’s Pub, but the 5.4 quake gave him one.
He had to calm his nerves.
“I got a little shaken up,” he said, raising a frosty mug of Bud Lite. “I’m not gonna lie to you.”
Sonya Moreno, a Stater Bros. clerk, had a similar experience. “It was like being on a boat,” she said of the ride she got at a checkout counter.
Now she was nursing a beer at Ed’s, thanking her lucky stars this wasn’t a killer quake. As she drank away the willies, Duran Duran sang, “Don’t say a prayer for me now, save it till the morning after.”
Meanwhile, the TVs at Ed’s Pub were broadcasting a California buffet of sports, earthquake coverage and another staple of the local scene -- wildfire.
Judging by what was on the screen, roughly half the state was either on fire or rumbling through a series of aftershocks. Craig Leatherman, beer in hand, wondered if it would be long before a volcano erupted.
“Maybe the earthquake was just to get our minds off the fires,” said Steve Hernandez, another beer drinker.
Speaking of the quake coverage on TV, this wasn’t the most visual temblor in history. With little to offer, one station showed endless footage of the minor damage at an ice rink. Leatherman, an electrician, gazed up at the TV and asked:
“How long can they keep showing a leaking sprinkler head?”
Until the next car chase, Craig said.
Gallardo and Leatherman told me I’d be remiss to drive back to L.A. before visiting another watering hole they frequent.
“They’ve got 75-cent tacos on Tuesdays,” Gallardo and Leatherman said, almost in unison.
Tubby’s, like Ed’s, is a modest little establishment -- with lots of beer signs and pool tables -- in a nondescript strip mall. A sign behind the bar says, “Our house wine is Jagermeister.”
John Warren, who was sipping a Jack and Coke at Tubby’s, said he wasn’t particularly impressed with this little quake compared to others he’s survived. The Whittier, for instance, and the Northridge.
“I take care of an 87-year-old guy across the street, and he had to get up and urinate,” said Warren, but that was about as exciting as it got. Once the shaking stopped, he saw no reason to interrupt his daily ritual at Tubby’s.
He pooh-poohed all the hubbub on TV, with news helicopters circling smoke and looking for rubble.
“If it’s not that, it’s a storm watch, and we’re waiting for a quarter inch of rain to come through,” Warren said dismissively. “Then three days later, ‘Well, folks, it passed by us just to the north.’ ”
A true Californian embraces uncertainty and accepts fate rather than worry about natural disaster, said local philosopher king Jack Sutherland. But the California life is not for everyone. His neighbors were loading up the moving van, on their way to Missouri, when this one hit.
“Now they can’t wait to get out,” he said.
“Yeah, but what about hurricanes and tornadoes?” another client asked.
Marcy Carr, an unemployed office worker, was at the end of the bar when the ice in her drink began clinking on its own. She was clear-headed enough at the time to know that wasn’t normal, so she dived for cover under the lip of the bar and waited for the quake to stop swizzling her drink.
But Mike, a Wal-Mart employee, reacted in a way that earned praise from one and all at Tubby’s. When the quake hit, he remained calm, reached for his brew and held it aloft so it wouldn’t tip over.
“Some people reach for the women and children,” Sutherland said. “He saved his beer.”
Only in times of adversity do true heroes reveal themselves.