A Little Earthquake Compassion, If You Please

To a couple million on the East Coast, welcome to the club. I have been in a number of earthquakes, and have noted their effects on property and people, and it really bothers me to see so much snark coming from the West Coast … you know: I lived through the Loma Prieta Quake of  ‘Ninety Four, whippersnapper!

The lesser angels of our nature

That’ s just plain wrong. One’s first big quake is ofttimes a terrifying experience. There are two distinct sorts of people bracketing the ends of the bell curve.

There are a very small number who instantly assess, choose the safest spot, and look for people who need help and assistance. Trust me, in my experience, these are few and far between. And there is a second sort, who are even fewer after the earthquake than before it. And, like sexual attraction, it has nothing to do with what kind of person you think you are or how you are the day before or the day after.

It is instinctual, and yet, they show up in quake after quake.

Once upon a time, in the early 1980s, I was waiting to meet a friend at the Palms Café just off  the corner of Polk and Pine.  At the time, it was a sort of Casablanca, all genders, all persuasions. And a good place to meet a friend traveling by cab from Post, down the hills a ways. The late Jamie Gillis (porn star) and Serena (porn star) lived just next door, behind the requisite bars and padlocks hiding an anonymous door — shoehorned between shopfronts as everything in San Francisco was shoehorned in, one way or another.

The Palms was a nice mid-level place, not too high tone and not skid row. For some reason I remember that honeycomb black-and-white pattern that half the floors and all the bathrooms in San Francisco were tiled with. And I remember that my beer glass was about two-thirds full.

I was sitting at the bar. “Look at that,” I told the bartender. The liquid was sloshing ever so gently in the glass, side to side. “Earthquake,” he assessed and braced himself against the bar. He was matter of fact.

The slow roiling continued for a several seconds, intensifying. The lamps swayed back and forth from the ceiling. The room got stock still and very quiet. And then it went away. It had been less than a minute, but time dialated as no one knew what was going to come next.

Bad place to have been sitting

That’s the real terror of an earthquake: the ONE thing in life that has always been stable and dependable suddenly isn’t and while you’re in it, you have no idea what’s going to come next. The adrenalin tends to slow time down to an infinite ant’s crawl, and unless you’re timing it on your stopwatch, there is only the subjective experience of time, and it’s a LONG time.

I gauged it at somewhere between 30 seconds and 45 seconds, but I have no way of knowing.

When it was over, I sipped my beer, which I’d snatched from the bar so it wasn’t in danger of falling over. The world coming to an end would be terrible. The world coming to an end AND losing your last beer would be too tragic for words.

As I finished my beer, I looked around the room.

And there was an incongruous sight: a head-shaved, leather-clad giant of a man, with an earring and a couple of tattoos and someone who’d look to any Midwestern Mom with her Kids in the Minivan like someone who ate small children as a hobby.

Downtown Whittier

He was crying.

And for a moment I could not understand, except that they were tears of deep mortification, of embarrassment, of shame.

He had peed his leather pants, and a slow oozing pool crept tentatively forwards towards the middle of the bar.

And for long moments, everyone in the bar silently agreed to NOT gawk or see what was happening, and by common social consent we immediately launched into a thousand conversations and stories about such-and-so earthquake, and who was an earthquake veteran and who was not, and such and so.

It was such a small event, I later saw, that it barely merited a standard statement including the obligatory “nothing to see here” boilerplate read by the pompadour’ed TV newsreader between BIG stories.  Film at Eleven.

They may have promo’ed it. They may not have: a story to grab viewers on a slow news day, it must have been a not slow news day.

And the bar staff took care of the pee, while the badass went into the bathroom to clean up.

I don’t know whether he WAS in fact a badass, or whether it was for show (it WAS Polk Street a short block down from California Street and the trolley cars), but what I came to understand was that his body had betrayed him. He had completely panicked. The earth began to move under him and all his sense of security vanished, and he pissed himself like a child.

And the shame of it was painful and clear when I understood what happened. You cannot pick out which person in a given room will panic.

In this case, he was, by far, the very last person in that café that I expected to panic. And perhaps “he” didn’t, but his body did.

Which was the first time I observed this quirk of human nature:  you have no way of knowing which person in a bus, on a boat, on the subway, in a public mall  or in an earthquake will completely lose control in a shared crisis.

Oh, the “weak link” freaking out is a cliché of movies, remembered in the movie Airplane! in a scene where the passengers are lined up to take turns slapping the hysterical passenger.

You’ve heard this a thousand times before: Dammit, Jane! (SLAP!) Pull yourself together. (SLAP! SLAP!) Snap out of it.

But there is NO WAY to tell which person in that crowd is going to flip out. In this case, the very LAST person in the room you’d have expected, had you walked into the Palms Café in the late afternoon and scanned the diverse crowd.

Conversely, you never know who will be an absolute rock in a world where everything else was shaky.

I lived on the epicenter of the Whittier Narrows Quake of ‘Eighty-Six.

Whittier before and after

And, here, let me puncture the popular and clueless myth that if you experienced an earthquake of 5.8 magnitude, in any WISE, then YOU WERE IN A 5.8 MAGNITUDE EARTHQUAKE.

No: it was that at the epicenter. The further out you go, the smaller the magnitude, and THAT’S the earthquake you were in.

I bring this up because I was at the epicenter of the Whitter Narrows Earthquake in 1986, and that quake was initially tagged a 5.9 and was subsequently downgraded to a 5.8 — where it stands today.

At the epicenter, a 5.8 is a terrible thing.

1987 Whittier Narrows Quake damage

And there was a woman who responded to the earthquake like that Badass Leather Giant had in downtown Whittier, during the quake.

Only it wasn’t peeing herself. She had taken straight off out a balcony on the second floor in downtown Whittier — which was celebrating its Centennial — and that drop to the pavement killed her. She had gone rabbit when the quake hit, and I would imagine that the moment before, nobody in that office would have expected HER to be the one to panic.  The building itself survived, as did those who stayed inside.

Other old masonry buildings collapsed like they were made of stacked dominoes.

Mineral, Va., Earthquake Epicenter Damage

When you see the damage at the epicenter of yesterday’s Virginia quake, you’ll see pretty much the same thing. In an earthquake, all that mortar in brickwork loses its integrity, and you’ve got a table full  of impossibly-stacked domino castles and towers while you’re shaking the table.

An earthquake is a terrifying experience, and our bodies know that. And some will completely freak out. They are a small and (obviously) dwindling minority, but that’s a reality, and the terror is real, and it seems terribly of hard-hearted and nasty to hear so many West Coasterners sneering at the East’s Quake.

Everybody’s earthquake is different. Everyone’s “story” about it is unique, even though a huge number of people have just experienced the same “event.”

And, please note when pundits pooh pooh the magnitude of the Virginia quake: the vast majority of US  (and world) earthquakes happen in areas where very few people live. When they happen in heavily populated areas, bad things happen.

Northern Peru Magnitude 7.0 10:46 AM EDT August 24 (this morning)

Today, there was a Magnitude 7.0 in Northern Peru, but, save for one city of 311,000 souls, the “ESTIMATED FATALITIES” are low, because it’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere. If the same quake happened in the center of London, it would be a natural disaster on a scale never before seen in the history of humankind, no matter what their skin colour.

We snark and sneer and bring out our “earthquake stories” after any earthquake to prove that we are not afraid of them. Here on the West Coast, and in California, we have a LOT of earthquakes, and the need to prove that we are not afraid of any old “Five Point Eight” is more constant and more pressing. And we’ve had a lot more practice in acting “cool” about it. Which is understandable, albeit idiotic.

Of course you’re afraid of earthquakes. You’d be crazy or lacking the sense of self-preservation of a stalk of celery not to. What we’re REALLY about is MANAGING our fear of earthquakes. There are instinctual and social reasons for this.

The instinctual mechanism of “fight or flight” makes good evolutionary sense, and, at least from what I’ve seen, that “panic” response is an instinctual, animal response of the body to the earthquake, as a kick is the reflexive system’s response to the doctor’s rubber mallet to the knee. “You” — or at least the conscious person you normally associate yourself with as “you” — aren’t in the loop.

In the case of the Badass Leather Guy, his body had adopted an ancient, instinctual fight or flight reflex. Instantaneously emptying of bladder and bowels to maximize the ability to run  or fight.

Problem is, with an earthquake, it’s an utterly inappropriate response: you can’t fight an earthquake, and you sure can’t run from it. OK, modify that: running can sometimes save your life in a sudden, unique event (which is what most on the East Coast experienced). It’s worked so well, it’s part of the Operating System of all Homo Sapiens 1.1, which seems to be the standard model on planet Earth.

But our SOCIAL programming conflicts with — and often overwrites — that OS HS 1.1 that all human skinsuits come pre-loaded with.

For instance, in the Palms Café, the room went silent, although the normal street noise made that less obvious than you’d think.

On the other side, that Badass Leather Dude may have pissed himself, but he didn’t break the social code and start screaming. Because panic can spread, and in a crowd, that is a very dangerous thing. Take tramplings, which happen, but, incredibly, in astonishingly rare circumstances. We are socialized to calmly exit the theater and the schoolroom.

Which saves lives that OS HS 1.1 would otherwise lose.  The social response of the patrons of the Palms Café during that nameless earthquake was, unconsciously, one of solidarity, of shared social response. Alone, they might have acted (almost certainly would have) entirely differently with their instinctual programming.

And,  involuntarily breaking those social taboos lay the source of the tears of the Man in Leather.

He was ASHAMED, which requires a real or imaginary audience of OTHER human beings, which is more common that you’d think, and which isn’t just a human emotion.

Anyone who has had a cat has seen that moment when the cat, miscalculating, does something astonishingly awkward and spastic, like jumping on a table, expecting to use its claws, and then, finding no purchase goes skittering across the smooth surface and manages to catch its balance on the fall back to the floor.

Afterwards, the cat FEIGNS that it MEANT to do that. But it is embarrassed. Whether on behalf of itself or the entire cat species is unknown. But its “pride” has been wounded and it compensates by pretending that the belly-flop never happened, else didn’t you SEE that incredible belly-flop I just performed?

And now,  the response of West Coasterners to earthquakes reminds me of an embarrassed cat. That’s when they trot out the stories, and posture and preen, to show the earthquake that, yeah, they MEANT to do that. And sneer “A Five Point Eight? I’ve timmed my toenails with a chainsaw in worse than that!

While I have no doubts that East Coasterners will catch on fast, let’s disavow the vainglorious snarking of  geographic region versus geographic region, and extend our compassion to them. The first earthquake is a lot scarier than the thirtieth. But they’re all still scary.

Apartment building foundation Whittier 1987

And what kind of sick puppies are we ALL, as a nation, that we’ve instantaneously managed to politicize an … earthquake?

I have witnessed a lot of reporting on and being in earthquakes, but this is the first one I’ve ever seen politicized — and before the USGS could even establish a final magnitude. I theorize that it must have something to do with the difference between the Western Geology and the Eastern Geology. Or, perhaps it is some unconscious adaptive response to the local sport of finding faults in everything.

Seen through the lens of love, all things look beautiful; seen through the lens of politics, all things look corrupt.

So: Just be nice, guys. We’ve got schmucks enough already.



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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2 Responses to A Little Earthquake Compassion, If You Please

  1. It had to get politicized, there was no way around it. Politics being blood sport and all… and journalism being as tainted as it can be these days…

  2. Sad but weird, Pamela. I asked my wife (who lived in Southern California for many more years than I) if she could ever remember a quake being politicized even in weird old Orange County, but she couldn’t. Political scandals later, perhaps, but no political earthquakes in California.