When I lived in Nashville, my assistant Jenny often marveled at how I could have spent the largest portion of my life until then in someplace as profoundly scary as Los Angeles. By the time I moved to Music City I had resided in Southern California for twenty-odd years, and I was fairly inured to the fires, floods, traffic, riots, landslides, and crime. I never entirely embraced the earthquakes, however. I experienced my first one in the early 1970s. It was centered in Sylmar, some sixty miles away from my Orange County home, and it still rattled windows, shook pictures and shelves loose from their moorings on the walls, and generally created havoc disproportionate to its four minutes’ duration (that number is from my memory, and from a distance well away from the epicenter).
I was at my friend Steve’s house for a party the night before, and wound up staying the night. A fair amount of alcohol happened (so I am told), and several of us decided to test the old wives tale about submerging a sleeping person’s hand (Steve’s hand, in this case) in warm water, which was said to cause a relaxing of the urinary tract in the subject, occasioning a release of whatever fluids might be contained within. Steve says to this day that this never happened, but it is my recollection (and that of other attendees/perpetrators) that it did indeed take place, and had the desired result. Steve didn’t awaken throughout all this, and the rest of us retired to various corners of the house to sleep off the overindulgences of the evening. Then at 6am, I was unceremoniously awakened by someone shaking me strongly, evilly even. I thought briefly that Steve was exacting his revenge for our mischief of the night before, but when I got my eyes fully opened, it turned out there was nobody there–just a vibrating floor and walls. There were several more good-sized shakes over the next few minutes, and you can believe I made haste first to a theoretically safe arched doorway, and then out of doors entirely until the ground stopped rolling. Apparently all the partygoers had had the same idea independently, because we were all cowering together in Steve’s back yard within moments of the first major shock. The evening news said that it registered a 6.6 on the Richter scale. Closer to the epicenter, bridges and overpasses collapsed, a hospital imploded on itself, and more than fifty people were killed.
The reason I mention this now is that I read, moments ago, that a 6.9 earthquake has just hit Japan, where I am headed two days from now. Fortunately, the epicenter of the quake was some 500 miles off Honshu, the main island. Unfortunately, even at that remove, it was quite capable of swaying skyscrapers in Tokyo. This is why I don’t live in a Tokyo skyscraper. I live on the second floor of a two-story apartment building. I don’t live on the first floor, because that is what the second floor would collapse onto in the event of a major earthquake. The second floor is ideal because you can fall ten feet without major damage, if you’re lucky. A third floor plunge would exact a much greater toll on fragile bones, and anything above that would be lunacy. Little quakes happen in Tokyo all the time, and they don’t bother me much, but 6.9 would make me sit up and take notice (and/or cover). If that happens, I may well move to somewhere safe—like Los Angeles.