People often have indelible impressions of their first encounters with the cities they’ve decided to adopt and make home. For some up north, it could be that first breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog — connecting the sweeping cityscape of San Francisco with the tawny peaks of the Marin headlands. For others living back east, maybe it was the Manhattan skyline rising imperially across the river as they approach from the 59th Street bridge. It’s easy to imagine these warm, welcoming images becoming psychic talismans that would always mark having arrived and, later, a sense of place.

For me, it wasn’t any such enchanted vista or inspired architecture that greeted me upon first laying claim to Los Angeles as home. It was the Northridge earthquake.

Sometime in the afternoon on Sunday, January 16, 1994, I set foot on the lawn of the apartment building — a typical California two-story, eight-unit stucco trap in Glendale — which my then-girlfriend and I would be calling home. I was driven down in a U-Haul from Berkeley, where I had finished graduate school, and was to start an internship at the Los Angeles Times. I was driven down because most of my left leg was in a cast — I had broken my ankle snowboarding a few weeks before. I remember sitting in a lawn chair in front of the nondescript complex, drinking beers while my soon-to-be-ex and a couple of my friends moved our stuff into the apartment on the second floor. My friends were helpful people. One of them even brought a spare refrigerator up from the South Bay — who’d have guessed apartments in Los Angeles don’t come with refrigerators?

There was a lot to be done: move in all the crap (mostly hers), drink all the beers (mostly mine) and then set up the bed so we could have something other than the off-off-white carpet to sleep on. I have to confess, she did most of the heavy lifting, as I was pretty incapacitated. I also had a broken leg.

Maybe that’s why I couldn’t seem to wake her up when the earthquake hit at 4:31 a.m. the next morning — just hours after we (she) had finally set the place up enough to feel okay about turning in for the night. I remember knowing immediately that it was an earthquake. Something in the back of the received-information vault in my brain (the one that remembered Earthquake, the 1974 movie about a temblor of unimaginable magnitude hitting Los Angeles, starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and — meow — Victoria Principal) also reminded me that Los Angeles is known for earthquakes and that we should get under a doorway (come to think of it, I may have gotten all that from a Three’s Company episode).

Even though the whole building vibrated like a set from The Amityville Horror, and even though I swear I heard ghostly voices demanding that we “Get out!” and even though I was on top of her shaking her too, I couldn’t wake up my girlfriend. The quake seemed to go on forever, and frankly scared me all the way to the deep recesses of my Catholic-school soul. But she wouldn’t budge. I’d known this woman to be a strong sleeper, and I remember thinking, resentfully (because I’m a terrible sleeper): “This is typical. Our first earthquake and she’s going to sleep through the whole damn thing.”

The major shaking lasted 15 seconds. In about the 13th second, she woke. I guess it was a lot to take in at once because her eyes dilated to the size of footballs and out of her mouth came a deep, guttural shrieking that I have to say sounded like a pig squealing. She later told me she thought I was being stabbed.

The quake settled down before I could employ my earthquake survival knowledge, such as it was. Outside, car alarms and dogs made a howling symphony. Flashlights went on, people bustled about. Nobody ran screaming into the night or anything like that. Being new to the area, I did my best to fit in and remain calm.

With no TV or radio set up yet, we had no idea whether or not this was, you know, just a typical L.A. earthquake or something to be alarmed about. Since nobody was screaming to god for mercy, we decided to go back to bed. My then-girlfriend fell back to sleep much faster than she woke up. I trembled.

A few hours later, she hopped on the I-5 to
head down to the Brewery, where she worked as a photographer’s assistant. I went over to the next-door neighbor’s to ask if I could borrow the phone. I wanted to get our telephone service turned on. That’s when I saw the TV reports from the scene of the collapsed 164-unit Northridge Meadows apartment complex, where 16 people died. After that came news of the motorcycle cop driving off the end of a collapsed freeway, a derailed freight train that was carrying hazardous waste, epic destruction. I soon realized this wasn’t just another everyday, L.A. earthquake. In fact, my arrival in Los Angeles had been greeted by one of the costliest — both in human and dollar terms — natural disasters in U.S. history.

Weirdly, I had no trouble getting through to the phone company and setting up service. I called into my office — the now-defunct San Gabriel Valley bureau — to see if they needed any help. They said they’d let me know, but that things were pretty much under control.

My first lesson as a professional journalist — no place covers disasters better than Los Angeles.

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