In Memory of the East Coast Earthquake
One year ago today, I was in my tiny bedroom in South Philadelphia, getting ready to spend a late summer afternoon in Rittenhouse Square. Sitting on my twin bed, facing a half-open closet, I had just gotten out of the shower and was involved in the difficult process of deciding what to wear. I looked at the closet, and the closet looked back – mostly because the door was a mirror. But looking wasn’t all it was doing – the reflective wall of my overstuffed closet was trembling as if about to vomit.
My first instinct was that Chickie the cat was in there. Chickie is not a large cat, nor is she anywhere near neurotic enough to shake a structure larger than a litter box, but at that moment, I was sure she had summoned powers and was spazzing somewhere amidst boxes of unworn hats in a feline frenzy.
But the shaking stopped. The glass was left uncracked, the clothing within unscathed. I got up, towel clutched to my body, and peeked inside. No cat. Further investigation revealed her looking wistfully out of the living room window downstairs, having not been upstairs at all.
The next obvious explanation was that it was a ghost. I don’t know why my mind skipped the logical and scientific assumption of plates beneath the earth’s crust shifting uncomfortably, but if it wasn’t a cat, it was supernatural, and That was That. My house was haunted, and more specifically, my closet; perhaps it was a spirit of closets past or a demon sent to purge my untidy life. Perhaps the closet had been turned into a portal like the bedroom in Poltergeist, and I would have to resist the light like Carol Ann until there is a thunderstorm and a tree grabs me through the window and eats me. I didn’t dismiss the idea, only decided some things must remain mysterious, and went along with my life.
On the way to the Snyder subway stop, “earthquake” finally clicked, but only because it was the word on the streets that a house in Old City had crumbled, that a Center City building’s windows had shattered, that there was a quake-related fire in Fishtown. It wasn’t a panic, more of a wow-something-interesting-happened-in-Philly rush; or perhaps more accurately, a “disaster” completely unrelated to crime. Astonishing. It’s the same as when it snows – we go crazy over the piling of fluffy white ice. We literally don’t know how to deal with it, so we shut ourselves inside, shut our schools, and pretend it’s a really big deal.
This earthquake was much the same. Even in Virginia, where it originated, nobody was killed; the tremor was not much more than a jolt, a brief seize in the earth that was, in a greater scheme of natural disasters, infinitesimal.
But 3000 people were evacuated from the building in Center City where one window shattered. Southbound Septa trains were temporarily halted, and all Septa trains were limited to 25 mhp speeds, because when has Septa really cared if you have somewhere to be?
Most of all, there was a perverse sort of excitement about the experience, a bonding 12 states wide: Where were you during the earthquake, and did you feel it? Does having felt a tremor in Philadelphia create any tangible connection to the millions of others who felt it and had extremely brief interruptions in their days?
Maybe. It’s like the whole “where were you when you found out Michael Jackson died” question – unifying in a way, though the deeper tragedy is completely overlooked – people die everyday, and we’re making a fuss about an alleged child molester (though admittedly, a brilliant musician and pop icon). People do die from earthquakes, houses crumble, lives are destroyed, but this time we’re using it as a way to identify ourselves at a moment we know is being felt collectively, however small the impact. And however small, we can and do connect ourselves through the stories.
My sister was at the Jersey shore, no doubt lounging under an umbrella, a hat, and spf 100; before her, the water rippled, the shock impacting the waves and crawling up the sand, which waved in turn. My mother was at her dining room table. When her grandmother’s china cabinet began to rumble, she reached her leg to kick the dog she assumed was shaking it by scratching, only to spot him across the room, asleep. My dad forwarded everyone a picture of his backyard, in which a single bench had fallen over. The picture was accompanied by an ironic message about the unbelievably terrible damage, and tragic loss. I assumed there was a ghost in my closet.
After the quake, my life went on as usual, as I’m sure did yours, wherever you were and if you felt it at all. Though I don’t take for granted that we all lucked out as far as natural disasters are concerned, I appreciate the human desire to create meaning, however sarcastic, during unifying points in time. I think as humans it is a relief to share a feeling at the exact or approximate moment it hits us with people spanning an entire coast, and imagine those who missed it feel extremely left out – but if that was you, don’t beat yourself up about it. It wasn’t that interesting.
As long as we can appreciate that far worse things have and will happen, in our individual and collective lives, however, I invite the stories. I also think earthquakes should have names, and this one should be named something unassuming, like Chad.
A year ago today, I was in my room, ready to call the Ghost Busters. Where were you?