In the still of the night

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Looking north along Lexington Avenue from 95th Street. 9:00 PM. Photo: JH.

Monday, July 8, 2019. A very warm weekend in New York, with humidity driving it on Saturday. The weatherman was forecasting big rains, thunder and lightning, the works, along with some cooler temperatures. We waited and waited. Didn’t happen. However by late Saturday, the air had cleared and there was a breeze coming off the river.  And the humidity dropped so that yesterday, Sunday was a beautiful sunny day with temps in the mid-80s and not so much humidity that you’d notice. Hooray!


All was quiet on Madison Avenue looking north…
… Park Avenue looking south from the 90s…
… And Lexington Avenue looking north from 95th Street.

The news on the minds of a lot of people – especially those of us who live or have lived in California – were the earthquakes with a 6.4 in the Los Angeles area, followed the next day with a 7.1 aftershock. According to the moment magnitude scale,  a 7.1 is about 10 times greater than a 6.4, which came with no tremor. Those of us who are alerted by earthquakes are well aware that in the past several months there have been numerous reported quakes all over the Pacific Rim, north and south. Those of us who live or have lived in Southern California (maybe Northern Cal too) are always alarmed by this kind of activity.

Living through an earthquake, as I have — several; however mild they were — I think the biggest one was the San Francisco quake in the late ’80s — I was MOST aware of the largeness of nature and the smallness of me/we/us. For people like you and me who are always learning, it is interesting but still incomprehensible. 

That San Francisco quake occurred about five on a weekday afternoon. I can’t remember the time of year because the fair weather rules the memory. I happened to be 800 miles away, in my kitchen in Los Angeles, making a cup of coffee to take back to my desk. Waiting for it, I was gazing out the kitchen window when I noticed that the water in the swimming pool was wafting …. the water’s surface slowly moving up and down. No ripples or waves, just wafting. And it was a quiet sunny afternoon. I was aware that it was the kind of thing you’d see after a quake, although I hadn’t felt any shaking. 



Two minutes later Bob Schulenberg called me to tell me that he heard on the radio that a major quake in SF had just occurred. 800 miles from my swimming pool acknowledging its power. That is a kind of power that we cannot even comprehend except to know that we are always at its effect.

I still recall those days in that house on Doheny with profound pleasure. As much as I loved the house in North Stamford before I moved West, I loved Doheny even more. It must have been the vibe of the house and immense dramatic and natural beauty surrounding us. The potential of an earthquake is nature’s reminder of the downside. Unpredictable; maybe that’s the source of the edge that’s L.A., immortalized by Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and James M. Cain: you never know what could happen whenever.

My first experience with an earthquake was in 1978 on the first full day I had spent there. I was taking a late afternoon nap, staying in the guestroom of a friend in West Hollywood. I was awakened by a clanky banging of some pipes in the house along with my bed moving slightly, as if pushed by an invisible force. All of it was brief, and it was over. I turned on the radio. There had been a quake centered about eight miles off of Malibu. Interesting and soon forgotten.



Until the next time. I had long before moved up to Doheny. One late night in the early ’80s, about 2 in the morning, I was awakened by the sudden loud BANGING of LARGE hands on the exterior walls of the bedroom. BANG BANG …. BANG BANG BANG BANG. I knew it was a shake, loud and physical, and the water in the pool was sloshing audibly, but there was an almost human quality to the banging. It was a racket; but a menace, unrelenting and super human — as if the hands were those of a giant. Then it stopped. I don’t know how long it lasted, probably just seconds but its impression was intense and remained.

Right at that moment, Schulenberg also called me right after the shake. His house was over in the Cahuenga section in the hills three or four miles to the east. When you live in Los Angeles, and a big shake happens, you tend to want to talk to somebody about the experience. Because unless you’re wounded by it, it is an oddly profound novelty, an other worldly presence. 

Awesome. And yet, like the fires out there, it’s all beyond your powers. The San Andreas Fault is and always has been well publicized as the Big One (which has not happened) which potentially could cause a major geographic change not seen in our lifetime. 



It remains a legend simply for its potential. It’s one of the things that really impressed me about living out there: the overall uncertainty of nature’s paradise. I encountered the notion that my soul was there. It sounds corny even to myself to say it, but it was a connection almost spiritual. That was living in Los Angeles. 

When I first came back to live in New York, I had lunch with a woman friend who had also moved to New York to work for the Metropolitan Museum. When I told her that I was really missing LA, she admitted that she did too. I asked her what she missed the most. She answered: “The light.”  I think that’s it: The light. Something important enough to be paying attention to. There was no conversation about earthquakes; that’s a given to be forgotten until the next one.


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