Northridge Earthquake Story
January 17th, 1994, 4:31 am


Life was good up in Toronto - I had finally gotten the break that I needed to get me the hell out of the sinking ship that was Commodore. That break had come in the form of a job creating and manning a customer support department at Side Effects Software Inc. (SESI) The software was a programmer/Mathieās dream, and was a bit of a tough nut for your average animator using it. It really embraced the procedurality of the art, and by this had few limitations which didnāt come back to the artistās lack of understanding. I spent a year helping these animators - all the really talented animators in the entertainment industry were trying to learn PRISMS (SESIās main software package - 2D/3D/Morph). For all of these reasons, as soon as I started, people with years of experience were calling me with questions. I would have been dead in the water if it hadnāt been for the fact that I had the programmers behind me. Imagine a typical call:

Caller: Hi Caleb, This is Kevin again. Now I need to know how to flim flam the jibberwort.

Me: Hang on a sec [run over to the main programmer, my friend Mark] Mark, how do you flimflam the jibberwort?

Mark: Oh, thatās easy [hand waving explanation deleted]

Me: [back on the phone] Hi Kevin, thatās easy [hand waving deleted]

So, in this way, I learn all of the issues, and what the main difficulties, and how to solve those difficulties in a timely fashion without actually doing any animation.

Fast Forward to the 1993 SIGGRAPH convention in Anaheim CA. There I am, mr. demo jock on the SESI booth, and suddenly thereās all these people whom I have known over the phone for a year in the flesh. Not only that, they're starving for anyone who knows 3D. Iām inundated with offers of six figures and the California dream, and wonāt I PLEASE come to work in the film industry. Ronda came down after the show, and we had a vacation for another week in L.A. We didnāt have to do a hotel or car rental thing as one of the SESI customers was out of town and had offered me his place in the Hollywood hills and his car if I would feed his animals for the week. Pretty damned sweet, thinks I, and so we have the most beautiful week in the universe and consider whether or not we could stand my salary tripling to come to the states. We decided we could stand it.

So plans are made. The guy who lent us his place, Jay Johnson, tells me that thereās an apartment opening up in his house (a Ī20s super mansion split into 5 apartments), and that I should stay on his couch until I can move in. Itās a good deal for me, obviously, and he gets live-in SESI support. win-win.

Well, Rondaās still in school, so I take what stuff I can fit into my little sports car, basically a workstation and a suitcase, and drive South along old route 66 for five days. My pal has taken his vacation to keep me company on the trip, and we see the sights along the way. I ended up living in L.A. for eight months before Ronda joined me. :-( Not only that, I was living in this place with no furniture, and only a suitcase full of clothes.

Well, when I moved into my apartment after a few weeks on Jayās couch, the spiders were rampant. I mean it - there were hundreds of them all over the place. I was knocking myself out trying to make a good impression at work, and learning that the L.A. lifestyle is one thing. Parties. All day, and all night. The only thing to do is party. What fun. Anyway, I wasnāt spending too much time at the apartment, and I was only taking up a corner of it when I was there, so I just let the spiders be in the rest of the place - hey, they were there first.

So, one night I head over to my pal, Kevinās place in Santa Monica and get a pleasant buzz on. Kevin and I hit it off the first time we met. There was this moment when we met in the flesh after knowing each other via my job at SESI on the phone. We immediately recognized that the other was kindred spirit. Weāve been pretty much best friends since then (spouses excluded, of course - the four of us go out a lot - weāre going to see Remy Zero at the Alligator tonight in fact). Anyway, weāre pretty toasted and I start describing the spiders in my apartment. Kevin has lived in L.A. since he was born, and is pretty familiar with the local bugs, so he starts filling me in on the fact that in the desert, thereās no winter to kill off bugs annually, so they have evolved into much more lethal modes. He tells me about the Black Widows heās stumbled upon, and some little nasty called the Brown Recluse that makes the Widow seem mild by comparison. Well, I had spent the day under the house in the hills running a cable to network my old SGI to Jayās much spiffier SGI so that I can steal his CPU power when heās not using it. I had been telling Kevin about the phenomenal density of the spider civilization in the crawlspace. This is what started the conversation about bugs in the first place. Kevin got a bit concerned, and told me that it was by no means impossible for me to have encountered a lethal spider down there, and that I should realize that Iām not in Kansas anymore, so to speak. This put me into a state of retroactive heebiejeebies from which it took me some time to recover.

As I was driving home that night, thinking about vile nasty deadly bugs on my face and in my apartment, I missed my exit altogether. No problem, figured I, and I took the next exit I saw to turn around at. Wow - Iām really far from home, I realized as I exited right into the South Central hot zone. Thereās a light Iām stopped at the base of the exit ramp, and in the middle of the intersection is this old coot - wearing only carpet samples, and walking in slow, small circles - right in the middle of the road. The light changed, and I drove around him and looked for a place to turn around. I quickly realized that I was in the wrong place when I saw a guy dressed in zillion dollar clothes talking to the driver of a zillion dollar car in the midst of what could have been Beirut. I pulled a U-turn, and drove past these two obvious criminals - successful criminals, and approached the circling loony again. Stopped at the light again, I check the rearview to see where the bad guys are, and Lo! the well dressed fellow is not walking, but running towards my car. Well, he might have had some important information for me, but I didnāt think so. I ran the light, avoided the coot, and hit the freeway with rubber still burning.

Back home at last - shaken with my mind reeling - mixing spiders and thugs into a crazed collage of scariness in my addled and tired mind, I recline into the tub for a very late bath - puffing on my pipe once more to enjoy the relative safety of my own bathroom. The water was really hot, and my muscles were just beginning to settle into a relaxed state when I felt something hit my shoulder. When I looked down, there was the biggest, blackest, hariest spider to ever walk on this planet. As the horror gripped my mind, it regarded me with itās eight glistening cold eyes and barked! It fucking said "Woof"! Well, that was it for me. I exited the tub with sufficient moment to take all of the water with me, slapping at the demon on my shoulder and yelling incoherent things at the gods that would create such an evil thing. My cool was gone. I got the broom, and naked and dripping I killed every bug I could find. I got a flashlight and went under the sink, I put on gloves and made squishing motions at the cramped places that the broom wouldnāt go. I killed them ALL and without remorse. MY house, you evil little pukes! Fuck Zen and harmony! Die, DIE, DIE!!!

Well, from that moment on, I had the most incredible arachnophobia. Each night I rolled my clothes into tight balls so that no bugs could creep in while I slept. At night I inspected every inch of my sleeping bag for spiders hiding to bite me as I slept. All of the scariness of the South Central episode, all of the retroactive spookiness of the crawlspace, every paranoia I had was subsumed by and fueled my fear of spiders. Each day I killed every spider that came into my place morning and night. I spent a long time totally freaked out about spiders.

So, I guess I should say that Iāve been philosophically active in the years since University. Iāve principally focussed my attention on the mystical theories of Aleister Crowley, and his theories on the scientific approach to magick - with some success, too I might add. Anyway Late one night. I remember that it was about 1:00 am on the morning of January 14th, 1994, I was trying out my new Thoth tarot deck. Thoth is the Egyptian god of mystical secrets, and Crowley himself had spent a long time with a brilliant artist encapsulating the symbology of the cards into this deck. Anyway, I was trying to find the significance of my decisions in choosing magick over a more traditional western approach to spirituality through the symbology of this nice new deck, and specifically, I was attempting to manifest a sign - any sign - that I could actually manifest a change in the state of the world through the force of my will alone. I cast the cards, and performed the ritual according to the Book of Thoth. I asked my question, and got my answer. I even photographed my spread so that I could ponder its significance later. At about 2:00, I finally fell asleep.

At 4:31 a.m. the floor disappeared. Thereās a moment when youāre asleep and something is disturbing your rest, during which you regain enough consciousness to assess the nature of the disturbance. If itās not urgent, you fall immediately back to sleep, and if you need to deal with it, you make that decision and wake up. Well, when the floor disappears, and youāre suddenly falling, the moments stretch out, and the journey back to full consciousness is tangible and moves through several stages. I thought, "Whatās up - do I need to actually wake up now?". When the floor hit my entire body like a heavy bag on the return swing, there was no question but that I had to wake up and identify the disturbance. Before I could really form another thought, though, the floor was gone again. Fully awake by now - about an eighth of a second having passed since the floor disappeared the first time - I thought "Alright, this is pretty serious - what is going on". Slam - the floor hits me again. OK, the floor is moving up and down a fair distance (later calculation indicates that it was moving about 22 inches per oscillation).

Well fuck. I donāt understand. The ground is the basis from which movement is measured. When youāre driving at 50 mph, thatās relative to the ground. The ground is the fixed origin from which measurements are calculated. Whatās the coordinate system that you use when the basis is shaking? There is none! The entire universe is suddenly cast into a different light. My whole model of how things work was destroyed utterly and in an instant. Whatās more, it became apparent to me that all of the useful advice people give about what to do in an earthquake isnāt worth a pinch of Īcoon shit. "Stand in a doorway." - As if! you try standing, or even getting to your hands and knees to crawl to a doorway when the ground is shaking at 8 Hz with an amplitude of 22 inches. It cannot be done.

So there I was, bouncing off the futon on the floor that served as my bed for so long, trying to figure out how to do anything but die since it was really obvious that all of L.A. was going to be completely leveled. The bricks of the house were no better than loose piles of stones in the face of this incredible shaking. Panic is gripping my brain as I find myself considering so unlikely a thing as the fact that 8Hz is too low a frequency to hear, and 22 inches is too high an amplitude not to hear. Suddenly I recalled the Tarot, and my whole request for an unmistakable sign not three hours before. Shit, I guess I shouldnāt mess with such big forces without considering the potential ramifications. So Iām vocally asking the Universe to stop, now. Iāve had my demonstration, and the point is well made, so just stop. Please stop. No, what did I learn - that the force of Will, not of Pleading can effect a manifestation. All right then, Mr. Universe - you will stop. Right fucking NOW you will desist.

Well, it was a truly impressive moment when I verbalized the command with the power word being "now" - the whole thing stopped. Immediately. The house was somehow still standing, which was impossible. How can so flimsy and old a pile of bricks maintain any integrity in the face of such violence? Clearly it couldnāt, so clearly I had no idea about earthquakes. I recall the case windows which open like doors on hinges slamming open and shut above me, which was odd since the venetian blinds held them firmly shut normally. Then I recall seeing the Blinds hanging completely horizontally - pressed against the ceiling. How did that work? I donāt know. For 41 seconds, the laws of physics had a different interpretation from that to which I was used.

OK, so the house is still standing, so I donāt know about earthquakes at all, so maybe that was just a normal, smallish one. Well, for sure noone is asleep in this house, so letās just see how the other folks feel about things. As I went out into the hall, I had my first indication that there was an impact on the house in the form of the door, which previously was so askew in the frame that it took major effort to open. Well, it opened beautifully. Then I tripped in the dark over a big chunk of the ceiling. Aha! thought I - this is an old house, so that was at least the biggest quake to hit during this houseās life, which was about 70 years, so people are definitely awake. So I went over to Jayās door, and knocked. Before I even hit the door the third time a very shaky voice said "Come in!". As I opened the door, I was confused by the fact that even though the power was definitely out, I could see the damage in Jayās apartment. Quickly I realized that the ceiling was gone, and the early light of dawn was illuminating the scene. I also heard the eeriest noise Iāve ever heard - all the auto alarms in L.A. crying into the ominous post quake silence. It was like an infinite sea of electric crickets singing in the dawn. Jay and his girlfriend were standing, terrified and naked in the back doorway. Then there was the big aftershock - the house started itās dance again and I got really scared this time. It was supposed to be over with, dammit! As the second wave was finishing, two of the neighbouring houses collapsed and slid 200 feet down hill in an impossibly fluid transformation of a previously rigid seeming structure. I cannot possibly describe the sound of a house collapsing, but Iāll try. It starts as a slow rumbling and scraping, and builds in chaos and terrible loudness for several seconds, and then is silent.


Scary shit, considering that the house we were standing in had collapsed up front, and the retaining wall holding up the hill above us out back was leaning with a threatening instability making any exit out the front or back unthinkable. So we waited. That was when I found out that Jay had an animalās preternatural ability to perceive the shocks fully fifteen seconds before any other human. The coming of each of the 2,500 aftershocks that followed over the next two weeks was preceded by Jay screaming, babbling in clear terror of the shock to come. Immediately, we used this time to get things done. First we all got dressed, stopping every minute or two to get to the back doorway again whenever Jay started gesticulating. The doorway advice turns out to be unnecessary as the act is hard wired into the reptilian cortex - The ground moves -> get away from things that will fall on your head. Hillsides and houses qualify as things which will fall on your head, and so you go to the one place that isnāt quite either - the doorway, and you go automatically without thinking about it.

Eventually we were clothed, and we took a chance to run down the 75 stairs beside the crumbling house to the street, where all of our previously aloof neighbours are just dying to talk to us. Disasters bring people together. I have more faith in human nature since the earthquake than I ever did before - even at my most optimistic. Classes, Races, Genders - these differences are small next to the common experience of an earthquake. Everybody can suddenly relate to everybody else. That was the single cool thing.

In the days that ensued, we (and everybody in the city along with us) had to clean up, and we had to move pretty much immediately. The engineering crews went house to house for weeks afterwards assessing the damage to the structures and assigning a green tag, a yellow tag, or a red tag to each structure. Green says that you can go on back in and live. Yellow says you can get your stuff out, but repairs are needed before occupancy resumes. Red means that your house is history, and it is illegal to enter to get your stuff or under any circumstances. What this means practically is that if your house is clearly fucked (as ours was) you need to get moved out before the engineers assess it.  To do so afterwards is seriously illegal.

The funny thing was that as I was getting my (suddenly conveniently) small collection of possessions together, I realized that I had an expensive cable strung below this busted house, and I wanted it back. As well, I realized that I was no longer even remotely scared of spiders. So I thought, Jay can give me warning of impending shocks, so Iāll just get that cable, and to hell with the spiders or having a shred of sensibility.

So there I was, doing the musty crabwalk through a recently shaken civilization of now pissed off spiders, as deep as I could get under the house which I could now see had fallen off of its foundation at the front, when Jay starts making incoherently urgent noises from the house above me. I had already figured out the gist of his meaning when he was finally able to articulate "bb-BIG ONE!!".

I bet you didnāt know that you can crab walk sixty feet in under ten seconds, and neither did I until I found myself flying out the access hole faster than I can run - navigating the broken boards with nails sticking out of them with the agility of a dancer at his peak. I was fully standing, and about to yell at Jay for the false alarm when the shock hit, and it was the biggest that happened - 5.4 on the Richter scale. - an oscillation of between five and eight inches. The house stayed put, by and large, but some of the rubble settled further.

I got my cable in the end, but I waited for several weeks, and went over the red tag and hazard tape to get it.

So thatās the longer version of my earthquake story.