The Saturday Morning Post #13

This brings us to the last of the short stories before the novella that brings everything together and to a close. Our narrator this time is Matt Clement, husband of Rebekah Clement, who we met back in chapter 6. Here, we essentially see his story of Rebekah and her assistant Tycho coming to find Matt post-quake in a hospital in Riverside, only this time from his point of view. If you want to catch up from the beginning before we dive into the finale next week, you can do so here, or you can read the previous chapter here.

NO CLEMENCY

It took forever after the fact to remember all the details of that day. It was like a chunk of time went missing What I did remember was our morning meeting, and that I’d forgotten to tell my wife that we were coptering out to Riverside for a day of meetings with our counterparts in that county. I contemplated texting her a reminder, but then figured that we’d all be home long before the end of the work day, so maybe at lunch I could send a “Guess where I am” photo.

I remember heading up to the helipad and the chopper, which the county had borrowed from the California Air National Guard, and it was a nice one — big enough to seat all 24 of us. “Just like the governor rides around in,” the pilot announced as we came up the stairs. It was one of those two rotor jobs, and the inside looked more like a private jet.

Oh, wait. Come to think of it, this helicopter did have a turbo jet in the back, so once we’d lifted into the air, we took off fast, and some of the younger folk on the team whooped and hollered at the acceleration. I know we had some meetings in the morning, although I have no idea what they were about, and then we wound up at a really nice restaurant where I think I ordered… no, I don’t remember anything still except the Thai iced tea, and then everything started to shift, there was shouting, people running and ducking, then I was flat on my back, staring at bright lights and screaming in pain for a moment before I felt someone grab my arm — which hurt — and look into my eyes. They were just eyes, between a paper mask and a cap over their hair and I remember the maroon of their scrubs, and then just drifting.

Drifting in and out, feeling like I’m floating all over the place, sometimes seeing disjointed things, hearing words that don’t register as any language, and then I hear my name whispered and I open my eyes. I’m kind of surprised to see the face of my wife’s assistant, Tycho, looking at me hopefully, and I can’t help but break out in the biggest grin. She’s sent him to help, and I can’t even begin to describe how happy that makes me.

And then I feel pressure on my chest and it’s like someone has planted an axe in me, but I’m too drugged out to make much noise. It’s Rebekah, my wife. I know she’s not trying to hurt me as she kneels to put her arm around me, but it fucking does. Pardon my French.

I try to move my arms to push her away, but they barely budge. That’s when one of my nurses, Herrick, comes over and saves the day, escorting her away. He was one of the first people I remember meeting here, and at least his name and face have stuck in my Swiss cheese mind for now.

As Herrick is talking to Rebekah, Tycho looks down at me, and it’s obvious that he’s been crying his eyes out. The look he gives me in that moment makes it more than obvious that he’s been crying for me, not her, We make eye contact and I sort of give a half-hearted attempt at a nod, which is more like turning my head slightly to him, which sends blazing razor of pain down my neck and into my upper back. All I can do is grunt.

I really am still drugged out of my mind, so all I can manage is to raise an index finger to point at Tycho, but I don’t think he notices.

Then Herrick is escorting them both out of the room before returning with an orderly. He had explained earlier that I wasn’t in an actual hospital bed yet. I was in a transport bed. That’s because transferring me from one to the other to move me around was too risky. “You have too many broken bones,” he explained. “Well… broken is an understatement, I suppose. But picking you up and sliding you over is absolutely out of the question.”

“Great,” I thought. But it was fun being rolled down hospital hallways under the overhead OLED panels, which swept by. It really felt like the VIP treatment, although this trip was a particularly long one, down several hallways in different wings, then to a large, staff only elevator, and down, down, down. It felt like we were in a sub-basement.

A thought came to mind during all this that hadn’t hit me before. How was this hospital still intact and functioning after such a huge earthquake? I hadn’t heard anything about the magnitude or epicenter, but it must have been a monster.

They eventually rolled me into a cool, dim room and a white-coated tech leaned over me and smiled. “Mr. Clement,” she said. “We’re just going to do a scan and figure out our priorities on fixing things up for you.”

In my mind, I thought that this meant MRI, and became suddenly terrified at the realization that I was pretty sure there was metal in this bed. I’d heard stories about bad things happening when metal got too close to one of these machines. I’d also never had an MRI, I’d only ever seen them on old doctor shows on TV from the ‘00s and ‘10s. To me, it looked like being shoved into a giant pencil sharpener.

I try to protest, indicating the bed I’m on as best I can, but Herrick is there, and he shushes me. “It’s okay, Matt,” he says. “First of all, every bit of metal on this thing is titanium, which wouldn’t react to a magnet anyway. Second, this isn’t an MRI. It’s HPMRV.”

“What?”

“Hyperpolarized Magnetic Resonance Visualization.”

“It still has ‘magnet’ in it.”

“Yes,” Herrick smiled. “And that magnet is the Earth.”

As we spoke, the tech was preparing to attach an IV bag to the line that was in my left arm when I’d woken up. The other one was on the back of my right hand. I was very surprised to realize that they didn’t bother me like I’d always thought an IV would. Then again — heavy painkillers, apparently.

She checks my chart on her tablet then checks the bag, does a calculation, and nods.

“No worries,” she tells me. “This is just a solution that will hyperpolarize any hydrogen atoms in your body that it gets to, and that’s what allows us to ‘see’ the images when we pulse radio waves through you. The technology has gotten a lot smaller, cheaper, and better in the last few years.”

“Where’s the machine?” I ask.

“We’re standing in it,” she replies. The detectors are in the walls, floor, and ceiling, so we’re going to get a real-time, 3D view of you once we start the process.”

She looks at her tablet, then steps aside with Herrick, although I can still hear them. “That drip will take about thirty minutes to finish, and then we give it another twenty to completely perfuse. You know the rest from there.”

“Thanks,” Herrick replies, and I hear the tech leave the room.

“Is this thing really safe?” I ask him.

“Oh, yeah,” he explains. “A lot safer than the old ones, but same idea. Basically, we get nearly all of the hydrogen atoms in your body to all start spinning the same way, and then pop that radio wave through them and they plop back to however they were before. That’s how we get the picture. Apparently, the old machines only saw like one out of 200,000 water molecules. This one can see something like 75% of the hydrogen atoms. It’s like going from a silent movie in black and white to 16K.”

“Now what?”

Herrick pulled a stool over to sit where I could see him, sat, and smiled. “It’ll take about fifty minutes for the drip to do its thing, and I’m monitoring to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions. So you’re stuck with me.”

“Okay. Hey — how come this place is in such great shape right after that earthquake?”

“Right after?” he looks at me. “The quake was almost a week ago. Last Tuesday. This is Monday, the 23rd.”

“Damn. Still… I don’t see any major damage.”

“We kind of learned about the importance of hospitals during that little adventure about a decade ago, remember?” he sighed. “By the way, I know we’ve got some work to do on your face, but from the outside, the damage doesn’t look that bad. I mean, you can talk, right?”

“My face is my second prettiest feature,” I joke with him. “But we’re really safe from big aftershocks here?”

“It was designed by a Japanese company, and they know their quakes,” Herrick explains. “Plus everything in it and around it was designed to be pretty immune to the shaking up to an 8. We’re also completely self-sustaining if we get knocked off of the grid in all areas — power, water, sewage, heating, cooling, communications — and we have enough of everything on hand to support a full staff and every bed occupied for three weeks, with a possible supply chain from the Nevada National Guard via convoy or helicopter if necessary.”

“Wow,” I mutter. “Can’t wait to see this bill.”

“Lucky thing we all have MediCal now, isn’t it?” he laughs. Then, “Now it’s your turn. Since we’ve got almost an hour, I like to get to know my patients better. Especially the ones who might be around for a while. So… tell me your story.”

“What’s to tell? I was born in 1990, so I’m a total Millennial, fourth of six kids, three older sisters, two younger brothers. We all grew up in Scranton, which got really interesting when I was 15, since that old TV show The Office made us all famous. Remember it?”

“Oh yeah,” Herrick says. “I’m only seven years younger than you, and we had all the American TV when I was growing up in Cebu.” I think he notices my look and adds, “That’s in the Philippines. About a million people. I jumped a couple of grades, finished nursing school ten years ago, and came here in ’21 after… well, you know. Things settled down. But enough about me. Go on.”

“Yeah, so, I finished high school. Go Scranton Knights! Swim team, Poli Sci club, and band geek. AP in U.S. History, Government and Politics, and Environmental Science. I came out here to go to college at UCLA for a lot of reasons, but a big one was that my grandma — my mom’s mom — lived in Santa Monica and had a guest house. My mom had moved back east after she got her Masters because she couldn’t afford L.A. Oh. That’s why I was born there. She wound up with a nice teaching gig, although she taught at West Scranton High, our rivals. Their mascot was The Invader.”

“Did they not let you go to the school where she taught?” he asked.

“Actually, we lived in the zone for that, but she got a waiver from the district and explained to me, ‘Dear, Scranton High is the much better school. Trust me.’” He laughed and I started to, but then it felt like my ribs were doing arpeggios on my lungs so I stopped myself.

“Anyway, because of all the AP credit, I actually started college two quarters ahead, so I majored in Urban Planning, minored in Poli Sci, and graduated at the end of 2011 instead of spring of 2012. Well, got my degree. I still walked with everyone else the next year. And then I applied to work for the City and the County of Los Angeles.”

“And you’ve been there ever since?”

“Actually, not quite. See, they both work on an exam system. You pick a job you’re interested in and then take a test for it, which they only give every couple of months. The tests are scored, and then you don’t hear anything else until you come up for an open position that you qualified for by taking that test. And, to keep it fair, the only criteria they use are the test scores, ranked from highest to “no thanks,” and nothing else. Well, that, and which positions that test qualifies for.”

“Ooh. Harsh.”

“Yeah, not really. I guess it’s fair. I mean, come on. It’s Civil Service. It’s the one job it’s virtually impossible to get fired from outside of doing something criminal. No, strike that. Something criminal that actually costs your employer real money in a lawsuit. Otherwise, you pretty much just get transferred elsewhere to bury the scandal. You know. Like the Catholic Church used to do until they had to sell off so much shit to finally pay up about five years ago.”

“Ooh. Cynical much?” he asks, but with a joking tone.

“Totally,” I reply. “Hey, you can’t get within a hundred yards of a government job without becoming completely jaded.”

“Ah. So, how long did it take you to finally get the job that ruined you?”

“Three and a half years, but it only took three weeks to find out that I sucked as a waiter. Luckily, a friend of mine hooked me up with… well, I don’t even want to mention it, but it more than paid the bills in the gap.”

“OMG,” Herrick said. “You did porn?”

“Not quite,” I replied, laughing. “Okay, I did do some nude modeling and a couple of solo wank videos, but I actually wound up working as a dancer and stripper in a club in WeHo. One of my college buds hooked me up with all of the above.”

“Really?” Herrick replied.

“Really,” I went on. “Apparently, ‘hot nerd’ is a very popular type, so I’d take the stage with the glasses on and the hair slicked back, pocket protector and white dress shirt, sometimes a bowtie, and always the flood pants and white socks with dress shoes, and the audience would go nuts once the shirt came off. Once I got down to the G-string, the last thing to go would be the glasses, and I swear that was when the place really started to rumble. And I made so damn much in tips doing it that it was ridiculous. I mean, on a good night, I’d earn enough to cover utilities, internet, groceries for a month, and two trips to the movies a week for Granny Sims and I. And even though I insisted, she never let me pay rent. ‘Honey, I own this place free and clear, so paying the bills is more than enough. But you just being here with me is enough without you paying the bills.’”

“That’s so sweet,” Herrick gushed.

“Yeah, although the best part was when she’d add, ‘And you really don’t need to pay a damn cent, because I go down to Morongo once a month and clean up at Black Jack.’”

“Damn. Your granny is a playa. Literally!”

“Yeah, but at least she never loses when she goes to the casinos… shit. Never lost.”

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be, she lived a long time. But, seriously. I remember many a Friday night when I’d be coming home at about 2:30 and would run into her pulling into the driveway, and she would pull a huge wad of cash out of her purse, wave it at me, and say, ‘You are grilling us some damn fine steaks tomorrow, Mattie!’”

“Wow. Now you’re making me wonder why you ever accepted the county job in the first place.”

“Well, it was twofold. First, a lot less strenuous, and a guaranteed income with benefits. Stripping had no benefits because we never worked anywhere near 40 hours a week. Second, by the time the county finally called me in, I was 24, and in the world of gay strip clubs, that’s just past the sell-by date.”

“Really?” Herrick asked, incredulous.

“Well, yes and no. I mean, I know guys who are close to my age now who still pass off being a twink, but I had the disadvantage of having jet-black hair.”

“How is that a bad thing?”

“The first gray ones stick out like compound fractures,” I say.

“Ooh… I don’t know whether to applaud that reference or smack you and say ‘Too soon.’”

“But I don’t have any compounds, right?” I ask.

“You don’t now,” he says. “But you probably don’t want to know what it was like when they brought you in.”

“What was it like?” I ask.

“Um… let’s just say… you are one tough motherfucker.”

“Uh… thanks?” I reply.

“Okay, so… you start working for the county and, I assume, give up your stripping career, so… now what?”

“Now, I wind up working for the Inter County Development Planning Commission, or ICDPC as we call it, and it is all kinds of awesome. First of all, the offices are in Van Nuys, and so eventually, it’s a City Bike hop to the station and then a ride up the Q Line to get there from Santa Monica every day, so a short and easy commute. Next, I’m working with an amazing team, and our goal is to basically make sure that plans for developing and improving L.A. County mesh in the most optimal ways with our surrounding counties, as well as work with the incorporated cities within the county. You know — Malibu, Culver City, WeHo, Burbank, Glendale, NoHo, Westwood, and so on.”

“Of course, since we’re a planning commission, we are forward-looking, so although I start in 2014, I’m on Team 2034, so everything I’ve been working on isn’t even going to start happening for another five years from now.”

“What about five years from when you started?” he asks me.

“Essential employment, and trust me, we all worked from home for months. And people died or decided to return to medicine — we did have a lot of doctors — or get out of government work all together, so, I move up the hierarchy.

“Then, one day in late summer ‘22, after it’s finally calmed down, we’re at a week-long multi-department team-building sleep-away camp up in Angeles National Forest that’s being facilitated by some improv theater based in the soon-to-be incorporated city of NoHo of all things, and it’s just amazing. They keep the campers segregated by gender in two different buildings, except that they allow married couples to stay together in a third building, and while they seem to match co-workers as roommates, the working groups are, apparently, matched up the opposite. I don’t know anyone in my group and, as I ask around later, this seems to be the thing.

“Yeah, definitely planned. But not a bad thing. And in the group I’m in, I notice this woman. Probably a little younger than me, and shorter. Well, hell, okay, most everyone is shorter than me, although she’s tall for a woman. A blaze of long, curly red hair tumbles from her head, and she’s got that catnip combo of porcelain skin, triangular face, and jade green eyes, and I just stare. And when we get to our first split-off exercise, we wind up paired together, and it’s this weird thing where one person is an actor who is going to play the other person, so they are interviewing for information for the role, but they are asking as the other person in first person while that person is answering in third… shit. Does that make any sense?”

“No,” Herrick replies.

“Okay, cool. It didn’t to me when it was explained either, but when we did it, it worked. So, let’s say that I’m the actor who is playing you. I might say, ‘So, where was I born?’ and you would reply with factual information about yourself, but in second person. ‘You were born in Cebu in the Phillipines…’ and so on.”

“Damn!” Herrick exclaimed. “That is a total mindfuck.”

“Isn’t it?” I said. “But, at the same time, once you get the rhythm, it really gets you telling all the nasty truth about yourself to a stranger without any insecurity, and the second half had us reversing the roles, and by the end of it we had just bonded, and by the end of the first day, we started hanging out together all the time. And, I’m going to be totally honest here, even though it broke all the camp rules, on the fourth day, we snuck into the woods after ‘lights out,’ found a secluded spot, and… well, you fill in the blanks.”

“Oh, you naughty dog, you,” Herrick said, laughing and clapping.

“I mean, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, been there, done that. Go on.”

“Okay, so… we definitely exchanged info, were relieved to find out that we worked for two different divisions, but within easy access, and started dating not long after.”

“And what were the divisions?”

“Told you mine,” I explained. “She’s with the Ecumenical Council, meaning coordinating all of the religious groups, especially during a crisis, like now.”

“Oh. So you’re both religious, then?”

I just laughed. “Oh, fuck no,” I said. “We are both total atheists. She’s only on that council because she majored in Religious Studies. But, beyond the government thing, we wound up having so damn much in common that we eventually married, and here we are.”

“And… anything else?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “And you?”

“Well, I’m also married,” he says.

“Great. Kids?”

“No,” he answers. “You?”

“No.”

“Necessity or need?”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Didn’t want or couldn’t have?”

“Ah,” I say. “Didn’t want.”

“Us, couldn’t have.”

“Oh, that is so sad. Why not?” I ask.

“Because I’m gay as hell and only married her for citizenship, since we still weren’t sure whether the H1-B visa thing would get restored, but we both knew that going in. And… you?”

And that’s when the tech returns and announces time, and I can’t tell you how goddamn relieved I am in that moment. Herrick smiles at me and exits, the tech places the transit bed precisely, then tells me, “Okay. I have to exit the room, but you’re going to hear some strange sounds for about the next twelve minutes. Relax. Those are just the radio signals being sent through you in various directions. And it’s just radio. Nothing radioactive or dangerous or anything else. Understand?”

“Yes,” I mumble, turning my hand to raise a thumb, but I don’t think she sees it.

“Great,” she says. “Then, away we go…”

She leaves the room and I’m left all alone to listen to nothing but the hissing silence in my ears (probably tinnitus) and the occasional “whump” that seems to come from my sides, above, or below. And then I realize I’m left alone with myself, and most thankful of all for the question Herrick never tried to make me answer. But before I can decide whether to complain about him over that, the whumping stops, the tech is back, all smiles, and the orderly is wheeling me out and back up to my room.

It seems like forever before I get back to 602, although almost immediately I feel the prick of another painkiller injection and don’t have the energy to slap the fucking nurse who did it without asking, and then a new doctor appears bedside, with his tablet.

“Mr. Clement?” he says.

“Call me Matt,” I insist.

“Okay, Matt. I’m Dr. Polvo, but you can call me Jaime. I’m here to show you what we saw in the latest scan.”

“My guts, I guess?”

“Yes, and those are fine, but… well, honestly… your legs took it really badly. I think they were hit full force when the roof of that restaurant fell. Six inches higher, and we would have lost you to a tamponade. Don’t ask. Anyway… there’s no easy way to say this, I’m sorry, but… every bone in your body below the middle of your femurs — er, thigh bones — is pretty much, well, shattered. We may not need to amputate, but it would take implantable prosthesis that aren’t quite developed yet. So a few years in a wheelchair, maybe. At the least.”

“Fuck…”

“But, hang on, because I do have good news. You don’t have any major organ damage, so from the colon up, you’re good. You did suffer some stress fractures in your spine and have eight broken ribs, there was a compound fracture to your left radius, and a minor dislocation in your C4 vertebrae. And we are going to have to fix your jaw and replace about six teeth on the left side of your face, although the bruising trauma to your left orbit should heal on its own.”

“Thanks, doc,” I reply, “But what do most of those words mean?”

“You’re going to live,” he says, and then he breezes out. And I wonder… Okay, what does living like this mean, really?

I’ve been pretty much told that, short of a medical miracle or major tech development, I’m probably not going to walk again. On the upside, I haven’t been told, “Your dick don’t work,” but, on the other hand, since that pile-driver needs some hips and legs behind it, I’m probably stuck with hand and blow-jobs from here on out. That, or just jerking off, because it sounds like my face is kind of fucked up, too, despite what Herrick said, and now I’m understanding the logic of there being no mirrors in this place.

But after Dr. Bad News, I can’t find Herrick because, apparently, his shift ended, and now I’m with Maryam who, while she’s nice, hasn’t heard any of the story of my life I’d told while waiting to be perfused enough to be scanned.

Oh, well.

And then… Rebekah comes in, but she’s very careful not to touch me, since I guess she’s been warned: “Broken China.” Instead, she says, “Oh, babe, they just told me. And I am so going to be here for you for as long as you need.”

And god, I’m kicking myself now because I’m back to the big lonely room, and Herrick really revealed a lot of himself, and I had been about to, but… the trouble was that I couldn’t say anything now, because Rebekah had made it so goddamn clear. But, in my head, and as soon as Herrick came back and moved her out… I couldn’t scream it loudly enough, despite my shattered legs…

I only married Rebekah out of convenience, and because of what my parents would have thought. Yeah, I know that it was the 21st Century, but they had voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named, to their great detriment. And my ever-lasting shame. But I’d told her ages ago about the bisexual cover-up deal we’d agree to, and it was fine right up until the day I joined her in Grand Park for some Summer Fun festival and I met her assistant, Tycho. And I fell head over heels for that hot little fucker and, truth be told, I got the feeling that he was giving me the eye, too…

Image source, JMarchn, “X-ray of lumbar hyperlordosis.” Used unchanged via creative commons  (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.

The Saturday Morning Post #11

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 11. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. In this one, our new narrator, Edna, has an encounter with a character from Chapter 2

LOST AND FOUND

This has definitely been a very strange week of ups and downs, literally and figuratively. Last Tuesday, I saw my pet project destroyed by a natural disaster, and one that most Californians are not fully insured for. On the other hand, one of my favorite tenants was pulled out of the wreckage alive, and I hear that she’s found a new place to live down the street.

But… my building was red tagged, meaning that it’s going to be pulled, and I’ll be left with an empty lot worth far less, although I’m sure that some wealthy developer will spot it, offer to pay me less than market value, and then turn it into housing priced out of the range of most people in this neighborhood in the continuing gentrification parade.

Oh, the city has done some things to battle these evil bastards, but not enough. They’ve only managed to severely reduce and cap rents in certain parts of the city, but developers, who have always had the City Council in their back pockets, have also gotten laws passed that eliminate all rent control or caps on properties within two miles of a Metro station. Unfortunately, we are well within this distance, but I absolutely refused to raise my rents to sky-high levels.

It was so promising back during the plague days, too. Six months of no rents, no mortgages, and no property taxes. And we somehow survived it, like we’re surviving this quake. Except that after the vaccine, people went back to being their greedy, selfish selves. Well, some of them did. A lot of them got turned out of office, but their replacements… not much better.

As for this place, I’ve owned it since the early 80s. It was originally a small hotel, and the only reason it wasn’t a motel is because all of the parking was off of the alley in the back instead of in front of the rooms. The layout was a basic square with an empty middle where the swimming pool and courtyard lived. There was a small office up front, and multipurpose community room in back. When I bought it, I left the ice machines in place for that nostalgic touch, as well as the laundry rooms because they were necessary. While I had been able to convert the original 10 suites and 50 rooms into 10 two-bedrooms, 40 one-bedrooms, and 20 studios, there was no room in any of them for washing machines. Besides, back then, laundromats were plentiful and cheap and it was not considered an amenity.

I was only breaking even on this place, but that didn’t matter. It had been a good emotional investment. Besides, I had plenty of properties that did make me money. I had followed the advice I’d heard from my father constantly back in Schenectady: “Invest in real estate. It’s the one thing that never loses value because they’re not making more of it.”

Once I’d made my money, I did, but I’ll save that part for later. I mostly invested it in income properties managed by other people and kept it all at arm’s length, but then one day I found out about a place that intrigued me.

It was the Starlight Hotel in Koreatown, and I jumped on it, because the asking price was pocket change. Sure, if I did what I wanted, I’d never make money off of the property, but I made up for that by briefly going into the business of flipping houses, but only doing it in rich neighborhoods and only selling at inflated prices to assholes who had more money than they deserved.

Okay, maybe there’s a conflict there because I am raising prices in one place and not the other. Then again, nobody who isn’t filthy rich was ever going to buy a house in Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Malibu, Woodland Hills, or Brentwood anyway.

I rebranded the place as the Starlight Apartments and opened it up for tenants in January 1984, but I was as selective as legally possible, looking for people who most needed cheap housing, favoring gay people, and people of color, and even senior citizens, thinking that I could give them an education in tolerance in the bargain.

I kept the rent low, and my favorite tenant, Cindy, moved in something like more than thirty years ago. Technically, she didn’t fit my original criteria at the time, but she had some medical experience as a vet tech, which could always be useful. What I was charging her for a two-bedroom was less than most of the shitholes around here were charging for studios that had shared bathrooms, no kitchens, and no parking.

I don’t believe in raising the rents here, but I’ve preferred to keep this place a word-of-mouth secret… and then, in a few minutes on a Tuesday in April, bang. Gone. And the annoying part is not the loss of property. What I regret is that this was the only property I’d ever bought in order to help out people with their rent, and I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to rebuild because that expense itself might be too much.

The Monday after the quake, I was sitting out in front of the tents we’d set up on the sidewalk, enjoying a coffee with some tenants when a young man in a suit walked up.

“Hi,” he said. “My name is Adrian. Adrian Miller. Do you know who owns this property?”

“Me. Edna,” I reply, immediately hating him. “It’s not for sale.”

“Well, it’s not in the greatest shape, either,” he says, and I wonder whether punching him in the throat would be considered a crime given the circumstances.

“It is not for sale,” I repeat emphatically.

“I know,” he replies. “But is it up for rehab?”

This catches me off guard. “Um… what do you mean?” I ask.

“Was it fully insured?”

“Not for earthquakes.”

“I see. And after the deductible and all that, are you able to finance reconstruction?”

“Hell no,” I tell him. “So, what do you want? Because if it’s to buy and gentrify the hell out of this space, you can fuck right off.”

He stares at me a beat, and then just laughs.

“Oh, Edna, gentrifying is the farthest thing from my boss’ mind.”

That catches me off guard even more — not just his statement, but the proof that he was actually paying attention to me as a human-being when I said my name.

“Okay, Adrian,” I reply. “Tell me more.”

“Great,” he says, taking the offered camp chair before launching into it. “We’ve been walking neighborhoods since the quake, seeing how we can help out, and I had a very interesting conversation with a woman who’s living at that theater center down the street. The one who was your former tenant…”

“Cindy,” I said and he nodded.

“And she told me all about what you’d done for the tenants in your building, which is exactly the kind of thing my boss wants to support.”

“Who’s your boss, Bill Gates?”

“No. He prefers to stay out of the public eye, so you’ve probably never heard of him. Toby Arnott. How many units was the place?”

“It had 70 units on three floors,” I explained.

“Hm. We could probably make the replacement bigger — ”

“Absolutely not,” I cut him off. “I’d prefer it to look as much like the original as possible.”

“I suppose that all depends on the codes,” he said. “Obviously, it will be updated to whatever is current when the contractor pulls the permits, but the outside could look like the original, I suppose.”

“So how exactly would this deal work?” I asked him. “This isn’t some sneaky way to buy my land without it looking like that, is it?”

“No. Toby has set up a foundation for earthquake recovery, so it would be a charitable project. At the end of it, you’d still own the land and the building. We’d just ask that you continue to rent it out the way you have been, and at the rates you’d been charging, with priority to any former tenants who want to return.”

“It sounds like I’m not the only one you’re doing this for.”

He just smiled. “Actually, you’re the first one we found that’s worth doing it for. Well, the first apartment. I think we’re going to be investing in that theater company, too.”

“I’d need to see a contract and have my lawyers look at it first.”

“Of course. The next step is to bring Toby down here to meet you and see the lot. I’ll research what the building did look like, too. Oh. Do you know what arrangements your tenants have made?”

“Some of them moved back home, as in out of state. Others are staying with friends and family. I got all of their new contact info first so I can get them their deposits back, and luckily I saved the hard drives with all of the tenant records on them.”

“And you?”

“For the moment, living in one of those tents over there.”

“Well, we’ll have to change that. If you can wait a couple of days, we’ll find a long-term rental we can put you up in during the reconstruction.”

“Assuming the deal happens.”

“No, we’d do that part even without the deal.” He quickly checked his phone. Ah. The boss wants me to meet up where he’s at, but we’ll both be back around soon. Do you know of any other apartments or businesses you’d suggest we stop in at?”

I mention a few — one other landlord I know also isn’t a gouger, and a couple of family-owned shops on the street. He thanks me and heads off, and I don’t know what to think about it all.

Los Angeles was such a different place when I came here. It was right after I graduated college, May, 1969. No traffic, everything was cheap, and there was a sense that the sexual and hippie revolution that had started in San Francisco a couple of years before had finally sort of made it down here. The smog was horrible, and people smoked everywhere — elevators, movie theaters, hospitals. Hell, even doctors would puff away during exams.

None of us would even think that this was abnormal until about the mid-80s.

But… what else? Oh yeah. This was the year of mainstream movies rated X. Midnight Cowboy. That one came out the same month I’d come to L.A. Of course, this was also when “adult cinemas” sprang up advertising “XXX Movies!!!” Three X’s and three exclamations must have meant that they were three times as dirty, and they were. The month after I arrived, those riots happened at that gay bar in New York, and they would wind up changing everything more than I would have ever thought, especially for me.

I was young, ambitious, and naïve, and so wound up in early July going to an “audition” in a second floor office that was above Frederick’s of Hollywood, of all places. This was a business well-known for selling sexy lingerie, although the offices above it had nothing to do with the business below it. That’s even what the receptionist told me as I signed in.

“Everyone thinks the same thing when they come in, dear, but don’t worry. The guys downstairs don’t own the businesses upstairs.”

“I guess that’s a relief,” I say as I hand her my headshot and resume, and she laughs, a little too earnestly. “Right through there… Edna,” she adds after glancing at the name on my headshot.

I enter the waiting room and it’s surreal. One side is lined with women I could swear are my duplicates — we didn’t have the word “clone” back then, but we were all clearly of a type. On the other side sat an equally similar line of young men, every one of them tall, skinny, pale, with black hair, brown eyes, high cheekbones, and hawkish noses that complimented everything about them perfectly.

I was getting a bad feeling about this, although I had no idea that I was somehow predicting a movie line that would become famous in eight years.

A woman came out of the office finally and called two of us in — “Edna Ferris, and… Stony Boon?”

Okay, I couldn’t help but think that that was a stage name. On the other hand, the guy I walked in with was easy on the eyes and introduced himself with a deep, soft voice and strong but gentle handshake. “Stony Boon,” he said, then added in a whisper, “And no. It’s not.”

We entered the inner office and the woman who called us left, closing the door. It was a small room with one desk, and a rotund, middle-aged man in clothes that were two decades too young for him, obvious toupee, and with a cigar in his mouth. Lit, of course.

Now, before Stony could tell me his real name, it was obvious that he knew something I didn’t, and was quickly flinging his clothes off, so that in about ten seconds, he was butt-ass naked and facing the director with no shame.

“Hi, Doug!” he called out, cheerily.

“Hey, Stony. Always a pleasure. Have you met…” glances at my docs, then grimaces, “Edna… honey, we’ll have to change that.”

“I did in the hall,” he says, looking at me, “But I’d like to get to know her.”

And then it all gets awkward. I don’t know where to look. I mean, okay. Stony, or whoever he really is, actually is pretty goddamn hot, although I’m doing my best to look at everything but little Stony, which ain’t that little. At the same time, I’m feeling this weird impatience from Doug, the director, while Stony just looks confused.

“Honey, did you read the sides?” Doug finally asks me.

“Oh, yeah, sure. I recognized it immediately. Shakespeare. Much Ado About Nothing.”

“Right, you read the text, but it’s a screenplay. Did you read the action?”

“Um… no. Sorry,” I replied. Doug sighed, but Stony jumped to my defense and I don’t know why. “She’s a stage-actress, man. Don’t blame her. The first thing stage directors tell actors is to ignore the directions.”

“Well, fuck,” Doug says. “That’s why I don’t do theater,” although he pronounces it as “Thee-uh-TAH” with contempt. “If you’d read the directions, you’d know that this is the scene where Hero and Borachio fuck.”

“I’m sorry… what?” I ask him.

“You have read the play right?” he demands.

“I’ve done it four times, and I’ve played Hero twice and, trust me, she and Borachio never… have relations. That’s the entire point of the whole play.”

“Not in my version, honey. Have you even seen Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet?”

“Of course I have,” I reply.

“And, in that one, they fuck.”

“They pretty much did in the original, too,” I tell him.

“Ooh. You’re uppity. I like it. Maybe I should consider you for my Marquis de Sade movie.”

“What?” Stony and I say in unison.

“Oh, honey, don’t you get uppity, too,” Doug says, clearly addressing Stony. “I can put you back in those Fire Island Fantasy flicks in a heartbeat.”

This seems to humble Stony a bit and I’m on the verge of walking out when Doug says, “Okay. Which Shakespeare couple — who actually fuck — would you like to play with your leading man here?”

Since I’m now convinced that this Doug guy doesn’t know Shakespeare from his own asshole, I snap back, “Kate and Petrucchio,” and he leaps out of his chair. “Brilliant!” he screams. “The Taming of the Screw! It’s perfect. Let’s see that audition…”

The Saturday Morning Post #5

ATTENTION LOYAL READERS: Stay tuned for a very special announcement in a post coming up later today. Hint: It’s contest time.

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 5. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. 

Although it’s long, I’m going to give you this one in full because the narrator here was based on a neighbor of mine who was a really amazing woman who basically befriended the neighborhood dog-owners and got to know all of us, and then that motherfucker cancer came around and killed her way too early and way too fast. This was definitely written as a tribute to her, although I’m not always so literal with characters, and I expect to discuss that bit soon. Meanwhile, enjoy.

BORN A REFUGEE

I had been planning to retire when I turned sixty-five next January. Nineteen-sixty-five was also the year I was born, and it really was another world and time. I arrived on Earth in a small town outside of Minneapolis that had a surprisingly large Jewish population, most of which had arrived starting in the mid-1950s.

A lot of them, like my grandparents and parents, were from Northern Europe, and they did originally immigrate to Israel once it was founded as a state — May 14, 1948, a date that any Jew can tell you instantly.

Now, all of my grandparents had seen what was coming with Hitler and so had been planning to relocate to Palestine as part of one of the many aliyoth that had started happening once the pogroms got going in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. Unfortunately, they were going to delay their travel plans until 1937, because both of my bubbes were pregnant with both of my parents, and they didn’t want to risk the trip in that condition. Not to mention there was some question as to whether a child of Jewish immigrants born in Palestine at the time would essentially be a stateless person.

So they waited, and Britain, which had somehow taken on the role of Great Decider of the Fate of the Jews and Israel, suddenly banned all immigration to the area in 1936.

Oh — aliyoth is the plural of aliyah, a Hebrew term that means “going up” and which refers specifically to the return of Jews from the Diaspora to Israel. The Diaspora is the opposite of that — the events that drove the Jews out of Israel in the first place. With the article and capitalized, it refers specifically to the Jews. Not capitalized, it refers to any people being driven out of their homeland en masse. For example, there was also an Armenian diaspora.

I should mention that all four of my grandparents had been neighbors back in Munich as well as good friends. I think they had always planned to play yenta for their as yet unborn children one day, should the genders work out. Although they tended to have a lot of kids back then, so some workable combination would happen. (And, to be honest, probably at least one or two “unworkable” ones, as in homosexual. Unworkable, of course, being entirely relative.)

Once the middle East was cut off as an option, my maternal grandparents, Saul and Miriam, fled to Belgium, where they successfully dodged the Nazis. My paternal grandparents, David and Esther, wound up first in London, but the combination of realizing once the war really got going that the city was in Hitler’s crosshairs and the simmering anti-Semitism of overly Protestant Brits led them to move to Dublin. The Irish had no problem at all with Jews, because they understood very well being a persecuted religious minority themselves, having been living through it for a long time. Aforementioned Prots hated the Catholics with a passion, and the Irish had had their own diaspora of sorts in the 19th century, a huge chunk of the population fleeing to America.

My father, who had been born in London in April 1937 and named for his deceased great-grandfather, Mordecai, eventually became an Irish citizen. By the way, I always liked the nice symmetry of Esther being both the granddaughter and mother of Mordecai. It kind of makes up for the way that she ultimately was cheated out of being the hero of her own story. If you don’t get that, go read the book. It’s a ripping good yarn, as my Anglo-Irish father used to say.

My mother Rachel was born in Bruges, and her native languages were Yiddish and Flemish, although she was also fluent in Dutch and English. My father only spoke English, knew some Gaelic words, and only enough Hebrew to keep up with the prayers during things like services and sitting shiva, and the instinctive knee-bend/bow/stomp on baRUCH atah never left him. He often told me, though, “Right after I became bar mitzvah, poof. All that Hebrew went right out of my head. I could remember how to say the words, but the letters became meaningless.”

That was an odd thing to say, because all of my grandparents moved to Israel at the end of 1948, before either of my parents were bar or bat mitzvah, so technically my dad should have known Hebrew. On the other hand, the immigrant Jews so outnumbered the natives by this point that the lingua franca was probably English, most likely mixed with Yiddish and German. I never asked them about that.

Note to my goyische friends: bar and bat mitzvah refer to both the ceremony and the participant in it, so it’s completely proper to say, “my son/daughter is bar/bat mitzvah today.” This is just one of many shibboleth — a word and concept (also plural) that we invented, too — which arose out of the need for self-protection via being able to tell the difference between friend and foe.

My father often mentioned how he noticed many similarities with the differences between Catholics and Protestants. You could give yourself away as one or the other with a simple wrong choice of word in the Lord’s Prayer, just like shibboleth vs. shibboleth could give away that someone really wasn’t part of one of the tribes of Israel or Judah. Undercover Catholics, in particular, had to resist the almost automatic inclination to genuflect or look for the little dish of holy water upon entering a Protestant Church, which they were often forced to do if they wanted to “pass,” and hence survive.

I’m sorry. I tend to get nostalgic like this during traumatic times, and this last week has certainly been a doozy. I suppose I’ll fast forward, and just say that all of my grandparents happened to meet up again because Israel at the time wasn’t that big a place, and the new communities tended to cluster by home country. As their two oldest kids grew and started to mature, Saul and Miriam Geldfarb, and David and Esther Spiegel, were very happy to see that Rachel Geldfarb and Mordecai Spiegel seemed to be taking a liking to each other.

They never noticed the same between Dov Geldfarb and Solomon Spiegel, but those two wound up being my favorite gay uncles to this day, and my parents were very much the model of Reform Jews, so accepted them with open arms when they came out as a couple in the unheard of year of 1969, right after the Stonewall riots. Dov was 25 and Solomon was almost 29.

The other thing that was getting to my grandparents, around about 1953, was that, being from Northern Europe, the hot desert climate of the Middle East wasn’t really agreeing with them. Of course, they had wound up living in Eilat, a port city in the south, but one that got very hot and dry in the summer, although it really only relatively cooled down in the winter, if you considered a daytime low of 70 in the winter to be cold.

So that’s how they wound up in Minnesota. The climate there was a lot more like what they’d known back in Europe, and the place was full of immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, a lot of them Jewish. It was like a second home.

My parents married in 1960, after they had both finished college and decided on careers. I was their third and youngest child. They were about as far from Orthodox as you could get, hence the names of my two older brothers and me — Hector, Patrick, and Cynthia — youngest and oldest derived from Greek, and the middle one a nod to my father’s time in Ireland.

Dad was a lawyer and mom had studied architecture and design, but soon learned that she had a knack for things like interior design and, in the local theater community, set design. It was this latter detail that led her to follow all kinds of artistic developments, put her on the theater map in the Twin Cities, and also made her very aware of her occupational opportunities elsewhere.

Not to mention that, unlike their parents, they had grown up mostly used to a warmer climate, and Minnesota winters were getting to them.

Mom eventually took note of the opening of a major new arts venue out in Los Angeles, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which premiered in 1964, but was going to be just one part of a three-theater complex called the Music Center.

Meanwhile, Dad had specialized in contract and intellectual property law, and my mother began the slow process that she often described to me later of “gradually convincing your father” that both of them should apply for positions in Los Angeles, and then move. The weather was better, especially in winter, but nowhere as blistering as Eilat in summer, the schools were good, real estate was cheap, and there were already thriving Jewish communities.

Three months before the rest of the Music Center opened in April, 1967, my mother had secured a job as set designer and lead decorator for Universal Studios, and my father signed up with a law firm that represented several of the major studios. I don’t remember any of this because I was barely two, but we apparently packed up, made the drive west with everything we owned after selling off everything we could replace later stuffed into one car and a rented trailer we towed behind. A large moving truck would have been problematic with five of us and the dog, Winston, not to mention a lot more expensive in terms of gas — even if it only was something like just over a quarter a gallon back then.

We wound up settling in a fairly Jewish neighborhood out in a town called Woodland Hills, on the west end of the San Fernando Valley. At the time, the attractions were large lots and houses cheap, great schools, and an easy freeway commute directly to Hollywood, downtown, and the Westside. Plus, lots of Jews.

Why and how that happened, I wasn’t sure at the time, but I learned later on that it was mostly for the nastiest of reasons — as in, if all the WASP developers of land out there let the Jews move in, they would have an easy way (via credit and employment histories and other such nonsense) of keeping the blacks out without being openly or obviously racist. Jews to the head of the line right behind the whites, “Oops, sorry. No room for you, Mr. and Mrs. Williams.”

But… they only did it way out on the edges of the city, which was where all of the scared white people who didn’t want to live near black or Mexican people had fled once segregation had been ended by the Civil Rights Act. Oddly enough, that was the year I’d been born.

There were other Jewish communities that were in more mixed areas, like the Fairfax District on the other side of the hill, but those were much older in population and architecture, with smaller houses on tinier lots, all jammed together. It was also much more Orthodox, something my parents really didn’t want to have to deal with.

It was also hard to find anything over there with the minimum three bedrooms my parents wanted — Mom and Dad in one, Hector and Jason in another, and me in my own once I stopped sleeping in a crib. Of course, their real ideal was five — one for Mom and Dad, one each for all three kids, and a guest room for visiting family.

We could find the latter in Woodland Hills and did, and it also came with a den, a huge yard, and a pool. We couldn’t find anything close in Fairfax. Not to mention that the rooms there were tiny, and obviously built during an era when things like electricity and phones were a recent novelty. The house we bought had been built in 1959, and had all of the latest modern conveniences.

The other thing was that a lot of the folk in the Fairfax community were connected with the entertainment industry from back in the 1920s and 1930s, many now retired. That era was when a lot of the film writers, producers, and talent were Jewish. Plus the majority of those Jews had come from New York and were second or third generation Americans already.

Chaplin was partly Jewish. The Marx Brothers were famously Jewish, and Al Jolson infamously so and, c’mon, Al. Did you really have to be so damn racist with that “Mammy” shit and blackface? There’s a reason that Bernard Malamud was writing about these issues in the 1970s, especially with The Tenants which, if I remember correctly from high school AP English. Taught by a very nice but obviously gay Jewish man, ended with the “hero” beating a black man to death with a baseball bat, and then the word “Mercy” repeated for half a dozen pages or so.

Yeah, extreme. But despite my people having been slaves in Egypt, for some reason some of us (i.e. the rich ones) don’t grok that, and are just as racist as the worst of the WASPS who either owned black people pre-Civil War or did everything they could to make them second class citizens post-Civil War. And still do, even though it’s fucking 2029.

Not to mention that they are not at all fond of my people (the ones with vaginas), gay people, women people, trans‑people, non-Christian people, non-wealthy people… Do I need to go on? Those were precisely the reasons that my parents didn’t want to live down there and chose the West Valley instead.

Anyway… giant bonus points in the present is that at least two decades ago, this old white bastion of bigots in the West Valley wound up flipping and becoming mostly Hispanic, and nothing could have made me happier.

But, back to the past… Aside from the racism, the big selling point was how quickly we could drive anywhere from there at the time.

And any of you who live in L.A. now are probably laughing at that, but I’m old enough to remember when you really could drive from Woodland Hills to DTLA in about half an hour at any time of the day. Any of you who don’t live in L.A., that trip for a typical nine to five job could take close to two hours either way now, and more than that if you’re foolish enough to attempt the 101 to the 405 to the 10 route.

Damn. Another flashback. How many years now has it been since SNL had a The Californians sketch? It has to be at least a decade.

When I was a kid, Woodland Hills was a lot more rural than it is now. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran right through the north end of town, behind the back walls of houses, and the term “born on the wrong side of the tracks” really was true. All of the families with money — which included mine — were well south of there. Not that I was aware of this as a kid, although I did have some friends in high school who lived up that way, and I always noticed that their houses and lots were smaller, and their parents’ cars weren’t as fancy. Often, there was only one family car, and not two or three.

The thing that might sound the weirdest to people now is that we used to play right next to the train tracks, which ran down a dirt right-of-way and had no kind of protections or restrictions at all other than crossing gates at some of the intersections. Note some. It was a thrill to just stand there and watch as the freight train thundered by, blasting its horn.

Besides the weird train thing, all the way southward down Winnetka Boulevard from the tracks, when I was in elementary school and junior high, there were still large ranch-style properties where people kept horses. Going from the intersection of Winnetka and Ventura Boulevards, where my high school (Taft) was, and then turning right and going over the hill for about a mile to De Soto to the west, almost the entire south side and most of the north side of the Boulevard remained undeveloped. What we called “Chalk Hill” was a landmark that loomed over the athletic fields at Taft, and always had a large letter “T” on its eastern face.

There were no gated communities, we played in the streets without supervision, and we all grew up fine. But then, when I was six years old — not long after my birthday, actually — everything turned upside down for the first time in my life.

February 9, 1971. Ask any old-timer like me in L.A. and they’ll instantly tell you, “Ah. Sylmar.” I suppose that this word means nothing to anyone under the age of maybe forty now, but it was the biggest quake to hit L.A. since Long Beach in 1933. The only reason I know about that one is because they kept bringing it up in news reports about Sylmar. There was one other really huge one between, in 1952 in Tehachapi, apparently, but it was far enough out that L.A. really didn’t get hit that hard — kind of like Ridgecrest in ’19.

The things I do remember are that our swimming pool wall cracked and it took months to get fixed, our cat, Peaches, ran away and we never saw her again, my brother Hector wound up having to go to therapy because of sudden night terrors — I don’t blame him at all — and the schools were shut down for a week — although I don’t think it was that big a deal for me, because I was probably in the second half of Kindergarten. Patrick seemed happy, though. Hector might have, except that he kept freaking out, especially at every aftershock, loud noise, or any creak the house made, especially after dark.

One thing I do remember vividly is one of our neighbors, Dr. Weitzman, as my parents always referred to him, standing out in the street just after dawn as everyone gathered together. He was a very tall, rather heavyset man with a full beard and payot — those curly forelocks Orthodox Jewish men have. He always wore a black velvet kippah — incongruously, although I didn’t know the word at my age, but I knew what I saw — it seemed really weird when he left home in the morning as I was going off to school, he with the kippah but also a white lab coat over his plain and very Orthodox black suit.

It seemed even weirder after the quake as he stood in the street proclaiming, “The lord is punishing Babylon with this, and Sodom and Gomorrah, which is what this city has become.”

“I don’t remember our god destroying Babylon, Reb Dr. Saul,” my father said, with only a hint of something that I was too young to read as sarcasm in that cascade of titles. “And anyway, what about that whole promise he made with Noah via the rainbow to never destroy mankind again?”

“That was before Sodom and Gomorrah,” the doctor replied. “And he didn’t destroy all of mankind with the last two.”

“No,” my father replied, “Although Lot’s daughters certainly thought so, and, well… we both know what happened then.”

I had no idea, so looked at my mother, who put her arm around me and moved me away as the argument continued.

“You argue like a Pharisee,” the doctor said. “Not a surprise, I suppose, since you’re a lawyer.”

“Ah, so you’re criticizing the Pharisees now, Saul?”

“When I see Pharisitical words and deeds, yes.”

“You know who else did that, Saul?

“No, Mordecai, I don’t. What is your point?”

“The last Jew to criticize the Pharisees so strongly was named Yeshua ben Yusuf.”

“Nuh?”

My father smiled. It was a look that I’d seen him give the couple of times I’d been brought to court to watch him argue a case, and it was the same look that he always gave right before he delivered some statement that always got a gasp from the gallery, a shocked look from the opposing attorney, and my father’s follow-up. “No further questions, your honor.”

Although I didn’t really understand the legal system or what was going on at the time, I knew enough — at least as my mother explained it to me — that “dad won that one,” and dad always won that one after he gave that particular smile.

So after he gave the doctor the smile in response to his question, he said, “By criticizing the Pharisees, you’re basically siding with Yeshua ben Yusuf, who is better known to the goyim as Jesus Christ. And how you can call yourself a rabbi and not know that is beyond me. Maybe you should just stick to being an OB/GYN, doctor, and looking up what you do know so well, but no doubt would like to get to know better if it weren’t for your wife and Hippocratic Oath.”

Gasps from the gallery on that, although I could also see smiles and smirks. I got the impression that a lot of the neighbors, Jewish or not, were not fond of the doctor. He raised his right arm and index finger, seeming about to say something even as his face turned bright red, but then he just huffed, turned away and marched to the Cadillac in his driveway.

“This is an emergency. I’m needed at the hospital,” he announced as he slammed his way into his gigantic bronze-colored land-tank, started the engine, and drove off, managing to cut it too tight and bounce his front passenger whitewall way too hard off of the curb, barely missing his stone-clad mailbox.

“So how many pap schmears is he really going to need to do today?” some woman in the crowd asked, and everyone laughed. I had no idea what she meant, except I thought it was a joke about bagels.

“Good luck with him getting there,” our next door neighbor Mr. Gordy said. “I heard that all the roads between here and the other side are out.”

“Oy. If only they could stay that way,” Mrs. Fine from across the street replied.

We eventually recovered from that quake, and things were quiet until 1994, by which point I was living in Sherman Oaks, married, and with one son. I met my husband in 1989, when I was first working as an apprentice vet tech, and we got married two years later. His name was Erick Fuentes, he was tall, dark, and sexy, and he had a very similar immigrant story to mine — displaced grandparents and parents, landed in L.A. finally, loved all animals. In fact, his mother’s parents were also displaced European Jews who were rejected by America, so they went to Mexico instead.

Our son we named following conventions from both of our cultures: Saul in honor of my now dead grandfather, Felipe for Erick’s father, and then we topped that off with the last name Spiegel-Fuentes. At his bris, we gave him the Hebrew name Chaim, which means “life.” As an added complication, our son also got a confirmation name — Miguel, for San Miguel, via his dad, who was born on September 29, St. Michael’s day — so his full name wound up being Saul Felipe Miguel Chaim Spiegel-Fuentes. After he’d read the Bible in middle school, though, he started going by Felipe. As he explained it to us a couple of weeks after his bar mitzvah, he said, “Wow. St. Paul was a real asshole. I don’t want to associate with that crap.”

And yeah, his name was a head-scratcher for the less open-minded, for sure, for a lot of people who’d encounter it, although that was what America was really all about and, after all, it was the 90s.

And then… January 17, 1994, the Northridge quake comes along, and it hits our neighborhood particularly hard, probably because we’re along the old riverbed and floodplain — yes, L.A. used to have a real river — so everything goes into liquefaction, and shit falls over.

Our building gets red-tagged even though it doesn’t seem that damaged, and so our family becomes refugees. While this didn’t happen after Sylmar, it still reminds me of my grandparents’ stories, and Erick of his. At least Saul… er, Felipe is young enough yet to not really register any of it — pretty much the same age I was when I first moved to L.A.

We move in for a time with my parents until we can find a place to relocate, although try to come to some kind of arrangement where maybe we do a month with mine, a month with Ericks’ until we get rehomed, only his parents are not offering any olive branches.

I let it go through February, March, April, half-way through May, but by this point, my parents are wondering when we’re going to move out, so I finally have to push Erick on it, at which point we wind up having one of those late night, tear-filled conversations in which truth that should have come out before winds up splashing onto the ground like the intestines of a suddenly gutted pig. In other words, not something anybody really wanted.

See, two years before I’d met Erick in 1987, when he had just graduated college, he braved up and came home from the University of Miami to introduce his parents to the love of his life, his boyfriend, Pierre Haricot, a French exchange student he’d met his sophomore year… and it did not go over well.

Well, it was the 80s, which was a much more homophobic time. You can’t even imagine what it was like. So they gave him an ultimatum. “Ditch this guy, marry a woman within three years and give us a grandkid, or we are cutting you out of the will and out of our lives forever.”

Yeah, pretty evil, right? They gave the poor kid no choice, so we wound up having a whirlwind romance, he wound up somehow managing to put a baby in me, but all along was still carrying on with Pierre. Which I actually wouldn’t have minded, except for one detail. Because of a frantic “Are you safe?” phone call to the wrong number after the quake, they quickly figured out that Erick had never broken it off with Pierre at all. Ergo, he was cut off and so was I, and being as family-oriented as I am, the idea of one set of grandparents cutting off my kid because of their ignorance infuriated me. They also weren’t too fond of the idea that I was Jewish, but I guess were willing to let it slide on account of the whole uterus deal.

I gave Erick an ultimatum myself. Either you demand that they act like real human beings, or we’re done, at least as a couple, and so are they as grandparents. He’d always have a place in Saul’s (not yet Felipe’s) life, and so would Pierre — and if Pierre’s parents wanted to step in, I’d be happy to welcome them.

It was ultimately an amicable split and Erick followed my demands right down the line. So little Saul always knew that he had mommy Cindy and daddies Erick and Pierre, and the grandparents Mordecai and Rachel from me, Robert and Jeanne via Pierre, although Robert died when Saul was only eight.

Anyway, when the divorce was final in 1995, Erick and I sold the house, split the proceeds 60/40  since I also got custody of Saul, and I also got child support (until 2011, when he turned 18) and alimony until I remarried, which I never did. I decided to downsize and moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Koreatown, a couple of blocks south of Wilshire. I got it for a ridiculously low rent then, which remained ridiculously low for the nearly 34 years I was in it, and made good money doubling as vet tech and accountant at an animal hospital within walking distance, as well as doing graphic design and the like, at first for businesses in the neighborhood and then, after 2011, for my son and his friends — although cheaply — because they were all into the arts and acting. Unfortunately, Saul… oops, by that point, Felipe, was also into… other interests, but it’s not what you’re expecting, and I’m not one to keep people in suspense.

Felipe grew up into a fine, young man who told me he was bisexual at 13, and I was fine with that, because it really represented the freedom his father never had. But then, in 2015, twenty years after my divorce and three months after I turn fifty, my world is again blown apart when I find out that my angel, my hope, my only child, Saul, is dead.

April 25, 2015 which, oddly enough, is also the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Americans remember the latter, although none will remember the former, but I do. It’s when Nepal was hit by a massive 7.8 earthquake, killing more than eight thousand people, Felipe among them. He’s only 22. He was there as an aid worker, volunteering out of the kindness of his enormous heart, and mostly to help mitigate the damage that has been done to Nepal by Chinese nationalism.

Note that part. It’s going to get ironic about fourteen years along in the narrative. Actually, come to think of it, about exactly one week shy of fourteen years, but who’s counting?

April 17, 2029. Here’s where we play catch-up. My surprisingly cheap apartment south of Wilshire, where I pay practically nothing for two bedrooms, suddenly upends on a hot afternoon that, again, blows my world apart. I wind up on my ass in a corner of my bedroom as it feels like the whole place is going to sink into the earth. Believe me, I scream, and wail, and try to climb my way out, but nothing is working.

If only I owned golf shoes, or had rock-climbing equipment. Or something. Anything. But I’m old. I’m weak. I’ve got scrawny upper-arms and my tits are getting in the way. So, what can I do besides scream?

And I do, until I’m hoarse, and I hear activity downstairs, but then nothing, so I decide that maybe it’s time to start writing the will. I pull out a lipstick, find a blank wall, and then, suddenly…

“Anybody here?” a woman’s voice calls out.

“Here!” I reply, but it feels like I’ve got no volume.

Suddenly, I see two angels making their way toward me — an older Chinese woman (who gives me mixed feelings) and a really hot, young dark-haired dude who might be Hispanic, but really reminds me of both Erick and Felipe. They make their way down the crooked floor, and then he picks my up in his arms like I’m nothing, and I am saved.

And, honestly, a little wet for the first time in decades, but don’t tell him that.

The cute dude really, really reminds me of my son, and the fact that he’s working with a Chinese woman makes me realize — “No. Don’t blame everyone, because that’s what the Nazis did.”

At least I’m  safe now from what might have been a death-trap, and I try to count how many major quakes I’ve survived, although maybe major traumas is a better measure… Three days after the quake, the Chinese woman, Wei-Tso, whom I only knew as Alice, offered me room and board in her place, the only payment being via the use of my vet tech skills because they have so many dogs and cats in the place. Job, rent, and board? Sure!

On the downside, I’d had to leave almost everything I owned behind in the building that was probably going to be demolished, but it wasn’t the first time — for me, or at least a few generations of ancestors. We knew what was important to save and carry with us, and we knew what to leave behind.

Tradition, ritual, and familial love are all portable. So are memories that live in our minds. Tangible goods, like clothes, furniture, jewelry, paintings, and so on? They are only good for being sold in order to finance the journey, as so many generations of Jews learned leading up to pogroms, purges, or worse. And the lighter your orthodoxy, the lighter your journey — only the most orthodox of Jews think that they should still dress like they live in 19th century Russia in order to “dress plainly” and blend in. Oh, sure, a lot of them do, in their simple black suits and dress shirts, kippah and payot, wigs or veils for the women in long skirts and roomy blouses, but there are still those men who insist on wearing big fur hats, long coats, and full beards that make them look like extras from a community theater version of Fiddler on the Roof. It just feels pretentious, like they’re saying, “Look at me. I’m a Jew!”

Okay, so I’ve always considered myself to be “Jew-ish.” Kind of the same way that my ex considered himself to be Catholicky. The rituals and ceremonies are great reminders and wonderful theatre, but beyond that, if they dictate your life, then you’re not really living in the modern world.

This is probably the ultimate lesson of Los Angeles. Bring the tradition, ditch the bullshit.

I’m especially reminded of this on the Sunday after the quake of ’29, which doesn’t even have a name yet, when the Red Cross sponsors a pancake breakfast with a ton of religious leaders from just about every possible denomination, who invite everyone to come and worship as they will. Or won’t. I consider them all, and then wind up heading back with my new-found theater friends, Wei-Tso, Adam, and his boyfriend Tony, to the place I’m now living, and we spend the morning having the most religious of experiences doing improv, dance, and theater. Better than any church I’ve ever been in.

And yes, I was going to retire early next year, but when communications come back  about a week and a half after the quake, along with the lights and power, I finally find one single email from my, well, I guess, former employer down the street.

“Staff are regretfully informed that due to the facility being red-tagged and uninhabitable without major renovations, the practice will be closing for the foreseeable future. All outstanding paychecks will be issued on the regular schedule on the 30th, but the offices will close and all existing patients and pets will be referred to other clinics. Dr. Caldwell will be moving on to a new practice in West Hollywood and has asked that any of you who might want to move with him text or email him. Otherwise, all of your information is safe in the cloud, and you will be contacted if the business chooses to start up again. Thank you for your understanding.”

And… that was about as impersonal as you could get. I thought about contacting Dr. Caldwell, though. He was, honestly the nicest and sweetest vet I’d ever known and, more honestly, I was always convinced that he was gay — not because of anything in his personality and mannerisms, but, one, because he was really fucking cute, and two because he showed more compassion than any of the other half dozen vets in the place. That, and all of the “scaredy-cat” dogs on our roster seemed to have absolutely no problem when he was the attending. They would just take to him like he was their… pardon the expression… daddy.

It looked like I was going to inadvertently benefit from the city, county, state, and Red Cross from having my home destroyed, not to mention the largesse from Alice, so that I was going to basically be able to finally achieve my ideal.

Lots of people and pets to look after, and talk to, and deal with. And the most amazing part of it, to me, was that it all came out of a terrible disaster. Plus… theater, art, and making stuff.

But maybe that really was in my DNA. After all, for as many generations as I could go back, one couple or another only ever met up after their parents suffered hardship. I think that it was my genetic lot in life to be an eternal refugee, but that was okay — because every next destination was always really interesting.

The Saturday Morning Post #4

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 4. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. Oh yeah.. there was also that whole earthquake thing earlier in the day…

Incidentally… This happens to be my 200th post. Wow. 

DANCING ON THE EDGE

“All the best boys are gay.”

That’s what she said after I’d taken her in my arms and mentioned my boyfriend, and it made me really happy to be rescuing her from her wrecked post-quake apartment. It got even better when my landlord, Madam Wei, invited her in as permanent second house mother. This had been a really interesting week, and also kind of difficult for me and Tony. I mean, even though we lived in a basic dorm situation, we had also managed to arrange a totally gay room, so that “sexin’ the BF” (or anyone else) was not at all weird. Plus we’re performers, so having an audience also wasn’t weird.

It was probably our artsy schedule in the weeks before the quake more than anything that had kept us from banging, but the second after the quake, the only thing we could think of was consolation fucking, and hard. Not that we did it right after, but once we’d all come back home after playing rescue squad up and down the street and giving the naybs a free (non-sexual) show on the street, you bet your ass that Tony and I finally got down to it. It was after midnight, the place still had no lights or electricity, or anything else, but we both hopped up onto my top bunk, and I railed his ass like there was no tomorrow. Which, honestly, there might not have been, since we’d kind of lived through a mini-apocalypse today.

The following dawn, I woke up with my morning wood pressed up against his hot ass, and shortly thereafter, in it. Lather, rinse, repeat before starting our day, and then in the evening I let him rail me long into the night (we’re both vers), and nobody in our room objected.

The whole thing with Cindy had really kind of affected me, and by the time we’d made it through the aftershocks and Tony and I were done cumming all over, on, and in each other, all I could think about was the shape of her apartment when Madam Wei and I went in to get her out.

See, I’m from L.A., but I was born in ’06, so this was my first major earthquake. The last big one was a little over thirty-five years ago, although I’d heard Madam Wei talk about that one a few times. Anyway, it means I’ve got no reference for things like what we saw in that building. I’m used to rooms having level floors and all the walls are at right angles — or at least some sort of normal angle.

This had been like walking into a Dali painting, although to hear Madam Wei describe it, she does exaggerate a bit. She makes it sound like the entire apartment was on its side, but if that had been the case I never could have gotten Cindy out of there without a harness, rope, and pulley. Yes, one side was definitely lower than the other, but it was more of a natural ramp than a precipice. The real reason she couldn’t get out is that she just couldn’t get a grip on the floor. Luckily, the shoes I was wearing had really rough soles.

Apparently, a major feature of disasters like this is that it’s the only time neighbors in L.A. actually meet and talk to each other — another lesson from Madam Wei — and it was pretty amazing to watch. By Friday, the third day after the quake, Cindy figured out where we had come from. She’d been staying in a six‑person tent one of her neighbors had pitched in front of their building, and so she was also in the loop when, on the day after, she and the other tenants were given one hour to go in, with fire department escorts, to retrieve whatever valuables, documents, and clothing they could. After that, the building was red-tagged, meaning that no one was allowed to enter. It would probably be torn down eventually.

“I remember when there were red and yellow tags all over the city,” Madam Wei had explained to us at dinner that evening. “After Northridge — that was the quake in the 90s — a lot of places were condemned. At least there is a good side to it. Every time after, there are fewer places that are destroyed because we learn how to build better.”

She looked a little pensive but then went on. “Because of their history with my country, I have no love for the Japanese,” she added. “But one thing they have done is learn from their earthquakes, which China has not done. Every year, their buildings and cities get safer. Ours… well, my homeland’s…” She sighed and trailed off.

Cindy retrieved what little she could, mostly clothes, a few sentimental items, and a small, metal lockbox that presumably contained either documents, valuables, or a combination of both.

On Friday afternoon, as I helped her bring her stuff up to her new quarters, she told me, “You know, it’s funny. Not all that long ago, like around the turn of the century, if you asked someone what one inanimate thing they’d save if their house was on fire, they’d always answer, ‘My photo albums.’ Nowadays, no need, because all of our photos are on our phones or in the cloud. Hell, so are most of our vital documents. Does this place have a safe?” she abruptly asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. It was an office building once. Madam Wei would know.”

“Madam… oh, you mean Alice?”

“Yeah, her.”

“I’ll have to ask.” Her tone suddenly became playful. “So, when do I get to meet your boyfriend?”

“Uh… you kind of already did. Tony, down in the lobby?”

“The real hot blond one with the sexy smile?”

“Yeah, but he’s not really blond,” I explained. People think he is because of that platinum streak he dyes in his hair, but he’s actually brunet.”

“Wow,” she exclaimed. “You’re right. He does have very blond skin, though, if that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I guess, if you’re thinking more surfer-blond than Nordic-blond.”

“Is he Scandinavian or something?”

“No. Italian.”

“Really? He hardly looks Italian.”

“Northern. That’s where all the fair-skinned, sometimes blond Italians are.”

“I had no idea,” she replied. “Learn something new every day. Are you Italian?”

“Nah. Mexican. Well, Mexican-American… Fourth generation Angeleno.” I always had to pause to count in my head back to the right number of tatarabuelos to the ones that were born during the Mexican Revolution and brought to El Norte by their parents when they were children. Their children were the first native generation, born in the 1930s. So my great-great-grandparents came here. My great-grandparents were born here.

“That’s impressive,” she said. “Most people I know weren’t born here. I’m from Minnesota, but only second generation. My grandparents were all from Israel.”

“And yet, you’re blonde,” I said, teasingly.

“Well, they weren’t born there since they were born in the late 30s. Their grandparents were Ashkenazi Jews from Germany who hid from the Nazis in Belgium during the war, then immigrated in 1948 when Israel became a country.”

“Wait… you’re old enough to be only two generations from the Holocaust?” I asked.

“Honey, I’m old enough to be your grandmother.”

“You know, funny thing, my mom’s grandma is still alive. She’s 93, out in Rowland Heights.”

“Have you checked in on her?” she asked, clutching my forearm and showing utter concern.

“You kidding? Abuelita Ramona texted me five minutes after the quake. She’s old, but she’s really on it.”

I didn’t even realized it until we finish our conversation and I head back to my room that, well, we had a conversation, and it had been easy and spontaneous, and the thing is, that’s not something I generally do with strangers. It takes me time to break the ice. But with Cindy, she just created a natural trust in me, and an ability to share everything. I’m really going to like having her as our second house mother, which Madam Alice had already explained to me and Tony was going to be her new function.

Oh — and seeing her with the dogs and cats is inspiring. She clearly loves all animals and they love her. Even our white German shepherd Dan-xiao, whose name means “timid,” took to her immediately.

Friday night is another street show for the crowd, this time starting with the dance before moving to a second-act long-form improv show and ending up with a bunch of scripted comedy scenes. At the same time, our visual artists deploy themselves up and down the streets to do paintings, sketches, caricatures, and sculptures of willing subjects, collecting small donations for their efforts, which are all going to go to the Red Cross.

Oh yeah. They finally move in on Friday and set up their tents and shelters, and at long last people are getting hot food and “new” used clothes. One of the best things they bring are free phone-charging stations that are fast. Since we’re all going on well over 48 hours without electricity, a lot of people’s phones are either dead or in severe power-saver mode. A lot of us, like me, are realizing that while they’d be important later, taking lots of pictures now is not the best use of our batteries. They also have apparently set up functioning and open WiFi. There are rows of porta-potties, as well as shower tents, and various government field offices providing everything from EBT sign-ups to vouchers to outright cash disbursements.

Some of the guys in my room quickly dub it “Federal Row,” and the waggier ones among them jokingly say things like “Oh noes — we’re getting the socialisms!” even though most of us are hardcore socialists to begin with.

They’ve also set up OLED displays everywhere, and they’re showing the news, although a lot of it is being streamed in from outlets in other cities or international sites. This is when we all finally get the three bits of information that every native Angeleno starts asking themselves at the first sign of shaking: How big? How far? And does it get a name?

We finally get the answer. 7.3 Roughly fifty miles east and slightly south of Downtown L.A. And it’s now being called the Riverside Quake. We also get news that communities like San Bernardino, Redlands, Fontana, and Rancho Cucamonga, among others, have been severely damaged. The Moreno Valley has been particularly hard hit, with fires everywhere. If you’re not from L.A., you won’t quite get it, but these are places that most Angelenos only normally think of as things they see on freeway signs on the way to somewhere else, like Palm Springs or Vegas.

Suddenly, everyone does seem to care.

The Saturday Morning Post #3

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter Two. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. One thing you did miss is that there was a major earthquake in the previous chapter. The next takes place in the aftermath.

THERE’S ALWAYS A WEI

The first thing I think of is 1994. At the time, I was living in a house in Woodland Hills, not that far from the epicenter, and it felt like someone picked the place up, dropped it, then shook it violently for a while until someone else took over and started shaking it harder. It really seemed like one earthquake on top of another. It was also long before dawn, right before 4:31 in the morning.

Today’s quake didn’t do double duty, but it certainly bounced and rolled like no one’s business. It was just past two thirty in the afternoon when it hit, and I was down in the laundry room in the basement of my place, talking to a couple of tenants, when the Earth moved.

One of them was from L.A. and instinctually ducked under a folding counter. The other was not, and turned into a statue, so I grabbed her and pulled her under the other counter. The machines danced a few inches away from the walls, plaster dust trickled from the roof, the rumbling was horrible, and the shaking was scary. The laundry room door slammed open and shut several times — proof that the old “Stand in a doorway” advice was not good. When everything finally settled, the lights had gone out. The L.A. native and I were laughing in relief, while our immigrant (from North Dakota) was crying her eyes out.

We consoled her, then grabbed the emergency flashlights that were plugged into the wall outlets. Best investment I ever made. They’re always fully charged, and when the power goes out, they turn on. Every room and hallway here had them. We made our way upstairs and to the lobby, then continued to the second floor and the dark hallway.

The only thing I could think about the whole time was whether my babies were safe. I was relieved to see that the second floor was still there. At this point, most of the doors of the occupied rooms had opened, and the residents were poking their heads out, two from each room holding flashlights. The same was probably happening downstairs in the studios.

“How are you doing, my children?” I asked, and they all eagerly answered, “All right, and you, Madam Wei?”

I swear that their enthusiasm keeps me alive. And I replied, “I’m fine, and here’s the news. No rent next month because of this disaster, but let’s put on a show!”

This was greeted with cheers and applause and genuine sounds of concern and, really, if this natural disaster seems to have done more damage than it felt like, then not only May, but June, July, August, and maybe even September might be free. And if the government doesn’t pony up… Well, I hate to charge people to learn, so let’s get back to that in six months.

The good news is that there are no injuries. Some of the dogs and all of the cats have gone into hiding, although Jun, our ten-year-old yellow Lab, is acting like we’re all playing some exciting game and she  wants in on it, and Chanming, the one-eyed, five-year-old German shepherd, is his usual stoic self about everything.

People and pack accounted for and safe, it’s time to start assessing the damage. Needless to say, anything that wasn’t nailed down is all over the place. Fortunately, I’d taken the great advice from friends to earthquake proof as much as possible, so that we didn’t have cabinets flying open or falling over, and all of the important things, like monitors, theater lights, sound and light boards, and so on were firmly nailed down, so to speak.

Our hanging lights were always triple-chained to the grids and gobos and gel frames were very securely attached to the units. Our catwalks were also anchored to the walls at both ends, unlike a lot of theaters I’d seen where they were suspended on chains and could swing freely. I could only imagine the kind of damage one of these could do to the paint and plaster if it slammed back and forth repeatedly, especially in a black box space like ours.

Alonzo, one of our chefs who had been in the middle of making lunch, confirmed that the automatic gas shutoff had done its job. Fortunately, he hadn’t been boiling or heating anything on the stove at the time, although three of the half-dozen six-foot long subs he’d been preparing to cut up and share with everyone had found their way to the floor, ingredients scattered and lost.

It’s probably about twenty minutes after the quake now, so probably about three. That gives us about four and a half hours to sunset, and close to five until the end of civil twilight, so I begin planning in my head.

While I don’t have the fondest memories of my homeland — at least, not its government — there are a few things rooted in me by my upbringing that are invaluable now. One is a sense of regimentation and focus, so the ability to know what to do and when to do it. We were also a country prone to massive earthquakes. When I was 20, a 7.8 quake destroyed the city of Tangshan, about a two hour drive west of Beijing. My university assembled a team of “volunteers,” and I’m sure you know what those quotes mean, although, honestly, most of us wanted to help anyway, because it was just in the nature of our upbringing: Your comrades need you now!

I learned more about disaster relief in the week that we were there than I ever thought I’d need to know. We set up emergency shelters, helped find survivors under the rubble, performed first aid, offered rudimentary counseling, ran our equivalent of what you’d call soup kitchens, and coordinated with various NGOs that arrived to help, as well as with the Red Army.

Ultimately, all we really wound up doing was helping the few survivors. Oddly enough, most of them were coal miners who had been underground at the time. Over a quarter million people died in that quake — possibly a lot more — and it’s called the second or third deadliest in recorded history. That’s for the planet, not for the country.

So I know my way around this stuff. The power is probably going to be out for at least three days if not more, and maybe intermittent when it comes back. There are five thirty-gallon water heaters in the building, so that would be enough drinking water for everyone for four days. We do have a pallet of bottled water in the back, so about 1,200 bottles, which is good for another nine days almost. The gas won’t be back on until someone comes out to physically reset the shut-off. Food in the fridges and freezers might last for a couple of days if we’re very judicious about opening the doors. Otherwise, we’re going to be dipping into the canned good so, other than tons of tuna salad, everyone is going to be mostly a vegetarian for the next few days.

The plan pops into my head, and I explain to everyone. First order of business, go grab the surviving sandwiches in the kitchen and be done eating in fifteen minutes. Then, we’re going to hit the streets. There are 40 of us, including me but not the chefs, so we’re going to split into four groups of 10, each one going a different cardinal direction for as many blocks as they can cover in half the time until they need to be back.

Our goal is to see what’s up with the rest of the neighborhood, and help whomever we safely can, reconvening here by 7:15 p.m., at which point the chefs, who’ve been guarding the fort, will see what kind of dinner they can whip up for us. At 7:45, we’re going to take our generator and lights out into the street, and perform for the neighbors — mostly some improv, with musical acts, and whatever choreo or scenes people are working on.

I explain my reasoning behind this, which my kids get instantly. “We are doing this to keep everyone’s morale up during these dark days, and we are going to do it every night until the power and some sense of normal comes back.”

That got enthusiastic applause.

When we all emerge into the surprisingly harsh daylight, it’s clear that things are not normal. We can hear car alarms and distant sirens, and smell smoke in the air. People are standing all up and down the block looking bewildered, and several buildings to our south have lost their façades or collapsed into the street. I’m amazed that our building looks so undamaged. Then again, it’s retrofitted many times over the year. That’s one of the reasons I bought it.

I remember a moment after the 1994 quake when I’d stepped outside and started chatting with a neighbor, and he told me, “Yep. The only time people in L.A. meet their neighbors is right after a disaster,” and he was right. I’d never seen half of these people before, but as my team headed south and started talking, I realized how many small business owners were in this neighborhood, along with tons of renters. The really funny thing was how many of them told me, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been meaning to come see something at your place, but never found the time.”

“Well,” I told them, “The show tonight is free. Come around just after sunset.”

We came to an old brick Korean Church that had splatted into the street and, unfortunately, the quake had hit right in the middle of their afternoon service. I had flashbacks to Tangshan as I looked at the dusty red pile and spotted a few hands frozen in death above the rubble. My best guess was that there were no survivors here unless the place had a basement, so I led my group on.

Farther down was a newer apartment building that had, for want of a better term, knelt north. The area over the entrance to the garage had collapsed, so that the upper three stories were not level. Basically, the north end third floor was at the level of the south end second floor. Most of the tenants here seemed to be standing in front, but I decided to ask: “How many residents do you think there are, and is anyone obviously missing?”

There was silence and muttering, and then one woman raised her hand. “Cindy in 306,” she said. “She’s retired and kind of a shut-in, but takes care of everyone’s dogs, so she’s probably home.”

“Thanks,” I tell her. “Oh, by the way, I’m Alice.”

“Edna,” she introduces herself. “I own this place. Well… this mess, I guess.”

“Where is her apartment?” I ask.

“There,” the woman points. It’s the top right corner, the part that has dropped a story.

“So… that front corner apartment?” I ask. She nods. “Right,” I reply, then turn to Adam Melendez. He’s one of my current favorite tenants. Mostly a dancer, also a poet. He’s gayer than anything, doesn’t apologize, and is incredibly masculine. He’s also 6’5” and works out. He could probably bench press a pick-up truck. In other words, the ideal rescue team member. “Come with me. We have work to do.”

He nods and follows me without hesitation. We pass through the entrance — the glass lobby doors have been thrown off their hinges, so no need to deal with buzzers that wouldn’t work anyway, then pass into the open court and take the wobbly stairs up to the third floor. When we get there, it’s like walking down a steep hiking trail, but we take it slowly, because every step is met with a complaint from some creaky board or another. It truly feels like one wrong move will bring the whole house of cards down.

We finally get to the last door, which is marked 306, although it’s ceased functioning as a door. When the floor collapsed, everything else went wonky, so the door itself has been ejected into the hall and the jamb is a weird parallelogram. Square peg in a funky hole. We move the door out of the way and enter the apartment, only to find ourselves involuntarily skating down into the far left corner, which is where the bedroom is.

“Anybody here?” I call out.

“Help!” comes the weak voice.

I smile to Adam and he takes my arm and helps me walk down the incline and through another wrecked doorway. Once inside, we find the woman, Cindy, who is basically lying in the corner of the room which is now like the bottom of sno-cone cup, if that makes sense, and it’s clear that she can’t get out. She’s maybe in her early 60’s with long blonde hair and black polyester off-the-rack dress. No shoes, and very much an Earth-mother vibe. I can smell the ashtray from here, which is so anachronistic that it boggles my mind — I thought that everyone in L.A. quit smoking around twenty years ago.

Anyway… she looks so grateful and Adam has no problem working his way down into the corner and then picking her up like she’s nothing. She fawns over him a little bit until he tells her, “Wow, my boyfriend would love to hear that,” at which point she just beams and says, “All the best boys are gay,” and this makes me feel all the better about saving her.

We manage to get her back up the hall, down the stairs, and out the door and, again, get applause, which surprises me because, really, isn’t this what we, as humans are supposed to do? Why are you applauding things that should not be extraordinary?

All right, maybe another culture gap. But, onward, as we continue our rescue trek. I think we’ve made it about ten blocks when Janisha, whom I’ve appointed time monitor, calls it. “Halfway to sunset.” There’s a building in flames about three blocks away that I’d love to help with but, reluctantly, I accede and announce, “All right. Time to head home and pick up what we’ve missed.”

We make it back at five minutes after seven, behind one group but before the other two, which both make it back before seven fifteen. Inside, we find out that our chefs have whipped up an amazing chicken salad — five pound cans of chicken plus gallons of mayo (which does not need to be refrigerated, contrary to popular belief), — along with celery, parsley, onions, paprika, lemon juice, and tomatoes. They stuff this into a bunch of pita bread they had on hand, then side it up with coleslaw and tons of canned corn. Although the corn isn’t heated, it is buttered, thanks to the pump-jugs of the liquid stuff we put on the popcorn at our theater concessions.

After we eat, we head to the street to perform and, thanks to all four of our teams having informed everyone along the way that the show is happening, we have quite the crowd waiting as we come outside. We decide to use the sidewalk in front of the theater as our stage, and begin with a musical number, something one of our members has been working on, but which seems appropriate now, a song called, “Walls Came Down.”

Metaphorically, it’s about the end of divisions between people, but taken literally, I suppose it applies to an earthquake. Either way, though, in the wake of this quake, those walls between people have come down even as the walls of buildings have. By the time it’s over, people are crying and hugging each other and applauding. Then, we launch into the improv and get people laughing.

My one big rule when we do improv is this: “Don’t be dirty.” Maybe it’s my Chinese heritage in action, maybe not, but there’s really no need to be rude to be funny. In fact, you can be funnier when you don’t have that crutch — and tonight, my kids follow that rule right down the line, and the audience loves it. After the improv, it’s a mini dance concert, an intermission, and then some solo singers and bands. After that, there are some acting scenes, both dramatic and comedic, before another intermission and a late night improv show.

And we only have three aftershocks during the whole thing, one minor one in the middle of the first improv, which the players manage to incorporate beautifully, a slightly bigger one during the first intermission, and the third moderate one about three minutes before we end the show and invite everyone to hang out and chat. In my experience, this is unusual. We did have the one big aftershock half an hour after the first — that’s almost a guarantee — but haven’t felt much since. Then again, when you’re walking around, sometimes it’s hard to feel them.

It’s about 11:30 when we’re all done, and have told the audience to keep coming back as long as the power is out, and then we all head inside and upstairs and to bed. It’s sort of surreal watching the flashlights dance up the stairs and eventually blink out as everyone vanishes into their rooms. I’m finally left with the chefs, Alonzo and Aki, who assure me that everything will be fine. I’m not so sure, but let them retreat to their rooms, then head out into the street, where I listen to the silence, and take a deep breath of the smoke and dust and everything else noxious that this event has blown into the air.

Los Angeles is not going to be the same for a long time, but I am going to do my best to help fix it.

Photo credit: Wilshire Boulevard, Korea Town, Los Angeles, ©  2016 Jon Bastian

Whole lot of shaking goin’ on?

(Warning: Betteridge’s Law alert in effect.)

Damn. Puerto Rico has been getting pounded by quakes over the last month to the point that they have visibly changed the landscape. Why so many earthquakes? Well, as they say in real estate, it’s all about location, location, and location. The island happens to be situated on top of or next to various tectonic plates and mini-plates, and it’s the collision of these pieces of the Earth’s crust that cause quakes in the first place. Well, the ones that aren’t man-made, anyway.

Puerto Rico isn’t alone in this, either. A look at significant earthquakes over the last 30 days shows the image of a very unsettled Earth. Now, it would be easy to buy into an interesting astronomical fact being the cause. That is, the Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun, perihelion, in January. This year, it was January 4th, with the centers of the Earth and Sun being only about 91.4 million miles apart. On July 4th, they will be at their most distant, at about 94.5 million miles.

Now, true, that’s only a little over a 3% difference, but that distance is about 390 times the diameter of the Earth, and enormous masses are involved on both ends. Perihelion is also the point in the Earth’s orbit when it reaches its maximum velocity, which is what flings it to aphelion, where it slows, reaches its minimum velocity, and comes flying back into a smaller orbit, which the Sun slingshots back out. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Of course, the difference between maximum and minimum velocity is only about sixth tenths of a mile per second, but, again, we’re dealing with some pretty big objects here. And, anecdotally, I can tell you that the biggest earthquake I’ve ever experienced was in January, and so was Japan’s, a year to the day later, and now Puerto Rico is shaking apart, and it must be connected, right?

Right… except that it’s not. Earthquakes are not driven by orbital mechanics or the weather or any other factors like that, and any belief in “earthquake weather” or “earthquake season” are pure confirmation bias and nothing more nor less.

However… there’s one thing to keep in mind about this time of year. We are closer to the Sun, and so get more heat from it, right at the time when it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, but summer in the Southern Hemisphere. And why is that the case? Because of the way the Earth is tilted. Winter is the season when its axis is titled away from the Sun. Summer is when it’s tilted toward. Spring and Fall are the seasons where the axis is mostly straight up and down.

So… in the Northern Hemisphere, we get winter when we are closest to the Sun and summer when we’re farthest away. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s exactly the opposite, and this is where we can see events in our solar system having an effect down here. Mainly Australia is burning.

Why? Climate change, hotter temperatures, drier forests, extreme weather (thinking thunderstorms with lightning that can start a fire), and human elements, although far from the “200 arsonists” dreamt up by the anti-climate change crowd. More like 24 actual arsonists, and then a bunch of idiots who may or may not have started fires, but at least did something that might have. And, anyway, claiming that arson and accident don’t add to the concept of anthropogenic climate change is a bit of a stretch. Humans did it? All that smoke is going to screw up the environment. And the burning would have stopped a lot sooner if the hotter climate hadn’t pre-baked the forests.

But… it’s hard to avoid confirmation bias when the earthquake alert app on my phone has been ridiculously busy since at least January 4th. The good news is that it’s easy to survive a quake with warning, and if you’re not living in buildings basically made out of mud, stone, and hope.

Just remember this: A) Do NOT get into a doorway. That’s outdated Boomer advice. Instead, squat down next to a heavy piece of incompressible furniture, like a sturdy armoire or a sofa, or barring that, right next to your bed, on your knees, rolled over, hands covering the back of your neck and head.

Once the shaking has stopped, if you can, grab your loved ones and go-bag (you have one, right?) get outside, shut off your gas if necessary, and escape to shelter, which could be your car if it wasn’t smashed flat in the collapse of a Dingbat style apartment. People, really, don’t live in them. Also try avoiding buildings that are four to eight stories tall, because they tend to sway at resonant frequencies in sync with seismic waves, and so sway harder and collapse more often.

The good news is that in a lot of places prone to earthquakes, things have been upgraded to a ridiculous and safe degree. The bad news? In a lot of places they haven’t.  Fun fact: Most of the U.S. and Canada reside on a single tectonic plate, so are not naturally susceptible to earthquakes. Not fun fact: Fracking completely fracks with that, and creates seismic events (aka earthquakes) in places that they should not be. Less fun fact: the tectonic plate with a lot of Southern California and half of the Bay Area is not the same one as the rest of North America.

Consequently, while people in other parts of the country grow up dreading tornadoes or floods, earthquakes have been my lifetime bugaboo. Good news, though. I’ve survived 100% of the ones I’ve been in… and I’ve accepted the fact that, for now, they are 100% unpredictable.