Wait­ing Out the Big One

Geist - - News - Stephen Os­borne

Wait­ing Out the Big One

With our pro­found heart we sin­cerely thank all of you

Iwanted to tell you that I sur­vived the earth­quake this morn­ing at 6:45 a.m. I was in bed read­ing The Ori­gins of To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism by Han­nah Arendt when a bang erupted from the wall and the bed shook: once, then twice. I rec­og­nized it im­me­di­ately as a so­called earth tremor, and lay still with my gaze fixed on the door jamb. Had any­one asked, I might have said I was ex­pect­ing the Big One, so-called, out of bravado per­haps, as so many have been ex­pect­ing the Big One for so long on the ra­dio and in the news­pa­per, es­pe­cially top seis­mic minds at the univer­sity, whereas I had been ex­pect­ing the Big One for mere mo­ments and al­ready I could feel my ex­pec­ta­tion fad­ing even as I was think­ing th­ese thoughts, whereas the ex­pec­ta­tion felt by top seis­mic minds, it seemed to me, never fades; rather, it ex­pands, it re­sides con­tin­u­ously, it abides and grows. Could ex­pect­ing the Big One be dif­fer­ent from ex­pect­ing any other event, e.g. the squeal of the next Sky­train pass­ing by? Or lunch at the Joyeaux Café & Restau­rant later that day with Slava, whom I hadn’t seen for sev­eral months? Had I been ex­pect­ing to see Slava for all those months? Or had I just be­gun to ex­pect to see her mo­ments ago, while

ex­pect­ing the Big One or just af­ter ex­pect­ing the Big One? How does one ex­pec­ta­tion dif­fer from an­other? Th­ese are ques­tions that Lud­wig Wittgen­stein posed in his note­book in 1916 while un­der heavy bom­bard­ment in his ob­ser­va­tion post dur­ing the Brusilov Of­fen­sive. Are ex­pec­ta­tions ar­tic­u­lated like sen­tences with in­ter­nal stops and starts? For that mat­ter, how does one ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an ex­pec­ta­tion know what it is that is ex­pected? I did not seem to be at all un­cer­tain about what was to be ex­pected as I lay in bed in the mo­ments af­ter the earth­quake this morn­ing with The Ori­gins of To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism open be­fore me. One might say: “I don’t know whether it is only this ex­pec­ta­tion that makes me so un­easy”; but one will never say: “I don’t know whether the state of mind that I am now in is the ex­pec­ta­tion of an earth­quake or of some­thing else.” The earth­quake prepa­ra­tion no­tice posted near the el­e­va­tor some years ago in ex­pec­ta­tion of the Big One rec­om­mended sup­plies of bot­tled wa­ter and crack­ers, can­dles, peanut but­ter, with an ad­mo­ni­tion in bold type: Do Not Use the El­e­va­tor. I re­mained where I was, in the bed flat on my back, it oc­curred to me, ex­actly as if I were ex­pect­ing some­thing to hap­pen.

Ihad been read­ing Han­nah Arendt at the time, as I was say­ing, that is, upon wak­ing up at 6:20 a.m. and switch­ing on the bed­side lamp. The Ori­gins of To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism lay on the bed­side ta­ble, opened face down at chap­ter 5: “The Po­lit­i­cal Eman­ci­pa­tion of the Bour­geoisie.” The only se­cure form of pos­ses­sion is de­struc­tion. The earth­quake ex­pec­ta­tion no­tice next to the el­e­va­tor was re­moved last year by or­der of the new clut­ter-free strata coun­cil. For only what we have de­stroyed is safely and for­ever ours. At 8:00 a.m., a mere two hours af­ter I felt the earth­quake shak­ing the bed, the ra­dio news said the earth­quake, or earth tremor, had been cen­tred in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which I knew to be in the so-called sub­duc­tion zone iden­ti­fied in un­der­wa­ter maps by top seis­mic minds as a ma­jor source of earth­quake ex­pec­ta­tion. While lis­ten­ing to the news re­port, I ex­pected to hear the word epi­cen­tre, a tech­ni­cal term es­teemed by ra­dio jour­nal­ists who rel­ish pro­nounc­ing epi­cen­tre sharply, with a near-hiss; terms like epi­cen­tre, Richter scale and gale force lend au­thor­ity and the com­fort that one ex­pects of ex­per­tise in the me­dia, along with the hinted prom­ise of dis­as­ter, but that com­fort was with­held from me to­day. In fact, as I re­call, all of the news re­ports that I heard avoided the term epi­cen­tre en­tirely and said noth­ing about sub­duc­tion zones, or tec­tonic plates for that mat­ter, terms that I sup­plied im­me­di­ately in ret­ro­spect. The so-called earth tremor was not even felt in the city, said the news at 8:00 a.m.; in fact, said the news per­son, the earth­quake was felt only by peo­ple on Salt Spring Is­land. The peo­ple of Salt Spring Is­land, as is well known, are a sen­si­tive peo­ple. As for me, flat on my back on the fourth floor of a leaky con­do­minium

block built twenty years ago on Com­mer­cial Street at eye level with the Sky­train track, where I had been since 6:20 a.m., no longer ex­pect­ing what I alone in the city had been ex­pect­ing at any mo­ment for a few mo­ments at least, but now ex­pect­ing it no longer, even in the long term, the Big One so-called, I re­mem­bered the princess kept awake by the pea placed be­neath her mat­tress as a test of her sen­si­tiv­ity. I can find no one else to­day who felt, or ex­pe­ri­enced the earth­quake that I ex­pe­ri­enced, and which is said by the news to have been cen­tred in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to have oc­curred at 6:47 a.m. and to have been of mag­ni­tude 2.9.

The lunch with Slava that I had been ex­pect­ing on the day of earth­quake, in fact I had been an­tic­i­pat­ing it from time to time for sev­eral days, never in fact ma­te­ri­al­ized: I was well on my way to the Joyeaux Café & Restau­rant on Howe Street, an an­o­dyne stretch of the so-called financial district with noth­ing to rec­om­mend it save the Joyeaux Café & Restau­rant, and had just come out of the Granville Sky­train sta­tion when Slava texted to say that she had fallen back and was too weak to go out of the house. I went on alone, over to Howe Street and down the block to the Joyeaux Café & Restau­rant where I stud­ied the menu for some time be­fore choos­ing Xiu Mai with shred­ded pork on ver­mi­celli and green tea in a large cup. I won­dered how the phrase fallen back was to be un­der­stood in the con­text of Slava’s mes­sage, although I ex­pect that I al­ready knew; per­haps with­out know­ing too much, I re­ally wanted to know what fallen back meant to Slava, and whether fallen back car­ried with it the ex­pec­ta­tion of get­ting back to where she was be­fore the fall­ing back that pre­vented her from meet­ing me at the Sky­train en­trance. I put none of th­ese ques­tions into my re­ply to Slava’s mes­sage, but in­stead sent her a pic­ture of the note hand­writ­ten by the pro­pri­etor of the Joyeaux Café & Restau­rant and pinned to the wall above my booth, and which I had been look­ing for­ward to show­ing to Slava, had she been able to join me for lunch: The lucky name I’ve loved a long time, don’t cor­rect the spelling please. Ex­press­ing the wish to en­tirely bring to all of our cus­tomers a lot of sat­is­fac­tion and the hope that the suitable cli­mate en­rap­tures most trav­ellers on the world. With our pro­found heart we sin­cerely thank all of you about the ul­ti­mate gen­eros­ity on our ser­vice which might lack cir­cum­spec­tion.

Later in the fall, on my birth­day, as a mat­ter of fact, which was a week be­fore Slava’s birth­day, I dreamed that I was try­ing to leave town once again, that is, not for the first or the sec­ond time, go­ing back and forth and back again for sup­plies and more sup­plies and then for more suitable di­rec­tions and some kind of map. In the end I de­cided to just start walk­ing and soon found Slava sit­ting at the bus stop on Broad­way, eat­ing lunch. She had two sand­wiches and a bot­tle of beer. I de­ter­mined right away that she should ac­com­pany me into the coun­try, and she seemed sur­prised and even pleased when I asked her to come along. I may have been ex­pect­ing too much in any case, for the ques­tion re­mained long af­ter I woke up: did Slava ever come with me on that walk into the coun­try? Stephen Os­borne was pub­lisher of Geist for its first twenty-five years. He is the award­win­ning writer of Ice & Fire: Dis­patches from the New World and dozens of shorter works in an­tholo­gies and pe­ri­od­i­cals. Read more of his work at geist.com.

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