Waiting Out the Big One
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.