By Anita Garner
It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 1994 at 4:31 AM. when the Northridge earthquake changed our lives. I was awake and had just taken a few steps down the hall to work on a writing deadline when I was knocked to the floor. I’ve never been able to adequately describe the sound. The closest would be a train roaring through the house.
My condo on Valleyheart Drive in Studio City slid off its foundation, taking wires and plumbing and appliances with it, spewing furniture and the contents of cupboards and shelves over every surface.
Neighbors ran door to door shutting off gas lines, yelling inside to find out if we were trapped. My front door was jammed. Men forced it open and when they saw I was okay they asked if I had anything they could use to break some glass to rescue my next door neighbor. Bridget was screaming that she couldn’t get out. One helper directed his flashlight into my dark living room and located my chunky redwood bench. They used it to batter through Bridget’s sliding glass door. The last time I saw her, they were lifting her away from the broken glass and walking her out to the street. I heard she moved back to France.
People gathered on the sidewalk and wrapped blankets around the ones who weren’t fully dressed. I slept in a tee shirt and leggings and found sneakers just inside my front door. Many were not so lucky. Not everyone had shoes and the ground was already deep in debris. Glass was everywhere. The Valley filled up with sirens and random explosions. A building on one side of mine had very little damage while the building on the other side, a high rise, was seriously off kilter. Neighbors rushed to carry injured residents down flights of stairs, securing them to straight back chairs for the journey to the sidewalk to await ambulances.
It’s 27 years later and the details are still shocking. Everyone lost something. Some lost everything. Reports said if it hadn’t been a holiday, if it hadn’t been before dawn, more people would have been out and about and more would have died.
Before the quake I was a collector of antique glassware, vintage goblets with slender stems and designs etched long ago in deep colors, elaborate depression glass table settings, Baccarat candlesticks, old lamps with delicate bases. When I fell to the floor that morning I crawled to the living room, reaching for the built-in bar to hold onto. As I approached, my brilliant glassware on shelves above the bar turned into projectiles, forcing tiny shards into my skin. For weeks I picked out colorful bits. There’s a green one, now a purple one. Much of what I owned and lived with and loved broke, slivered, exploded, splintered, cracked, ripped, or shook to pieces. A huge antique armoire fell across the bed I had just vacated. I didn’t know that until a FEMA walk-through later.
After the house was red-tagged, when we were no longer allowed in because the ground kept shifting, I bought a few things, a set of dishes, a coffee maker, I don’t remember what all because replacing things was simply a reaction to loss and not a wish to own and preserve possessions. I have no desire to collect fragile things anymore and I’m wary of antiques. You fall in love with them and they can break your heart
Now I’m drawn to rustic furnishings and pride of place goes to the short, stubby, redwood bench. It was already old when I bought it in the 80s at Dowd’s Barn in Mill Valley. When I moved south to do a radio show in Los Angeles, the bench came too. After the quake, when I returned to Mill Valley, I lived a few minutes away from dear friend, Itsie. A quick walk from my cottage in Blithedale Canyon took me over the Corte Madera Creek bridge to his hilltop home in the neighboring canyon. Itsie’s house was built in the redwoods in the early 1900’s with multiple levels, including a fully equipped workshop on the bottom floor. He noticed my little bench was wobbly and took it home with him. The supports you see below the bench in the picture above were added from Itsie’s stash of redwood.
The conscious mind makes note of this anniversary every year then moves along but the subconscious still startles me awake during thunderstorms or when a truck rumbles by on a normally quiet street. If one day the sound of a train roars through the living room and the floor moves so violently I can’t stand, if something like that happens again in my lifetime and I have to start over, I’ll begin with this bench.