Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Tower - Chapter One

Earthquake weather; my butt! You know what you can do with the fantasy that there is such a thing as "Earthquake Weather?" You can stuff it in a Priority Mailing envelope along with the stories of Navy-trained killer dolphins, Y2K economic collapse, and that latest desperate plea from a Nigerian widow to help her cash her three million dollar check. Then just mail all that dreck off to Santa at The North Pole.

On that day it wasn't hot. It wasn't dry. It wasn't sultry. It wasn't early in the morning. No one felt uneasy. And the dogs weren't howling. On the contrary, it was a lovely spring afternoon on Telegraph Avenue: crisp, sunny, fresh and the kind of day that inspired Eliot to write "April is the cruelest month."

I was taking a break from my usual street vendor gig as a Tarot card reader. The sign advertising my services was turned around. The crystals, the tie-dye tablecloth and the cards were all tucked away in a basket at my feet. We had a moveable feast spread out on my antique Singer sewing machine table that I had converted into a fortune-telling parlor. Sally McLaughlin, my girlfriend, had just unwrapped her cheese steak sandwich when all hell broke loose.

The first sounds were the wail of car alarms in the distance. Then came wall of noise, a hoarse roar like a fleet of jet planes flying overhead. Suddenly, the earth kicked up all around. It was all so fast. Then brick were falling, windows were bowing in and out trees were cracking, and then the shattering rumbling crash of everything splitting apart and falling down.

Sally slid off her wheelchair and pulled it over her head for protection. Then she pointed under my table and yelled, "Af!" Ripley, her Rottweiler, dove under the table. That was a very good idea, so I followed suit.

Just in time, as a large shard of glass shattered against the tabletop. When I heard a clump of plaster bounce off the wood, I blessed my foresight in going for the stand with cast iron legs. Antiques rock! I could see feet running in all directions, blood on the sidewalk, and chunks of brick and plaster bouncing around the street. How long before the second story of the clothing store toppled over on my fragile shelter?

Then it was over. No movement, and only the sounds of car alarms and humans shrieking. I started crawling out when Sally yelled out, "Aftershock!" I dove back on top of Ripley as the next wave hit us. Ground is supposed to be solid. It's not supposed to rise and fall. A very frightened ape who lives down deep in your brain stem wants to scream and vomit when earth undulates underfoot.

This wave flipped Sally, Ripley, table and me top over teakettle. We all looked up waiting for the fatal debris that was going to brain us. Nothing. Luckily, all the loose stuff must have come down in the first shock. Just a couple of puffy white clouds in a robins-egg blue sky, and one seagull flying overhead mocking the land-locked victims.

Sally set up her chair and crawled back on. "I've got a medic kit in the back pocket. Grab it, Warren. Let's see what we can do. Ripley, los!" Her dog sprang to her side.

In front of us was a scene from Hieronymus Bosch on crack. Broken people, smashed cars, crumbling walls, some chaotic inner canto of hell on earth. Right across Haste Street from where we were the top floor of a three story building had collapsed into itself.

Sally grabbed the arm of a massive jock standing stunned in front of us, his broad shoulders sagging inside his blue and gold sweatshirt. He looked down at her, eyes vacant.

"Listen to me, sir," Sally commanded, "I need you to be my legs. My dog is a trained rescue dog. We've got to get people out of that building ASAP! This is like 9/11, my friend. Time to be a hero. I need you to carry me over to that building. Right now. Do you understand?"

He nodded, and then said, "Surprisingly enough I actually have some intelligence, lady. OK, Grab onto my shoulders, and let's go play New York Firefighter."

The three of us began weaving through the wreckage to cross the street. Ripley was right by Sally's side all the way. The front door was shoved open. Out stepped a disheveled older white guy, his arm in a home-made sling. He yelled, "This whole building is coming down. Get the hell out of here!" Then he stumbled down Haste towards the hospital.

As we made our way towards the lobby I shouted out to Sally, "What about more aftershocks?"

She said, "Duck and pray. We've got to get the injured out of there."

Our intrepid troop headed for the stairs up to the next floor. We began knocking on doors and opening them to see if there were victims inside. The guy who carried Sally up the stairs left her to bandage an elderly woman with a shattered arm, while he stewarded a mom and three kids down to the street.

The second aftershock hit just as I was walking away from a locked door. Being inside was a thousand times worse than being outside. The floor buckled, the walls wavered, and the glass in the windows actually rippled. A crack grew up the wall and unfurled across the ceiling above me like a fern unfolding. I waited for two stories of plaster, lumber and rebar to come crashing down on my head.

Not this time. I was thrown against the door I had just left, and it split in half lengthwise, dropping me into the studio apartment on the other side. I found myself laying next to a young Asian coed. She was not going to need Sally's help. There was a dirty black bullet hole in the center of her forehead.