Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My First Earthquake.

We get used to things.

Yesterday I lived through my first earthquake. Now, yes, I know it was only a 4.4 earthquake. A tiny one, by California standards. No one around here seemed too terribly disturbed by it.

I sometimes have a touch of insomnia, especially when I have something on my mind like I do now with the auditions for Praying Small coming up. So I had gotten up and was at the computer when it hit. At first I thought a really large garbage truck was driving by outside. There was a low rumbling and the house was shaking just a bit. Then I realized it was four in the morning and the garbage people couldn't possibly be here yet. That was when I knew it was an earthquake. I had just enough time to get up from my desk and start toward the bedroom where Angie and Zooey were sleeping, when it ended. Then I just stood there in the kitchen sort of processing what had just happened.

Today I spoke to a few California people (I don't think I'm one of those yet) about it. They were not too interested in it. Just another shake. Most spoke of it as though it were a slightly out of the ordinary ride on the bumper cars. Angie, for example, wasn't the least bit concerned about it. Zooey didn't even bother to get out of bed. Even the pets out here are used to earthquakes.

Started me into thinking how all of us get used to things.

When I was a drug and alcohol counselor for the wretched Salvation Army, I would get to my office around seven in the morning and have a chance to chat a little with the "beneficiaries" (a euphemism in the Salvation Army for slave labor) as they came downstairs from their cots to have a cold, hard breakfast before they were put to work for 14 hours a day in the warehouse. They were cheerful, mostly. Just another day. Just another back-breaking, unfair, sweaty, endless day of work. I couldn't believe they were cheerful about this. But most were. The were used to it.

Sometimes I try to imagine other people's lives. I guess that's why I do what I do. Some years back I drove through my hometown. Didn't tell anyone I was in town. Just drove around and looked at old spots that I remembered. After a few hours I drove back to Columbia, where I had a hotel room, and then on to where I was going. But I had driven by the house where I grew up. Other people, whom I don't know, live there now. It was dusk and the light was on in the bedroom where I had slept for 18 years.

I remembered being in that bedroom, laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, while my father screamed downstairs in yet another drunken rage. Calling us all names, being demonic. And not being the least concerned by it. I was used to it.

I remember being in Chicago, horrible place that it is, in the depth of winter. I was walking to the library to order something (the public library is the highest place of learning on the planet, in my opinion) and a guy suddenly got out of an abandoned car right in front of me. It must have been about 20 below with the wind chill. He was obviously homeless. I stopped and stared for a second. He did the same when he saw me. No one else on the street. It was really cold. He smiled at me and said, "Want a cigarette?" He had some roles with him. I said, no, thanks anyway, and walked on. He was happy. Being homeless in a mortal winter was not out of his comfort zone. He was used to it.

For many years I would trudge to my studio, teach actors all day, trudge home late at night, fix myself a hot chocolate, watch the news and go to bed. So lonely as to be wooden. Not even knowing I was lonely because I was so far in the middle of it. Get up early and do the same again. An endless cycle of days interrupted by nothing. I was used to it.

Lonely, single people do this everywhere.

I remember driving to a theatre gig some years back. The work was in Dallas, as I recall. As I topped a hill in South Carolina, twilight, Springsteen blaring from my rental car speakers, suddenly I saw a huge backup, cars stopped, pulled over, highway patrol lights swirling, people standing around. I pulled over, turned down my CD and got out and walked up to where the action was. A terrible accident had just occurred. One of the patrolmen was standing and staring at a body of a young man. Maybe twenty years old. Maybe less. Ambulance hadn't gotten there yet. Saw me standing too close. Said, "Step back a little, would you, sir." Then, in reference to the dead young man, "Drivin' too fast, I guess." I turned and threw up. He walked past me and patted me casually on the side of my arm. I walked back to my car and sat there astonished at his lack of concern and stunned at just seeing a dead person. He saw dead young men all the time, I guess. Drivin' too fast. He was used to it.

Just a few minutes earlier, irony of ironies, I had been listening to Bruce Springsteen sing the song, Wreck on the Highway.

So I'm trying to process the idea of people living in this area of the country completely casual about the entire earth shaking beneath them. Millions of people simply stopping for a moment and allowing the universe itself to tremble for a few moments and then return to normal. An acknowledgment, briefly, that something awesome had taken place, but quickly forgotten. They had places to go, bills to pay, people to smile at.

And then there's me. Standing in a dark kitchen at four in the morning, scared and shocked. Not at all used to this. I don't want to ever get used to this. I don't want to ever be that boy again, staring at the ceiling, listening to a savage drunk scream obscenities only yards away, thinking off-handedly about what he might do tomorrow, the brutality barely registering.

I don't want to get used to earthquakes.

See you tomorrow.