..[Los Angeles without a car, work permit or superpowers]

Monday, March 14, 2011


On Thursday night we learn that a massive earthquake has struck off the coast of Miyagi prefecture. The NHK helicopters transmit images: endless rushing swells of sea-water, choked with trees and roofs and cars and soil, are bearing down on cities, houses. The tide is barely recognizable as water, except by its motion -- so dirty and clumsy, just debris and force, a terrible dun colour dispassionately sweeping over everything.

We watch it from an aerial view, as distant as osmosis observed through a microscope. Then the camera pans in, and we see tiny people on the buildings, tiny cars racing.

The newscasters announce facts and figures, but they're clearly not facts and figures yet -- guesses and estimates, no more. Is it an 8.8, a 9? That's a train station, submerged. No, it's an airport. We're getting, we're getting reports --

You imagine tsunamis as a clean vast crest of blue wave, curling down over palm trees. Not this unmajestic, relentless squalor, moving and moving and moving up the country like extinguished lava.

In California, people are watching the shores. Experts tell us that it'll take ten hours for the ocean disturbance to reach the west coast of America. It sounds mythological -- these giant, terrible waves riding across the Pacific, the deepest waters, travelling for hours and hours -- gaining strength? losing momentum? -- before reaching California. As mundane as a letter, as immense as gods.

At nine o'clock on Friday morning, all our local news teams are poised at the harbour and beach. For a while, nothing happens. Then, at nine fifteen, the sea shades to sand and algae, water pulling out and out, and the reporters become excitable. Temporarily, they forget to pretend that natural disasters are bad things, and chatter over their shoulder to the camera: for a while there it looked like nothing was going to-, but here it is, here it is, can you see-? They smile.

The water bears back down on the beach, in long lines of white surf. But nothing here is destroyed or washed away. In the marina, some boats break loose, wedging themselves under bridges or slowly arcing into other boats.

- That’s gonna make some people very unhappy,

says the news anchor, but we know it's not a disaster. We know it's not like Japan, where you see cars crushed against walls, window-high in muddy frothing water, one lone windscreen wiper batting back and forth. Buildings silently collapsing. Unhappy boat owners don’t compare.


On Friday evening I hear that a friend's friend has died. Toshiko was studying English in New Zealand. It was lunchtime at her language school when the 6.3 Christchurch earthquake struck and the building collapsed. This was on February 22nd. On March 3rd the search for survivors officially ended.

- I will say a prayer at Todaiji temple, 

says one person.

- I'm going to the Kasuga shrine.

- I hope she's not lonely.

Of the one hundred and twenty-five staff and pupils at Toshiko's school, sixty are missing and presumed dead. 


I only noticed one earthquake while I lived in Japan. It was moderate, but we were on the fifteenth floor and could distinctly feel the building rocking back and forth on its heels, as if about to swoon. The blinds gently tapped at the window, clicking like teeth. It made us all nauseous, but when we cranked open the slats and looked down at the city, nothing had changed. No smoking ruins. Maybe there were calligraphic cracks here and there, widened faultlines, a few smashed cups. Unimaginable miles below us, beneath the skyscrapers, asphalt, foundations, packed dirt, fossils, and rock, one tectonic plate had inched blindly against another. For a moment we realized they were there, but pretty soon we forgot.

Kia Kaha, New Zealand and Japan.

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