Sometime this summer, the floor started swaying under my feet. I noticed it first at work—I’d be waiting for the elevator to take me to the lobby and all of a sudden, I’d have the strongest sensation that the floor had turned into rubber. The feeling was always brief, lasting only a few seconds, and seemed early on to be tied to how little I ate on a given day. But that association broke down after awhile. Then I thought it was maybe vertigo, since the floor turning to rubber and dizziness tend to make natural partners. My ultimate theory, the one I’m sticking to now, is that my mind was slipping and this was the physical manifestation of it. Partly, or even mostly, because of this, it’s been a strange summer. Strange and long and wobbly in every sense of the word. But as strange as it’s been, it got a whole lot stranger today. All my imagined floor shaking and my theorizing about it disappeared, or at least turned moot. That’s because the ground moved, literally, right under me this afternoon.
Before now, I didn’t know anyone who had lived through an earthquake. But I imagine for most people who do experience them, they have a semblance of expectation before they ever face their first. What I mean to say is, people who come up in California, for instance, must hear stories from their parents, must have to rehearse response plans in school, and must live with the expectation that they someday may experience one themselves. And, for those people’s first earthquakes, while they must feel alien, they at least know, or can make a reasonable guess based on the stories, warnings and expectations, that they are in the middle of one.
I, like many of those around me this afternoon, had no such upbringing. I expect thunderstorms, nor’easters, even the occasional hurricane. I would say earthquake was last on the list, but that would be a lie. It didn’t even make the list. Which is why I must have been so confused today when one actually struck, as I was sitting in the food court of Union Station in Washington, D.C.
But before I get to the confusion, let me take a step back and explain the exact circumstances that brought me to that seat in the food court. I had spent most of the day listening to people affiliated with Boston University explain things irrelevant to me. I was told to respect the dormitory rules, though I would not be living there. I was asked to consider my roommates before leaving a mess in the kitchen, though I would not have any roommates. I was briefed on classes I would not be taking. The afternoon, while still irrelevant, at least promised to be interesting—I’d be going with other students to visit the U.S. Supreme Court chambers (although there was some question as to whether the actual courtroom would be open—apparently it needed cleaning).
Ten of us loaded onto a Metro train from Dupont Circle and arrived at Union Station some minutes later. We made a plan to split up for lunch and meet back at a particular stone archway at 2 p.m. Of course, 2 p.m. wouldn’t arrive in the usual way, but we didn’t know that yet, as it was only 1:30. After a trip to the restroom, I decided to get my lunch from a place called Chop’t. Chop’t isn’t a place I’d ever go back to. It’s a place that offers a variety of salads, but instead of just making the salad for you in the way most salads are made, they make it at least three times more difficult than it needs to be. When I ordered, one person took a little card, circled “Caesar” and “Grilled Chix” on it, then another threw a bunch of lettuce into a plastic tub, added some chicken and croutons and sprinkled a little cheese on top. Then it was passed down the line to another person who called me over. He dumped all the ingredients out of the plastic tub and brandished a banana-shaped knife with a rounded blade and handles on each end. Then he started to do something that I did not see coming—he started chopping (I should say, about 10 seconds into this, I realized this must be how the place got its name). Now, I’ll remind you in case you’ve forgotten that lettuce is easy to rip into small pieces by hand, and that this was a Caesar salad—usually, there’s no chopping required. I’ll also tell you that the chopping process is not a gentle one. It involves shards of lettuce flying this way and that, bouncing off cylinders of dressing and the chopper’s apron. From there, he took a flat blade, scooped the chopped ingredients into a giant metal bowl and added dressing until I told him to stop. Then he put everything back into the plastic tub.
After witnessing all of this, I was really surprised when I managed to pay without fainting. I was still perplexed as I walked out to find a seat. I saw a group of three people affiliated with my program (one other graduate student, and two young staff members) sitting at a small, circular table by the door. It’s possible the table could have fit a fourth chair, but after seeing all that lettuce flying around, I figured I should probably be alone for a few minutes. So I walked down a wide, marble staircase to the ground floor food court, and took my seat.
I sat there for a little while, eating my salad, marveling at how large it was, wondering why the hell someone created a business model that made salad-making so labor-intensive. Then my thoughts darkened a little. Before any of this salad mess, I wasn’t feeling well, in a spiritual sense. As I said, the summer’s been wobbly, and today was no exception. I was in a low spot, and I had somehow justified something blatantly antisocial (not bothering to sit with those three BU affiliates at their table outside Chop’t). Then something remarkable happened.
I had just put a bite of salad into my mouth, and was still staring down at the plastic tub when I heard, “Excuse me.” I looked up, and saw a woman standing near me, leaning over another table. She was maybe late-20s, had light brown hair and she wore a gray suit. She had button-cute facial features and smiled as she continued, “Where did you get that salad?”
She must have been a visitor to D.C., if I had to guess, I’d say she was leaving town on an Amtrak train after a work meeting, but I can’t be certain. I said, mouth still half full, “There’s a place upstairs, called ‘Chop’t.’”
She said, “Chop’t? Upstairs?”
“Cool, awesome, thanks,” and she flashed another perfect smile.
As she walked away I had three thoughts. The first was that it shouldn’t have taken me so long to realize how beautiful she was. And she was beautiful. The second was that this may have been the one time in all my life that I was rewarded for my misanthropy. The third was a fantasy—maybe she would come down after ordering her own salad and sit with me.
I took my phone out and tried to put all these thoughts into a form that would fit in a standard text message, but shortly after, this effort was replaced by another. The floor started waving and shit started falling from the ceiling and smashing on the marble floors around me. It was no longer time to text a friend about a brief encounter with a beautiful woman; it was now time to climb under the table I had been sitting at, and hope that the Coca-Cola emblem that composed its surface would protect me from whatever the fuck was making the floor shake and causing loud noises to reverberate through the food court.
I don’t know how many of those reading have ever experienced something like this, but I will admit, it was intense. If I had been at my apartment or in a store somewhere else, I’m sure I would have had at least some spike in adrenaline. But I also would have more swiftly understood that what I was experiencing was, indeed, an earthquake. Being in a large public area a block or two from the U.S. Capitol building clouded my judgment. My first thought, after deciding to go under the table and protect my head, was that this must be an attack of sorts—the shaking and thwacks of ceiling debris hitting marble could have been the result of some artillery shelling of the outer portion of the station. Or maybe a bomb went off somewhere nearby.
But after a couple seconds I mostly dismissed that, because the floor shook in a way that didn’t make sense for a bombing. Not that I really know what that would be like, but I assume it doesn’t involve a marble floor turning into a water-park quality wave, with perfect buoyancy. So I was pretty sure it must have been an earthquake when I stood up to see people screaming and running up the wide marble staircase, skipping steps as they went. But then I looked around to the other parts of the food court, saw dust clouds in some corners, smashed stone near the bottom of the stairs, and soft black things floating down from above. These could have been the markings of some explosive—dust clouds and what looked like black ash floating from above—but really they were the markings of the quake. The black debris must have been from underneath the ceiling tiles and the smashed stone must have been the tiles themselves.
I have to say, though, in either scenario, the majority’s response made very little sense to me. If it were some attack—maybe a little far-fetched, but not beyond plausible—blindly running outside before gaining an understanding of what had happened seemed like a good way to get myself mowed down by masked gunmen. If it were an earthquake, well, those have aftershocks, for one thing. For another, if tiles were loosened by the shaking, causing them to smash down from the ceiling, wouldn’t it have been possible for a few stragglers to smash down shortly after—ones that were loosened but not totally unmoored?
So, needless to say, I didn’t run out screaming. I stayed put, surveyed the situation, making sure I was in close range of a table in case things continued falling. I made sure I had my phone (I’m not sure if I had it with me when I went under the table or if I left it resting on top—not all the details of this stage are clear, I was, literally, a little shaken up). The black debris covered my bottle of water, so I left it behind. At first, I thought my salad was safe, as I couldn’t see any black mixed in among the green, brown and off-white, but then I thought, “Well, when are you really going to eat this anyway? Plus, it was really too large a salad in the first place. And, shit, it wasn’t good enough to warrant all the work that went into making it.” So I threw it out on my way to the stairs.
When I went outside, I happened upon a few of what would have been my Supreme Court tour group, we tried to make calls on our cell phones, unsuccessfully, found all the stragglers, and then decided to walk across the city to Dupont Circle, where we’d come from (it didn’t seem like public transit would be running anytime soon, and I’m not sure any of us wanted to go back into Union Station anyway). Later, after we’d walked across the city and hung around in the building that will hold our classes, everyone decided it was time to go. They went to their dormitory; I walked down 18th Street to Farragut Square to try to make my way to Arlington, Virginia on the Metro, which had just started running again. Strangely enough, I had to wait only five minutes and a completely empty train arrived. It was the first time all summer I’d had a seat on my commute home.
As it happens one isn’t supposed to evacuate during an earthquake. One is certainly not supposed to scream and run, everyone else be damned. One is supposed to beware of items falling and find a sturdy object under which to take cover.
I wasn’t raised in an earthquake zone and I never learned the proper procedure. But my first instinct was the right one, and the adrenaline pumping through my veins was somehow not strong enough to cause me to stop thinking about what made the most sense. I’m not sure what any of this means, but I am sure it would have sucked to have a piece of ceiling tile knock me out this afternoon. It would have been a precipitous drop from thinking some out-of-town beauty in a business suit was about to fall in love with me over my choice in salads.
Still, none of this can explain why the ground started giving way under me this summer, why, as Ben Folds put it, the floor has suddenly become a moving target. Just because I’ve made it through an earthquake with my person and dignity intact, I can’t imagine my life will wobble any less.
As always, keep your head down, strive for balance, and walk with one foot in front of the other (just make sure the ceiling isn’t falling as you do).