Cough Drops and Ozone

Rachel’s my age, just thirty, working on a PhD in structural geology. She wears granny glasses and ties her hair in a ponytail. She’s probably six feet tall and has a Valley Girl accent (San Gabriel, not San Fernando. The suspended, slightly awe-struck phonemes of West Covina, or maybe Irwindale). She’s wearing a Dukes of Hazard t-shirt: Bo and Luke are leaning out the windows of the General Lee, waving.

“Dude, I think my sister has a crush on you.”

Rachel shows me around the Seismo Lab, a single-story Bauhaus box from the early fifties. Flat roof. Fluorescent tubes. A horizontal band of windows that wraps around the whole building. It’s one of those minor architectural landmarks that everyone who works in hates. Rachel shares an office with another grad student, a guy named Phillipe whose desk is stacked with empty cans of Big Red and styrofoam take-out boxes. The walls are hung with geologic survey maps, colorful patchworks traced over with an indecipherable web of fault lines superimposed on topo lines superimposed on Mercator lines. Rachel has a Black Sabbath poster over her desk. We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘N’ Roll. Next to it is a little black-and-white photo of a guy in dark-framed glasses. Bald on the top. A pipe and thin lapels. Rachel tells me it’s Charles Richter. The Richter Scale guy. He taught at Cal Tech.

“Everyone still thinks the big problem in L.A. is the San Andreas Fault. It’s all ‘cos of that movie Earthquake. Did you see that?”

I shake my head.

“Dude, that movie rocks! It’s got Charlton Heston, and then the Big One hits. Check it out, there’s this one scene. Victoria Principal’s sitting in a movie theater with her big 1974-style Afro. Suddenly the walls are shaking and everyone’s screaming and running for the doors. Then the movie projector gets knocked over and the movie on the screen turns sideways. I saw that as a kid and that was it. It ruined the movies for me. Every time I went to the four-plex at the mall, I’d sit there worrying about earthquakes. The whole time I’m like, shit, what was that? Did you feel something?” Rachel sits down at her computer, and logs onto a seismic data map. A map of California pops up, labeled with little red ‘x’s with numbers beside them. These are today’s earthquakes. People don’t even realize that there are like ten zillion earthquakes every day. Most of them are really low mag, so you don’t feel them.”

She takes me down the hall, into a room full of main frame computers, a dozen different internal fans whirring at a dozen different frequencies. There’s a seismograph set up against the wall. A cylinder wrapped in graph paper spins in slow circles, while an ink needle draws a continuous line.

“The San Andreas is a slip-strike fault. It’s like this.” Rachel rubs her hands back and forth horizontally. “But there’s also faults that break at a diagonal, kinda like this,” she positions her hands at a forty-five degree angle. “Those are thrust faults. Then you got blind thrusts. They’re thrust faults that you can’t see. You don’t even know you’re sitting on a fault, then whammo! You’re fucked. Whittier Narrows, Northridge, all blind thrusts. Now everyone’s like, oh shit, we have a problem. As if the faults we know about weren’t enough to worry about, now we’ve got all these invisible faults, too. Heard about Puente Hills?”

I shake my head.

“Dude, you will, I assure you. Now that the fuckhead oil companies are leaving L.A., they’re generously endowing us with their secret survey maps. Geologic surveys, radar profiles, the works. And we’re all like, well well well, there are blind thrusts right under downtown L.A.” She shakes her head and smiles. “Parker Center, sayonara!”

Rachel takes me out back where there are a few picnic tables shaded by eucalyptus trees. It smells like Los Angeles, which smells like cough drops and ozone. Rachel lights up a cigarette, and we sit down. The San Gabriels rise to the north. The late afternoon sun filters through the smog and tints everything in sepia tones. It reminds me of Renaissance paintings of the Italian countryside, where the past is a ground fog, seeping out of everything, a heaviness in the air. Rachel points at the hills.

“Those are like some of the newest mountains in the world. They’re still rising a few centimeters every year. That’s why we have all this seismic funkiness around here. The geniuses who built L.A. put it right on top of a construction zone, geologically speaking.” This makes Rachel laugh. She snorts when she laughs, which makes me laugh, too, even though I don’t feel like laughing. I have butterflies in my stomach.

I ask Rachel how the Earthquake Hotline works and she tells me it’s manned by undergrads, mostly. I’m pretty much right about the details. A big shake pages whoever’s on call. They check the computer, update the answering machine message. Rachel takes me to another little office, like hers. There’s an ordinary GE answering machine sitting on a desk.

“Here it is. This is, like, the nerve center.” Snort snort. She presses the outgoing message button. No seismic activity in the last twenty-four hours. “Which is bullshit. Like I say, there’s never no seismic activity. But this is for the civilians. Nervous Nellies who wake up in the middle of the night ‘cos they thought they felt the house move or something.”

I tell Rachel how I left a message a few nights ago, and ask her who might have called me back.

“Dude, this machine isn’t set up to take messages. Otherwise every weirdo in L.A.,” she smiles, “would have us checking on every little bump.”

“But someone called me back. Really late.”

“I dunno. Maybe someone’s messing with your mind.” A guy in glasses and a Hello Kitty knapsack walks past. “That’s Philippe. Hey, wait, dude,” Rachel yells down the hall after him. “This machine can’t receive messages, right? The hotline thing?”

“No, Rachel, it can’t receive messages.” Philippe sounds pissed off. Rachel lowers her voice,

“Philippe’s on the rag,” snort snort.

It’s dark when we walk out to the parking lot. We’re talking about the earthquake ride at Universal Studios. When you take the studio tour, you ride through the backlot on an open-air tour bus. At one point, the bus pulls into a building, just an oversized garage, really. The door closes behind you. Inside it looks like a subway station, and the tour bus is parked on the tracks like a subway train. Then everything starts shaking. The rumble is deafening, a THX polyphonic roar. The roof collapses and water starts pouring into the station. Electrical wires snap and spark. Flames shoot up. Fire and water. Then it’s over and you drive out the other end, back into sunlight and a warm breeze. It turns out we both were thinking the same thing during the simulated earthquake: what happens if a real earthquake hits right now? Would anyone notice?

“Part of the reason I started studying earthquakes is ‘cos they scared me so much. I thought maybe I wouldn’t be so scared if I figured out how they work. But then it turns out no one knows how they work, not even Mister Nobel Prize asshole who heads the department. No one. We pretend we have things under control, then suddenly, there’s like blindthrust faults under Disneyland. The more we look, the more cracks we find.” Rachel takes a drag on her cigarette. Then she tosses it on the ground and stomps on it hard. “It kind of sucks.”

Back to Saugus.