As you may have heard (or experienced first-hand), at 11:42 this morning a magnitude 5.8 earthquake hit Southern California. That's not what I'm talking about.
I was at work, sitting at my desk, under a building in downtown Los Angeles that is over 50 stories tall (and is around 50 miles from the epicenter). My cubicle is on a subterranean floor. (Yes, it is as glamorous as it sounds.) Directly above my department is the loading dock for the building, and it is not an uncommon occurrence for a loud boom to ring out and for the ceiling to shake when a tremendously large object is (presumably) dropped off a truck to the dock floor. We have grown accustomed to it.
When the earthquake struck, at least amongst those sitting near me, we pretty much figured it was another loading dock miscue. Only after it continued and the rumbling permeated the floor as well did we fully appreciate it was not that. Still, being a native southern Californian who has been through many earthquakes, I didn't even bother to get out of my chair and contemplate getting under the desk until the moment when, coincidentally, the shaking stopped. Where I was, the turbulence was not even strong enough to cause any items on the shelf above my desk to fall over, so from my perspective, it wasn't a big deal.
I did not flee the building, even though there is an emergency exit door approximately seven feet from my cubicle. (Not that running outside a tall building is prudent during an earthquake, but I heard tales of people up on the ground floor who did panic and run outside.)
Years ago I sat up on the 41st floor, and did experience an earthquake from up there. Where I sat was on the interior of the building, so we had no windows (a common thread amongst my desk locations). The building did not rumble or shake; the building swayed laterally (as it is designed to do). The only way I knew it was happening was because a marble on my desk started to roll back and forth on its own, and a slight feeling of nausea entered my stomach. When it was over, we all got up and asked each if that was an earthquake. People who had windows told us that one could look out and see the other skyscrapers of downtown swaying as well, which undoubtedly only made it worse.
But this time, being down below ground level, there was no swaying, just a bit of shaking, but it was over in about 10 seconds.
That's not what I'm talking about either.
As I walked to lunch approximately 90 minutes later I heard a voice from someone beside me say "Excuse me…" and I turned to see a gentleman in glasses with tousled salt-and-pepper hair, holding a notebook. He identified himself as a reporter; next to him was another man, holding a camera. He asked if he could talk to me about the earthquake. And I stopped and acquiesced.
I started talking right away, explaining how for me it wasn't anything that caused me any distress, that from my perspective it wasn't that bad. While I was doing this he was trying to get open his notepad and started jotting some shorthand. He even mentioned how in trying to listen to what I was saying he didn't get it all down. Understandable—I certainly couldn't hope to jot down what someone was saying as he was saying it. Heck, hours later, even though we spoke for only a few minutes, I fully admit I don't recall exactly everything I said.
However, we did talk for longer than just one or two questions. Amongst what I noted in those minutes was how when an earthquake hits it reminds us of what we are often (adopting a slight tone of exaggeration—I thought) blissfully ignoring. However, to better capture what I meant I should have phrased it more like "it reminds us of what we prefer to not think about"—that being, that we live with the constant possibility of the ground shaking violently, with no warning). I was not working from a rehearsed set of talking points; I was (imprudently) just saying what came to mind.
He asked me if I thought we were ready for a big earthquake. I replied with a request for clarification: "Do you mean all of Southern California, or just downtown?" He would take either, so I mentioned how I imagined that a lot of people around probably were not, but in downtown things probably were better, because we had practice drills and some stores of emergency supplies. Merely as a digression I admitted even I was not as well prepared at home as I should be, but what I considered my point was that, at least in downtown, there was probably a reasonable level of preparedness.
I was so convinced that none of what I said would be remotely usable for whatever article he was writing that when the accompanying photographer wanted to take my picture I didn't bother to take my sunglasses off. Even when they mentioned it, I left them on; I knew I wouldn't be the feature of anything, so it didn't matter.
At the end of our chat he got my name, and I looked on his notepad to make sure it was spelled correctly. He then asked what building I worked in, so I told him. He asked me what city I live in, so I told him that. He then asked me how old I was. And without thinking, I told him that as well. (He commented on how I didn't look my age, which I'm sure he meant as a compliment, and which is how I took it.) He also asked for an email address so he could alert me about the piece when it was done, so I gave him my old work one.
Only then did he actually introduce himself, and mention that he worked for Thomson Reuters. In retrospect, I probably should have wanted that earlier, but he was genuinely pleasant so I felt at ease talking to him (which is certainly a sign of good reporter). We shook hands and went on our ways, which was the last I thought I'd hear about it.
Three hours later I got an email from him with the text of three stories he'd written about the earthquake. He included an intro directed personally to me, thanking me for my time and saying I was fun to talk with, and I genuinely believe he did remember me, and that his statement was sincere.
Then he wrote: "Hope I quoted you properly."
(Properly is always a matter of interpretation.)
I scrolled down to the first story in the email, where the theme appeared to be summed up in the headline: "'Jaded Californians see quakes as part of life."
Well, that would be more or less the gist of what I said to him, so I skimmed through it, seeing quotes from others who weren't freaked out by the shaking, and who suggested that in this area we are able to keep from freaking out. Nothing from me, but that was hardly a surprise.
In the second part, it shifted in focus to preparedness, which was the thrust of the questions he asked me (and the ones where I kept asking for clarifications about the scope of the questions). There were quotes from officials for Cal Tech and the LAFD, noting how it was a wake-up call to remind people to get prepared, and a line with that same sentiment from someone identified as a secretary.
Then I got to the last paragraph:
"I would fit into the category of unprepared," said 40-year-old downtown Los Angeles worker Doug [my last name**]. "Collectively, Southern Californians are in a sense of blissful ignorance."That's how it ended.
I dropped my head to my desk and laughed.
So convinced had I been that nothing I said would be used that I had overlooked what was the other obvious outcome: That out of all I said, the parts that I shouldn't have said would be the only parts included, and that the light tone would not come through at all, making it seem as though I impugned all of the millions of people living here.*
But at least my name was spelled correctly. And they didn't include any of the photos taken.
And identified only as "downtown Los Angeles worker," it's unlikely strangers will be able to find me all that easily. (As long as they don't find this post. Crap...)
And, ultimately, I have this forum here to elaborate (way beyond the point where any sane person would want to know, but an elaboration nonetheless), just in case Southern Californians do track me down.
Looking on the Reuters website at that point in the afternoon, only one of the other of the three stories was up, so it seemed as though the one with my "quote" may not get picked up from the wire service.
However, this evening, I see the story is on their site. But one has to click all the way to the third page of it to see what was attributed to me, and really, who has time for that in this crazy, fast-paced world? Especially when everyone should be getting their earthquake preparedness kits together.
And now, some advice:
In the event of an earthquake, try to stand in a doorway or crouch under a sturdy desk; do not run outside. In the event of an unexpected man-on-the-street interview, speak very slowly so the reporter can jot it down accurately; running away is also an acceptable course of action.
Earthquakes generally last only a matter of seconds, and as long as one can avoid falling debris one is likely to escape unscathed. Giving one's glib thoughts about earthquakes to a reporter for a man-on-the-street interview, on the other hand, can carry much further reaching consequences.
* I wish to interject a moment of 90% sincerity here (unlike the abject tongue-in-cheek tone most of this post has had): I do not believe it was the reporter's intent to make me look bad, and that what he attributed to me he intended to carry the meaning I intended. Perhaps it's only my interpretation that it doesn't quite come out that way. And hey, for having only hours to get it together, it could be worse.
Semi-ironically, it's not like there aren't other topics about which I would want to denigrate most of the metropolitan area; it's just that this wasn't one. Wait. I shouldn't admit that either, should I? Man, I am not good at discretion...
No, I don't expect anyone to actually get through the 1600+ words I blathered on about here. People really should be getting ready for the next earthquake.
Clearly I have no editor, much as I desperately need one.
It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: I am not a journalist.
** There's no need for full names here. We've gone years without my readers knowing it, so why start now? But as noted, it was correct in the article.