Last time I was living in DC, the city experienced an unprecendented snowstorm. Obama declared it “Snowmaggedon” as the city virtually shut down, falling victim to the largest snowfall in DC in recorded history.

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And now, only 5 days into my glorious & triumphant return to the Capitol city, yet another uncommon disaster has struck! As you may have heard, central Virginia was hit with a 5.9 magnitude earthquake, the largest in DC history, sending shockwaves up the Eastern coast where it has been reported the tremors were felt as far north as Manhattan.

I worry that if I should ever leave DC and return again the city may face a tsunami.

It is a day that people on the East Coast will remember for the rest of their lives. One day, many, many years from now, I will sit on my porch with my friends, sipping lemonade as the sunsets over the ocean (yes, I have a porch & an ocean view) and we will ask each other “Where were you during Earthquakemaggedon?” And I’ll say, “Hell if I remember, someone get my robot and have him read me my blog…”

I just stepped out of the shower in my Washington DC dorm room. I throw on a towel, and walk to my desk. I sit down. I was about to begin one of my epic stare-into-space-and-think bouts when suddenly, the room begins to lightly tremble. Some fatty stomping down the hall? The shake gradually increases. Construction down the street? The building is swaying and shaking, my brain tries to compensate for a logical answer, ideas flashing through my mind, “It feels like an earthquake….but…but….it can’t be. They don’t have earthquakes here, do they?”

I’m a California girl, I know earthquakes. My body recognized “earthquake” but my mind was quick to step in and make the situation much more uncomfortable and stressful. Whether or not people want to admit it, I think most people thought we were under attack.

So I’m standing as the room about me continues swaying and shaking and I try to figure out what is going on.

I realize I’m still naked.

I throw some clean clothes on, whatever is going on, I don’t want to die naked and I want to have on clean underwear.

I look around the room. The door to the balcony is rusted, the shower head is too-both originals from when the building was used as a Howard Johnson’s, the carpet is dingy and stained… Logic, my personal demon, rears its ugly head, whispering into my ear “If they didn’t bother to change the shower head or the carpet, what are the chances that they retrofitted a building to withstand earthquakes in a place that doesn’t have earthquakes.”

I grab my phone and head for the door, quickly dialing my mom’s number.

“Mom, I don’t know what is going on right now, it felt like an earthquake, but I’m okay.”

I think it is interesting to see who people call first when they feel the threat of an emergency–real or perceived. For me, it’s my mom. I heard a woman outside call her boss, I hoped it wasn’t her first call.

There has been a lot of criticism about the way people on the East Coast have been handling the earthquake. Sure, I shook my head more than once at the kinds of things people said and did, both personally and institutionally after the quake. (Businesses closed down for the day!!!) But I want to put things in perspective.

  • The distance between where the earthquake epicenter was and where the earthquake was felt in say, NY, is slightly further than the distance between Los Angeles and Vegas. It would take a pretty decent earthquake to hit LA and feel it with substance in LV. I will attest, it was a pretty decent earthquake.
  • Watching people in DC handle an earthquake was the equivalent of how people in LA would react if they suddenly had a snowstorm. Screw that, people in LA can’t even handle driving in light rain.

Considering the fact that no one was prepared for it and didn’t have the knowledge of how to react to it–or what it was at first–I applaud you, citizens of Virginia and surrounding areas.

However, out of a mildly hectic situation, I managed to turn some good from it. As the only person who had ever been in an earthquake before, I was able to use my prior experience and literally thousands of earthquake drills to good use–making friends.

I introduced myself to a few panic-striken Southerners and East Coast natives. “Hi, I’m Liane. I’m from California, I guess I must have brought the earthquake with me, huh?”

The looks on their faces can be illustrated by this example:

The Setting: Restaurant
The Players: Waiter & Customer

Customer: Excuse me, sir. Can I see a menu?
Waiter: Of course. Hands him a menu. Would you like to hear the special for this evening.
Customer: That would be marvelous.
Waiter: The chef has prepared his specialty, Rocky Mountain Oysters for this evening. They are lightly battered and fried with a spicy homemade cocktail sauce. We rarely get the opportunity to serve such fresh fare, they are truly a delight.
Customer: Well  I’ve never had Rocky Mountain Oysters before, I’ll try them after such a outstanding recommendation.

Later, customer is served and begins enjoying his meal. The waiter returns to check-in.

Waiter: How is everything tasting this evening?
Customer: Why I do say, this is delicious. The flavors are superb! I never had oysters that taste quite like this before.
Waiter: Oh, I’m sorry sir, these aren’t oysters. Rocky Mountain Oysters are bull testicles.

THAT–that face. That look of terror and disgust was stuck on the face of every student outside the building, still in shock from Mother Nature’s violent reminder of her power. I coddled their egos, explaining that I too-after years of earthquakes–felt my stomach lurch as the ground beneath me rumbled and the building around me groaned. They softened, “But what about aftershocks?” I smiled. “Doorways are the safest places, structurally they are designed to withhold collapses.” On the word collapses, I saw the flickers of light in their eyes go dim. “Oh, but aftershocks are really rare. I’m sure it’s fine just to go back inside and go back to your normal day. Back home if there’s an earthquake you usually won’t even stand up. You just wait for it to end and go on with your day.” They nodded, impressed by the bravery of the West Coast natives, who feel the Earth around them shake and just continue on with their day.

Then one of the women eased up and began making conversation. We were joking and smiling and then she says, “Yeah well I camp out under that bridge over there and I could see the whole thing just moving from side to side.”

Our smiles briefly faltered then became forced. We quickly exchanged glances. No, none of us had known that she was one of the crazy homeless people who lived under the bridge. We politely excused ourselves, finding that we’d rather brave the building than the rest of that conversation.

To be fair, it is EXTREMELY easy to mistake a graduate student for a homeless person and vice versa. This is why:

  • Bad Fashion. Currently the whole “hipster”, my clothes smell mildly like a dumpster, I-don’t-try-at-all thing is trendy–I get it. Men don’t feel the need to shave or shower. Not my thing, but some people are into that.
  • The smell. (Many, though not all) Academics have terrible hygiene. My oceanography professor’s teeth were dark yellow and you could see his plaque from 10 feet away. Also, for some reason they sweat a lot. I tend to believe it is due to the constant pressure to prove that they are actually as smart as people think they are/as smart as they want people to think they are.
  • Lack of food. Both the homeless and grad students are undernourished. There simply isn’t enough money to go around. Both are likely to beg for food. Some do it out of principle: A friend of mine recently met a girl who called herself a “freegan”. No not a vegan, a freegan. That means she only ate food that was free. By the way–she did NOT make it up, it’s an organized movement. Doesn’t it make you hate snotty, elitist, entitled, pseudo-intellectuals just that much more?
  • Lack of sleep. I actually believe that a homeless person probably gets more sleep than a graduate student does, but both are likely to wake up with bloodshot eyes and the lingering smell of cheap beer.
  • Bad Fashion, Again. Graduate students can’t afford anything. Tuition, housing & books suck up a huge portion of a graduate student’s budget. So when your casual clothes and shoes get faded, smelly, torn, bleached, tattered–you do what you can and just keep on trucking. Sure you might shell out for work attire, but a pair of jeans or sneakers probably won’t make the cut.

A toast, to the homeless because they are probably drinking anyways.

“I used to sleep nude — until the earthquake.”
~Alyssa Milano