Chili Earthquake

I was at lunch in Florida this weekend and someone asked me which was worse, the hurricanes of Florida or the earthquakes in California. While I don't care for either (I made sure to pronounce it 'eye-ther" since pontification was about to occur), I pointed out that with hurricanes one has days to prepare and with an earthquake one is lucky to grab some underwear, run into the hallway and duck under a lawyer.

My hurricane evacuation plan is to drive to the airport and board any jet bound for the opposite direction of the approaching storm.  In the event that the airports close and I have to stay,  I do keep several cans of Spaghettio's because they're so much fun. And they last a freakishly long time.
As a teenager living in New Orleans, when a hurricane approached, we just put our furniture up on blocks, closed the house, and moved into a hotel in the French Quarter until it blew over. Bourbon Street never closes. Ever.

My earthquake plan is more a readiness plan. I have flashlights and a battery operated TV, but no food really. After the 1994 Northridge quake I got all motivated about earthquake readiness and bought a case of Fig Newtons and a 12-pack of tiny cans of Welch's Grape Juice. I thought the bright purple of the juice can would cheer me up after a natural disaster.

Needless to say I never opened any of that food. I tossed it last year during a cupboard purge.

I was out of town for the 1994 quake, in San Luis Obispo about three hours north of Los Angeles. Back in Santa Monica, my uncle was staying at my house. He loved to make chili. But his love of making chili was me making chili.

Left to his own devices, my uncle would make and eat chili that was made from regular ground pork, that skinny kind that looks like long trichinosis worms. To get the thick, chip-stands-up chili, you need "chili grind" beef - that grind of meat is nice and fat and lumpy. It doesn't crumble under pressure like a flat-chested out of town girl in a wild chug and spin-the-bottle dare.

When my chili is finished, it's not even finished. The chili is the star of the galaxy feast, with little satellites dishes of condiments nestled around it: chopped white onion, diced fresh tomatoes, sour cream, grated cheddar cheese, and jalapeno-stuffed cornbread.

Jim's chili was more like soup. I have no idea what he did, nor do I ever want to know.

As I left him to go to San Luis Obispo, of course I couldn't predict that the most devastating earthquake in decades would strike, but I did very clearly and emphatically say to Jim: Don't make chili. I will be back in 2 days and I will make you some chili. 

He wasn't some chili freak or some simpleminded child who obsessed with chili, the subject had come up and I was just pre-emptively and re-assuredly letting him know I had a chili plan.

I had to be this firm with Jim. About 10 years before, my cousin Sean and I had bought a pet monkey in Las Vegas. We kept him at our cottage on Balboa Island.


Jim was visiting us, and we both had to leave him alone with the monkey while we were groomsmen in a wedding. Our last words, very, very seriously were that Jim not go near, touch, open the cage or interact in any way with the monkey. He was a good monkey, but only for me and Sean.

Long story short Jim lost feeling in his forefinger that night and forever because he touched the monkey. So I wasn't being harsh about him not making chili.

Smash cut to the earthquake of '94.  About 6AM my host Dale left for work as a doctor. (Not left the family to train and hopefully find work one day, he did anesthesia at a local hospital.) He rang my sleepy-head up and told me that there had been the most devastating earthquake in decades in Los Angeles.

For the next few days, as thousands of Los Angelenos swept up glass and clay pots, or supervised day-laborers doing so, I safely sat 3 hours away on a comfy couch and ate pizza while watching news coverage.

I had insurance and had called my agent and he was on the case. No one had phone service or power or water, and many were still reeling from the sights of their naked neighbors running into the streets at 4AM. One doesn't know one's neighbors in LA, so to suddenly be introduced by this natural disaster was painful enough, but complicate that introduction with flabby thighs, bloated abdomens, baggy boobs and dangling ball sacks running madly up and down my block 0- well, it was just too much.

Jim flew out the next day and never returned to Los Angeles. I eventually returned, when ABC news stopped running the banner "Earthquake 94 - Disaster in the Southland" on a 24-hour scroll.

I drove slowly down Santa Monica Boulevard towards the beach. The huge glass windows of the car dealerships were now gaping holes. Naked and unguarded Chevys sat in the showroom. It looked like a giant thief had bashed the car-case with a huge hammer so he could snatch the car like it was a necklace in Harry Winston.

A few power lines were still dangling and abandoned on the street. No one was out. nothing was open. The gate to my building was open, and the garage dark. I parked and took the stairs for probably the 3rd time in 2 years to the 2nd floor. If the elevator was out, this was serious.

I walked in my apartment, and it looked like Beirut. Cabinets had flung open and a bottle of red wine had broken on the plush white carpet so it truly looked like a crime scene. The televisions had flown from their perches into the rooms, only snapped to a stop by the attached cable. The walls had cracks in the corners.

Upstairs the all-in-one gym that weighed 800 pounds and had never been used, had moved a foot. My clothes were all spilled off the rods.

I didn't know where to start. There was power now, but no water or gas. I went back downstairs, to drive to the store for bottled water, liquor and canned food.

I walked in to the kitchen and saw the mess. My fridge that had toppled over. All of the dishes and glasses in the cabinets had crashed to the floor, a pile of rubble, almost unrecognizable as dishes.

Remember, I had been away for several days since the disaster. The contents of my fridge were now all over the floor. I spied my chili pot in the corner of the kitchen, turned on it's side, obviously flung from the fridge as it flipped over.

Jim had made a batch of his loose chili. The watery, tomato and cumin slop covered the shards of the broken dishes on the floor, forever gluing them to the tile. It took a lot of effort on many people's part to pry that chili-cemented mess up. I've always meant to thank them.

I was the only one in my building to have insurance. I only had it because when I moved to LA from NYC my insurance agent offered it to me with a slick "it only costs about $25 a year." wink.  State Farm settled quickly. Then just as quickly cancelled all earthquake coverage.

I don't know a lot, but if I tell you not to order the turkey hash at the Mansion on Turtle Creek on a Friday in June, not to touch my fucking wild-ass monkey, or not to make your watery chili in case an earthquake comes along and tosses the fridge over like Godzilla marching into Tokyo -- listen. 

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