I feel the earth move

I didn’t check in to Philadelphia’s “Earthquakepocalypse” on Foursquare with the tens of thousands of others who did.

I did check in to the Chinese restaurant where I was lunching with a friend when it happened. But I did that when I got there. Nothing to do with the quake.

Where were you when it happened?

Um, I was fighting with a vegetable dumpling as it slipped through my chopsticks for the fourth time.

I don’t check in to anything with the suffix “-pocalypse,” mostly because it’s dumb. It made sense for the snowfall of winter 2009, when we were hit three times for an accumulation of four and half feet, but not now. And the ironic, self-aware over-inflation of ordinary situations just isn’t funny anymore.

However, I guess an earthquake in Philadelphia isn’t, strictly speaking, ordinary—in a Chinese restaurant or otherwise. Bottles shook at the bar. Glasses tinkled against each other on the shelves. Plum sauce skittered across the table. And my lemon chicken sauce quivered obscenely.

We half-dozen customers all looked at each other across the dining room and made jokes—”What is this, California?” someone said—but we all knew full well it was just the cement truck outside spinning its drum. Or some other piece of heavy equipment. Crews were resurfacing the street and sidewalk outside.

It felt like a subway train rolling through a tunnel under the building, but a subway train, even one close to the surface, would not cause this much of a rumble. “It can’t be an earthquake” never even really entered my mind because … well, why would I ever think it could be?

You gotta love Philly, I thought—its ancient buildings and slapdash DIY esthetic. For the building to shake like this, it must be down to shoddy infrastructure or lax building codes, right?

I missed about 20 minutes of hysteria because I came to Twitter late. I didn’t want to be rude, so I ignored my phone when I heard an AP news alert blink onto my screen with what I was sure was yet another update about Libya.

After I paid my bill, another diner said to the room at large, looking at his phone, “It was an earthquake.”

I picked up my phone and saw the AP alert. 5.8 magnitude. Epicenter in Virginia. Felt in Washington, New York, Atlanta. “Um. I have to get to work,” I said. I work in a newsroom. What a mad house that place must be right now.

Outside I said good-bye to by friend. Crowds of people had gathered on the sidewalks. Packs of tourists gabbed excitedly. The word “earthquake” was on everyone’s lips. Buildings had apparently been evacuated. Either that, or it was a city-wide smoke break. And everyone seemed to be smoking. I heard a helicopter approaching from the east. Was it the news? Some city department out to survey the … the … damage?

There was no damage.

That’s when it hit me: This was an earthquake. Like an honest-to-god tectonic phenomenon. There could have been major damage. Oh my god, I could have been crushed under the weight of a Chinese restaurant! But I’m lucky. I’m OK. Oh my god, what about elsewhere? What about Virginia. Oh no, what about Washington, D.C.?

I texted my friend: “Get in touch with your parents, and make sure they’re OK.”

As I walked back to work, I looked all around myself for signs of a newly torn sidewalk, a fallen brick, a cracked water pipe, broken windows—but there were no immediate signs of distress. I looked ahead toward the Ben Franklin Bridge. What must that have felt like? To drive across that bridge in an earthquake!

And then I realized I couldn’t even remember anything about it. How much did the building shake? I knew someone would ask. How long did it last? I had no idea—except that, now in retrospect, it seemed that it shook more than it probably should have. I mean, it shook enough that I should have known it was an earthquake. I mean, it was obvious now, wasn’t it? Other people’s stories reinforced (and probably embellished) what little I remembered.

Back at the office, all the kids evacuated from the National Constitution Center across the street were milling about in front of our building. A row of mothers with baby carriages were lined up along the front entrance. I considered the enormous two-story panes of glass covering the entire facade and wondered if that was the smarted place to put a baby. Wouldn’t Independence Mall be safer, where the buildings are wide apart, and none of them nearly as tall as the monsters on this side of the street?

At my desk, my office mate told me how my computer had danced across my desk. Some people had left the building. Others had just stood around stupefied. Would there be aftershocks? Should we leave? Should we stay?

The weirdest thing about the quake was the way it brought us all together. We all had a common experience now: the manager of the Chinese restaurant, the teenagers desperate for a few more weeks of summer, the office workers furiously smoking their cigarettes, the tourists, the moms lined up outside, waiting for sheets of class to cascade down around them. Whether we were terrified or exhilarated, we were all talking about it.


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