*”Are you here for the salami?” asked the scruffy, bearded old man standing next to my parking meter a little after nine on a spectacular Friday morning in Santa Monica. An unusually inquisitive little brown short-haired terrier–it made a point of looking up right into my face–was tied to the man’s shopping cart filled with bottles, cans and assorted junk. While I found his mispronunciation endearing, I knew what the man meant.
Yes, I’d come to Santa Monica Beach for the tsunami.
The night before, like the rest of the world, I’d watched on TV with morbid fascination the surreal, horrific images coming out of Japan of the tsunami, the astonishing result of the record 9.0 earthquake. For those of us living with the daily reality of earthquakes–since I’m in Los Angeles, I’m specifically thinking California–Japan’s heartbreaking disaster is an indication of what could be in our future.
It hasn’t helped our collective nerves that in recent years the world seems to have become an awfully volatile place. The ever present menace of terrorism, a fragile international economy, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the revolution in Egypt, civil war in Libya and recent earthquakes in Chile, Pakistan, China, New Zealand and now Japan–these things force some of us to give serious new thought to the unthinkable.
However, more frightening than the fact that California’s infamous Big One WILL happen one day is the notion that it can’t be predicted. I can’t plan to be out of town the week it comes. However, after Japan’s tsunami, TV’s intrepid talking heads were on the morning news shows insisting that, for once, the Great Unknown was on a schedule.
According to scientists, remnants of Thursday’s tsunami in Japan would hit the California coastline at about 8:30 AM Pacific standard time. Here was a bogeyman I could literally face. In broad daylight. In the spirit of all the crazy things human beings do for reasons we can’t always adequately explain, I showered, dressed, got in my car and headed down to Santa Monica, determined to stare down fate.
The closer I got to the beach town, the more attention I paid to people on the streets. At a bus stop, a teen age girl with a backpack at her side gazed eastward impatiently, waiting for the city bus that would take her to the sand and surf. A man in a supermarket parking lot casually loaded groceries into his car trunk. Two women strolled the boulevard, laughing and talking.
Either none of them had heard about the impending peril, didn’t care or didn’t believe what they’d heard. As anxious as I was to get to the tsunami is how nonchalant these people appeared to go about their morning.
Truth is, if I really thought something life threatening might occur in Santa Monica, I would not have raced to meet the doom. The TV news acknowledged that damage was minimal in Hawaii, where the tsunami had hit before the West coast; conventional wisdom said that by the time it reached us, the water’s force would be even weaker.
Still, I expected more. As I drove past the Santa Monica Pier, I could see that the amusement rides and arcade were shut down. The pier’s entrance was blocked by a Santa Monica Police car, but the cop standing beside it looked bored and a little embarrassed. There were people milling about.
I drove on to a quieter area, parked and after being greeted by the homeless man and his four-legged compadre, walked several yards and bellied up to a less populated part of the miles-long concrete railing overlooking the Pacific Ocean–away from the smattering of locals and tourists who, like me, made the pilgrimage in curious search of catastrophe.
What we found was a postcard view of waves, rolling in a bit higher than usual for the hour, but nothing that would do more than wash out a sand castle or two. It was a typically
stunning California morning, the one-two knockout punch of vast, amazing blue sky and delightfully mild temperature that had seduced generations into skipping work or missing the flight home or inspired them to indeed fly home, land, pack up their things, kiss relatives good-bye and return to L.A, hopeful and smitten.
Looking out on the deep blue, I snickered at my sheer stupidity. And then I thought again of those terrible images out of Japan. I imagined how those people perished–how one minute it was just another day and the next thing they knew, it was the end of the world.
I thanked God for the day, for the very moment that I was able to stand there, alive. I meditated heavily on a thought that comes to me often–the idea that my worse days have been better than the whole lives of many. I considered my blessings. Gratitude is a wonderful word. I am grateful. And to think, it took my stalking what was left of a tsunami to get me to the beach to appreciate the beautiful view before me.
I spent about an hour standing there, thinking, praying and giving thanks before heading back to the car. As I got closer, I noticed the homeless man I’d met earlier, pointing in my direction. With him stood another man.
“Well, one thing’s for sure,” I said when I reached them, “there’s no tsunami out there.”
“Of course, there isn’t,” said the new man, short and stout, speaking through an accent that sounded Russian. “So, how much do you want?”
“How much of what?”
“Salami. My friend here says you came for salami,” he said, pointing to his small food truck. Turns out, every Friday he sells wholesale meats to regular customers who meet him there at the beach. Only no one showed up that day because of talk of a tsunami.
I was about to explain to him that I hadn’t eaten salami in years, that I didn’t even like the meat, when I stopped myself. The homeless man–Mitch–and Nadine, his little dog and myself would share several choice slices as Victor the Russian entertained us with his fanciful tales of the sea. Best salami I ever tasted.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].