Universal City (An excerpt from the book The Myth of Solid Ground) / David L. Ulin

One Saturday morning, I find myself in the first car of a Metro Red Line subway, rolling from Hollywood to Universal City, directly underneath the Cahuenga Pass. To my right, my seven-year-old son Noah presses up against the front window, peering forward down the tunnel as he pretends to be the driver, while behind us sit the usual array of public transportation riders — parents with babies, pensioners, weekend shoppers, tourists, all caught between proximity and distance, between the slow suspension of this moment and the anticipation of arriving further on. To ride the subway in Los Angeles is its own form of dislocation; this is a driving city, after all. Yet despite the contradictions, the experience is oddly comforting, because it brings me face-to-face with the complexity, the chaos, of this human world. Among the common critiques of Southern California is that it’s a segregated society, that people do not mix, but stay in their backyards. On the subway, though, you see everybody: black, white, Latino, Asian, male and female, young and old. This is one reason I like it down here, the way it reminds me of just how much resides below the surface, of all the overlap, the connections we do not generally get to see. Still, it’s something of a tenuous balance, since at a certain point, I always end up remembering that I’m in a concrete tube burrowed under hundreds of feet of shifting rocks and soil and sediment, all of which feels as if it’s poised to collapse at the first substantial slip along the fault. I used to think about this a lot back when I lived in San Francisco, used to clasp my hands together every time I boarded a BART train. And today, I feel that same slow prickle of apprehension, a feeling somewhere between uneasiness and anxiety, as I quickly offer up a silent whisper: Please, not here, not now.
     The subway hisses to a stop at Lankershim Boulevard, and as the doors slide open, most of the passengers, including Noah and myself, disembark. I gasp a quick sigh of relief to be out of the tunnel, to re-enter a world of space and light. Although we’re still below street level, the station here is open, airy, with a high vaulted ceiling arcing up above us like a carapace. In the middle of the platform, a public art project — words and images etched on tiles, and installed across a succession of pillars — tells the story of this site, once known as Campo de Cahuenga, where, on January 13, 1847, General Andrés Pico surrendered California to John C. Fremont, effectively ending the Mexican-American War. That’s another piece of subterranean history, another layer, a bit of texture, a story most people in Los Angeles don’t know any longer, if, in fact, they ever did. No matter where you go in California, you find settings much like this one, places where the past has been eclipsed, where there should be monuments, but you see only streets or subway stations instead. This is why so many people characterize the state in terms of erasure, of forgetting, although to me, the more salient point is that history will always reappear. «[S]cratch the surface a little and the desert shows through,» Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1941 about Southern California, and sixty years later, that still evokes the very essence of the landscape, the idea that here, the past is always lurking, always waiting, covered over but still present, hidden in the least regarded hollows of our lives.
     Most days, I would stop and point the project out to Noah, talk about Campo de Cahuenga, trace the fragile filaments of time. This morning, however, Noah and I are in no mood for history; we’re Universal Studios bound. For months, I’ve been promising to take him here, and as we mount the escalator and ride to daylight, he chatters animatedly about what he wants to see. «Is this where they really make the movies?» he asks, and when I say yes, his face splits into a toothy grin. I’m excited, too, but for a different reason — I want to go on the studio tour, because they fake the Big One in a subway station much like this. In some ways, it’s like going to another shake test, except that this time, we not only get to witness the earthquake, but experience it for ourselves. That, as Noah has pointed out, is what was missing from my visit to San Diego, and if a theme park attraction is more elaborately constructed than a scientific experiment, what does that say about the intersection of myth and reality, the manner in which fantasy and fact collide? Again, a skeptic might just chalk it up to California, but I see the whole thing in more fundamental terms. No, like that «Welcome to L.A.» photo, a simulated earthquake is nothing so much as a coping mechanism, an expression of bravado, an attempt to mediate seismicity, to reduce it to a human level, a strategy for making it our own.
     Outside, Noah and I cross Lankershim Boulevard, and take a tram up to the Universal parking lot. There, we navigate the Saturday crowds. All around us are the signposts of illusion, from the ersatz urbanity of CityWalk — an outdoor mall adjacent to Universal Studios whose prefabricated storefronts, dancing waters, and garish, jutting neon look like a set designer’s nightmare of what a city street might be — to the performers who entertain while we wait for tickets, Laurel and Hardy look-alikes in full character regalia, flipping their ties and looking sad around the eyes. Inside, it’s both more and less of the same: the first thing we see is an enormous replica of the shark from Jaws, hanging upside down, mouth gaping, as if it’s just been caught and killed. One more archetypal danger diminished, I think, one more collective terror contained. Noah sticks his head in the shark’s mouth, and I take a picture; then, we move on to an enclosed pavilion where kids shoot plastic balls at one another, and from there, to an enormous water park, with slides and levels and floor-mounted super soakers, as well as a huge elevated bucket that spills over periodically, drenching everything within a thirty foot swath. I stand off to the side, watch Noah run in and out of the water for about twenty minutes, before I wave him over and suggest we take the tour. «What do they have?» he asks, his voice rising, eyes going narrow, slightly skeptical. «What are we going to see?» I tell him the tour will take us all over the studio, that we’ll see special effects, rain storms and mudslides, the smoke and mirrors of this manufactured world. «I don’t know,» I say, «there might even be an earthquake.» And for the first time, I get a little taste of what it’s like to be a predictor, hinting at possibilities, offering projections of the future, tapping into someone else’s anticipation and desire.
     After all, at the mention of the word earthquake, Noah gets excited; «A big one?» he asks, and when I shrug my shoulders, his eyes begin to gleam. It’s strange: here he is, seven years old, a lifelong Californian, and the only tremors he’s gone through have been at the lowest levels of conscious reckoning, like that pair of small September quakes. This is the other side of earthquake country, the way periods of activity are intercut with long interludes of quiet, which lull you into thinking that the planet is somehow stable, that there is such a thing as solid ground. In the seventy-five years after 1906, for instance, just one Bay Area earthquake reached magnitude 6 or greater, which means that many people lived entire lives beside the faultline without ever coming into direct contact with a seismic threat. I think about this as Noah and I take seats in the open tram and visit the New York streets and the European village, as we cross a mechanically collapsing bridge and watch a flash flood inundate a Mexican mountain town. It’s like one last overlay of illusion, a final image of how seismicity eludes us, the idea that, in California of all places, we would have to come to an amusement park in order for Noah to undergo his first significant quake.
     The tour continues through the backlot, highlighting all the familiar landmarks of this parallel world. We part the Red Sea and watch a shark attack, see the house from Psycho and the cul-de-sac where Beaver Cleaver lived. After half an hour, I start to feel the faint pull of uncertainty, to wonder if I’ve got it wrong. We’ve been all over the studio, and no earthquake appears on the horizon; could it have been replaced by a newer installation, something like the Mummy’s tomb? I look around to check the possibilities, but the street we’re on is lined with soundstages, beige warehouse-style buildings that give nothing away. At the front of the tram, the guide begins to discuss continuity, warning us that we’re about to enter a live set, and that if we touch anything, it could disturb the actors, or even sabotage the film. Another complex system, I think to myself, another case of randomness and influence. Then, the soundstage doors slide open, and the tram rolls forward, and before I know it, we’re pulling up alongside a subway platform, while our guide announces that we’ve just arrived in San Francisco, at the fictional Waterfront Station, somewhere underneath downtown.
     As the tram comes to a stop, I sense a flutter of anticipation, like I’m sitting on the cusp of something, something I wasn’t sure I’d see. This is it, I think, and I’m relieved to have made it, but once the moment settles, relief slowly gives way to confusion, and I wonder what exactly this might be. I’m not the only one; while our guide chatters on about the food at the Craft Services table, Noah, who’s ridden BART more than once himself, leans over and informs me that this station doesn’t look at all like the real thing. He’s right, of course — the ceiling is too low, the tracks too close, too narrow, and there’s a rundown quality to the whole construction, as if the walls themselves were saggy, broken, tired. I remember the tension I used to feel in San Francisco, the way that every BART excursion came accompanied not just by prayer, but by a succession of mental images, a private movie of my own most ghastly imaginings: the rumble of the earth and the shaking, always the shaking, as everything caved in. Still, although I try to bring back the sensation, it remains beyond my access, much like the memory itself. This is the problem with illusion; no matter what, you always know that it’s not real. I look at Noah, but he’s gone back to checking out the station, so I turn my attention to the tour guide, and as I do, the earthquake hits.
     When I say earthquake, I mean earthquake, for fake or not, it takes me by surprise. It doesn’t matter that I know it’s coming; one second, I’m sitting in my plastic tram seat, waiting, and the next, I’m being jolted into Noah, who jumps at the onset of the tremor and gives an involuntary gasp. My sense of being caught off guard, though, is as short-lived as it is unexpected, ending once the shaking starts in earnest, a prolonged and jagged shaking roll. It feels a little bit like Northridge, except the movements are too uniform, too regulated — big and blocky, with none of the organic flow, the variations of pitch, of roll, of intensity, which mark a natural temblor in the middle of its throes. «See?» I say to Noah. «I told you there might be an earthquake.» He smiles briefly, a fleeting flash of teeth, but his eyes are darting, nervous, and when the tram starts rocking side-to-side along the trackbed, he wraps his body around my arm. «It’s okay,» I whisper as he presses against me. «It’s just a special effect. Everything is fine.» Up front, our guide tries her best to play the moment, although she overdoes it; «Everybody stay calm,» she yells, as if we were in a real disaster. «In California, this happens all the time.» As she speaks, her face widens in mock horror, but a telltale grin flickers, moth-like, at the corners of her mouth.
     And I don’t know if it’s the setting, or the quality of the shaking, or if it’s some indefinable conflation of the two. But as the earthquake starts to move in earnest, I begin to feel, well, disenchanted — or maybe disassociated is a better word. A simulated temblor may help us exert control over the uncontrollable, to take an open-ended fear and frame it in terms we can understand. In the end, however, it’s no more engaging than a shake test, except you get to stand inside. Last year, when I came back from San Diego, I thought this was the issue, that my inability to go through the earthquake, to feel it, had made me stand apart. Today, I have the same sensation, the same inescapable edge of distance, as if I’m watching something happening to someone else. Partly, this has to do with Noah, with my desire to keep an eye out, to make sure he’s okay. Nonetheless, as the earthquake continues, Noah’s nervousness evaporates; he loosens his grip on my arm, and starts to look around. Certainly, there’s plenty to observe here: while the tram slams back-and-forth, the roof splits open, revealing a jagged patch of pavement and a row of storefronts, including a Chinese restaurant. «Hey,» Noah says, eyes bright as flashlights, «it’s the street above the subway,» and as he leans forward, the tarmac tilts and, in one piece, slides into the station, the motion so slow and even it’s like a giant lever has been thrown. Once the street has fallen, an oil truck begins to roll inevitably towards us, slipping down the pavement as if on an invisible rail. Every bit of movement seems to have been choreographed, up to the moment the truck collides with a pillar and bursts into flame. We feel a flash of heat, of light, but it recedes when a train appears on the opposite track. Horn blaring, it plows into the truck and derails, rolling across the platform in another controlled skid. A water main ruptures, and the station begins to flood.
     By now, Noah is bouncing right along with the earthquake, as if this were a roller coaster ride. He’s not scared, but neither is he awestruck; rather, he seems to take the experience in stride. As a parent, this is what you hope for, but even so, I can’t help feeling that he’s disappointed, that this temblor hasn’t done what it was meant to do. Initially, I think, that’s because of the flimsiness of the illusion, the way that, for all its vivid iconography — the collapsing street, the exploding tanker, the subway derailing, those elemental images of devastation — this event is almost entirely smaller than life. It’s not just the mechanical pitch and yaw of the shaking, but the insubstantiality of the effects, the way the burning truck looks like a three-dimensional image on a billboard, while the train is an aluminum tube on shopping cart wheels. The real reason, though, becomes clear just before we leave the soundstage, after the earthquake is done. We’re in the tram, waiting — for some kind of clearance, word that they’re ready at the next stop — when the subway station starts to come together, as if time itself had magically reversed. First, the train pulls back onto the track and withdraws from the station; then, the tanker returns to the upper level, and in one smooth motion, the ceiling closes off the street from view. Gone is the flooding, gone the fire and destruction, gone every bit of evidence that anything has happened here at all. It’s the perfect caricature of a miracle, in which, at the touch of a finger, the past becomes retrievable, and events rewind with the regularity of a clock.
     And just like that, I understand what’s happening, why I wanted to see this earthquake, and why I’m leaving unfulfilled. What we’ve just experienced is the ultimate mechanical earthquake, the earthquake the predictors mean to claim. It’s an event devoid of randomness, one that repeats at well-defined intervals, in patterns that are utterly deterministic, so controlled that, when it’s finished, it actually erases itself. To some extent, this is a metaphor for how we live in California, how we shrug off seismicity, turn it into rides and stories, reconstruct collapsed buildings and fallen freeways and try to forget the way they looked before. But if that’s the case, then it’s a metaphor with no depth, no history, a metaphor of a neverending present tense. This, you could argue, is the point entirely, the very essence of a mediated earthquake, that it is something we can box up and name. You can see it, you can quantify it; it has no shadows, no unexplained correlations — everything exists in black-and-white. Still, while it’s interesting, even occasionally surprising, to sit in an imitation subway station and watch it rumble, in the end, it tells us nothing of ourselves. There is no danger, no sense of chaos: in short, no question about how the earthquake ends.
     If I ever doubted that we need this, I’m given one more reminder towards the end of the day. Noah and I are back in the subway — the real subway — standing on the Lankershim platform, waiting for the Red Line to Hollywood. Ahead of us, the tunnels yawn black and tight, pathways cutting through the hills. The station, meanwhile, seems to float like a cathedral, an enormous empty space in which I pray. It looks nothing like the set at Universal, but that doesn’t mean it’s more stable; in fact, it feels both more and less substantial at the same time. So once again, I clasp my hands and whisper: Please, not here, not now.
     Noah watches me for a minute, then draws a deep breath. «Dad?» he says, and when I nod, he asks me, «What would happen if there was an earthquake down here?» I take a good long look to try and gauge him, although his eyes are hard to read. But finally, I have nothing but uncertainty to offer …
     «I don’t know,» I tell him. «I don’t know.»


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