Waking Up to a New York City Earthquake

The 4.8-magnitude earthquake that hit near Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, on Friday morning was, in many quarters of New York City, an anecdote generator of seismic intensity. The shaking woke me up; I groggily confirmed my suspicions on X, where all the posts said, basically, “Was that an earthquake?” Minutes later, I was dressed and

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The 4.8-magnitude earthquake that hit near Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, on Friday morning was, in many quarters of New York City, an anecdote generator of seismic intensity. The shaking woke me up; I groggily confirmed my suspicions on X, where all the posts said, basically, “Was that an earthquake?” Minutes later, I was dressed and outdoors, recorder in pocket, to do what I do best: eavesdrop on my neighbors. It wasn’t hard. “Sarah!” the proprietor of a basement-level dry-cleaning establishment said. He was standing on the sidewalk, marvelling. “I heard the noise. Took took took took! ” he said, loudly. He waved his arms as if he were shaking something—a gesture I would see many times. “I never heard anything like it. What’s that, what’s this noise? Nothing moved. Only the noise. Like a voice from the ground. Took took took.”

On First Avenue, know-it-alls were out in full effect, and clusters of strangers were invoking California.

“On the top floor it felt like a big truck,” a woman announced. “But as if it could actually move the building?”

“I was at my job on Sixteenth Street,” another woman said. “I’m from California. I was taught, especially in brick buildings, to go outside.” The group discussed building structures in the East and West Village. “All the tenement buildings, they’re all, like, done for, in any kind of earthquaking,” one woman said. The woman who’d come from her job had wanted to check on her dogs—they were fine—and to be near her kid and her home. “Next to a cast-iron bathtub!” a man said. They laughed.

At a café on Seventh Street, an older man was telling a story, arms waving, about an earthquake he’d experienced once, and a toilet crashing through a ceiling. This was also in California. A woman near me said, “4.8 is an aftershock in California.” Two college-age women in line behind me had just been in art class. “They were, like, ‘Oh, it’s the subway,’ ” one said. “The chairs were shaking. It just felt like when you’re on top of the subway—but much stronger—and our class is not above a subway. I thought it was a bomb.”

Nearby, a woman repeatedly shaking her arms as if trying to throttle somebody—a motion I’d come to recognize as the earthquake-anecdote gesture—concluded her account with, “And no one could give a flying fuck!” A shopkeeper in a prewar building told me he’d heard his door rattling but didn’t feel a tremor; he thought it was construction outside. He explained that he was from Malaysia, where they don’t have frequent earthquakes—that was more of a Taiwan thing. Back on Seventh Street, a guy who looked like a super was standing in front of a building, talking on his phone. “The building has collapsed!” he bellowed. “Ha-ha—I’m just joking!”

Meanwhile, updates were pouring in on my phone. When the quake hit, a friend in the Bronx had been standing on a chair, reaching for coffee in a cabinet; she made it down safely. On a group text with three friends, two in Los Angeles and one in Brooklyn, vibes were exchanged: we were fine, the New Yorkers sheepishly assured the Californians. My friend in Brooklyn shared a photo of his freaked-out tabby cat, wide-eyed and cowering behind a pair of sneakers. “I went to Macy’s and immediately bonded with the woman at the counter,” he texted. “She pointed to where she had been standing and said she didn’t say anything to her boss because she was worried he’d think she was sick or drunk!”

“We’re reading Anne of Green Gables, and last night we read the chapter where Anne accidentally gets her friend Diana drunk when she confuses currant wine for raspberry cordial,” one of the L.A. friends wrote. “It’s exciting to have two anecdotes of people who feel woozy/dizzy and don’t know why!”

In Tompkins Square Park, cops near a cruiser were drinking iced coffee and smoking. Daffodils were blooming. Two young people in the skateboard lot told me they’d been on the subway from Williamsburg and didn’t feel the tremors. “I felt like we missed out,” one said. “It would’ve been cool to be skateboarding while it happened.” I went to another café, where, an hour after the quake, talk had broadened to other kinds of disasters—volcanoes, hurricanes, floods, some I couldn’t discern. “We’ll be experiencing more of those as the world falls apart,” a barista said to his friend. “There’s no standing under a doorframe, no ‘Stop, drop, and roll’—you’re just fucked.” He turned to a customer. “Hi, can I help you?”

At Superiority Burger, newly open for lunch, anecdotes were flying, as were shaking arms to illustrate them. The chef, Brooks Headley, told me that his apartment building had shaken so hard that he thought the water tower on the roof had collapsed. He had experienced nothing like it, he said, except for an earthquake in Tokyo, which freaked him out, though no one else there had batted an eyelash. The nice young woman who brought me my grilled cheese sandwich had not felt the quake. She pointed to her baseball hat, which she’d put on early that morning. “It says ‘earthquake’ in Spanish,” she told me. “I don’t know if I brought this on or what.” Why did she have a hat that says “earthquake” in Spanish?

“It’s my friend’s landscape-architecture firm in California,” she said. “I haven’t worn it in months.” ♦

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