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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : Coffee Amid the Chaos: One Man's Search for Normality

January 23, 1994|BOBBY WOODS | Bobby Woods is the president of the entertainment consulting firm, Heart Times Coffee Cup Equals Lightning

This is about the management of fear.

I start my day with a cup of coffee, I don't feel ready until I've had it. I may have a physical addiction to caffeine--a drug I believe will be come prescription-only in the future, similar to what happened to cocaine in the '30s. But more than that, coffee is an anchor in the post-traumatic, subconscious search for order through the chaos of my life.

I'm a native of Los Angeles, and I've had my share of earthquakes. Generally, they don't bother me that much. A few have sent me running out of the house in terror, but over the years I've trained myself not to worry until they hit 3.5.

Only minutes after that terrible quake Monday morning, I looked out over the blackened city still shaking under the stars. I didn't worry about my safety, though I was shivering from fright. Suddenly, all I wanted was a cup of coffee.

There was no way I was going back to sleep. And without power there was no way to brew coffee at my house. So, since I was starting my day at 4:30 a.m., there was only one thing to do. My neighbor, Sheldon, and I piled into the car and headed for the 7-11. We went winding down the Hollywood Hills. In my convertible, we descended into the ravaged and panicked city--in pursuit of a cup of coffee.

Driving down the Sunset Strip, we passed many others who, like us, were afraid to be at home and sought some relief by listening to the news on their car radios. The 7-11 at Sunset and Stanley was open, but they weren't letting anyone in. This convenience store chain had been particularly hard hit during the riots, and these people were ready for trouble. They had a barricade at the door.

Customers lined up outside and told the men at the door what they wanted. Then one of the men would disappear into the store, get the items and make change out of his pocket. Then one employee yelled, "We're out of batteries and water!" A third of the line left.

I finally got a look inside, and headed back to the car. "It's no good," I said, "All the coffee pots are broken. Let's go."

We drove slowly through a city without traffic lights. Drivers were more courteous than usual. But Hollywood was a bust. There was no coffee anywhere. We headed for the Valley.

The sun was just coming up as we went over the Cahuenga Pass. News helicopters flew overhead. A CNN crew had set up in the middle of Ventura Boulevard. Here we were, in the center of an international news scene, as cameras broadcast our story to the world--but without any coffee.

We started to see real damage. The windows of most storefronts had shattered. It seemed as if every house had a fallen chimney or broken wall. "To hell with it," Sheldon said, "Let's get back to see if the house is still standing."

It seemed like a good idea. We turned the car back toward Hollywood and headed up Beverly Glen. Broken water mains had turned some streets into angry, muddy rivers. Natural gas leaks, threatening to explode, whistled under the car. As the aftershocks kept coming, we swerved to avoid rock slides.

Then, at Mulholland, a miracle. A house was in flames ahead of us but, through the smoke, we saw a catering truck. It was parked at the side of the road.

I felt as if we were in the eye of a hurricane. The atmosphere became incredibly peaceful. We stopped in the middle of the street.

A small group of people was standing around the truck, buying food from the Mexican couple inside. Customers made friends and compared stories--each with its own subtext of panic. We make it through our crises by carrying out our own tiny routines.

One woman, wearing a "Roseanne" jacket, ordered a hamburger for her dog. She introduced herself to a man dressed only in his terry-cloth robe. Someone said Jack Nicholson had just driven by, looking "pretty freaked-out."

A man in a perfectly coordinated earthquake outfit was trying to break a $100 bill. Behind him, in the Range Rover, his wife struggled to keep their three children strapped in the baby seats. He asked the cook for bagels and cream cheese as if he were standing at the counter at Greenblatt's. "How about a BLT instead?" she suggested.

I turned and saw David Hockney, whose paintings of swimming pools have come to characterize Los Angeles. He ordered a breakfast burrito off the truck.

Someone had a Watchman and we all saw the broken freeway for the first time. One man put his arm around his wife, comforting her. All of us focused on coffee and hot food while the city rumbled below. Though the day's tragedy was far from over, in its unstoppable way, order was beginning to return.

I poured my cup of coffee, and ordered a fried-egg sandwich. Flames and smoke floated over the troubled valley below. I added cream, and took a sip. And through these seemingly insignificant and eccentric little rituals, the fear was starting to come under control.

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