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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Hand-in-Hand Spirit Is Losing Its Grip

January 26, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

The intersection of Devonshire and Sepulveda was a sight to behold on the morning of the quake. Cars were lined up in four directions, three, even four across. Drivers sat patiently, gripping the wheels a bit tighter than usual.

This was the kind of traffic jam that would normally make you want to scream, or maybe lay on the horn just to work out a few psychic kinks.

But no one disturbed the fragile peace, not even the drivers behind the guy whose camper-topped truck had stalled. His hood was up, but no one behind him could see that, thanks to the camper shell.

"Pardon me," I said as I drove around him. "Might you put your emergency blinkers on so people know to go around?"

"I'm sorry," he said, in grease to his elbows. "If I had the power for that, I wouldn't be in the middle of the road."

"Oh. In that case, I'm terribly sorry."

And so it went at the beginning of last week, at intersections all over town: "You go first." "No, you." "I insist."

We were a city of Chips 'n' Dales, so sweet it almost made your teeth hurt.

But really, how long could it last?

*

Some people came undone fast.

Northridge Pharmacy is as venerable a landmark as you can find in that community, and one of the busiest independent pharmacies in the country. It's been in business for 65 years; for 30 of those at the northwest corner of Reseda and Nordhoff. More than a pharmacy, the store has a large gift shop and the best cosmetics counter this side of a department store. It is known for its personal service and loyal customers.

Pharmacist Barry Pascal, 50, has owned Northridge Pharmacy for two decades. Last Thursday, with virtually no sleep or food since the quake, he was supervising an immense clean up, filling prescriptions, and mourning for customers who had perished in the Northridge Meadows apartments a few blocks away.

Business was conducted out of a small corner of the store--most of the place was awash in broken shelving, porcelain, crystal and sundries. Pascal estimated the loss at anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million.

Customers were being allowed in one at a time, which led to some frayed tempers, particularly among some of the older people.

That afternoon, in fact, a minor psychodrama had played itself out, one from which Pascal was still recovering when we met. A longtime customer, maybe 60, had lost it over a minor problem with a prescription. She screamed at Pascal that she would never shop there again.

The pharmacist blew up: "Don't you say that! We just lost everything here!"

As he told me the story, Pascal was unrepentant but philosophical.

"What I had to take a stand on was taking over the power," he explained. "Complainers are in control. So the issue is not that I lost control, but that I was taking it back. When someone loses control you have to slap them in the face--metaphorically, of course."

The customer, he said, was stunned.

"Just give me a hug," she said finally, "that's all I need."

*

Already, a Valley police officer said, the phone lines are beginning to light up with calls about domestic disturbances, neighbor disputes and traffic altercations.

"Not a lot yet," said Sgt. J.J. Thompson of the Devonshire Division, which covers the northwest Valley, "but those are the kinds of things we are starting to see. We have been surprised that there has been domestic stuff right in the middle of all this. You think people would forget the problems they have and hold hands."

Anyone who screamed at their kids or spouse--or pharmacist--for no reason last week could tell him otherwise.

None of this surprises Jamie Lee Hoffer, a Brentwood graphics designer who lost her Marina District apartment in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, then endured months of nightmarish commutes over the Golden Gate Bridge.

"At first," she said, "people got very hand in hand, stranger with stranger. Everyone opened up their house, people cooked for each other. It was very similar to what we experienced here. Then you found that people retreated inward. Everybody became a bit reclusive. There was a quiet period. Then it got bizarre."

The city known for its civility went feral.

"People just lost it," Hoffer said. "I saw people get out of their cars on the bridge and have fistfights," she said. "I saw them pull people out of their cars."

Please Angelenos, let us not turn into a mob of unruly San Franciscans!

We are all running late for work. We are all running late for dinner. We are all running low on patience.

Damn lucky, too.

After all . . . we're alive.

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