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ON CALIFORNIA

Waiting for . . . Something

September 28, 1997|PETER H. KING

SEAL BEACH — No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.

--Nathanael West, "The Day of the Locust"

*

All day long they kept coming to the Seal Beach Pier. They came on lunch breaks and after work. They came pushing strollers, clutching video cameras. This was Thursday, and they came because they had heard radio reports about high surf and flooded beach houses, about a big tropical storm named Nora set to pummel the coast. Or they came because they had seen the television helicopters overhead, marking the latest urban disaster as surely as buzzards mark a corpse.

They came for the same reasons that rubber-neckers will pause at freeway wreck sites, that a roadside mob gathered to cheer along the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase. They came because they were fascinated, or because they were bored, but mainly because they live in a place that has become addicted to spectacle. To call them ghouls would be far too simplistic, unfair. They just wanted to be a part of something big, something real, something occurring beyond the rectangular stage of a television set.

"You don't see this every day," was how a young man with bleached hair and a goatee explained it. He was a local, calling out by name to surfers in the foaming water below. He pointed down to a broken 4-by-6 board dangling beneath the pier. It was a piece of the pier's underpinning, and it had been cracked moments before by a big wave.

"I'll tell you what," he said. "I'm not staying on this pier very long, that's for sure."

He laughed, but he did not leave.

*

The best place to stand was about halfway up the pier. Here it not only was possible to watch the bulldozers at work, piling up a sand berm in a bid to save the beach houses, but also to experience the raw power of the storm. This was where the waves broke, pounding against the pilings, making the pier tremble like an old wooden roller coaster.

"Oh, my God," an older woman sang out as the pier rocked again and again. "Oh, my God. Oh, my God." Her husband, looking a little disconcerted by her enthusiasm, suggested they move on. She ignored him, watching over the rail for the next big wave.

Not everybody was so vocal. More typically, pier-goers after each shaking would exchange glances. They'd lift an eyebrow, smile a thin, nervous smile. If they thought the pier might actually tumble into the sea they would not, of course, be there. Still, this look said, maybe . . .

In between waves, some people played urban bird watcher, trying to identify the station affiliation of each helicopter. Others analyzed the work of the bulldozers or swapped estimates of the collective real estate value of the threatened beach properties. There was much back-and-forth about the size and angle of wave it would take to bring down the pier.

The view was surreal, strangely beautiful. In the foreground, surfers bobbed on the water, children pranced in the bulldozer tracks and volunteers lugged sandbags in toy wagons. This was set against a backdrop of the Long Beach high-rises, refinery smokestacks and, to the east, distant mountains that rose up to meet a gray wall of thunderheads. It also was possible to observe occupants of the beach houses gathered on upper balconies, watching the tide rise and gawking at the pier crowd gawking at them.

*

The climax was preordained by the tide, nature's most predictable force. High tide was set for 6:15 p.m. It was then the houses would be in danger of flooding again, as they had at dawn. Most people on the pier did not give the makeshift berm much of a chance. More than a few people--people on shore, mostly--predicted the pier, too, would fall.

As the moment of danger drew closer, the crowd swelled. Hundreds upon hundreds of people now jammed the pier, standing three-deep at the rail to watch the water advance up the beach. Six p.m. sharp. Now the bulldozers, lights on, worked in deep water, beeping as they backed up, roaring as they pushed forward with a fresh scoop of sand . 6:05. "Here it comes!" someone shouted. 6:10. "I am afraid in a few minutes all that bulldozer work is going to be for nothing," a man matter-of-factly told his wife on the pier. 6:15. Nothing. 6:20. Nothing, still.

The waves reached the berm, but did not cross it. The sea at high tide seemed almost calm. The cloud cover had broken, creating a gorgeous sunset. The storm had passed. One by one, the television helicopters flitted away, silhouetted against the sky's red light. So, too, did the pier crowd. It had not been something big, but at least it had been . . . something.

"Well, I say go eat," one burly man in short pants declared to another.

"Go eat?" his partner responded.

"Go eat."

"Tacos?"

"Tacos."

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