I’ve always wondered about human behavior during emergencies. It seems trite to say it, but some people really do keep their heads and help their fellow man. Others seem to abandon whatever measure of civilization Mom and Mop gave them, shove aside the women and children and hog all the lifeboats for themselves. In 1994 a few troubled souls on a sinking ferry actually robbed their fellow passengers.
I’ve been thinking a lot about such things this week. Last Tuesday in Bulgaria, in the small hours of night, we had an earthquake. News reports would later call it 5.8 or 5.9 on the Richter scale. But there’s really no scale that describes the feeling of waking up in the middle of one.
It was surprisingly, disquietingly silent. There was none of the rumbling, crashing or screaming you’d expect from all of those disaster films. This was more of a rolling effect, like waking to discover that your bed is a boat running through a moderately strong wake. Our belongings — the dresser drawers, the light fixtures — clattered gently in the waves. Nothing fell off the bookshelves, but water slopped out of the cats’ water bowls.
We didn’t even discuss whether to leave. We were seven stories up and our apartment building was rocking back and forth. Who knew whether this was the prelude or the main event? We gathered the cats and passports and laptops, walked down the stairs, and got in the car. Many of our neighbors were doing the same.
For 3 a.m. there was a reasonable amount of traffic, most of it headed away from the tall buildings and crowds. I popped in a Willie Nelson CD to calm our nerves and we headed for an OMV gas station on the edge of the city. We knew it was open 24 hours a day with a nice cafe. Not a bad place to catch our breath.
By the time we arrived, the place was already full of people with the same idea. Two families sat outside at picnic tables; the adults drank coffee and scanned their devices for information, and the kids frolicked on the playground as if this were a normal outing.
But here’s what stuck in my mind.
One 20-something man, drinking beer and surfing the web with his buddies, offered our sleepy daughter a pillow from his car. He almost insisted, and gave us a happy wave when we drove off around 5 a.m.
Arriving back at our house, we decided to park the car in front of the building rather than put it back in the underground garage. I’m not sure why, since we felt safe enough to go back to bed for an hour, but that’s what we did. The parking space seemed free. But apparently someone disagreed. By the time we returned at 7:30 for the drive to school, one of our neighbors had yanked up both of our windshield wipers and pulled one clean off the car. Nice.
None of this is very consequential, of course. But it reinforces my sense that there are two types of people out there in the world: Mr. Pillow and Mr. Wiper Blade.
I’ll leave it at that, except to say: thanks, Mr. Pillow. You did humanity proud. I’ll ride shotgun with you anytime.