Washington, D.C., USA
August 23, 2011

"When I tested the ink I remembered your black tresses... "

I was copying the above Persian verse from an object on display at the Freer Gallery: a wooden case used for holding calligraphy pens, lacquered and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay.

Then the glass display case in which it was housed began to shake. The walls around me started moving about. A loud rumbling noise came from somewhere.

I stepped away from the glass display case and stood flush up against the wall and spread my arms wide to brace myself. The shaking stopped in about 30 seconds.

Visitors Evacuated from
Natural History Museum
I felt stupid after the quake stopped. Just across the room from where I stood was the perfect cover: a marble archway connecting Gallery 1 to Gallery 2. I'd forgotten the message of the safety drills I first performed back in kindergarten: seek out a stable part of the structure, namely a doorway, to stand beneath. I'd always immediately stepped underneath a doorway during previous earthquakes I've experienced, why did I forget that message this time?

A bald, black security guard standing in the main corridor seemed stunned. He stepped into the gallery and then back out into the corridor, his eyes darting around. I followed him out of the gallery.

"What's up?", I asked.

He didn't give a coherent reply.

"I thought you didn't have earthquakes out here," I continued on.

He finally came around:

Red Cross
Outside Smithsonian
"Neither did I... "

"Well, I guess we've experienced history, then," I said, waving goodbye and continuing along down the corridor. Another security guard--twin to the first in haircut and complexion--was pacing toward my direction, repeatedly clocking his hands around and pointing toward the door.

"Assembly point is across the road. Everybody to the other side of the street!"

"Across the road" meant the central, grassy National Mall.

Standing outside along the curb a woman proclaimed to everybody and to nobody: "That was a 5.6 earthquake!" (The intensity was later gauged at 5.9; why is there always somebody who feels the need to shout out breaking news whenever some major event occurs?)

Crowds Linger Outside
Metro Station
Sirens began to wail in different directions off around the Mall. Emergency services converged in the area. Large white vans from the American Red Cross pulled up outside the Smithsonian Castle. A blue helicopter with the words "U.S. Park Service" spiralled up and down around the Washington Monument. The helicopter was still repeating that pattern when I passed through the area again several hours later.

I walked beyond the Mall and past the Federal Triangle Metro station. Hordes of office workers were clustered in batches along the sidewalk and beneath any shaded area. Nobody seemed to have cell phone service. Long queues were already forming, it appeared for both buses and taxis. There was no panic, but nobody seemed sure what to do, next. Thankfully, it seemed that there was no need for any of the emergency services that had responded.

I walked back to the Mall to take in another exhibition, but all the museums of the Smithsonian had closed up for the remainder of the day. I decided on an impromptu stroll around the Tidal Basin to the site of the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. That's to be formally inaugurated by President Obama this weekend, but has already been opened for the public to preview.

Setting up for Dedication
Ceremony, MLK Jr. Memorial
The new memorial wasn't bad, but it reminded me of so many other large stone statues of historical figures I've seen elsewhere. I wasn't surprised to learn that the sculptor was from China: land of far too many enormous memorials.

It's evening now and everything seems pretty well back to normal. Time for me to try to head back to where I'm staying, up in Friendship Heights along the Maryland/D.C. border. But, the WMATA website announces that the Metro is supposed to be running at only 15 miles per hour pending track inspections for quake damage. Perhaps I'll try a bus, instead...

I hope the Freer Gallery re-opens, tomorrow. I'd like to finish looking at that calligraphy-pen box.