If twenty-five years and a day ago you had asked me whether a seismic event measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale would change my life, I am sure the answer would have been «of course.»
Two days later, I would have laughed and said it was silly, that it was just an earthquake. While a little exciting it wasn’t something that changed me. There were other people whose lives were really and directly affected by the Loma Prieta ‘quake, and you should be more concerned about them. I was fine, nothing to see here, move on, thanks for asking.
Today it is hard to look back twenty-five years into the past and see any part of my life that was not significantly changed by that event. Being there during the ‘89 ‘quake invested me in the Bay Area, and invested me in San Francisco. I’ve seen the City before and after Loma Prieta, and the City is a much different place: in some ways much better, and in other ways not. But that day I was present for San Francisco’s history. It’s about more than just being able to tell the story and say «I was there.» In any relationship there will come a difficult time when it becomes clear that love means taking the good with the bad.
I mark this as the twenty-fifth anniversary of becoming a Giants fan. On that day, baseball saved hundreds of lives. If the Bay Area traffic had been as congested as usual, the initial death toll estimates (over 300) would have been closer to accurate. Instead, almost the entire Bay Area was at home or in a bar waiting for the start of the Oakland A’s playing the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 World Series. Sixty-three deaths is sixty-three too many, but if it weren’t for the «Bay Bridge Series», there would have been many more to mourn.
I was in a painting critique at the San Francisco Art Institute when the earthquake happened. I’ve joked that God must have really hated that painting. I really don’t remember what painting we were talking about or whose it was, but it’s a dumb joke anyway.
My first thought when I felt the movement was, «aha! the freshmen get to freak out because it’s their first earthquake.» I’d experienced some smaller tremors since I moved to San Francisco—tremors that felt no bigger than a truck going past outside. But this kept rolling and went on much longer than I thought it would. Other people were getting up and going to stand under the doorway, and I could see the enormous windows in the painting studio moving like giant transparent trampolines. The center of the windows were going back and forth an entire foot. I decided that I ought to follow and go stand in the doorway.
Being the last to get to the door in a class of more than a dozen art students, I was only near the actual doorframe. I questioned the wisdom of standing where I was as I looked up and saw the giant metal painting racks with many large stretched canvases rattling back and forth above me. Nothing collapsed and all was fine. The lights went out, everything got quiet except for the sounds of car alarms, and we all made a brisk path for the nearby exit.
Reports came in sporadically from people with radios. Things sounded worse than they were, which was troubling even with the warnings that we were getting thirdhand information and we didn’t really know what was happening. Someone said that the Bay Bridge had collapsed. There were reports of widespread power outages and fires. Everything seemed quiet in the faculty parking lot, but there was a lot of tension about what might have happened.
The teacher of the class in which we’d been having the critique was a young and talented painter named Ann Carter (see the second sub-article). She must have been twenty-eight. She had taken me to a couple of exhibitions outside of classtime and we’d had some great conversations. She’s one of the few instructors at the Art Institute who actually gave me suggestions about technique. I had a major schoolboy crush.
Ann was (not just literally) shaken. The bridges were closed and she lived in Oakland. This turned out to be a pretty common problem and a plan was hatched to all go to the flat of one of my classmates, over by Duboce Park. Ann didn’t want to drive and asked if anyone had a drivers license and felt capable of driving her pickup for her. Eager to impress, I stepped up. I also knew how to drive a stickshift.
Looking up over Russian Hill, I saw dark clouds with a reddish glow from beneath. It looked strange—the clouds were much darker than San Francisco fog usually is. I assumed that it was simply a trick of the setting sun behind the clouds.
I was wrong. As I crested Russian Hill it was obvious that we were looking at smoke, and then that we were looking at flames. There is no moment in my life etched more indelibly into my memory than seeing the Marina District burning.
I had seen fires before, and footage of buildings on fire where looking up there is a building visible with flames coming out from it. This was totally unlike any image of fires I’d seen. There were no buildings visible; entire city blocks were ablaze and what buildings were burning were impossible to see. The flames rose above the neighborhood in an inferno twice or three times the height of the buildings that burned.
Today I saw a photograph1 of the fire. Twenty-five years later the low-resolution gif gave me an unexpected sense of panic that brought me to tears. I mused for a moment whether the statute of limitations had run out on post-traumatic stress disorder, but of course such a thing never «expires» if it still affects people. Also, it’s not something that haunts me daily. Post-traumatic stress is natural. The disorder is when it continues on past its healthy lifetime. When seeing a photograph that brings back a vivid and troubling memory, powerful emotions are probably appropriate.
That was the first time I learned something about my capacity for courage. It wasn’t a large thing, but in the face of this horrifying sight, I was responsible for safely piloting the pickup truck. Was it because I wanted to impress the woman I was infatuated with? Perhaps. But I very quickly realized that it was necessary to feel the shock and stay present with my task. More importantly, I learned that was something I was capable of.
I observed something else marvelous during that drive. Traffic was the most manageable I’d ever seen in San Francisco. There were not traffic lights, yet at every intersection, every driver stopped and took turns going through the intersection. Every driver I saw on the streets that day was cautious and considerate. One could take that as a libertarian fable of the unnecessary nature even of the basic regulation of traffic, or one could take that as an illustration that people come together in a crisis. I believe that there is some truth to both but that neither is a complete answer.
We drank wine on the grass at Duboce park and watched the Goodyear blimp go back and forth in the distance. Telephones were mostly useless but I was able to get a quick phone call out to my family back East. I kept it brief and gave instructions to pass the word along.
That night I slept on the floor in a room with Ann. We lay facing one another holding each other’s hands as though we were praying with only one set of hands between us. In a way, I suppose we were. Of course nothing romantic ever happened between us, but that too is a night marked indelibly in my memory.
A dozen years later I went back to the Art Institute to take a couple of classes. At the Registrar’s office I looked at my old transcripts and asked whether Ann Carter was still teaching. The woman looked up at me from her desk and quietly said, «Ann Carter isn’t with us any more.» Ann committed suicide only a few months before I asked about her. She suffered from depression as I do. While I don’t pretend that I could have changed what she did, I wish I’d asked after her earlier. I wish I’d had the chance to hold her hands once more to reassure her that she didn’t suffer alone. I know that she had other people in her life who could and did tell her that. I regret that I couldn’t have been one of them.
I went down to the bus stop at Columbus and Chestnut in shock. I waited in front of a liquor store that used to sell me vodka when I was underage and a bar that I used to be able to sneak into. It had been four years since my last drink and it was vitally clear to me that I did not want another one. Avoiding the grief I was feeling would dishonor her memory. The loss was real and the pain was because something precious was gone. To not feel that would mean it wasn’t precious.
So many of the threads that run through my life started on that day that the ground shook. I can’t imagine what a different person I would be today if it had not happened. It would be wrong to follow the above story with stories of less meaningful changes, but they abound.
Damage makes us heal stronger and better than we were. It’s not always true, but it is amazing to see when it is. I’m reminded of this when I walk or run on the Embarcadero which today is a beautiful promenade instead of the oppressively dark and dingy underside of a freeway it was before the Embarcadero Freeway was damaged and torn down. The 880 connector from the Bay Bridge which replaced the Nimitz Freeway is a great improvement in terms of traffic flow, and Mandela Parkway with its central esplanade is spacious and strangely soothing. Cypress Street was never either.
I will add this one thing: I am very fortunate to live in a place where the architectural and structural resources exist to make buildings which withstand earthquakes better than they do in most parts of the world. It was not as personal, but it gave me great sadness in 2003 when an earthquake in Bam, Iran which at the time was estimated as a 6.9—the same as Loma Prieta—killed 26,271 people and injured another 30,000.
So it is bittersweet to observe this anniversary. It reminds me how significant the events in life are, no matter how much in the moment they appear to be just life going on and providing its occasional surprises. The events in our life have meaning far greater than anything we can know until we look back later. As ordinary as any moment might seem they are connected and intertwined. The crises we face have to be dealt with in the moment, but are ultimately defined by the ways they change us, both seen and unseen.
I’ve lighted a candle here in the apartment. It’s a tiny gesture but it’s here to remind me of the twenty-six thousand far away, of the sixty-three closer to home, and the one whose hands I held.
You are remembered.