I don’t remember if we closed or if I finished out my shift, but about an hour after the quake I headed home, walking along Van Ness in the growing dusk. This was the days before cell phones, and the chatter among people was constant, and rife with rumors and hubbub. The bridge collapsedwas something I heard and discounted. It was not possible, or so I thought. A few blocks west, a man with a shopping cart full of his possessions had a transistor radio, and a couple of people were huddled around it, listening to the news. A man in an expensive suit. A woman with a small child. I joined them. We listened together for some time. KGO, as always, was the voice of reason, calm, and solid information. Yes, in fact, part of the bridge had fallen. It was a strange, but quite beautiful moment of community, the cluster of us.
I stepped away and continued up Van Ness. It was now almost dark, but many of the lights were out so it was darker than San Francisco usually is at that hour. The adrenalin began to be reabsorbed into my body as I walked faster. My brow furrowed against the strangely warm air as I began to realize this was much more than a hiccup. My ignorance swept over me. My husband was at a baseball game. The World Series. He, my brother, and my brother-in-law were all there. They’d been thrilled to go, even though the seats were fairly high up in the stands. I pictured the rough old concrete of Candlestick Park which seemed to wobble even in a stiff wind. Would it survive?
The rest of my walk was a worried blur. I arrived home at our apartment on Clay Street between Larkin and Hyde. I went straight in and found our cat, Boomer, scared out of his wits, but just fine. A bookshelf had emptied but the apartment looked fine otherwise. I called my sister in the east bay. She was seven months pregnant, and fine. Mom was fine. Dad was fine. Everybody was fine. She and I speculated about what our husbands would do. She said news was coming in of traffic ground to a halt because of a collapse of the Nimitz freeway. The casualties would turn out to be in the dozens. I thought, I hoped, my husband, brother, and brother-in-law would make their way to me, but how would they get here? Were the busses running? I grabbed a pack of cigarettes – yes, opera singers smoke sometimes, especially when there are earthquakes – and headed down to the street, where I smoked and chatted with my neighbors.
After several hours my husband arrived home. I will never forget the look on my brother-in-law’s face before I had the chance to tell him that my sister, his wife, was fine. It is the only time I have ever seen him scared.
I tried to convince my brother and brother-in-law to stay with us. The world seemed a scary place and I was glad to have them back in my circle. But they decided to make their way across the Bay.
Eventually I went back to work. Those days I had the duty of ordering the books for opera and music section, an honor I abused terribly, ordering every book I was interested in until finally they took the assignment from me. That era was a pinnacle of glory for the opera. The season before I had heard La Bohème with none other than Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni, a performance so convincing and impeccable it caused me never again to lament casting grand sized opera singers in the role of young lovers. A month before the quake I had seen the great Jessye Norman in recital, and the season had opened with a sexy, smashing Luluand Sam Ramey at the peak of his voice as Mefistofeles. In general the San Francisco Opera in late eighties offered a series of performances I feel proud and lucky to have beheld, very often grabbing a sandwich after work at the bookstore, and spending the evening leaning on the rail behind the orchestra section flanked by my fellow standees.
The performance scheduled for the night of the Quake was cancelled. Subsequent performances took place at the Masonic Auditorium and later the Civic Center as a substantial repairs and seismic retrofit were performed on the War Memorial Opera House, a place many in the city and music-loving community of the Bay Area consider almost a person, at least a friend. But opera fans put up with the inconvenice, and the cavernous acoustics elsewhere. Even later, back at the opera house, most of us took a moment before the curtain rose to look up at the tight meshed net that seemed to defy the gravity of the crumbled ceiling. But like the city in 1906, San Francisco Opera showed itself to be the comeback King.
The actual tragedies touched me only peripherally. When I went to my Italian lesson the day after the Quake, my teacher was in tears. His friend had been one of those who died in the Marina, a neighborhood built on landfill that had fared quite poorly. A good friend from high school had exited the Nimitz freeway less than a minute before it collapsed. But the worst had been spared to those closest to me and I felt that mixture of relief and guilt common to all survivors.
Two years later, when a firestorm engulfed the Oakland Hills, I was living on the East Coast. At first I paid small attention to the news of “a fire in California.” It’s a big state, it could’ve been anywhere. Then I realized it was directly above my parents’ home and I watched the news in horror. In the end, my parents’ home was just below the evacuation line, and though my brother had hosed down the roof and they had stood and watched the hillside burn, they were safe, as was the grand lady of the Claremont Hotel, a landmark most of us East Bay natives consider iconic.
Since then, disaster has become more common, and more personal. Two years ago, in the weeks following fires here, we suffered a noxious and oppressive air quality for days, and shortly following that my cousin, young, healthy, and in his early forties, died suddenly of a heart problem. He was not technically a victim of the fire, but in my mind the events are forever linked. And I have two friends who lost everything to fire, or rather almost everything. They left with the clothes on their back, and their dogs. Their strength in the aftermath has amazed me. I don’t pity them, because I have seen them triumph.
The months following the Quake, the book Fifteen Seconds positively flew off the shelf in the bookstore. A hastily published paperback coffee table book, it encapsulated the worst events of the Quake, and it was one of those times in the bookstore trade that one book absolutely took over a section of the industry. When that book came out, I’d say all of San Francisco wanted a copy. And I can understand why. The mind needs help after an event like that. It seems almost unreal. Looking at those pictures, of fallen buildings, of people gathered, it lets you know, yes, this happened. But unlike the scrolling infinity of misery we all see every day on our phones, that book was finite. A frightening, tragic encapsulation that you could pick up when you needed to consider what had happened, but was also comforting because you could finish it, and put it down.
CNN was founded in 1980, so it was up and running for the evens of ’89, and ’91. But the world’s population had not yet jumped aboard the 24/7 news cycle, nor did we all have cell phones, creating our own, more intimate version of 24/7. So there was a way in which these catastrophes trickled in, just as I waited in the darkened apartment for news of my husband, families waited, communities waited, cities waited. And it was in that window of not knowing that barriers came down. The number of homeless individuals in San Francisco has reached huge proportions lately, but it is far from a new problem. And people interact with each other in different ways about that. Some stop, to offer solace, or money. And sometimes a person asks for money. But when was the last time you stopped a homeless person to ask for a favor? In that moment on Van Ness, the man with the shopping cart was our lifeline for a few moments, and in those few moments our “status”, if you will, was reversed. That, I think, is the great gift of these catastrophes. Things that are artificial, or unimportant, disappear.
My family is different now, since we lost our cousin. And even these larger catastrophic events, (among which many of my friends and family include a frightening and tyrannical presidency,) these things have the ability to shake us out of our routines, to make us feel an existential human fear, not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones. I will never forget that look on my brother-in-law’s face. At least I hope I never will. Because it reminds me of the truth: we are all of us hanging by the thinnest of threads. Once we know that, or remember it, the only option is to be as kind and as helpful as we possibly can.