Yarn Supply Store

Indigo Som

I was a few months out of Cal, living in Emeryville, and working at the yarn supply store Straw Into Gold, in an old 2-story warehouse at the corner of San Pablo & Ashby (Berkeley). My job was upstairs, skeining yarn for wholesale. I rode the 72 bus to work, where the bus stop was right in front of the store. Just after 5pm that day, I glanced at the clock & thought, “I’ll finish up and catch the 5:08 bus home.”

Suddenly I heard a loud series of thumps across the ceiling. Why was someone running on the roof? Then it seemed an elephant ran across—my first inkling that it might be an earthquake. I looked out the window to see if anything was moving, and then all hell broke loose. I dove under the worktable, where a huge heavy carton of yarn was stored; normally I had to struggle with my whole body to budge it, but now I shoved it right out of my way with one hand.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I had “the position” drilled into my head, but like everyone else I knew, I had always been too cool to use it. Terrified, I crouched into a ball, tucked my head down, and folded my arms around my head. I listened to everything falling around me and prayed, “Please stop, please just make it stop”.

Eventually the world stilled into quiet. One coworker let out a “Whooooooo!” and someone else called, “Everyone alright?” We all crept out of our hiding places. The yarn skeining machine had fallen over onto my worktable. A window pane had shattered. The tall warehouse shelves had gone parallelogram, squeezing soft bags of yarn with them. Elsewhere, hundreds of cones of yarn had fallen into heaps on the floor. I was glad I worked in a place with mostly soft, light things. Seeing that everyone was okay, I booked it on out of there and caught my bus, which was miraculously still on time.

Two guys in the back were talking mortality: “Yeah, you never know when your time is gonna come…” “Anything can happen….” As we traveled south on San Pablo, a plume of black smoke billowed up from downtown Berkeley.

Back home, my downstairs neighbor ran up to me: “I think your water heater is leaking into my apartment!” I went up, shut off the water heater, put down some rags, and looked around for other damage. My vintage glass bottles had tumbled safely from a windowsill onto my bed below; they never went back up there after that. A jar of red lentils was broken on the pantry floor. Phones & electricity were out. Everything else seemed alright.

My other downstairs neighbors invited me to join them for dinner in the backyard; they were preserving calm and routine for their toddler. I was sitting with them, still too freaked out to eat, when the guy from next door, a constant jokester, came over and said, “The Bay Bridge fell down.” He had to repeat himself 4 or 5 times before we believed him.

I spent the rest of the evening trying to call family and friends. I didn’t know where my housemate was. Every time I managed to calm down, another aftershock would make me leap out of my skin all over again. Then I remembered my scary avalanche dream from the night before, which freaked me out even more. I’ve never been the same about earthquakes since.

Pink Bike on Bancroft

Celine Parreñas Shimizu

As a Cal undergrad in 1989, I was 19 and working passionately, fervently and feverishly on a magazine I started by and about women of color. I got to campus at all hours on my pink, shimmery sleek gold bike, with a straightforward wire basket holding my bag, an over the shoulder tote, second hand, like the bike from Ashby Flea Market which cost $10. The only thing new was its bell. The bike got me from North Oakland to campus and my office at Eshleman Hall.

In those days, I dressed like a Persian carpet, thick corduroy patches, patterns mismatched and always like a bib on my chest, a big top hat with velvet flowers over long hair, and long skirts, gown-like and heavy or genie-like pants. The colors were all emerald green or ruby…and of course my uniform velvet or leather black. To ride to campus on my bike, I squeezed the bottoms of my skirt or pants, and tied them together like a scrunchy into itself.

At the time of the earthquake, I got to Bancroft, alongside cars on Telegraph, and I thought someone was tugging on my bike: I turned my head ready to say something, and no one was there. I looked up ahead of me and then got my boots down on the ground when I noticed the flagpoles on campus swaying super side-to-side, stretching so low almost to the ground. I knew then it was something extraordinary.

Holding Hands in Downtown Oakland

Ann E.

In 1989, I was living near Solano Ave in Berkeley and working at a corporate job on the 7th floor of an Oakland high rise, across from Lake Merritt. I typically drove to work and parked in a small lot on 19th near Harrison.

Earlier that day I’d had lunch with a sales rep and we joked about the “earthquake weather” we were having and the fact we hadn’t felt a quake in quite a while. Little did we know how prophetic that conversation would be.

I left work promptly at 5 and as I was heading to my car, I was admiring a very stylishly dressed woman who was walking a few paces ahead of me. Suddenly she staggered and grabbed onto a parking meter. How strange, I thought… and then a split second later the shock wave hit me too. Next I noticed the huge ground floor windows of the building next to me were crazily bowing in and out, in and out. The next thing I knew, I found myself in a group of about 10 total strangers huddled in the middle of the busy street holding hands. Apparently we had all instinctively decided that running into moving traffic was the safer option compared to exploding plate glass.

Once the ground movement subsided, our little group realized with embarrassment that we were IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET HOLDING HANDS WITH TOTAL STRANGERS!! It was like none of us were aware of how we got there.

In a shaky adrenalin daze I made it to my car. The arm at the parking lot exit was stuck and the car in front of me decided to dramatically break right through it. On the way home I took surface streets rather than my usual route on the freeway. Along San Pablo Ave, entire brick facades of buildings were littering the street and good Samaritans were directing traffic in all the intersections.

I later realized, had I left work 5 minutes earlier, I likely would have been pancaked on the lower deck of the freeway collapse.

As it turned out, the only “damage” I found when I got home was a couple of shampoo bottles had fallen into the bathtub.

Still to this day, I have a mini panic attack if I have to be stopped in traffic under an overpass.

UC Berkeley Computer Center

Bob Callaway

I was sitting at the computer desk in my office, working at a Macintosh IIcx.  (Hard to believe now, but the processor speed was only 16 MHz!).  The office was on the second floor of Evans Hall at UC Berkeley, in those days the primary location for campus computer center staff.  Evans Hall is a 10-story concrete monolith.

Mac IIcx 1989

Just after 5:00 pm, the building suddenly jolted sideways.  It was a single, very sharp jolt.  I remained in my chair, hyper-alert for what might follow.  I turned toward my other desk and eyed the safe space below it.  But there was no further shaking. The power remained on.  I thought to myself, “That’s the strongest tremor I’ve ever felt.”  But I resumed work on the task at hand.

A few minutes later, having reached a good stopping point, I got up and went out into the corridor to chat with colleagues about the quake.  Quite a few people were on deck.  Some had heard alarming reports such as “the Bay Bridge fell down.”

Already a couple of colleagues had retrieved a TV set from a programmer’s lair and were setting it up in a corner office.  Soon we were watching the news.

As the scale of the disaster emerged, I knew I couldn’t to go home that night.  I arranged to stay with friends who lived in an Albany high-rise.  I also tried calling a neighbor in San Francisco but couldn’t get through because the phone system was overloaded.

I exchanged email with my niece on the East Coast, letting her know I was OK and asking her to inform my sister and others in the family.  My niece, a techie from an early age, was accustomed to sending Unix email on the Arpanet in the 1980s, as was I.

That night, like so many people, my friends and I sat transfixed in front of the TV set as shocking footage was shown over and over.

The next day I went to work.  The news seemed even worse, with reports of many deaths.   I tried to contact various friends.  I tried again to reach my neighbor, but couldn’t.  I had no idea what had happened to my apartment.  That night I stayed with my friends in Albany again.

Two days after the quake, I drove home to San Francisco via the Richmond and Golden Gate bridges.  As I passed near the Marina, my heart sped up as I remembered the images of collapsed apartments there.  My anxiety was reinforced by a disaster I had experienced in a different apartment building about five years earlier — an arson fire that had made all the tenants homeless one winter morning.

Reaching my building on Pierce St, north of Alamo Square Park, I was hugely relieved to find that it had suffered only minor damage.  In my own apartment, there were small cracks in a couple of walls, and some things had fallen off shelves.  A couple of bookcases had shifted several inches, but hadn’t fallen.  The only lasting damage was a triangular dent in the oak floor where a ceramic teapot had dropped six feet.  The minimal effect was a testament to our location, on bedrock.

Soon I confirmed that none of my friends were harmed either.  It was a bit surreal, that feeling of escape.

The neighbor I’d been trying to reach, who had been at home when the quake hit, gave me her report.  In her usual emphatic manner (blonde Italian from New Jersey), she said the building had vibrated like crazy.  No doubt the effect was amplified by the hundreds of tchotchkes in her apartment.

Downtown Berkeley BART

Gail M.

I was working for the University of California in an office in downtown Berkeley on Milvia when the earthquake hit. However, I had already left work and was waiting for the BART train in the downtown station on Shattuck. I sighed, “The BART train is late AGAIN!”

After a bit, we heard an announcement that the Bay Area was hit by an earthquake and all trains were stopped. Those of us waiting underground had no idea there was an earthquake, proving the BART system is very safe!

shattuck BART 1989

When we hurried upstairs there was chaos on the streets. No stop lights were working and cars were maneuvering around each other as if they were props in a disaster film. I learned later that the building I had just exited had visibly swayed back and forth to the terror of those left inside, but no one was hurt.

I was able to contact my daughter in Oakland and one of her roommates drove me home to Walnut Creek through the Caldecott Tunnel, proceeding with great trepidation in case there was an aftershock.

1989 was an era with no ubiquitous cell phones so I worried most of the night about my husband, who I knew was in a carpool crossing the Bay Bridge. He has his own story to tell, but the end of mine is that he returned home safe and sound.


Barbara Golden

I was playing at a dance class for kids at a rec center in East Oakland. It was somewhere on Avenue A near a bakery. Suddenly, it sounded like rocks on the roof: the piano slid away. The kids started running out the door. Seven-point-something earthquake.


piano earthquake 1989

Driving home to Berkeley on the 880, the radio saying “Cypress Freeway is down, get off the freeway, the Bay Bridge is down.”  Around High Street, I go to drink with my mechanic Marvin, a tumblerful of Bushmills straight. My house, on Walnut Street in North Berkeley, is unscathed. From my roof I see San Francisco burning. Write music now, ’cause you’re gonna die! Before the quake I swam a mile, I kept singing M’s song, “Young Man Transmogrified.” It is gypsyish, romantic. I always think: “Would W. like it?”

“Outward over matter, he moves guileless, like a deer.”

Did not sleep at home. Too afraid. Went to Toyoji’s in Oakland– on his street, in the headlights, I saw a huge rat. All T’s bookshelves were down and there was glass everywhere. We had a lot of red wine and slept with our toes touching.