I was studying at this cafe and the quake hit. It was the Meat Market cafe on 24th Street in Noe Valley. It was 1989, so I guess I was 25. I looked up and saw cracks spreading through the ceiling. Babies were screaming. Ducked under the table.
After the melee and shocks ended, everyone made their way out onto the sidewalk. At this time I struck up an earnest conversation with this guy about my age; his name was Walter and he had blonde dreadlocks and round John Lennon glasses. We formed an immediate bond.
We proceeded to wander down the street together where there were many displaced shop keepers with radios in from of their stores. We heard then that the bridge collapsed. We could see the fires burning in the Marina at a distance. We decided to investigate. Hopped into his car and drove through the presidio, stopping once so I could pee in the trees.
Everywhere was chaos. At the Marina we walked down streets having intense dialogue with displaced homeowners and a variety of disoriented people and walked to the edge of the water. By that time we were holding hands, naturally. When we got to the water we kissed.
We then decided that the best thing to do would be to get out of town, somewhere far away. He had a sleeping bag in his trunk. We drove south (stopping at a bar halfway to make some calls) to the beaches in Pescadero, and picked the longest, widest, most empty one, and laid out the bag. We slept under a full moon and cloudless sky. Of course we made love. It was beautiful, peaceful, and serene.
The next morning we went out to breakfast in Half Moon Bay, and I ate eggs while he read the paper. He then took me back to SF. I had been gone nearly 24 hours. He dropped me off and I never saw him again.
It was the time of day photographers call the ‘magic moment’ when the sun is soft and golden and generous. We were shooting an ad campaign at a ranch high on a hill above the Carmel Valley that we had made over to be the pretend home of a pretend family with impeccable pretend taste.
I was in a barn-turned-wardrobe room helping a little boy put on perfectly distressed jeans and a tiny leather jacket when we heard the horses outside scream. The dogs, some sort of hound, joined in, and then everything began to both roll and jump; confused by two distinct rhythms—one sultry and the other furiously impatient like a child kicking the back of a seat.
Fifteen seconds isn’t long except when it is. You know what I mean even if you haven’t been in an earthquake. It’s like falling and watching everything in slow motion with time enough to wonder if you’ll come out okay or end up in the hospital.
I brought the boy outside and to his mother and then made my way over to a model named John. We stood side-by-side and watched seismic waves ripple the top of the range across from us like a shudder moving through the body of an elephant. The trees like hairs as they waved together in one long motion. John put his arm around me and I felt joy, tremendous pulsating, electric, gorgeous joy. There’s a word for moments when what you think about the world and what’s happening are perfectly aligned. When there’s no gap between the idea of what’s happening or should be happening or you want to be happening and what is actually happening. I can’t remember what that word is because it pretty much never happens to me. But during the earthquake it did. I think because I stopped thinking all together and just was.
Then it stopped. Things went really, really quiet. The only sound I remember is the snort horses make when they’re pissed off but I might be making that up.
“Back to work. We’re losing the light!” yelled the producer.
Maybe it’s because we weren’t from California, or maybe we were all just selfish, but it wasn’t until we finished the last shot and realized that there were no lights on in the valley below that we understood something big might have happened.
For some inexplicable reason one of the books in the old house on Long Island where I grew up was a photographic account of the 1906 earthquake. Huge curlicue captions—Disaster! Destruction! Despair!—emblazoned the cover. Those are the images that filled my mind as we listened to the radio. Buildings and horses brought to their knees or toppled completely over, streets torn open, small blurry figures with the crisp panorama of the burning city behind them. Vintage images so removed from the present that once I might have thought they were pretend.
Catherine Cross Uehara
I was sitting in English class at UC Davis when we felt the earth ‘do the worm’. I was sitting in the back of the classroom and the Venetian blinds on the windows of our first floor classroom started to undulate. Our TA was young and new and very nervous – she was pacing back and forth across the classroom and didn’t feel it. Just about everybody in the classroom shouted ‘earthquake!’. She stopped and pressed her back to the chalkboard and screamed.
In 1989 I dropped out of SF State and spent a few months backpacking around Europe by myself. I’d just arrived in Venice and checked into the convent where I was staying because it was the cheapest place in town, and was getting on a vaporetto with the cute Australian I’d met on the train from Rome. We started chatting with some other friendly and equally grimy tourists who asked where we were from. When I said San Francisco, they looked suddenly uneasy and mumbled “Oh, man, I’m sorry.” I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about. They said, “There was an earthquake. The Golden Gate Bridge fell into the ocean.” And then they immediately got off the boat.
I felt like I’d just been punched in the chest. I tore off to try to call someone at home. The only way to make calls then was at international phone centers, which were these unmarked fluorescent-lit smoky rooms lined with tiny cells with white phones on countertops scarred with graffiti carved into them. You had to wait in line, give the guy at the counter a handful of lira and a phone number, wait for the little light to come on, try your luck to get through, and when it didn’t work, start over again.
The poor cute Australian guy and I spent the next ten hours wandering around Venice, alternately trying to call my boyfriend Paul in San Francisco and getting drunk on red wine. I don’t know if the guy felt sorry for me and didn’t want to leave me alone or thought he was going to get lucky since I was so freaked out and needed comforting. Finally a call went through and Paul picked up the phone, obviously also drunk with a loud party going on in the background. He said, “Everything is closed except the liquor stores, so we’re having a party!” The only damage had been to the top of my turntable when some heavy sculpture fell on it.
Somehow even though I was unbelievably relieved, I was also pissed off that I’d spent the day so full of anxiety for no apparent reason. I said goodnight to the cute Australian and stumbled back to the convent. I’d forgotten all about their 9pm curfew. There was one tiny nun sitting up at a table by the door waiting for me, hunched over her rosary praying for my family. I didn’t have it in me to tell her that my boyfriend and friends were busy having an epic party and my family was safe at home in Michigan, just thanked her for her kindness and told her they were all safe under the protection of her prayers and went off to sleep in my bunk as the sun was rising.
I was seven years old and living in Rohnert Park (about 90 minutes north of San Francisco). I was watching You Can’t Do That On Television in the living room while my dad was watching the World Series in the kitchen. The cable cut out a moment before the shaking started.
Once I felt the tremors I quickly ducked under the table, just as I was taught in countless earthquake drills at school. My dad sprinted through the living room and ordered me to get out from under
the table (it was glass, a factor that hadn’t been considered in my haste to follow instructions). I stood in the doorway until the earthquake stopped, and then we both went outside.
I remember a few aftershocks, and being very frightened that more would happen. It took some time for my father to coax me out of my panic, and we listened on his battery-operated radio to hear the news of what happened around the bay. Nothing in our home was damaged, and my parents shielded me from many of the images of the destruction. It wasn’t until years later that I saw any of the photos of the collapsed bridge or the smashed freeway.
My family has deep Bay Area roots – three of my four grandparents were Bay Area natives, and I’ve never lived away for more than a year since moving here when I was 12. I spent my teenhood wishing I lived in SF or Berkeley, instead of in the suburban east bay (and I remember being in my backyard, watching my fat sleeping cat suddenly go from supine to bolt upright, freeze for a second and tear ass under the house moments before the Morgan Hill quake hit in 1984).
But when Loma Prieta happened, I was 18, a freshman in college in upstate New York, and I was in Manhattan visiting my Aunt Priscilla for the weekend. After a dinner out, we were on our way back to her place and stopped into a little Irish Pub in her neighborhood. The place was empty but for the bartender, slowly wiping down the dark mahogany bar with a white towel. He was tall but hunched over, silver-haired with heavy silver brows, and when he spoke I saw that he had a few missing teeth. In an Irish accent, he mumbled “No game tonight. Big earthquake.” He jerked his head towards the TV hanging behind him, and continued his thorough wipe down of the bar. I looked up at the TV and there was the Bay Bridge with a hole in it. I remember a slow motion feeling, and the weird contrast of the sleepy mundane bar scene with the bright, violent images on the TV – it felt like a David Lynch scene. We watched for a few minutes, long enough to see all the worst damage the media was looping through: the bridge, the Marina fires, the Cypress structure – a few times over, then made our way back to Priscilla’s.
My brother Mike was living in SF. He managed to call my mom before all the phone lines were completely flooded and shut down, so we knew that he was ok. It was so disorienting to feel that it was this massive emergency but that there was nothing to do but watch and wait, and eventually, just go to sleep as if it was any other night.
I remember waking up the next morning, convinced I had dreamed the whole horrible thing.
Acacia Street in Salinas, CA. I was 5, it was apple-picking season and I was down the street at my neighbor’s house with my best friend Ashley (who was 6 at the time). We were picking apples, and all of the sudden the ground was rumbling and cracking. The earth shook below us and mini hills were formed from the rolling ground. Then, an apple fell onto my head! I was in tears. I thought I was going to lose my apples.
I wasn’t even in town when it happened, ironically enough. Perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in others’ stories.
I had been down in San Luis Obispo for a couple of days, visiting James, Dave and Eric at Cal Poly, and had left there to return north around 4 pm, driving solo–one of my favorite things to do. I remember the road feeling a little strange for a few seconds (tremors were in fact felt pretty far south), but 101’s got plenty of hills and curves, so I didn’t even think anything of it. It had been a weird, emotional stay in SLO, and I spent the drive alone trying to figure some things out: getting a little teary here and there in that adolescent-girl way before triumphantly deciding that everything was going to be OK, and that life was just amazing.
As I approached San Jose around 7 pm, I was surprised at how badly snarled traffic was at that hour. It was pretty dark at that point: I remember puzzling over the endless strings of red tail lights in haphazard patterns. I never listened to the radio in my ’85 VW Golf, so I didn’t even think to turn it on for news or traffic updates: I had way too many awesome cassette mix-tapes to listen to, after all.
As soon as I walked in the front door of my parents’ house in Walnut Creek, I was confronted with the enormity of what I’d just missed. My parents had been panicked since they had no idea where I was when the quake hit, and were relieved to find out that I was fine. I just remember feeling an intense sort of cognitive dissonance, realizing that my self-absorbed teenage crises, musings and revelations on the drive up had absolutely zero connection to the actual disaster that had transpired at the same exact time.
I had moved to New York to start graduate school at NYU a couple of weeks earlier and was sitting in my brother and sister in law’s living room in Jamaica, Queens, watching the baseball game. We’re passionate A’s fans from back in the 70s – I have almost zero interest in sports, but my oldest brother is a major Reggie Jackson fan and had drummed it into my head from an early age, using Rollie Fingers’ impossibly terrific mustache as leverage, that I should always tell people I was all about the A’s.
So we heard Al Michaels say, “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we’re having an ear – …” and then the TV signal went out so they threw it to commercial. I turned to my brother Rikk and said, “Call Mom.” He took the order without pause and grabbed the phone, dialing and looking at me like, What? It happened really fast. My mom picked up in Saratoga and was shaken but okay, her buffet had lurched and spewed dishes and glasses all over her kitchen. She was glad to hear from us and hadn’t really freaked out yet. She was already talking about getting a new earthquake-proof cabinet built, and she did it pretty soon after. We let her go and then after that we couldn’t get through until the next day because the phone lines were flooded with calls and in need of repair and whatnot.
All of my friends back in Berkeley were just sort of subdued and in holiday mode when I finally heard from them, there was no internet and no proliferation of cell phones yet and they were all just sitting around, some literally in the dark. I think I had to send postcards and get them back in order to find out what was up. I was crazy for information, dealing with being a new grad student, suffering survivor guilt and homesickness and heartbreak from following a guy, who’d told me expressly not to, across the country. My sense of displacement seems ridiculous in retrospect – I was wishing I was in the disaster area, getting misty at the sight of cheesy Jose Canseco and his wife, afraid of the leap I’d taken toward my next phase. All I could think about was the bay area, now that I had actually, after 20 years of wishing for it, moved to my beloved New York. I left town and it broke!
When I look back now the oddest part is that fact of being connected to people seeming to work completely differently in 1989. I still wrote letters. You watched television on a TeeVee set, not on a computer. If you agreed to meet someone somewhere, you couldn’t call and say you were on your way or parking. That moment when the earth shakes connects people, in a different way than digital technology connects people. That big earthquake was definitely a Before and After marker for the bay area and for the tech era, but human connection is stronger than technology or linear time. In the moment it feels like everything has been redefined, but random stuff like Rollie Fingers’ impossibly terrific mustache has a connection-forging life of its own that easily defies rationality. And we A’s fans gotta keep the faith ; )
As my high school senior year journal reminds me,
“Went over [to my first love’s apartment] to watch the World Series and eat pizza, but he cooked me dinner instead yum! And there was no game ‘cuz of the earthquake. So we hung out.”
(I seemed to do a lot of eating pizza and “hanging out” that year.)
This was in Baltimore. Being a teenager with no loved ones in the Bay Area, and no idea yet that I was destined to move here six years later, the earthquake seemed a little abstract to me.