I used to hear “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” as a cultural reference point of previous generations. Now I hear, “where were you when the earthquake hit?” I was a senior at Lincoln High School and had just finished a tennis match against Balboa. My doubles partner, Thea, and I won our match by forfeiture because the other team didn’t have enough players. Thea walked to BART and I walked to my dad’s house on Cayuga Street to see if I could get a ride home to my grandma’s house in the Sunset. Like most of the Sunset, it was a 1940s post WWII tract house.
We rumbled along in his 1976 rusted out Chevy Nova, which I liked to call the blue machine because it kept rumbling no matter what got in its way. My 17-year-old brain found this completely embarrassing because you could hear it coming before you could see it, much like the Blue Angels, but not nearly as cool. However, getting a ride in anything was always better than MUNI. At the time, I believed my boyfriend’s brand new brown Hyundai Excel hatchback was much cooler, despite the jokes about Hyundais.
We headed down Sloat Blvd towards Ocean Beach and I hoped for fog. As we approached the zoo, we turned right onto 46th Ave, just past Sloat Garden Center and continued to Ulloa Street and made another right. As we crossed 45th Avenue up the slight hill, the car began to jostle as if all the wheels had fallen off. I looked around searching for some evidence of what we’d run over and I saw two boys on their bicycles jump off their bikes in confusion. Their bikes fell to the ground as my dad stopped just in front of the house. I quickly realized it was an earthquake and we watched the road finish rolling and undulating. The asphalt moved in slow motion much how I imagine lava might appear to flow. When it stopped we went into the house to discover the TV had tipped over off of the rickety metal rolling cart just missing my pregnant aunt. Shelves had tipped over but no one was hurt.
We tried to find a radio station but they had gone silent. When some finally came back on the air, we began to hear the possible damage left in the wake of this 6.9 quake. The World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics was underway, but ended before it began. The Marina District was on fire. Buildings had collapsed. People were trapped in buildings. People were trapped on BART. Was Thea trapped, I wondered? Public transit was at a standstill. Traffic was snarled. Power was lost nearly everywhere. TV stations were down. Phones lines were jammed. Freeways had collapsed. The Bay Bridge had fallen into the Bay. We didn’t yet know if the whole bridge had fallen into the Bay or just a section, nor did we know if both the upper and lower decks had collapsed or just one.
I think we were in disbelief at first. How bad could it be? Weren’t we prepared for earthquakes? Was the news exaggerating? Confused and shocked, I searched for a clock to see what time it was and it was just after 5pm, right about the time my boyfriend would be on the Bay Bridge driving his boss home. I managed to reach him hours later and he had not been on the bridge because his boss was out of town.