I ran into some friends of my cousin’s, drank a little wine with them and watched the sun go down. And there was something weird about it, a big red orange blob it was, settling into a faraway fogbank ever so slowly, shimmering above it amorphously like a distant hydrogen bomb (which in fact it is), and when it finally sank below the horizon, by God, there came a green flash, like the blink of a camera bulb.
Then the eeriest aspect of the Quake of ’89 became apparent: not what there was but what there wasn’t, and that was light. They city lay as dark as the forest primeval except for caterpillars of car lights along the main arteries: Market, Geary, Van Ness, Pine, Bush, Franklin and Gough. But that meant more stars than ever were appearing in the night time sky.
Still, I had to get across that Sea of Darkness to North Beach, five minutes as the crow flies, twenty minutes by car in a normal rush hour. How long by motorcycle in a blackout? I felt like Odysseus returning to Penelope. Across the wine dark sea I must set my course, through roiling waves, through pirates and plagues, through demons and dragons, home to my beloved. Of course Odysseus had a little romance along the way too, so maybe I was also thinking of that.
It turned out not too difficult, really. Slightly nerve-wracking but surprisingly smooth considering a couple hundred thousand people were trying to get across a dark town. At stoplighted intersections, people treated them like four-way stop signs as you’re supposed to when they don’t work. The tendency was to wave the other guy through which can get confusing, but traffic moved. However it was noisy if neighborly: people leaned on their horns a lot or blatted out shave-and-haircut or some tympanum. Sometimes volunteers stood in intersections – white guys, black guys, Asian guys, homeless guys – with flares and flashlights, directing the cars: Wait your turn now, brother, now ride it through, brother.
I picked up a hitchhiker at Haight and Lyon and took her as far as Laguna. She was a shorthaired young woman with glasses; no busses were running, she said, and she didn’t want to walk by herself by the Pink Palace Project though she felt safe on a motorcycle with a stranger. Speaking of safety, most of the trip was one calculated risk after another: riding down the center of the street to pass long lines of much slower cars, trusting that drivers saw me before trying the same thing. Residential streets seemed safer than the main thoroughfares though of course they did lead through the projects. But was that a problem? Hell no. Folks on porch stoops, on street corners called out: Yo! What’s happening? How you making out? Ride that hog!
When I got to Laura’s at Mason and Green, she was still in her Subaru listening to the radio. We always greet enthusiastically, but this time I believe we knocked the wind out of each other. She was anxious to move around and for that matter so was I. Wasn’t much else to do without power except sit and talk, and um, that other thing, which we were much too keyed up for, and besides it was too hot.
We walked down Mason, across Columbus to Grant, then up to Union, and thence up to Coit Tower. We met many another couple or group, often with flashlights or candles, finding their way about the unlit streets. There’s something a bit spooky yet romantic about crowds moving in darkness. They looked like pilgrims lost in the catacombs. Up Telegraph Hill, our Golgotha we went, to the Tower and its parking lot embraced by the statue of Cristoforo Columbo. The Tower was closed, the parking lot was about half full, illuminated by headlights, cigarette glows, a rising three-quarter moon, and the burning Marina backlit by the western sky.
Overhead, helicopters were flying this way and that, big ones and little ones, Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and KGO, plus that ominous luminous Goodyear gasbag floating above the switched off skyline, those wazzing motors propelling it lumberingly along. We gathered with some other folks around a radio, but pretty soon we got visual as well: the owner of North Beach Pizza showed up with a 4-inch Sony along with a few large house combos, one with anchovies, one without. On the screen was an earnest local newscaster on the most important night of her professional life giving the word:
Lady on TV: We have received reports that the Richter scale reading is 7.0…
Crowd: Wow! No shit! Dig it!
Lady on TV: …and that the epicenter is somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains west of Los Gatos.
Crowd: Santa Cruz! No more Boardwalk! What about the Dipper?
Lady on TV: Let’s go live now to Candlestick where our correspondent is standing by…
Cut to awkward looking sports reporter who must suddenly dispense information not about batting averages but geologic and social upheaval. He mumbles something about the structural integrity of the stadium and the lack of integrity of the looters in the dark beyond. The Coit crowd is appalled: Shoot ‘em! Gas ‘em! Lynch ‘em! The ugliness of real danger, not from Mother Nature but Brother Man, sends fear and loathing among the TV watchers. Not that any of us have seen anything but brotherhood so far. Earlier shots of the stadium shake are shown – the shuddering camera, the picture going dead, and then back again with players and families going about the field: Canseco and his Barbie bride, Clark and his clinging kids, Rueschal hand in hand with his aged Ma and Pa wandering around the pitcher’s mound. Go Big Daddy! someone says. Then comes the news that the Series is postponed indefinitely.
More about the Bridge: everybody has heard rumors of its collapse, but many aren’t sure which one, perhaps both. But from Telegraph Hill they both appear to be standing, the Bay Bridge grey and functional under the rising moon, the Golden Gate reflecting the Marina fire. The TV lady says, “It has been confirmed that a section of the upper deck of the Bay Bridge east of Yerba Buena Island has collapsed, opening a hole in the lower deck. Witnesses report several cars plunged into the Bay before traffic came to a halt. Coast Guard cutters and helicopters are searching the waters for survivors. This shuts people up except for the now-common refrain: Unreal. This is like a movie.
Then came the news of the Cypress Freeway collapse, which caused more gasps. Some people, myself included, got the bridge and the freeway mixed up and thought the half-mile collapse was on the Bay Bridge, not Nimitz Freeway. That made it seem more horrible. However there was no confusion about the casualty estimate: over 200 dead, and rising. Then the program cut to the Marina and the fire still out of control due to broken water mains. By that time the smoke had wafted over Russian Hill and was smellable, even breathable.
“Can we go home?” Laura asked.
I said that was a good idea. I was thinking about what would happen if they didn’t get it under control. Would it jump across streets, would it jump Van Ness Avenue, would it work its way across the city, would they dynamite buildings to stop it the way they did in Ought Six, an effort worse than useless? That smoke cloud: would it blind us, choke the very life out of us? Where could we run? Hey, what happened to the party?
We walked quickly down Filbert Street discussing the efficiency of the San Francisco Fire Department. Of course they would stop it, they’ve got emergency reservoirs all over the city, they’ve got backup mains to pipe in seawater, they can waterbomb it the way they do forest fires, oh they know how to fight fires in Frisco, they learned in ’06. Sure, the quake back then knocked down a third of the town, the fire burned another third, and the overeager dynamiters blew up the rest.
Freeways and bridges were closed; perhaps we should get down to the waterfront and steal a boat. That’s when I remembered the Gallant, the USS Gallant, the Galloping Gallant, the marvelous minesweeper docked at Treasure Island, in which I serve as a weekend warrior in the Reserve. It hadn’t occurred to me to check in with them. Perhaps a general recall was in effect, the way they were calling all police, fire, and medical personnel to report for duty. The National Guard was on alert, but the Guard and the Reserves aren’t the same thing, the Guard work for the Governor, the Reserves for the Department of the Navy, and it would take an act of Congress to get us involved. That was part of my rationale for not checking in. The other parts were, what’s a minesweeper going to do in an earthquake, how could I get to Treasure Island other than by swimming, and who needs me more, Laura or the Navy? I knew who I needed more. Still, I almost regretted not putting myself in uniform with sidearm. Hmm, little boys, big boys.