We turned left on Powell Street and came across a young man sitting on the front steps of his building, listening to a portable radio and smoking a Camel, the scene lit by his motorcycle headlight. “What’s new?” we asked him.
“Well, they got the fiuh unduh control in duh Marina,” he said with a New Yawk accent you could cut with a knife. “Brought in a fiuhboat. Pumpin’ fuckin’ seawatuh.”
That calmed us down somewhat. I bummed a cigarette off him, for which Laura gave me a disapproving look, and we chatted a while. He’d only been out here two weeks, and everybody back in the Big Apple had warned him about quakes. “I says, No way, dey ain’t had a real quake in 90 yeuhs. So today I’m comin’ up Kearney Street on th’bike ‘n’ it starts shakin’, ‘n’ I t’nk, shit, a flat, so I pull ovuh, stop, ‘n’ it’s still shakin’. Den a big ass piece a glass comes bombin’ out th’sky ‘n’ misses me by dat much ‘n’ explodes in a million pieces on th’sidewalk. People are screamin’, runnin’ around like crazy. I ducked under a jeep ‘n’ didn’t come out for five minutes.”
Was he going back to New York?
“Heck no, I like it heuh, people are friendly. This happened in New Yawk? You’d get ya fuckin’ throat cut if you stepped outside.”
Why do New Yorkers seem to say things like that with a note of pride? Laura went on to ask him what had brought him out here, was he married, who’d he live with, did he know where the nice parts of North Beach were. We wished him luck and headed for Green Street. “Took rather an interest in him, didn’t you, Dear?” I remarked.
“When you were young and courting me on your motorcycle and didn’t have your pot belly, I took an interest in you,” she answered. But she hooked her arm through mine and laid her head on my shoulder as she said it, and so we walked through Washington Square, past tents and flowers. Ah life, ah romance.
Fire engines roamed the streets, six men to a truck, spotlights probing. We walked by the police station on Vallejo. It was lit, the emergency generator chugging away in the back. We asked a cop if it were true the Marina fire was under control. He said it was. Laura asked him about looters.
“Yeah, they’re out, down in the neighborhoods where the less fortunates live. Better stay off the streets till morning, they’re running around in packs, and they’re working their way up here.”
Anybody who thinks that cops don’t lie lives in a dream world. Still, this gross exaggeration was an effective way to keep people off the streets, and that’s effective police work right there.
Back to Laura’s we hastened. If not timid, we were both tired, and we certainly were starved. Once there, I tried the phone. It worked and I got through to my parents in San Mateo. My mother answered. “Everything all right?” I asked.
“We’re fine. A lot of shaking but no real damage. How’s your place?”
“Place and self doing fine. I don’t know if you tried calling me, I’m at Laura’s.”
“Oh, that’s nice. How is she?”
My mother adores Laura and hopes some day I’ll grow up and marry her. I told her Laura was fine and started to relate details of San Francisco’s night of drama. She interrupted me to advise that we get off the line. It’s not that my Ma doesn’t love me; she’s just practical, that’s all. Emergencies bring out the German sensibility and English coolness in her. It’s my Irish father who goes in for the tumult and drama. She told me not to use the phone more than necessary but do check on my sister Martha who was at Candlestick, oh and do give Laura her love.
I did both. Martha had just got home; she was going to nominate the driver of the 28 Funston for Muni Man of the Month. In a three-hour odyssey with a busload of distraught passengers, he had negotiated his way across town using back streets and got everybody home. He’d even stopped so the beer-swollen sports fans could have a pee break a couple of times. Martha’s place was disheveled, her bookshelf down, dishes broken, fish tank a mess of glass, water, and unmoving Carassius Auratus, who turned out to be the only casualties in my family.
Laura had already talked to her relatives except for Mama. She was in Quebec on a tour with the Italian-American Federation. Just as well: she is a good woman but quite prone to nervousness, and her being out of town was one of the kinder acts of God that day. As it turned out, she didn’t even learn of the quake until the next day because, thank God again, she and her friend Milla could not figure out how to work the TV in their hotel room.
I don’t remember what we had for dinner, probably just tuna sandwiches, but we devoured it ravenously along with a bottle of sauvignon blanc. Sated, Laura went to make some more phone calls and I attempted to correct essays. I couldn’t even focus on them. I sat and thought about fear, fate, fun, and mortality. I looked out her kitchen window toward the dark knoll of Telegraph Hill with its sable silhouette of Coit Tower. I listened to the discordant concert of sirens and helicopters. Then we went to bed, by candlelight, as we had dined. Kind of nice, actually.
– Peter McKenna
16 July 2011