Seismic Aesthetics

March 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

I was just shy of three years old when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. It was October 17, 1989 at 5:05 pm, and I was in my parents’ room on the third floor of our house in San Mateo, California. I was also in the middle of a temper tantrum. A dimple-faced little girl with white-blond hair and dark brown eyes, my smiles were deceptively sweet considering the sheer volume and intensity with which I could scream when inspired. I don’t know what spurred this particular outburst, but I do know that I continued to howl with unabated enthusiasm when the ground started shaking (with a surface wave magnitude of 7.1, 6.9 moment magnitude) along the San Andreas fault line. Why would I have been surprised? Of course the world was rumbling; I was angry.

Regardless of the reason for my fury, I’m convinced that in those 15-20 seconds, as I firmly stood my ground with feet stubbornly planted and fists clamped, I was predestined to become a real San Franciscan. Before you deem this ridiculous, that a two year old with no conscious sense of San Francisco, let alone any kind of (questionably overblown) civic pride, bear with me. Explanations are to come, but first, the story of Loma Prieta at my childhood home in San Mateo.

The house is on Maple Street, a relatively wide and busy street for our suburb. It is a Spanish-style building constructed in the 1930s, with beige walls and red tiled roofs. Originally two stories, my parents built a third-story addition when my mother was pregnant, which housed their bedroom and bathroom. Climbing the stairs to their bedroom felt something like ascending a tower in a castle; I’d take the yellow-carpeted stairs on my hands and knees until I was old enough to run up them two at a time. There room seemed a bastion of grown-upness, filled with hidden treasures like wedding photos and costume jewelry.

This was where we were when the earth began to shake. My mother (she was sitting a few feet away on her gold-framed bed atop a crisp, white duvet, a marvel of cleanliness in retrospect) was shocked into stillness at first, but when the lamp from her bedside table flew past my head, I imagine she was spurred to action. A heavy, ceramic object, topped with a lampshade made of some French-looking fabric; it undoubtedly would have knocked me over had it made contact. Amazingly, instead of crying more, I was so startled by the flying object’s proximity that I gasped, and finally, was silent.

I don’t remember the close encounter with the lamp, but do recall seeing small glass objects tumbling off my father’s dresser, made of the same glossy dark wood as the nightstands, onto the floor, and remember the way the ground seemed to roll, wave-like. Pictures of those seconds flash by uncompleted, like a carousel slide projector only a quarter-filled. But it is one of those stories that has been told to me so many times, and that I in turn have recounted, that I tend to think of it as pure memory.

There was the part about my Swedish au pair named Lena who, being from a country not on an active fault line, ran out of the house and onto Maple Street, screaming. Later that evening when there were after shocks, she began panicking again and I stroked her hand saying, “It’s okay!” I was a nice child when I wasn’t screaming my head off, apparently.

And the dramatic flourish provided by my father (a decidedly undramatic personality), who was leaving his office in San Francisco. Having just gotten off the phone with my mother to tell her he was heading home (this was probably why she was on her bed; her phone was on the nightstand), he had stood up from his desk and was in the doorway of his office when the shaking started. This was where he saw a large bookcase topple over, crushing his chair almost instantly. Unsure of what else to do, he went to his car and drove back home to San Mateo, noticing how eerily empty the freeway was due to the partial collapse of the Bay Bridge.

The lore of “where we were” when it happened has stuck, urged on years of playground conversation with friends — one thought her uncle had climbed up a ladder and was bodily shaking her house, as he sometimes shook the family station wagon. My story was told, retold, and given a new life when, at 18, I moved to Philadelphia to attend college and had the pleasure of informing my new, east coast-based friends about my singular experience in “the big quake of ’89.” They were delighted; they may have had hurricanes to contend with, but earthquakes were a mysterious disaster with which they had not been much acquainted.

So I would go on, telling them about earthquake drills in school, which required us to dutifully crawl under our little desks and curl up with our hands over our necks to (in theory) prevent paralysis from falling objects. Thankfully, I never had to put this into practice — considering the flimsy construction of the desks and the length of my spine that extended far down from my hands’ questionably protective shield. Far more fun were the earthquake survival packs — small bags of snacks and juice collected at the beginning of the school year in the event of a building-collapsing quake that left us all trapped. When this did not occur, we’d get to tear into the Chewy granola bars and Capri Sun juice bags on the last day of school. Disaster pack? More like party pack!

Thinking of an earthquake severe enough that it would leave full classrooms of children trapped and subsisting on granola bars is, when I think about it, not something to take lightly. But that’s how I tell of the precautions taken by Northern California elementary schools, because that’s almost always how I talk about earthquakes. 

I remember watching footage of the Bay Bridge and its damage. But to my shock and intense inner embarrassment, I not only had no recollection, but no conscious knowledge of the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway in West Oakland. Of the 63 deaths caused by Loma Prieta, the Nimitz was responsible for 42. The top deck of the freeway collapsed entirely, crushing the cars below. Rescue workers and neighborhood residents worked tirelessly and mostly fruitlessly attempting to extract bodies, or parts of bodies, from the melee of shattered pavement and twisted metal.  Maybe I mixed these details up with my memory of the bridge; maybe I simply blocked it out. It’s a horrible thing to remember, and retrospectively, I feel a shudder thinking of the ever-present possibility that something worse might happen when the next big one hits.

But I can’t pause on this for long. Waiting for the big one is simply a part of living in San Francisco, something that I finally got around doing after college. I grew acquainted with the city I’d always considered mine, and earned the ownership I’d long assumed. Reading the past accounts of Loma Prieta I can picture with perfect clarity the fire in the Marina District, the helping hands in the Mission, and the business-as-usual chaos of Chinatown. And I naturally took to the San Francisco insouciance with which we all discuss earthquakes that might hit, and earthquakes that we’ve been through. Really, it’s the only way we get through the day in our fault-line-proximate city.

The geographically specific natural disaster is nothing new. Everyone becomes somewhat steeled against their particular brand of disaster, learning to laugh cavalierly and dismiss an outsider’s fears as naïve. I, for one, am terrified of tornadoes — I’ve never experienced a real one, but repeated viewings of both The Wizard of Oz and the 1996 classic Twister greatly affected my image of the horror and destruction they could bring.

In the same way that tornadoes seem to strike those (tragically) flat parts of the country most, I’m inclined to believe that earthquakes, while common all over California, are particularly suited to San Francisco’s topography. The city’s much remarked-upon hills, steep in gradient and frequent in occurrence, suggest the extreme seismometer waves created when fault lines give way. Buildings look jumbled, perched on hills suggesting inaccurate heights.

And this is why I believe that, at the age of two, I forever declared my allegiance to the city of seismic aesthetics as I howled indignantly in the face of disaster. For one, my earthquake-balancing muscles were clearly intact, and are remarkably similar to those needed to navigate down a steep hill on foot. Try it in high heels; you’ll feel the sensation of the earth about to give way from underneath, similar to the rolls of the earthquake.

My completely instinctive response to Loma Prieta, to not be afraid, showed the early signs of a San Franciscan’s inner steel. New Yorkers are given credit for toughness, but we San Franciscan’s stand up to a constant barrage of ignorant insults to our city that is, unquestionably, the greatest place on earth. We’re all hippies, we’re all gay, we’re all vegetarians whose idea of cooking is to put a fig on a plate. It’s cold in July. There are no seasons. And there are earthquakes, for god’s sake!

Yeah there are. And we take those critiques in the same manner we take our quakes, with a smile that’s half-smirk, secure in the knowledge that these people just don’t know what they’re talking about. We ready ourselves internally for the constant possibility of earthquake in the same way that we smile at the hippie-bums on Haight Street and always, always bring a jacket when we leave the house, especially in July. We do it with pleasure, because it’s all a part of the privilege of getting to live in a magnificent place on the lip of the Pacific.

The last earthquake I was in occurred in January, when I was back on an extended school break. I was at my sometimes-home in San Francisco, a cozy and cluttered apartment on Green Street in North Beach, a neighborhood filled with old-school Italians, new-school Italian-style tourist attractions, and hidden corners revealing Beatnik history. I was sitting on a bright green velvet chair in the apartment’s bay window; my boyfriend’s brother sat nearby on the couch. Suddenly, we heard a knocking sound — persistent and increasing in tempo. I looked up, convinced it was the apartment’s cat, Jade, tapping on the door. Then, the room began to sway, the windows rattling in their frames. Nick and I looked at each other, eyes widening, both smiling slightly (out of surprise and nervous energy).

“Is this an earthquake?” I asked needlessly, knowing the answer long before his affirmative. “Should we… stand in the doorway?” I added, feeling foolish. “Uh, yes, yeah!” he responded, and finally we unfroze. We both loped awkwardly to the nearest door, pinning ourselves against either side of the frame. Almost instantly, the quake stopped. We looked at each other, started laughing, and stood there for a minute longer for good measure.

Returning to my computer, I was greeted with a barrage of gchats all uniformly saying, “EARTHQUAKE!!!” I responded in kind. It had been a small one (4.1), but in the moments following, we all delighted in having felt it, and of course, in coming away unscathed.

I looked up and smiled. “Awesome,” I said.

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