October 17th, 2011

Remembering the Earthquake

I've been doing a bad job of commemorating special occasions lately. Or maybe I'm doing a good job of not expending too much energy thinking about the past. Either way, I increasingly find my long-standing tendency not to look very far ahead complemented by a desire not to look very far behind.

But sometimes you just can't ignore the date. The Loma Prieta Quake in 1989 was a very big deal in my life, both because of what didn't happen to me that day and what did over the next two weeks.

Today I'll concentrate on the former. My friend Josh had suggested that we drive down to Jack London Square to watch Game 3 of the Bay Bridge series on the big-screen television there. This was a decade before mobile phones became a part of my world. Making plans was difficult and changing them even harder. I spent an awful lot of time standing at pay phones, typically in BART stations. Even so, things often went awry.

Josh was supposed to pick me up on Bancroft, in front of Eshleman Hall, around 4:30pm. Earlier that day, however, I'd committed to put flyers up for the organization Let's Elect the Chancellor. I believed in the cause, certainly. But I probably wouldn't have been so actively involved if Annalee and her partner David were not members of the organization. Although we'd broken up in June, while spending three week staying at my parents' house in Maryland, I was slow to find new housing. We still got along well enough as friends, so living together in her Berkeley apartment over the summer was't a total disaster.

It wasn't easy, though. She was starting to get involved with David, a friend of Josh's whom I'm had been hanging out with regularly for the past year. The situation was awkward. Because we were all pretty broke, though, and enjoyed each other's company, the three of us ended up spending a lot of time together engaged in an activity we collectively referred to as, "scraping the screen of life." Sometimes I had the impression that David wanted me around, whether because he wasn't sure he desired a relationship with Annalee or because he had sympathy for my plight, since I was obviously still in love with her.

Even after I moved out in August, I spent a lot of my time with Annalee. When David expressed interest in Physics professor Charlie Schwartz's cause -- he was always trying to get the Chancellor elected -- she eagerly joined him and I started tagging along. I'm sure she would rather have had me keep a wider berth, but I was thinking with my heart. Soon I found myself trying to prove how committed I was to the cause in order to impress David. It was an odd dynamic, to say the least.

At any rate, when we met in the middle of the day on October 17th to divide up the labor of promoting and organizing our next general meeting, I volunteered to put up flyers despite the fact that I had class that afternoon and was then supposed to meet up with Josh. So I decided to skip class. But instead of actually putting up the flyers, I sat around brooding about my unrequited love until I'd worked up a mental lather worthy of Werther.

By the time I collected myself, it was nearly 5pm. That, not coincidentally, was the time when Annalee's Early American Literature class let out. I'd known all along that she would probably be walking with a bunch of her classmates to hang out at Kip's. Rather oddly, David and I had taken to crashing this grad-school party together every week, soaking up the intellectual energy even as we wryly commented on our exclusion from the club. The only member of the class who made the two of us feel welcome, aside from Annalee, was the older guy in the Giants hat who seemed to revel in being a regular guy.

I decided, for reasons both selfish and stupid, to intercept Annalee during the post-class stroll across Sproul Plaza and ask for her help in putting up the flyers I had volunteered to distribute all by myself. Understandably, though, when I approached her amid the plane trees between Sproul and Bancroft, she was annoyed at me for intruding. I pressed the point for a minute, but then thought better of it and headed down the steps towards Lower Sproul.

I knew Josh would be waiting for me, yet opted to enter Eshleman so that I could at least claim to have done some of the flyering I'd promised to finish. If I'd had a mobile phone, I would have texted him to say I was running late. But because I had no way of contacting him, I just hoped that he wouldn't drive off.

That's why I was on the sixth floor of Eshleman, where all the left-wing groups were housed, when the earthquake struck. I was walking down the hall in the direction of the Bay. There was a non-structural sheet rock wall on my left and a much harder exterior wall on my right. At first the floor and windows started shaking as they had during the 5-something San José quake I'd experienced that spring. But then the whole building pitched so violently to the left that I literally fell into that interior wall. Luckily, by the time the building headed back to the right I'd collected my wits sufficiently to brace my fall -- there is no other way to describe it -- into the exterior wall with my hand.

Although I'd never been out on the high seas, I knew, instinctively, that this was what it must have felt like to traverse them in a large sailing vessel. And then I thought, "Buildings shouldn't act like boats; the whole thing is going to collapse." As it turns out, I was dead wrong. Architects want tall buildings to act like boats during an earthquake. Everything was happening according to plan. For a few seconds, though, I was trying to calculate whether it would be better or worse for me to be on the next-to-top floor in the event of Eshleman's destruction.

Once the shaking stopped, I exited via the stairway -- somehow, I remembered that elevators were a bad idea in case of emergency -- and found myself spilling out onto Lower Sproul, where a crowd was gazing westward, mouth agape, at the giant plate glass windows that fronted Zellerbach Hall. I asked someone what they were looking at. He turned to me stunned. "The windows were billowing like sails," he effused, "but they didn't break!"

Still jittery and not yet feeling wired with adrenaline as I would be a little later, I drifted into the Bear's Lair with a notion to watch the World Series. I'd completely forgotten about Josh at this point. Oddly, with the regulars sitting in their usual spots, the watering hole seemed surprisingly normal. I ordered a beer and sat down in front of the biggest television, still showing Candlestick Park. Then the soon-to-be-famous footage of the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Structure came on the screen, with Al Michaels doing voiceover, and I realized that there wasn't going to be a baseball game.

I wandered out of the Bear's Lair only to find Annalee and David, who had gone to meet her at Kip's, standing along Bancroft with my friend Leanne. We exchanged a few words, collectively achieving what I would later identify as "post-disaster rush". And then Josh walked up, chiding me for standing him up. He'd parked the car a block away, after waiting quite a while for me, deciding that he didn't want to go to Jack London Square by himself.

Only later did I realize that my tardiness might have saved us from harm. Not having a car, I didn't know the Bay Area's freeway system very well. But when I looked at a map of the damage two days later, I realized that Josh and I would most likely have been on the Cypress Structure at 5:04pm had I gone straight to meet him instead of waiting to intercept Annalee. To be honest, though, this didn't feel like a brush with death so much as a brush with excitement.

In the weeks following the quake I found myself flooded with boundless energy and a willingness to take risks that was definitely out of character. Indeed, I was still riding the wave of post-quake adrenaline when I met my future partner on October 30th. I'm sure it was an important factor in moving me to respond to her flirtation instead of pretending that I hadn't noticed. And I know that it played a role in leading me to ignore everything I'd been taught about safe sex. But that's a tale for another day. . .