Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where I was

October 17, 1989, 5:04 P.M.



Twenty years ago yesterday.

I was on the 43 Masonic bus, which wends its way from City College of San Francisco through St. Francis Wood, through Forest Hill, down through the Haight and up Masonic Street to the Presidio. I was living near 3rd Avenue and Balboa at the time. From City College, I would alight from the coach perhaps on Haight Street and walk home. That was the plan.

I was coming back from my sabre fencing class at City College, taught by my mentor Joe Manzano. I was then an avid fencer and continued to be so for some years afterward. The bus was winding through St. Francis Wood, home to many lovely old houses, each in some borrowed historical style – mock Tudor, Mission Revival, classical Roman, Cinderella Castle and so forth. I have always admired them. A friend from my fencing class was with me, a U.S. Army veteran and a really nice guy. I am ashamed to say that, after so many years, I have forgotten his name.
The bus was crowded with students and lively. Some were listening to the World Series lead-up on portable radios.


As we were making our way through St. Francis Wood, I remember my friend pointing out some of the houses perched on the hillside. He was commenting on how lovely they were, but that he’d hate to own when “the big one hit.” I’m not kidding. He actually said that five minutes or so before 5:04 P.M., October 17, 1989.

At Forest Hill Station, where the Muni (that is, the subway) hits its deepest point underground and has a fine old station, we came to a stop to let more passengers on. They filed in and the bus got even more crowded. I was pointing out to my friend an apartment building that I admired. It was – and is – mock Tudor and stands next to the station, across the street from the North-bound bus stop. I always liked it, though today it is not quite the same. He agreed it was a nice building and, up in Forest Hill, one could feel as if one lived in Sherwood Forest rather than in the middle of the City.

Outside the bus was a large group of raucous high school students, doing what high school students do – shouting at one another and generally making noise. Then the bus began to roll back and forth, gently at first, and then becoming more violent. My friend and I thought it was these high school kids playing a prank on the driver, rocking the bus back and forth. I even shouted through the window, “Hey, you kids, stop rockin’ the bus!”

Then my friend pointed across the street and said, “Man, look at your building!” I followed his gaze to see my admired mock Tudor quiver. It was actually undulating, like a Thanksgiving Jell-O tower. Cracks formed along its sides, shooting down from its roof to its foundation. Masonry began to fall off of it, a piece here and a piece there. It was the damndest thing I ever saw.

People began to scream.

It was at that point that I felt what I can only describe as “the rising panic.” I will never forget it. I don’t know what I was thinking, because I probably wasn’t. I began to rise out of my seat. My friend, evidently sensing my move, gently put his hand on my knee and gave me one, simple, forceful command: “DON’T.” It stands the test of time as the single best piece of advice any person has ever given me. I sat back down.

This all happened in 15 seconds.

When the rocking stopped, and we were all alive, a great cheer went up in the bus. We high-fived one another.

The bus, being diesel rather than one of the electric trolley coaches, simply moved on. We wound our way down the hill, and that was when the gravity of what had happened at last hit us. One fellow bus rider on a transistor radio reported to us that the Bay Bridge had “collapsed.” To us at the time this meant that the whole structure had toppled over, crashing into the Bay, perhaps killing hundreds. We couldn’t know otherwise. Nearing Cole Street, we saw brick facades that had toppled, crushing parked cars. Windows were shattered. Dust was everywhere. The lights were out.

My friend said, “We need to get a drink.” I agreed.

At Haight Street, now nearing dark with no street lights, we got off. We went to Nightbreak, a punk club near Haight and Stanyan that served beer, wine and saki. I can’t say we had a bad time. Every cute, gothie-punkie Haight Street shop girl was in there, their shops closed for lack of power. In a way, it was kind of heaven. The only light was candlelight and, since the power was out, they had no cash registers. If you had a $10 bill, you gave it to them with the promise that you would drink $10 worth of beer. Sorry, no change. I don’t know how they kept track, but they did. (In those days a beer cost a buck-fifty, so you do the math.)

After we’d drunk our fill, it was dark, and my friend and I parted, gazing curiously at the glow of the fires coming over the hill from the Marina. I made my way home, stopping at a corner store to buy a bottle of cheap vodka and some orange juice. I remember one fellow was in a panic, screaming at me and the other liquor buying patrons that we should be buying water, not booze, and that we’d all be starving in a few days. With typical San Francisco aplomb, we ignored him. At one busy intersection – Arguello and Anza, maybe? – I directed traffic with another guy for about a half-hour until a policeman arrived. My room was a disaster: books thrown everywhere, my favorite lamp shattered. Eventually we were “yellow tagged” and had to move out, though to this day I think our landlord hoodwinked us to get us to move so she could up the rent.

That night, I sat on the roof of my flat with my roommates, sipping screwdrivers and watching the dark, silent night, our only light from candles, the helicopters overhead and the eerie glow of the fires away Northward, wondering if we were all going to burn.

Days past and things happened. I made $200 cash – a fortune to me at that time – guarding my workplace, the vintage clothing store, American Rag, then on Bush Street, against looters for two nights, armed with a sword. No joke.

When I look back at this event, my story isn’t much compared with that of others’ who really suffered. But it’s the one I have. And I will never forget.

This post is dedicated to the men and women of the San Francisco Fire Department, who do yeomans’ in this town every single day.