the shakes

October 17, 2009 | 10:48 am

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake today. I’m thinking hard about it. I’m grateful to my friends who were my friends then and who are my friends now. We’ve been filling in the details of that crazy night together. Here’s my POV.

I was working downtown at an art school. That day, we were goofing around and put a World Series Death Toll chart on the dry erase board in the classroom. The Giants and A’s were in the middle of the Bay Bridge Series and my fellow teachers and I felt sure that Bay Areans would not be able to behave themselves and some kind of disaster would go down. Har, har.

I came home around 4:45, and discovered a strange cat in my apartment. She had come through a slightly open window and was just sitting in my roommate’s bedroom, meowing incessantly. Thanks, cat — sorry I didn’t realize you were warning us. The little girl from upstairs appeared at my door, crying — the cat, improbably named Fluffy, was hers.

I started changing into workout clothes and got on the phone to reserve a spot in a 5:30 aerobics class at Cole Valley Fitness. That’s when the shaking started.

I had a brief, comical moment of staring at the phone, wondering how the handset triggered that, until my bedroom window broke right next to me and I lurched to a doorway.

You know the sound that the recycling truck makes when it empties a dumpster full of bottles? That’s the massive breaking sound I remember from the quake. Pictures down, walls cracked.

I remember gripping onto a doorknob (I thought I had been standing in a doorway, but really I was standing in the hallway, under a huge glass lighting fixture), feeling annoyed and terrified — I wanted to go downstairs and outside but I knew I wasn’t supposed to. But what if the apartment collapsed? Was the apartment going to collapse?

Then it stopped.

Meanwhile, 370 miles to the south, my mom looked up to see the television fritz out in the middle of the World Series warmup. At the same time, my stepdad yelled up from his boat — he could see the waves from the earthquake in the harbor. Uh oh, she thought. She had two kids and a newborn grandson in San Francisco.

I went outside. The drag queens from the bar a couple doors down were milling around on the sidewalk. Drag queens, at 5pm on a Tuesday? Am I remembering that right? I thought I was calm until I realized my jeans were completely undone. I went back upstairs.

My roommate Tracy got home. We had yet to grasp the enormity of what happened.

We took Polaroids of each other, posing dramatically slumped amongst the wreckage. I still cringe with guilt about that.

As we realized the power was out and as it started getting dark, Tracy fled to her boyfriend’s. I fled across the street to Moya and Rebecca’s.

Things become a little vague here. Aftershocks. The corner store gouging us for beer, snacks and batteries. Some tears. At some point, Lisa showed up, stranded on this side of the bay. We all took turns with the headphones, listening to the radio. Helicopters flew outside, as did the rumors. San Jose was levelled. Thousands killed on the collapsed Golden Gate Bridge. The Embarcadero on fire.

I went to my boyfriend’s, a few blocks away. The only thing that happened to his place was that a can of cooking grease fell off their stove. I went to bed, wondering what the hell just happened.

The aftermath was much, much worse. More tomorrow.

7 Responses to “the shakes”

  1. Jeana says:

    I feel totally tense now. Can’t wait to read the rest. Do you still have the polaroids of you and Tracy?

  2. cardiogirl says:

    Well that’s terrifying. I live in Michigan and I’ve never, ever experienced anything close to an earthquake. I can’t even imagine it.

    The concept is so foreign to me it’s like something you’d see on a sci-fi movie. The earth opens up and stuff falls in? WTH, man?

    That’s crazy. I am curious to hear the rest of the story.

  3. dp says:

    The number of reminisces I’ve seen today referencing trips to the corner store for beer have been staggering.

  4. moya says:

    oh becky. i love you so much. i, too, am grateful to still be blessed with YOU.

    i’m also grateful that you broke your recount up into pieces, something i did NOT do and instead coughed up the whole mass right here:

    looking forward to keeping with you, babe.

  5. Leanne says:

    I love that you thought the phone handset triggered the earthquake. I was in Seattle and just vaguely remember news stories. According to Lucy who does an emergency drill every month at school you don’t go to doorway because there isn’t enough room for everyone in the doorway :) Drop, get under table, cover, hold but not any flimsy table with removable legs!

  6. hambox says:

    Jeana, I probably have a couple pictures from that awful photo shoot around somewhere. I seriously don’t want to know where they are. 1989 was an extraordinary year in many ways, and still totally covered in mojo..I’m not ready to dig out the artifacts yet!

    As utterly terrifying as quakes are to me now, I’d say the whole anticipation-of-a-hurricane feeling (that I experienced once on the east coast) is completely unbearable. Is it better if you just don’t know where/when it’s going to happen? Hmm.

    Thanks to Lucy for the safety tip. Now where the hell is a non-flimsy table in my house??

  7. Lisa says:


    God, twenty years. I remember it way too clearly. I was in North Berkeley, in the crappy house I rented sophomore year with my friend Meredith and another guy, Dave, who had an iguana. We didn’t get along (the iguana and I–Dave barely talked to me). It was a house of horrors in many ways, that day just set the tone.

    I was on the phone with Sean (my bf at the time) who was in SF so we had a sort of trans-bay phone quake experience. I had no idea what to do, having grown up in the east, so he was yelling instructions at me, “Get in the Doorway!” (OK.) “Find the gas main and turn it off” (what? I was 19, I had no clue what a gas main WAS). It did smell like gas, though–the house was wood and kept shaking even without aftershocks so I tried to find my stoner landlords to get the gas taken care of, and call my competent roommate Meredith at work and beg her to help figure this shit out and because I was terrified that the house would burn down while the stoners got high and then and then but Sean was already caught up in the SF party and I felt jealous and alone. I would have just left but there was no way to get from one side of the bay to the other–the pictures of the crushed bridge were all we needed to prove that–so I was stuck.

    The quake–I think it’s what made me HATE Berkeley and always feel trapped there. Meanwhile my parents in NY were frantic and I had a hard time talking them down because at that moment, I seriously questioned having gone to live in California. But I did it (spite, mainly), and that was the last year I lived in Berkeley proper. I went abroad the next year and lived in SF after. Whatever love I had for the East Bay was gone after that. It became a place I only wanted to visit.