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1989 Earthquake, San Francisco

The 1989 Earthquake, San Francisco

I was sprawled on the living room’s wooden floor in our second-story apartment on Taraval Street doing my homework. A mere two blocks away was Ocean Beach, visible from the window of the bedroom I shared with my younger sister. The air was a perpetual reminder of the ocean’s proximity: its salt slowly chewed the paint from our car, and days were usually crisp and cool, suffused with a wetness that made its way to our bones.
But not today. We were in the midst of our Indian Summer, a stretch of days in early fall whose temperatures groped toward the eighties – a heat wave for San Franciscans, who came out in droves from their fog-wrapped routines to enjoy the sun. Our “summer” heralded days when our mother would pick us up from school in a short-sleeved dress and a sun hat and greet us with a sparkle in her eyes and the announcement that we were going to Yiya and Babba’s (our grandparents) for a swim!
This day was business as usual, though, and I trudged through my vocabulary sentences, a staple of third-grade homework, with two fat World Book dictionaries at my side. My mother was working in her office, which doubled as her bedroom, and my sister was at preschool up the street. The sun poured in through the adjacent kitchen’s window, and it was hard for me to focus.
My cat, Ebony, streaked by and emitted a plaintive yowl. She was dragging her belly across the floor, and I, having never lived with an animal before, attributed this to typical cat weirdness. Then I heard something I couldn’t place. It was a small tinkling sound. I looked up to see the crystals suspended from our lamps trembling against one another. This was unprecedented. Before I could even begin to think about it, I heard another sound, a loud, loud rumbling that sounded as if it were approaching – it was.
As the floor began to roil beneath me, I ran to my mother’s room. She was standing by her desk and had just hung up the phone. She opened her arms to me and enveloped me. I stood with my face buried against my mother’s stomach as the earth quaked.
We didn’t do any of what we knew so well, in times of steady ground, to do – get under a table or stand in a doorway, get away from windows, cover your head. Our only thought when the shaking subsided was to get to my sister. I don’t remember speaking a word as my mother grabbed her purse and her keys and we ran with one mind down the brick stairs and to the carport.
It was a little after five o’clock, the time when everyone began bustling around after work and school, and there were a lot of cars out. When we reached the intersection at Sunset Boulevard, we saw that the traffic lights weren’t working. Amazingly, there was little chaos; the cars stopped and took turns graciously. It was as if the earthquake had shaken all the hurrying and rudeness from everyone, or as if it had shaken everything into perspective. We were shocked into realizing our co-existence with one another; we’d all experienced the earthquake, and we knew, suddenly, instinctively, that our lives were shared, even if they only intersected at a cross-roads.
Little Star Preschool was just on the other side of Sunset Boulevard. We parked and ran in. Without electricity, the room was dim. It seemed strangely empty because all the children were under their little tables. But my sister, who’d been straining for any sign of us, saw us and ran out from under her table toward us.
“Mommy! Fifi! I was so worried about you!!”
Our little family was all together now and everything seemed so much better. We still didn’t understand the magnitude of the quake and we certainly didn’t know anything about what had happened in the rest of the city. We drove over to my grandparents house, my four-year-old sister telling us over and over in her endearing chatter about how she and her friends were outside playing at the water table and it started making big waves and the trees were shaking and she was afraid they would fall on them and then the teachers told them to get inside under the tables.
At my grandparents’ house, we again stepped into an eerie tranquility in the way that everyday routines had been arrested. As daylight waned, we ate olive sandwiches – my grandfather’s specialty – together with no TV and conversation about what had happened. Outside the window, we could see neighbors taking walks and stopping to talk with one another about the quake. We hadn’t yet learned about the damage parts of the city had sustained, and we didn’t know that any people were hurt.
Every time we felt the tremors of an aftershock, my heart skipped a beat. An earthquake would never be fun to me again.
School was cancelled the next day, but my mother kept us close and we didn’t have to go for the rest of the week. The power was back on and we watched our city’s casualties on the news, which flashed the same tragic pictures repeatedly: the section of the Bay Bridge that had fallen and the car that didn’t stop and fell through; the beautiful homes in the Marina, built on landfill that shook like jelly, leveled – their attics were accessible from street level; fans leaving the stadium, dazed, from the World Series game; and, most heart-wrenching of all, the rescue efforts at the double-decker freeway that had collapsed, pinning commuters in their cars.
Those outside of the city assumed the only thing they could from the media coverage they saw – that the city was demolished, and who knew how many people the quake had claimed. For the first and only time, my father called us from Israel, wondering if we were alright. My friend, Jocelyn, who was in Hawaii with her family at the time, later told us of their anguish as they were confronted with images of the city’s “destruction.”
There was indeed some massive damage as well as some heartbreaking loss, and we felt it as a city. Soon, however, as humans have always done, we eased back into normal life, carrying vivid memories of the event etched into our consciousnesses in visceral detail. At school we recounted our earthquake stories. What were you doing when the earthquake happened? Troy and Scott were at the Series game, Jonathan was – gasp – on the toilet!
For years on October 17 I remembered that “the earthquake happened today” a year ago, two years ago, three years ago … but now the anniversary of the 1989 quake evinces the memory only occasionally. All of us who were there are scattered across the globe now, connected by the invisible threads of the recollection of a collective experience.

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