Dispatches
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25th Anniversary

25th Anniversary

Friday, October 17th, 2014: 25th Anniversary, Stories.

Condemned

25 years ago on this day, I was at work in the Berkeley Marina. My home, across the Bay in San Francisco, was, according to a well-travelled friend, “the most beautiful loft in the world.” But since building it out 8 years earlier, I had known that the tall, crumbling concrete building couldn’t withstand a major earthquake. Only 2 months earlier, there had been a sharp tremor in the early morning that knocked over and shattered a big mirror, and I had spent a week at a friend’s house until I was calm enough to return home.

On that Tuesday afternoon in October, I was standing in a doorway in our 2nd floor office when the wood frame building suddenly turned to rubber. Walls and floors rippling and swinging me from side to side, bookcases and filing cabinets crashing down, dust rising inside and outside the plate glass windows. Then, as the rolling and tumbling subsided, people began yelling to each other, climbing over furniture, coming together and heading outside.

I knew the moment had come – I had lost my home and studio across the water, and I was in shock – but Mae, my assistant, also had a home, and a partner, in the City, and I felt responsible for her. The phones and the power were out, but I had a new mini-SUV – my previous ride had been totaled a few weeks earlier by crackheads in a hit-and-run.

The long, straight Marina road, facing the UC Berkeley campanile and the Berkeley Hills, had been split down the middle, with the lanes separated by a wide crack, one lane lower than the other. Straight ahead, somewhere near campus and downtown, a mushroom cloud rose ominously, thousands of feet into the sky.

There was nothing but noise on the radio. We were just trying to get home – we had no idea what we would find ahead. When we reached the freeway, we could see it was a solid mass of stopped traffic. We turned onto the frontage road, where traffic was moving slowly, and made it to Emeryville, where we found a chaos of vehicles backtracking and looking for a way out, since they couldn’t get to the Bay Bridge and traffic lights were off.

I suggested that we try to reach my drummer’s house in Oakland. After a while I was able to reach the warehouse district on the other side of the freeway, where the main through street was completely jammed. Putting my new vehicle to the test, I drove over a curb, up an embankment, and across the railroad tracks, and following back alleys and back streets for miles, we finally made it to Mike’s.

“The Bay Bridge is down, and San Francisco is burning!” he shouted when he saw us. His house was fine and the phone and power were on, but we couldn’t get through to the City. On his TV, the same three video clips rotated over and over. In the first one, shot from a helicopter in the north of the city, block after block of fallen buildings were burning, as if they’d been bombed. All the power was out and the helicopter kept a safe distance. What we could see looked like a war zone. Another scene showed a smaller fire that seemed to be closer to the loft, and the third, taken before dark, showed the huge section of steel and concrete that had dropped from the upper deck of the bridge, cars piled up at random angles in the gap.

Mike’s girlfriend joined us, and we all sat around silently watching and waiting. Hours later, the phone rang. It was my roommate, John, calling from the loft. The power was out, things had been thrown around a bit, and a big chunk of concrete had fallen from the wall and crushed the toilet, but the building was still standing. Mae reached her partner, who was safe at home, with the power back on. We decided to try to reach the city by way of Marin County and the Golden Gate.

In the wee hours of the morning, having dropped Mae off at her Noe Valley apartment, I was driving through a canyon of dark tenements down a wide street filled with debris and lined with burning trash cans. All power was out here in the city’s core, and ahead of me, as far as I could see, the black silhouettes of homeless people lurched back and forth between the flames.

It took days for the government to respond. In the meantime, our landlord’s first response was to replace the toilet. Our neighborhood was one of the two most devastated parts of the city – parts of buildings had collapsed, killing people. Communications had broken down across the region, and we didn’t hear about the freeway tragedy in Oakland until days later.

Everyone’s lives and routines were put on hold as the streets filled with officials, cleanup crews, and dump trucks. I didn’t want to sleep in my threatened home, and Mae and her partner offered me their guest bed. Two days before the quake, a new roommate had moved into the loft, a young artist who had had a disturbing dream her first night there. In response, she had created a big spooky drawing, of three figures wrapped in shrouds, that was hanging on the wall in her room. After the quake she had been stranded in the East Bay, so I drove the long way around to get her. That night, we joined Mike and Kele high up on the Oakland Hills, gazing soberly over the vast metropolitan area with its new patches of darkness, freeways mostly empty, the usual rumble of traffic muted.

On Friday, the fourth night after the quake, power had been restored, and Leslie and I decided to sleep at home. The first night, I dreamed I was carried, suspended upright, though a dark tunnel beneath the earth, toward a glow that was the epicenter of the quake. As I approached the center, the glow increased, and I was filled with a growing sense of well-being, a sense that a great tension had been relieved. The earth was showing me what had happened, and why, and I woke up refreshed.

After the weekend, the landlord brought an engineer to look at the structural columns and foundation – all cracked through, with rusted and broken rebar hanging out like spaghetti – and our front door was red-tagged for demolition. It was the end, the end of almost a decade of artistic drama, an ever-changing community of inspired and unstable young bohemians – the highs and the lows, the all-night sessions of drawing, painting, jamming, rehearsing plays, partying, sharing ideas and passions. Could it also be a new beginning?

After packing and moving everything into storage, Leslie and I were brought together in our search for a new home. Property owners had responded to the crisis by raising rents across the entire region – they were asking twice or three times what we had been paying, even in the East Bay. So we slept on friends’ floors and couches. She got a temporary room in a dorm at her alma mater in Oakland, where the doors were locked at sundown and I had to sneak around back and throw rocks at her upper window to get her to let me in.

John had met his new girlfriend just before the quake, and they decided to squat in the red-tagged loft until the bitter end, camping in the ruins without utilities, hauling jugs of water to drink, bathe, and flush the brand-new toilet. They stayed for a month longer, until the doors and windows were boarded up by official decree.

Weeks after the quake, after two episodes of standing in line at makeshift government offices, Leslie and I finally got a FEMA voucher that allowed us to stay in a cheap motel in a poor neighborhood. Using a food voucher, we grabbed steak dinners at Sizzler and a six-pack of beer at a corner store, and climbed the urine-soaked stairs to our room. We ate, it got dark, we drank a couple of beers. We got used to the smell until we hardly noticed it. In the darkness by the open window, with the sounds and lights of the avenue outside, it began to feel like an exotic, romantic place, like a flophouse in Bangkok. Leslie got up, went over, and stretched out on the sagging bed. “Give me a massage,” she said.

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