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The Terra Incognita Loft: Part 5 1989-Present

Thursday, January 26th, 2017: Places, The Terra Incognita Loft.

Let It Come Down

It happened just after 5pm on Tuesday, October 17. John was at work downtown, and made it outside okay; he was able to walk back to Fifth Street. Leslie was working across the Bay, as was I. The engineering company I worked for was in the Berkeley Marina, on landfill. The wood-frame walls and doorways of our second floor office seemed to turn to rubber. I braced myself in a doorway as the drunken thrashing of the world around me went on for a long moment, file cabinets and bookcases tumbling across the rooms. From the moment it started, I knew my home and studio was gone, down, collapsed. It could never withstand the Big One.

I shut down my thoughts and feelings and went into full survival mode. After the shaking stopped, and we’d determined that the building was still standing and everyone was okay, I invited my co-worker, Mae, to hit the road with me. She also lived in the city and was worried sick about her partner over there. There were no cell phones or internet in those days. Regular telephone service was down. Power was out. Nothing but static on the radio.

I drove the new Tracker up the marina road toward Berkeley, where a mushroom cloud now rose thousands of feet into the sky. Ahead of us, the road had split in half, with one side of the pavement a foot lower than the other. Before time stopped, it had been rush hour, and the freeway was packed, with traffic at a standstill. Skipping the on-ramp, I took the frontage road beside the Bay toward Emeryville. It took a long time, and when we got there, the freeway ramp to San Francisco was blocked. I decided to try to get to Mike the drummer’s house in Oakland. The streets near the freeway were also jammed, so I drove my new high-clearance vehicle over the railroad tracks into back alleys behind factories, and finally made it to Mike’s place as darkness fell. His lights were on, but he told us the Bay Bridge was down and San Francisco was burning.

We watched Mike’s TV in silence as they showed the same helicopter footage over and over, of a blacked-out city lit only by raging fires in my South of Market neighborhood and in the Marina District to the north. Hours later, I was finally able to reach John at the loft by phone, and Mae connected with her partner. They were both fine, and John said the loft was damaged but, miraculously, still standing. The toilet had been shattered by falling masonry, and the power was off, but the phone was back on. My heavy stereo amplifier had been thrown off the top shelf onto the floor, but most of our stuff was still upright, including the heavy old refrigerator and the gas water heater, which we’d secured with metal straps after the earlier quake.

The Bay Bridge was indeed closed – a section of the upper roadway had collapsed – but Mae and I both needed to get home, so I took the long way around, via the Richmond Bridge, Marin County, and the Golden Gate. I dropped Mae off at her place in Noe Valley, then headed for South of Market. It was about 2am when I rolled down darkened Folsom Street, driving slow and swerving to avoid trash can fires and homeless people staggering like zombies through the rubble. I gave the darkened loft a quick check, said hi to John, grabbed some clothes and overnight stuff, and returned to stay with Mae and Xenia in their intact apartment up on the bedrock of a hill, where the electricity had come back on.

Ann, property manager for our landlord Chuck, stopped by the loft the next day, and Chuck immediately dispatched a plumber to replace the toilet. It seemed like a crazy reaction in the larger context, but crazy things were happening all over as some people wavered in denial and others frantically tried to restore business as usual. The entire Bay Area was in shock, and much of San Francisco was paralyzed. Blocks of homes had collapsed or burned, people had died in a collapse in our own neighborhood, power would be out for days. Communications were so chaotic that it was days before anyone learned that a double-decker freeway in Oakland had collapsed, crushing dozens of commuters in their cars.

I got Leslie on the phone; she was staying at her old place across the Bay. We agreed to meet at the loft on Friday. In the meantime, I called Ann and told her to get the building inspected. We couldn’t go on living there without knowing whether it was safe.

Transportation systems were down – people couldn’t get to their jobs – crews of orange-vested officials were seen everywhere, red-tagging buildings – but somehow Ann found us an engineer. I accompanied them into the bowels of the building where the main structural columns were exposed. They all had longitudinal cracks, and the rusted and broken ends of the rebar stuck out like spaghetti. The engineer didn’t really have to inspect anything, he just took a quick look and said this building was done for, totally unsafe, it would have to come down. I knew it had been unsafe long before the earthquake, before we’d even moved in. A disaster waiting to happen.

Love Among the Ruins

Leslie and I returned on Friday, and spent our last nights in the loft. A storm was coming in off the Pacific, and on Friday night I dreamed I was carried up into the eye of the storm. Saturday night I dreamed I was carried down under the earth through a tunnel. I was carried smoothly forward, past arching rock walls that glowed brighter and brighter, until I reached the epicenter of the quake, where I was overwhelmed by light and warmth and a sense of relief and peace.

On Sunday, Katie came over to help me pack. She invited Leslie and me to stay in her studio. She unfolded her sofabed, made it up with sheets and a comforter, and tucked us in. Leslie and I spent much of the night telling each other the story of our lives, but that was all that happened.

I hired a moving crew and rented a storage space in the East Bay, taking all the major appliances, believing I’d find another live-work space soon. But property owners and managers had doubled or tripled the rents on vacant spaces, taking advantage of all the displacement. And nothing was anywhere near as nice as our loft.

After the loft was red-tagged, the utilities were permanently shut off, but John and Quinn decided to camp there as long as they possibly could, thriving in danger. By contrast, Carson and Kay had recently bought a house way up on the north coast, in the pastoral, anachronistic village of Ferndale, and they invited Leslie and me up for a break from our hopeless search for housing. There, walking on the beach one afternoon, I tried to kiss her, but she turned away, saying she wasn’t ready.

FEMA finally set up a local operation to aid earthquake victims. Leslie and I waited in line in Oakland for hotel and meal vouchers. They were only valid at the cheapest chains. The only motel we could find, way up in Richmond, had stained carpets that smelled like piss, and a bed that visibly sagged in the middle. But we got our takeout voucher dinners, I bought a six pack, and we propped the window open to ease the odor in our room. Leslie asked me for a massage, and we finally found release from all the trauma and desperation in each other.

Over Thanksgiving holiday, she talked the manager of her old Mills College dorm into letting her stay there. The outside doors were locked, so I had to toss pebbles against her second-floor window at night so she could come down and let me in.

The desert property question was still floating out there, and my friend Michael from Los Angeles, another desert lover, was interested in joining me in it. In December, while I was still homeless, we drove out together to look at the two candidate properties, on opposite sides of the mountain range. He fell in love with the old man’s place at first sight, noting it would be like owning our own national park. And his mother was willing to give us a loan. So we asked the old man in Vegas if he knew anyone who could close the deal for him.

Meanwhile, the city had finally gotten around to red-tagging the loft. John and Quinn, who had been camping romantically in the ruins, there in the midst of the crippled and traumatized city, finally moved out, and Dancy boarded up the facade and put a big padlock on the street doors.

The Terra Incognita band played a couple of final gigs, one on New Year’s Eve in a Mission District loft where both Katie and Leslie were dancing in the audience, and another at a private affair in a park. Leslie and I remained homeless, but together, for months, while Michael and I were closing the deal on our desert property. Sometimes Katie let us sleep in her studio. Eventually, although she mockingly referred to her as “Teenage Barbie,” Katie got young Leslie a job as receptionist at Colossal Pictures. I moved into the three-bedroom apartment Katie shared with her friend Ken in the building above her art studio, and Leslie found a room in a house in the Mission.

Into the New World

In the late 1980s, Reagan, our criminal President, had talked our “enemy,” the Soviet Union, into embracing the rudiments of capitalism. Then in early 1989, Chinese students massed in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, demanding more freedom, but the Communist government brutally suppressed them, massacring thousands. George Bush, another conservative from a family of Nazi collaborators, had won the presidential election in 1988, and in November 1989, a few weeks after our earthquake, the Berlin Wall was opened between East and West, and its demolition begun. Naive Western Europeans and Americans celebrated, having been taught to see these events as the inevitable triumph of good over evil and proof of the moral superiority of capitalism over communism and socialism.

One afternoon in the new year of 1990, months after the quake, I found myself in our old South of Market neighborhood, and swung by the loft, which was still standing and still boarded up. I noticed two men outside Olen’s shop and pulled over. It was Olen and his son. Olen had had a stroke and couldn’t speak, but he recognized me and smiled. The son explained that they were trying to retrieve a car from inside our building.

The lower floor of the loft had a dogleg garage extension onto Shipley alley. We managed to raise the rollup door, but Olen’s old VW Beetle, which didn’t run, was down inside, in the dark, at the bottom of a ramp. Together, the three of us labored and slowly pushed it up and out onto the street. Olen beamed. Back in the day, he’d been the King of Fifth Street. Now, only a few months later, he was a ravaged old man, barely functioning, collateral damage of the earthquake. It was the last time I saw him, and the last time I saw the loft standing. Chuck’s three condemned buildings disappeared as if they’d never existed, to be replaced by a sunken dirt parking lot, which remains to this day.

Leslie and I drifted apart. We stayed friends, but she moved back to Chicago, where she’d grown up. I attended a two-week primitive skills class in the wilderness of Utah where I learned the lifeways of the Indians who lived in my beloved desert and left the rock art Katie and I had studied, and in 1991, four years after the last Pow-Wow, I organized another Pow-Wow at Philippe and Cindy’s field station, this time starring the lead instructor from my Utah class, and adding new friends to the old crowd from both Northern and Southern California.

John and Quinn got married and spent a long honeymoon in Spain and Italy. Back in the Bay Area, they started a family and later moved to Ireland, where John joined a theater group and Quinn did archaeology. Recently, they returned to the Bay Area.

Two years after the quake, I moved into a small house in Oakland with a carport where I could store the appliances from the loft, so I retrieved them and all my other stuff from storage. Part of me was still hoping to get another industrial space that I could build out, to create another dream studio and home.

In the Oakland house, I reassembled my recording studio and reviewed my decade-long musical career. The last iteration of the Terra Incognita band had been the most musically coherent and successful, but in some ways the most frustrating. The lead guitarist’s work, and the long solos by him and the other players, had constantly grated on my traditional-music sensibilities, and we’d never found a backing vocalist that suited me, but all the players had been so accommodating and supportive of me and my songs that I’d never had the heart to challenge or replace them. Instead, in another of my typical creative flip-flops, I abandoned the big band sound and went acoustic, resurrecting my banjo, ordering and learning to play my own custom-made West African drums, writing more desert-inspired songs, and adopting a deep-tribal sound explicitly inspired by archaic Nigerian and Appalachian styles.

But my passion for the desert was quickly taking over. We’d finally acquired our land and were starting to do habitat restoration work. I decided to just move out there and live on the land – working with desert scientists, delving deep into the ecology and archaeology, testing my new aboriginal skills in the middle of the wilderness – so I finally sold off all the old loft appliances. It was a hard time and place for selling – even the Wedgewood range went cheap. I quit my day job at the Berkeley engineering firm, for the last time, and it went out of business within a few years.

Loft of Dreams

In September 1993, four years after the quake, I was back in the Bay Area, and we relived the golden years of the loft in a Terra Incognita reunion. Laurie flew out from Minneapolis, and Katie, Laurie, John, Quinn, and I took the ferry to Angel Island where we picnicked and made music together at The Bell.

After the reunion, Katie moved back to Los Angeles, and I visited her there. In Minneapolis, Laurie and Marc had divorced. He’d pursued a career in poetry, and later took his own life, but Laurie had gone on to become an acclaimed creator of public art in the Twin Cities, tackling difficult issues like domestic violence and suicide.

I moved into the Oakland house of Mike the drummer from the TI band, and we started a new group, Wickiup, with Jane, a Cherokee singer and multi-instrumentalist, to try out my idea of a deep-tribal sound that we called Acid Country or Native American Country Gospel. Hotel Utah, a legendary bar and nightclub in the old loft neighborhood of San Francisco, was now managed by Guy, the lead bass player from the short-lived 1988 version of Terra Incognita. There, Wickiup debuted “Precious Time,” the song about Leslie, the loft, and the quake that I’d written while we were still homeless in early 1990. We performed and attracted a loyal audience for two years before I got tired of that style and flip-flopped again, inspired by the now-popular grunge movement from Seattle.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1995, and Leslie flew out from Chicago two years in a row to join me in camping trips to the desert. I started making desert-inspired pastels again, and experimented with Asian-inspired ink brush art. And gradually, after years of unemployment and poverty, I reinvented myself as an information architect in the Dotcom Boom, and moved back to the Bay Area for a high-pressure new career as a “creative professional.”

When I founded the loft in 1981, my young peers and I had been part of a generation that was angry and skeptical, disillusioned with government, politics, industry, media, capitalism and consumerism. Our opposition to the established system and mainstream culture was the source of our hope for the future and the inspiration for our creativity. But now I was working with creative young people who were making tons of money working for corporate clients. They fervently believed that technology and capitalism would bring about Heaven on Earth: a democratic, globally networked playground filled with sparkling, kaleidoscopic screens, friendly robots and rocket cars. I would ride the wave, but I had seen too much to share that dream.

In 1997, eight years after the quake, I started dreaming about the Terra Incognita loft. It’s as if it continued to exist in a parallel universe – actually, any number of parallel universes, because the city around it continues to change, modernizing in different ways each time, and the loft itself is different in every dream. Sometimes it’s the same space, and sometimes it’s bigger, with extensions, or just with more monumental dimensions. Most of the time, strangers are living there and transforming it in cool and intriguing ways. But sometimes, it’s the same, and some of the old roommates have returned. I still have these dreams and I expect I always will.

I also reconnected with Tiare in 1997 – by phone, mail, and email – but we have yet to meet face to face. She’s happily married and living in the Los Angeles area, and still making art. And much later, after moving to New Mexico, I reconnected with Gary, Mark, and Scott from the original Terra Incognita band. Mark continues to experiment with his fiddle, Scott’s a successful actor, and Gary paints, having taught art to seniors until his retirement this month.

I opened the San Francisco office of my design business in North Beach in 1999, and one day while grabbing a sandwich at Molinari’s deli across the street, I glimpsed someone who looked like Popeye, the dashing but mentally ill older man who’d lived in the flophouse around the corner from the loft, parading around the neighborhood in flamboyant costumes. Like Popeye, the man I saw in North Beach looked clean cut and physically fit. He wore a white shirt and dress slacks, and carried grocery bags. When I described him to my young assistant, she said he was a widely-known, independently wealthy San Francisco personality that she and her husband had spoken with several times.

The ultimate triumph of the loft was Jon and Laurie’s marriage. Jon had landed a prestigious editing job in Minneapolis in the mid-1990s, and since Laurie was already established there, they started hanging out together, and I was eventually privileged to serve at the wedding of these two friends who had first met at Terra Incognita 16 years earlier. And Jon has resumed the career in performance art that he and I first dabbled in at the loft in 1981.

I love and miss all my talented and courageous friends from the nine years of the Terra Incognita loft. As artists, we needed a place that was ours to experiment with, outside the constraints of society. A place that was illegal and dangerous, forcing us to stay alert and learn how to keep from falling off the sharp edge of art, love, sanity, even life itself, that we so often balanced precariously on. Terra Incognita was that place, and it served us better than anyone could ever have dreamed, and in our dreams and memories it will never die.

  1. I so enjoy your dispatches, Max, and this one records your experience with the Loma Prieto earthquake and acquiring your lovely place in the Old Woman Mountains. I think I have this right.

    As always,

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