I missed the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake by a couple days, but the recollections of various friends jarred me to finally dig up and transcribe the journals I was keeping at the time. I was reading lots of Vollmann and I suppose that was the initial reason I began keeping journals (really I have never been much of a diarist). When the quake hit, I was just leaving work at my temp job in a lawfirm in downtown San Francisco. I was in an elevator. As I got to the street, I took out my tablet and began writing down everything I saw and heard as I walked back to my flat at Haight and Masonic. I kept up the notes for a couple days, then never got back to arranging or polishing; and I have done very little polishing here.
What has always seemed equally interesting to me are the notes of a trip Geraldine and I took north of S.F. on the weekend before the quake. We spent a night at Clear Lake, and drove the next day to Lake Pillsbury. The mood of that trip was incredibly strange–there was an inexplicably ominous atmosphere surrounding everything, and at some point, after being separately haunted by it, we began to discuss it openly, which brought some relief from feeling isolated, but didn’t dispel the mood. What is not really reflected in the journal is that this mood persisted after our return to the city, and through the next day, and only finally discharged itself in the moment of the quake. This highly subjective experience makes an interesting anecdote I suppose, but more interesting to me are the objective traces it left in my notes, made at a time when I of course had no idea the quake was imminent.
The journal commences:
Will-O-Point Resort. Indian Beach Resort. Bluefish Cove. Wig Wam Trailer Park. Kono Tayee. Clear Lake. Clear? I think of motor oil stirred to a froth by speedboats. Deer standing around like they owned the place!
Jim’s Cabins… “Meant to leave that chain up, but that’s ok. Put you right down here by the water? You want to be in the trees? Well, there’s a tree right up there—put you by the motor launch… Sure, come back anytime.”
Hard to imagine anybody’s mother bringing her brood here. Soapy hairs swept about artfully on the floor of the shower stall. Doors that open by themselves and a carpet of some synthetic local fabric spun from the lakebottom sludge, that exudes a poisonous odor like biological paint-thinner. The bedclothes are laughing at me. I don’t wonder they’ll make you comfortable in Clear Lake. It would be different going up there to meet friends, though.
Standing on an outlet cobbled from the foundations of torn-down drive-in restaurants, but…I think this place is dying. These are all old places, crumbling signs and buildings that were old when they were new, and now have a sulfuric accumulation on their back walls, sooty airbrush work—maybe from where the water-freshening system vents noxious gases. This is volcanic land—pumice, cinnabar (could account for strangeness of their ways), black webby scoria (from Mt. Ngranek, no doubt), lovely melodious chert…and the local diamond, a “7” on the hardness scale.
Mt. Kinocti a majestic presence, slopes thick with old walnut orchards…wonder if the Indians knew the cinnabar and to leave it be. Very old lessons—leave the things in the earth where they lie: for you, the stars are your sustenance. But here they speak of people buying up their land cheap—as if it is anyone’s land to own. Might be. They feel threatened by city buyers, no matter the latter’s intentions. And they sense the end of their way of life, which I supposed I remember from when I was a kid, and all these places were new and the baby boomers had their kids and the beaches were swarming and you might actually make some friends in a place like this and have a good time. Is it only my delusion to think that style of life is passing? Is it the fearful decay of the American family? (What of la famille francaise?) But everything passes, why should that be spared? Wondering if we should pass ourselves off as housekeeping cabin critics? No—there are still fishermen here, this is not a life I admire, but it is someone’s life and it’d be wiser to understand it—though I pity the lake, and think of others I have loved. Mercer Lake—laurel green and mulchy and so free of poison oak. High Sierra pools and tarns and clear mineral glacier-silty lakes! There is still desire and purity and beauty in this world, and not only in me. Desire, Buddhists say, must be purified, not followed. Or do they say that? Why is it that the things I know, I seem to know so shallowly? There must be some comfort here before our drive home tomorrow.
Pillsbury Lake and Points Southwest
Pillsbury Lake, after miles of rough road, a dry oak-wooded flat surrounded a receding dammed reservoir, surrounded itself by mountains—while itself high into them, high above green Potter’s Valley, which itself is high above Mendocino Lake among much greener hills. I can easily imagine prehistoric creatures roaming the deathly still volcanic valley. Fire lies beneath the earth—an eerie breadth to the land, so strange and lonesome and indefinable, that I feared I was the only one who felt it: But these sorts of things are obvious. Geraldine felt it, knew what I meant when I called it eerie. In the Sierras, the silence of a place is welcome. Here it was forbidding. Perhaps the place hates motorcycles, sends its ticks to make their riders weary. I remember fearing the silence and wind in the desert at grandpa’s house, all the wind that had rushed over an empty land, finding me alone there among juniper bushes and gathering to pounce—and even later, in a fever on the edge of sleep, the tones evoked by a set of brass windchimes stirred by that same wind sent me into nightmares—of the especially vivid sort which catches one unguarded at the borders of sleep, which I think must be the madman’s perpetual twlight—so that I feared sleep yet couldn’t wake. Alone, out on the roads and among the pines, but that was not the reason for my odd mood—which was certainly not unpleasant. It was curious and intriguing and almost lulled me… I wanted to spend time exploring the area, hiking, looking for more clues as to its dreamlike magnetism. Perhaps it is something in the rock, an alignment of cooled lava metals that affect our homing senses (if we ever prove to have such things)…but whatever its cause, a distinct manifestation of a genius loci, something still alive and wary, not particularly inviting (I intend to respect its wishes and take its warning…we may alone have been susceptible to perceiving this frightening immense spirit, whereas others ignore it to their misfortune). In this respect, I think I appreciate some of magic’s subtleties in ways even most witches do not—and before I ingested any of that dogma and arrogance of the pagan hierarchical systems, I was aware of the uncanny characteristics of nature and felt quite in touch with them—in communication as I meditated in the Sierras. I have rediscovered a significant inner magic today, I think—which I have been working to recapture for some time. Dream-moods, tableau through which I pass while walking or thinking my way down certain paths of thought… I’m always wondering how to describe these moods or evoke them in prose—or simply to discover and experience more of them. It occurs to me that this precisely was HPL’s obsession also. I think I’d like to visit Auburn, home of Clark Ashton Smith.
A Personal Record of the October 17 Quake
October 17, 1989
5:15 p.m. (About 10 minutes after the quake (5:04))
Everybody’s out in the street. Fire marshall’s car blocking intersection, bike messenger directing traffic. “Hey, man, don’t turn up there—they got a lot of emergency stuff!” Hook and ladder up to the 5th story of Wilkes Bashford, fluorescent tipped ladder. Other trucks pull away sirening. No traffic lights. Knots of people, cameras everywhere. A giddy happiness. Black woman going down Kearny: “Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus! He comes when you are least expecting!”
I was in an elevator. Began to bounce, lights flicker oh God. “Somebody get off… Everybody off!” Lobby rocking, office workers: “This is the first time I’ve been on Littler’s floor.” Back on again. This time the elevator dies without moving, but we pry doors open. Stairs. 20 flights.
Mardi gras air!
Ambulance whooping, forcing way through packed streets.
Dozens of broken windows in Macy’s. A feeling of ill omen near site where shards fell.
Sidewalks covered with glass: “Turn right—Jesus Christ!”
Tattered ribbons of vertical blinds. Stalled Ballpark Express. No injuries in glass.
One window broke on 9th floor, two on 8th, zero on 7th, five on 6th, 13 (all) on 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2d on Stockton. More on FAO Schwartz. Shattered. Windshield of car webbed and sunk inward—parked under I Magnins—glass all over hood.
Long line for phones—shit! No buses in sight. No one left in buildings now—all in the street, what a mob, nice weather tho. Stalled Ballpark Express. Like a parade day. The aftermath more interesting than the jolt at this point (5:35). Stooped old man in SCINTILLANT ORANGE cap with hearing aid, grasping rail, seems to listen to the kids who shove past.
James was stuck overnight—three hours—in elevator in Sears Building. And I was in crowded elevator.
Walking up Market. Upper Emporium windows smashed.
Haranguers hard to hear—but old guy with megaphone: “God is no respectable person. Anyone can come to God.”
“Time is rapidly windin’ up!” (Harelip cry.)
“—say part of Bay Bridge…”
You finally see who works the adult theaters. Standing outside, folded arms, smirk, snap gum.
“Hey, you taking a report?” Black kid in baseball cap walking at me.
Flee unprepared into Tenderloin and be swallowed up.
Sprinkler burst main swirling water down windows inside glass-fronted Trinity Building. Small cyclonic waterfall, what you usually see outside.
“Don’t you love this like feeling of…?”
Rubble from ornate plaster of Orpheum.
Desperate surges of traffic at intersection.
After awhile you’re used to the broken glass.
Finally overtook Haight bus at 6:00 at 10th. Everyone gathers at radio. World Series cancelled. 6.9 to 7 – north of Santa Cruz.
Paper hawker at Van Ness: “6.7, Giants fans! First report of the evening!” (Later: must have been con-hawker selling old papers.)
“No lights—they’re just drinking in the dark.”
Brick siding crushed hood of car. All over street, pink dust, thick as moondust.
Smoke rising up Scott near Alamo Park. (Marina—Divisadero and Jefferson.)
“We were all lookin at each other like…”
Haight. Everyone on stoops drinking beer.
Pall spreads west (seen from Divis.).
Goodyear blimp whines overhead, adrift from cancelled game.
Someone’s playing scales on a violin, the notes drifting up from a basement near Central.
Line at Central Haight Market. Getting let into store two at a time. Blind man in gutter past motorcycle.
View of skyline, only red outline lights, stars for once visible; then a red moon like a dome blistering up by Bank of America building; crossing behind it and casting city in a ghostly backlight—dark canyons. Haight and Masonic like a campground—volunteer directing traffic. Then fire engines screaming up and stopping right under us, investigating houses across the street. Helicopter swinging searchlight. Neighbors introduce themselves: “What’s your name? I’m Terry.” Everybody drinking.
Late at night, I wake finally in panic and sickness, thinking I drank contaminated water: this is real. Lights still out. Then a woman screaming on Haight, over and over again, piercing—thinking how alone she is, or getting news of someone dead. More likely a joker. More screams, farther away—same lady moving.
Lights on at 1:30. Phones from East Coast from 5 on.
Three cops looking in Acacia Glass: “Think you can handle that?”
Helicopters circling and buzzing all day over downtown. TV pictures finally. I-880 collapse, inconceivable sandwich. Los Gatos hard hit but phones out. John Shirley (in videostore when it struck), Kadrey (office door blocked by fallen stuff), Evyn.
Exhaustion—afternoon nap, wake dizzy and sick.
Slight rocking even now…or only a queasy memory?
TV news on constantly—sirens always in the background…sniff of gas on Haight where deadheads sit selling buttons and panhandling.
October 19, 1989
TV a constant lifeline. Even felt pissed this morning to find soaps and gameshows on all channels. Movies rescheduled: “The movie you missed on Tuesday!” Tour buses going through wreckage of Marina. Survivor T-shirts. Thoughts of stench on 880 in heat as rescue continues…troubling, gruesome thoughts that seem perfectly reasonable somehow. Unfocused feeling all day. “They don’t need you” at work. No phones, no paycheck, ATMs closed. Everything and all routines both normal and floating on a thicker layer of disruption and confusion. Afraid to drift into trivialities—doesn’t seem worth it to jot down just anything…but I’m aware of moments passing unused and unnoticed. If I hadn’t been getting into noting some normal daily things, I wouldn’t have been too likely to take out this pad when I was in mobbed streets that day. What a stunned, shocked reaction—I went to my basic level of identity (writer) to deal with the unbelievable stuff around me, to assimilate it. But now I’m left with something to be polished, turned, worked into something permanent—an artist’s exudation, like a hardened carapace or ornate snail shell formed in that zone between craft and neurosis or simple madness, to remain behind when my fleshy palps are devoured by the beaks of octopi. Krraaaw…
—Yes, with the octopus reference, I was clearly getting back to normal.