Saturday, October 17, 2009

earthquake dreams

20 years ago today, I was a few months past turning 19, and had been living in Santa Cruz, California for just over a year. I had moved myself to Santa Cruz from the east coast because I wanted to live in California since I was a kid, and Santa Cruz sounded like just the place that would fulfill my fantasy of living next to the ocean, in year-round temperate climate, with the added bonus of being surrounded by cute surfer boys, cute boys being the biggest weakness in my life at that time. Like most childhood fantasies, the reality of my still-new California life was proving to be more difficult and not as exhilarating as I hoped. I moved without any relationship ties or connections to my new hometown, and many of my new relationships seemed tenuous, some were even troubled.  I was struggling with loneliness, depression, and post-adolescent angst at how complicated life was on my own. Also, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, other than this vague hope to be an artist. And, I was totally broke, living in one of the most expensive places in California. I was not attending college yet, but working full-time at a popular flower shop one block off the Santa Cruz Mall, the downtown strip that was the center and hub of Santa Cruz, and was within walking distance from my teeny-tiny studio apartment where I lived alone.

When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit on October 17, 1989, I was working at the flower shop and happened to be on the phone with a friend when the building I was in jumped with the first roll of the earthquake, along with all the glass shelving inside the shop. It was like an explosion as glass shattered and the sound of the earth shifting and moving beneath my feet-- a sound I would become very familiar with over the next months—filled my ears. I screamed-- always my first fear response-- and dropped the phone. I rocketed out of the front door of the shop. I heard that one was supposed to stand in the safety of a doorway during a quake, but there was no way I was doing that. I am a former gymnast and I remember stretching my legs beneath the skirt I was wearing, leaping and bounding across the sidewalk to the parking lot across the street to put as much distance as possible between me and the building that I was in. I was certain it was about to collapse. It was like trying to run while drunk, the ground was shifting so intensely under my feet.

Once I cleared the street my next concern was to stay away from power poles that may be falling over. Also, I was alert to the ground just opening up and swallowing me whole. While I was working on keeping myself alive and unharmed, I was also taking in visuals that were making no sense to me. Like, the brick building that housed Ford's Department Store across the street from the flower shop was rolling and shaking as if it were made of jell-o. It collapsed in front of my eyes. The large picture window for the Spokesman bike shop next door to the flower shop also seemed to be made of liquid, I never knew glass could be so... flexible. The parking meter next to me was shaking and vibrating so hard I thought it may pop out of the cement of the sidewalk. For some reason, this parking meter scared the hell out of me, it seemed alive and dangerous.

All of this happened in the course of 15 seconds. You never really know how long a second is until you go through those seconds thinking you are about to die. Or, if not die, get really, really hurt. When the quake stopped, my initial reaction was to start screaming
and running around in a circle. Really, to me, that seemed like a reasonable reaction and totally appropriate for the moment. Thankfully, the people on the street around me remained utterly calm, which made me calm. I didn’t start screaming, but locked up the flower shop and walked the half-block to the corner of Pacific Avenue with my co-worker, at the very top of the Mall. I couldn’t see beyond a half block, there was so much dust in the air from disintegrating and damaged buildings. Down here, people were screaming, and injured. The sight of people digging through the collapsed Ford's store for humans buried in the rubble directly to my left was one of the grimmest sights I have ever witnessed, and made me instantly realize I had no business walking around, that I needed to go home immediately. That is, if I had a home anymore.

My home was marvelously intact, as was the rest of my life. This was suddenly a miracle, as I measured my survival against those who did not live through the quake, several of whom lost their lives on the Mall that day. There are many other things I will never be able to forget about that day. The neighbor who woke me up screaming bloody murder in the middle of the night because she was having a painful heart attack brought on by the stress and excitement of the quake. Trying to call an ambulance when the phone lines are not fully operational is the very definition of panic, and another deeply grim memory. The weirdness of the street lights not coming on when the sun went down. The heavy smell of gas in the air and the blocks of houses on fire. The party-like atmosphere around water trucks, and frankly, the liquor store.

What had the most impact on me was a complete shift in my perspective on life. We all know that the only thing that truly matters is having your health, family and friends, alive and safe. But to know that mantra, and then to have an experience which really makes you understand what it means are two different things, and up until that point I did not understand what the concept meant. This sudden knowledge freed me from many of my everyday worries and concerns as I experienced the intense rush of appreciating being alive and focused on being a support to others. The community of Santa Cruz bonded in the days after the quake, and I felt the love and concern of my friends and neighbors in a way that I never had before. The experience cemented many of my new relationships, including the one with my neighbor, JT, still one of my closest friends. JT and I became roomies for about 6 years after the quake because his house fell apart and we both hated our rent-gouging landlord. Probably the hardest thing for me about the Loma Prieta quake, aside from having to wrestle with my own terror of realizing what it meant to live in earthquake country, was the disappointment and feeling of loss as my community gradually went back to normal with the passing weeks and months.

I don't have a neat ending to this story. It's just a part of my life that I consider one of the most important things that ever happened to me, and I like to share the story with anyone who will listen. I kept a detailed diary during this time, that is where these images are from. You can click on them to read them more closely. The last thing I wrote was dated 12/7/89:

I'm having flashbacks constantly. Wherever I'm at, and the earth moves with aftershocks, I can see in my head the vases of flowers falling down, the glass cases crashing, a terrible noise with the earth roaring. However, my terror has subsided immensely, leaving only anticipation.