I live on a rocky hill in San Francisco, among the stablest parts of the city, and sufficiently elevated that even my belief in global warming leaves me free of immediate fear.
There have been no noticeable earthquakes since I moved here, the last one in 1989, serious certainly but not part of my memory. My high-school sweetheart was visiting when it happened, walking down a street in San Francisco – not visiting me but visiting the neighborhood where I live now, a block away from the corner where he was staying.
And that summer he was walking down the street in San Francisco, finding it pleasant and friendly and walkable, a sort of cheerful, hilly Manhattan in its square breezy way, and the ground shook, and near him elevated freeways collapsed, and over the hill from him a whole neighborhood shuddered on suddenly liquified landfilled ground, and its gas mains broke, and it burst into flames. He hasn’t been back.
In 1989, I was back in Seattle, living in the Scandinavian neighborhood over the hill from the University district. It was quiet, a retirement home was right across the street from me, and pious, with a Lutheran church every few blocks. How strange and unimaginable that a few square miles of single family homes with rare apartment buildings and complexes could support so many churches, but it was easy to see how once one moved there, it was hard to move away. The houses are so pretty, red and black brick with inlaid patterns and pretty peaked roofs, and manicured lawns with irises, daffodils, alyssum, and dianthus smiling at the sidewalks.
I had recently moved back from California, where I had been accepted to both the state schools I applied to, Berkeley and Santa Cruz, and I had decided that I didn’t wish to live in the Bay Area, and so I would go to Santa Cruz. And live in a house with happy, potsmoking, middle-class liberal kids and plan my senior project with my house advisor (draft proposal: industrial design as reflected in Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1960s). And as soon as I could, I’d move downtown, to a tiny apartment by the beach, and it wouldn’t be much, but it would be mine, and I’d need to be on my own again after sharing a room and a kitchen, and a phone.
Suddenly a month or so before the term began, I couldn’t stay, and I packed and moved back to Seattle, abruptly, in the space of a few days, just as I’d moved to California a few months before. It was December, and 4 days before Christmas. When I got home, my boyfriend broke up with me.
But I was back in my home state, in my home town, where my mother was a professor at the local state school, and my friends knew people who were looking to sublet apartments, and soon I was sitting in “distribution” classes, thinking about what to major in, settled into my little apartment in the Scandinavian neighborhood, barely squeaking by in my macroeconomics class with a passing grade, and getting a completely perfect score in Medieval English Literature survey.
And in 1989, Loma Prieta struck. It damaged property extensively in San Francisco – some of the infrastructural damage it did has only been repaired in the last few years, and some of the buildings it left condemned still stand, empty, boarded up, and signed with warnings. But San Francisco was not the epicenter, not even close. The epicenter was 75 miles away in Santa Cruz, downtown, right at the Boardwalk, right near the beach, right beneath the tiny little houses where I’d just have made my home, after my second year in the dorms up the hill at UC.